After Henry (Magill Book Reviews)
AFTER HENRY is Joan Didion’s ninth book overall and fifth of journalism. Unlike SALVADOR (1983) and MIAMI (1988), AFTER HENRY is not a single book-length essay, but neither is it, as SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM (1968) and THE WHITE ALBUM (1980) are, simply a collection of previously published pieces. Least of all is it journalism of the expected kind: dashed off and at best of topical and wholly temporary interest. For one thing, all twelve essays were written after the death of Didion’s longtime editor Henry Robbins after he had gone on to work at Dutton while she decided to stay behind at Simon & Schuster, and after Henry had told her that she could make it on her own, without his help—something she did not believe then and seems not to believe now. It is from that disbelief, born of much the same self-doubt that is at the very heart of Didion’s four remarkable novels, that Didion crafts the eleven matchless essays which follow.
The eleven are divided into three parts: Washington, California, and New York. Behind the regional distinctions, one finds Didion’s consistent interest in discovering and analyzing her native land in terms of its stories, chiefly its media myths. Her subjects are therefore never exactly what they appear to be: a Los Angeles murder case, Patty Hearst, the interconnected histories of Los Angeles and the TIMES MIRROR newspaper, the Reagan White House, the 1988 presidential campaign, and, in the last, longest, and...
(The entire section is 408 words.)
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After Henry (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
After Henry is Joan Didion’s ninth book overall and her fifth of journalism—a word that does not begin to do justice either to her style or to her intelligence. The fact that she writes equally well as a novelist and as a journalist/essayist seems, strangely enough, to have worked to her disadvantage in terms of her reputation and critical reception. It is as if, according to the conventional wisdom, a writer can be one or the other but not truly both. There are, of course, novelists who also write essays and reviews (and poetry): John Updike, for example, who is, however, still a novelist first and foremost, an essayist, reviewer, and poet second. There are also journalists who write novels: Robert MacNeil and Nora Ephron, for example, but they are novelists only incidentally. Thus the special problem that Didion poses, especially when Didion-the-stalled-novelist meets Didion-the-frequently-anthologized-journalist in Didion’s fourth novel, Democracy (1984):
A poignant (to me) assignment I came across recently in a textbook for students of composition: “Didion begins with a rather ironic reference to her immediate reason to write this piece. Try using this ploy as the opening of an essay; you may want to copy the ironic-but-earnest tone of Didion, or you might try making your essay witty. Consider the broader question of the effect of setting: how does Didion use the scene as a rhetorical base? She returns again and again to...
(The entire section is 2516 words.)