The End of the End of History?   /   Fall 2017   /    Book Reviews

South and West by Joan Didion

James McWilliams

Why would Joan Didion publish private notes about a road trip she took to the Deep South almost fifty years ago? One answer, supplied by Nathaniel Rich’s foreword to South and West, is that what she captured in her notes somehow foreshadowed the rise of Donald Trump. The denial of “Enlightenment values,” Rich writes, the kind embraced by “those who live in American cities with international airports,” fed a defiance “strong enough to elect a president.”

To say the least, this is unconvincing. For one, the Trumpian implication ignores the South’s long-standing chess match with “the Enlightenment.” Trump or not, the suspicion of expertise among those below the Mason-Dixon Line has roots deeper than kudzu. A graver error, though, is Rich’s failure to appreciate the innocence of Didion’s documentation. Whether or not she ever intended to publish her notes, the year 1970 was never meant to explain the year 2016. To expect her wayward and often cranky jottings to explain what’s under our noses today is to miss what she’s actually up to in these notes. But Rich is right about one thing: There’s more happening on these scraps of paper than meets the eye.

In his essay “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy invites us to imagine what it was like for the Spanish explorer García López de Cárdenas to discover the Grand Canyon. He then notes the inherent difficulty of such an imaginative task. We struggle to recreate Cárdenas’s experience, Percy writes, “because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind.” Our expectations, in other words, have been preset. To escape this conundrum, Percy explains, one has to ditch dogma and approach the world “not as a consumer of experience but as a sovereign individual.” Not an easy task, that. But shedding excess cultural baggage is exactly what we ask reporters, ethnologists, and critics to do before they sightsee as sovereigns on our behalf.

As a traveler to the South, Didion wields her baggage like a shield. She succumbs—stereotype by stereotype—to Percy’s “symbolic complex,” and the grossly gothic character of her notions of the South squelch whatever fresh insight she might have fashioned from them. If all you expect to experience are snakes (mentioned at least five times), heat (complained about repeatedly as “so intense”), and racists (a kid with a Confederate flag beach towel!), then that’s likely what you’ll experience.

Didion subjects Southerners to a litany of down-tempo characterizations. In New Orleans, people “have mastered the art of the motionless.” In Pass Christian, Mississippians “sat on those screened porches and waited for something to happen.” The road to Meridian, Mississippi, reveals “a somnolence so dense it seemed to inhibit breathing.” In Eutaw, Alabama, kids on bikes were “barely moving in the leafy still air.” The region is so impossibly comatose even the rivers and streams fall asleep: “I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South.” And back in New Orleans, “all motion slows into choreography,” which will happen if your understanding of the place is primarily theatrical.

It’s possible that Didion’s South seems preternaturally sluggish because, upon entering it, she rises above it and, eventually, seeks an early escape. Her well-groomed social superiority confirms what seems to be the natural order of things, as does the cultureless simplicity of her mentally listless subjects. At times, the clash of these contrasting positions jars the reader into an almost grudging admiration of Didion’s aloof frankness. From Meridian she writes,

We went to the movies: Loving was playing with George Segal and Eva Marie Saint. The audience, what there was of it, gazed at the screen as if the movie were in Czech. As it happened I had seen Eva Marie Saint a few weeks before, at dinner in someone’s house in Malibu, and the distance between Malibu and this movie house in Meridian seemed limitless.

Of all the possible ways to start picking apart these juxtaposed observations—the befuddled Mississippi moviegoers and the starlit Malibu dinner party—that one phrase “as it happened” strikes me as the critical equivalent of a fresh scalpel. As it happened.… Didion might well have just admitted, as it happened, that the rarified Malibu world that informed her identity made it virtually impossible to say anything significant, much less charitable, about this forlorn Meridian swamp.

Didion’s cultural detachment often veers into a sense of hopelessness. Driving to Gulfport, Mississippi, she writes, “The devastation along the Gulf has an inevitability about it: the coast was reverting to its natural state. There were For Sale signs all over, but one could not imagine buyers.” But why not find out who was buying the homes and tell us about them? At times, the hopelessness becomes plain ugly, and even offensive. Noting that the movie The Losers was playing in theaters in several states, Didion writes, “We followed The Losers all over the South.” The reference is clear enough.

Didion’s persistent habit of foisting imagined realities onto her subjects is made especially problematic by the fact that she evidently spoke to so few of them. Much has been made about a lengthy conversation she had with Stan Torgerson, a white transplant from Wisconsin who owned and ran the black radio station in Meridian and, at lunch, spoke freely about race. (Example: “I cannot think of any place where the black is denied entrance, with the possible exception of private clubs.”)

This conversation has been discussed so prominently because it’s one of the only ones in the book. Immediately after sitting down with Torgerson, for example, Didion encounters a man firing at pigeons with a shotgun. She writes the scene as if the man were some lunatic shooting live ammunition at rooftops when he is almost certainly firing blanks, as people do, to scare off the birds. What she describes as a “hearing aid” in his ear is more likely a plug to project his eardrum from the pneumatic blasts.

The only thing Didion asks the man, however, is “What are you shooting at?” It’s a query that elicits an answer Didion can then mock: “‘Pi-eagins,’ he said cheerfully.” With this accent ringing in her ears, Didion realizes that “in this one demented afternoon Mississippi lost much of its power to astonish me.” It seems fair to wonder: What’s so demented about a guy wanting to keep bird crap off his car? Certainly, someone from Malibu could relate to that.

Didion’s reluctance to leave her comfort zone as a traveling reporter—again, preferring the safety of Percy’s symbolic complex—is manifestly evident on the few occasions when she directly addresses her own admittedly loose reportorial methodology. One example:

I had telephoned someone I knew in the English Department at Berkeley to ask if he knew anyone on any faculty in any department at any college in Mississippi to whom I should talk, anyone noted in any field he knew about, but he did not, and could only suggest that I call up Miss Eudora Welty, in Jackson.

This excerpt reveals a lot. The first is the snobbery implicit in the notion that no true intellectual would ever deign to call Mississippi home. The second is the suggestion that talking to professors is somehow a better way to understand a place than speaking with, say, the workers on the night shift at the 3M plant outside Guin, Alabama, or “blacks hanging around the main street, the highway, leaning on cars, talking across the street.” Finally, Didion never did speak to Welty. Welty, after all, was in Jackson, and, as Didion knew, “planes left from Jackson for New York and California and I knew I would not last ten minutes in Jackson without telephoning Delta or National and getting out.”

One grudgingly appreciates the bluntness of these unedited remarks, but such a comment—getting out, as if to escape imprisonment—hardly leads one to expect much when it comes to achieving a deeper understanding of the American South. Didion had a month to enter the cultures and subcultures of the Deep South, embed herself through conversation and interaction, and report her findings from within. But, sticking with the stereotype of backward cultural isolation she saw from the start, she portrays herself (often knowingly) as just as isolated as her subjects. “I never wrote the piece,” she concludes. Of course, she didn’t. If nothing else, these notes explain why she had so little to say.

Didion’s notes show how gifted writers are those who write from their strengths and, when faced with the wrong task, quickly reveal their weaknesses. In general, Didion excels at exploring her own complex reaction to what she imagines is happening around her. Which is to say, she writes brilliantly about her own deepest thoughts and feelings. I truly believe her when, describing her father’s posting to Durham, North Carolina, during World War II, she writes, “I had imagined the Second World War as a punishment specifically designed to deprive me of my father.” This kind of tender solipsism offers the perfect clue to Didion’s deeper talent as a writer.

A disposition that takes a world war personally is one that fosters the sort of delicate observations that underscore Didion’s best work. A Year of Magical Thinking (which is about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne) moved so many readers because Didion interrogated her inner emotional sanctum without having to grasp and present the unruly perspectives of others. (Whereas a writer such as Leslie Jameson, author of The Empathy Exams, might seek to understand death’s relational impact on the people around her, Didion sticks with Didion.) Likewise, even when Didion has done more conventional reporting—as she did from El Salvador in the early 1980s—what comes through is the same inner-directed emphasis she acknowledged when, in a 2016 Vanity Fair interview, she said, “I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.”

Glimpses of Didion’s genius certainly appear in South and West—“a woman in slacks with her hair piled high and lacquered,” “the kudzu makes much of Mississippi seem an ominously topiary landscape,” “a rococo denial of their own sophistication.” But narrating a landscape is different from understanding its people. The South needs neither scorn nor pity, but, moments of eloquence aside, Didion’s chilled approach to understanding her subjects—many of them quite desperate economically—provides too much of the former and very little of the latter. “Everyone in Mississippi begins on the defensive,” she writes. What she fails to wonder is if she might be the one making them that way.

And that brings us back to Nathaniel Rich’s troublesome effort to connect Didion’s Southerners circa 1970 to the legions of today’s Southerners demanding that we make our country great again. If the swell of anxiety and discontent that delivered the South to Donald Trump was in any way evident fifty years ago, Didion never so much as hinted at it. But as a talented writer working on the wrong side of the track in the wrong place, she all too clearly demonstrates how a general reluctance to comprehend the hearts and minds of others can easily foster characterizations—“basket of deplorables”—that might generate politically significant anxiety and discontent. That’s a connection any reader of South and West might want to explore.