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.