When writer Joan Didion trawled the American South in the summer of 1970 for an undefined tale she thought might be there, the icon of California cool was as out of place as a fish out of water. Her bikinis attracted attention in the motel pools she frequented; a New Orleans dinner host couldn’t understand how her husband “allowed” her to consort with “marijuana-smoking hippie trash” for a previous story; and the women she met were so cemented into their worlds of marriage and housekeeping that they spoke a different language. “Drive where?” said one, bewildered, when Didion asked if she listened to the radio while driving. Indeed, Didion seemed so alien that a whole café once came to a halt to watch her eat a grilled-cheese sandwich.
Didion never wrote the article she was considering, but her notes from that trip have just been published in a book called South and West. Why publish notes from nearly 50 years ago? Because, suggests the book’s foreword, written in December 2016 by Nathaniel Rich, Didion’s observations “read like a warning unheeded.”
“I had only some dim and unformed sense,” Didion writes, “that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.” In other words, America’s future was not in liberal, forward-thinking California, but in the South, with its deeply entrenched prejudices, attitudes and adherence to the past.
In his foreword, Rich says there’s always been an expectation that Enlightenment values would eventually become conventional wisdom. But two decades into the new millennium, “a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life.” They believe in armed revolt; their solidarity is only reinforced by outside disapproval; they think white skin should bring privileges; they resist technology and deny evidence of ecological collapse. “The force of this resistance has been strong enough to elect a president.”
California’s golden dreams were just that, he concludes, while the “dense obsessiveness of the South, and all the vindictiveness that comes with it, was the true American condition, the condition to which we will always inevitably return.”
No wonder Didion was overwhelmed by her visit to the South. She focused on the details – the heat, the snakes, the poverty, the bigotry, the isolation – but somehow she knew an earthquake was coming. The story she was seeking has emerged at last.
To me, Didion's prose alone, regardless of subject matter, makes her work worth reading. Some excerpts from South and West:
In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. . . . In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead.
One afternoon on St. Charles Avenue I saw a woman die, fall forward over the wheel of her car. “Dead,” pronounced an old woman who stood with me on the sidewalk a few inches from where the car had veered into a tree.
In Coffeeville, Miss., at 6 p.m., there was a golden light and a child swinging in it, swinging from a big tree, over a big lawn, back and forth in front of a big airy house. To be a white middle-class child in a small southern town must be on certain levels the most golden way for a child to live in the United States.
The snakes, the rotting undergrowth, sulphurous light: the images are so specifically those of the nightmare world that when we stopped for gas, or directions, I had to steel myself, deaden every nerve, in order to step from the car onto the crushed oyster shells in front of the gas station.