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How Joan Didion’s 1960s read differently in 2021

Joan Didion in 2003. photographed by her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne.
(Quintana Roo Dunne)

On the Shelf

Let Me Tell You What I Mean

By Joan Didion
Knopf: 192 pages, $23

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Joan Didion is one of America’s greatest writers. She is also, thanks to her equal mastery of images, one of its greatest icons. There she is, leaning on that yellow Corvette, perched by that massive typewriter, side-eyeing her family on that Malibu balcony.

Her two memoirs of horrific loss, “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights,” punctured Didion’s unobtainable aura in a way that, paradoxically, only amplified her status. Circa 2012, she was the writer nearly every young woman wanted to be. She was aspirational; she became a brand. Her famous packing list became a Vogue.com shopping slideshow; her famous shades made her the star of a Céline ad, an icon of fragility and resilience.

And then, in 2015, an unauthorized biography by Tracy Daugherty, "The Last Love Song,” was published. Millennials learned an uncomfortable truth about Didion’s politics. She is not a leftist. She is not even a liberal.

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That year, Zan Romanoff wrote in the Cut of a “shift in the larger critical conversation, which by 2011 had regularly begun to include discussions of privilege and class.” (The Céline ad didn’t help.) Rachel Cusk raised questions about Didion’s “lack of humility.” Lisa Levy claimed “the deluge of praise heaped” on “Blue Nights” “has been excessive, bordering on sycophantic.” On Goodreads, a community discussion of the first memoir is titled “the money and privilege of Didion’s life is a turnoff.”

Now comes “Let Me Tell You What I Mean,” a new collection of old essays. Half of them appeared during the ‘60s in the Saturday Evening Post, the same publication that assigned her to write what would eventually become “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” In our own chaotic era, with the center again failing to hold, they offer an opportunity to reassess those critiques of privilege — to see afresh the writer who preceded the icon, the one who stood outside the culture, looking in.

Joan Didion's "Let Me Tell You What I Mean"
(Knopf Publishing Group)

Louis Menand, reviewing “The Last Love Song” in the New Yorker, gives important background on “Slouching,” the book that made Didion’s name. “It was hardly a surprise that she found Haight-Ashbury repugnant,” Menand writes. “Her editors at the Post understood perfectly how she would react. They designed the cover before she handed in that piece.”

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This collection includes “Why I Write,” a straightforward accounting of Didion’s craft adapted from a lecture she gave at Berkeley, wherein she looks up at the Bevatron, the particle accelerator at the Lawrence Berkeley lab. “When I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the Bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the Bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong,” she says. “I was only wondering if the lights were on in the Bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.”

It seemed very important to Didion that everyone know she was not being “political.”

Christine Lennon, Su Wu and others contribute essays to a collection on the master essayist

The misuse of language is a frequent subject of Didion’s, especially the kind of useless verbiage that comes out of politicians’ mouths. Her contempt for this kind of “non-speak,” as she said about John Kerry, came as early as “Getting Serenity,” in which she attends a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. “They spoke in general as if from some subverbal swamp,” she writes, “snatching at phrases as they floated by.”

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In considering what these pieces tell us, it helps to pore over another body of Didion’s work. By 1988, she was writing regularly about politics for the New York Review of Books. To read through her archive there is to take a joyride with a woman less and less patient. The writer who had started by only looking at the Bevatron was beginning to acknowledge that the power of sight can be political. She chastised Bill Clinton for his murky platform, then defended him during impeachment proceedings. She linked Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to 9/11 and warned that our incuriosity after the attack could not be a good sign. This was a writer who had voted for Goldwater. What was unchanged was her extreme skepticism — or what you might call cynicism.

In “Last Words,” Didion’s stunning appreciation of Hemingway and the best essay in “Let Me Tell You,” she reveals her approach to reporting, writing and, in fact, living. “The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source.”

Didion is a militant nonjoiner. Even amid the immense wave of good feelings that enveloped many citizens after the election of Barack Obama, she refused to be swept up. In the NYRB, she wrote: “Irony was now out. Naiveté, translated into ‘hope,’ was now in. Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.” Hemingway’s individualism might be “romantic.” But Didion’s is not.

Joan Didion in 2011
Joan Didion in 2011, around the time “Blue Nights” was published. “
(Brigitte Lacombe)
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“Let Me Tell You What I Mean” could be Didion’s motto, but these essays were written by a sheltered writer just beginning to stake out her worldview, making the glimmers of transformation worth noting.

For instance, in “Fathers, Sons, and Screaming Eagles,” she goes to a reunion of WWII veterans in Las Vegas. Many of them look back on their time in the war with pride. But most are now fathers of sons who are fighting and dying in Vietnam. This is how Didion closes the piece, which was written in 1968: “Walter Davis broke open a roll, buttered it carefully, and put it down again, untouched. ‘I see it a little differently now,’ he said.”

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote in her epic 1980 takedown of Didion, “I am different becomes I am superior.” Or, in the parlance of 2020, cynicism is a privilege. Not everyone can afford to be cynical about politics, or indeed about hope. But Didion’s emphatic outsiderness reads differently now, in 2021. “Post-truth is pre-fascism,” Timothy Snyder wrote in the New York Times magazine after the attack on the Capitol. Didion’s cynicism has always been about the demand for truth, especially in language. And truth is above politics. Or it used to be.

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How desperately Didion wanted us to believe she was just “looking” at the Bevatron. If you look long enough, you begin to see. Today, we are never just looking at the Bevatron. And neither, ultimately, was Didion.

Ferri’s most recent book is “Silent Cities: New York.”


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