Study Guide

Joan Didion

Joan Didion Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111201202-Didion.jpgJoan Didion Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Compensating for her own physical frailty and fears persisting from childhood, Joan Didion has long identified with the resilience of her great-great-great-grandmother, who in 1846 left the Donner wagon train and followed a northern pass through the Sierras just before a Nevada blizzard isolated the main party and drove some of them eventually to cannibalism. That frontier example sustained Didion as her father, Frank Didion, an Army Air Corps officer, moved the family from base to base during World War II. She and her brother entertained themselves by watching films, and her mother advised her to keep busy by writing stories. Her sense of insecurity diminished only after their return to Sacramento, where the family land went back five generations. What remained, however, was her sense of the theatrical. Stories of her pioneer ancestors always included near disasters, life on the edge. Her early fears, therefore, of rattlesnakes, collapsing bridges, and atomic bombs came only in part from reality. They came also from an imagination stirred to excitement but not wholly believing in actual tragedy. Added to her imagination is a curiosity which, while she was an eighth-grader, led her, notepad in hand, to walk calmly into the Pacific Ocean: It was a life wish, not a death wish. A wave dumped her back onto shore.

During Didion’s senior year at the University of California at Berkeley, in 1956, she won first prize in Vogue’s nonfiction contest, along with an apprenticeship that, eight years later, had turned into an associate feature editorship. In New York City she never refused an invitation to a party, though she usually remained a silent observer. Meanwhile, in 1963, she published a first novel, Run River, a tale of a Sacramento valley dynasty, involving murder, suicide, and near-incest. The next year she married John Gregory Dunne, a writer for Time, who was as talkative as she was reticent. They moved from New York to California and in 1966 adopted a baby girl whom they named Quintana Roo (after a state in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula).

Although dismayed by escalating violence on the West Coast and desirous of making her separate peace, Didion forced herself to examine her times and, in 1968, published her essays on disorder in California and other places as Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

The effort caused her a serious breakdown. Although her second novel, Play It as It Lays (1970), was a best seller, critics who admired its cinematic style overlooked her compassion for Maria, the distraught narrator, and her admiration for the young mother’s perseverance.

During a visit to Colombia in 1973, Didion contracted nearly fatal paratyphoid fever. The experience helped her write her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977), which contrasts the irresponsible “flash polities” of South American men with two North American “marginal women” whose spirit maintains the core of civilization.

In 1982, despite health problems, Didion had the courage to travel to war-torn El Salvador. The result was Salvador (1983), a long report on the murder common in that country’s ongoing revolution and the naïveté of American foreign policy. Without any political solutions to offer, Didion has to be satisfied with providing an honest record of the facts, the lies, the contradictions. History, she implies, is simply remembered events. Whether or not it contains heroic deeds, simply remembering accurately is heroism enough—especially for Americans, who, she claims, too often consider themselves exempt from history.

Didion’s novel Democracy, published in 1984, presents both a rich American woman unhappily married to a morally questionable presidential candidate and a covert agent whose insight into the real world of insurrections and secret deals contrasts with the thinking of the candidate and his campaign manager.

Like Salvador, Didion’s extended essay Miami (1987) is more intensely political than Democracy and goes beyond the status of...

(The entire section is 1681 words.)

Joan Didion Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

What sustains Didion in her writing is her faith in the possibility of a better life than what people allow one another to live. That faith rises from her experience of history. All persons, of whatever gender, suffer from natural limitations, reinforced by their own refusals to admit to those imperfections. Among Didion’s exceptions are those women able to maintain their integrity, moral courage, and vision of a more mutually considerate society, under the most trying circumstances. Their resilience, rather than their unremitting agony, is only gradually perceived because it is only slowly earned, with much difficulty.

Joan Didion Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Joan Didion was born to Frank Reese and Eduene Jerrett Didion on December 5, 1934, in Sacramento, California. Both the date and the place are significant. Though Didion had just turned seven when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, she is not, strictly speaking, a child of the post-World War II generation. This fact might explain some of her detachment from the 1960’s and some of the nostalgia she evidently feels even when she is pointing out the shortcomings of the more traditional and more orderly values of prewar America.

Didion’s place of birth is even more important. Didion is a child of the West—not the West of Los Angeles, but of the more pastoral Sacramento Valley. The land on which Didion lived had been in her family for five generations, and as a child, she was expected to absorb the myth that America was a new Eden. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion reports that her Episcopal Sunday school teacher used to ask the children, “In what ways does the Holy Land resemble the Sacramento Valley?” Didion explores—and largely explodes—the myth of the Sacramento Valley as Eden in her first novel, Run River. Eden, however, is not lost—or rejected—without some sense of regret, and Didion’s novel reflects nostalgia for the lost paradise and the passing of innocence.

Didion’s intellectual break from a more traditional world may have begun in high school, when she discovered literature, and it must have been accelerated by her studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where she majored in literature; read the works of Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, and Albert Camus; moved out of her sorority house; and did not, as she points out with some regret, make Phi Beta Kappa. She did, however, win first prize in Vogue’s Prix de Paris contest. Given as an award the choice of a trip to Paris or a job on the magazine, Didion chose the more practical option and moved to New York.

At Vogue, Didion learned to write for the general public, and she began writing for several other magazines as well. She also seriously began writing fiction,...

(The entire section is 876 words.)

Joan Didion Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

ph_0111201202-Didion.jpgJoan Didion Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Joan Didion is a California native, and she writes novels about California women. Her women are often lost and lonely and unhappy. When they leave their native state, they wander into a Third World country and remain there, victims of the lack of any real home in the fragmented society of late twentieth century America. Although Didion claims that her novels are the most important part of her work, it is her essays which have received the most praise from critics. Her earliest recognition came when she won the Vogue magazine Prix de Paris for an essay on a California architect, William Wilson Wurster. She has since covered political campaigns, interviewed famous people, recorded social phenomena such as the hippie movement...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

Joan Didion Biography (American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

0111201202-Didion.jpgJoan Didion (Quintana Roo Dunne) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Early Life

Joan Didion, an only child, grew up in an old California family and steeped herself in the history of the West. She attended high school in California and was graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in English. In 1956, she won Vogue magazine’s Prix de Paris prize for young writers and moved to New York to work as a journalist, becoming a novelist in the early 1960’s. The city, she has said, represented to her the whole gamut of experiences a young writer should encounter. She wrote feature pieces for National Review and Mademoiselle.

The 1960’s

Run River (1963), Didion’s California novel (covering the...

(The entire section is 651 words.)

Joan Didion Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201202-Didion.jpgJoan Didion Published by Salem Press, Inc.

In post-World War II American letters, Joan Didion (DIHD-ee-on) emerged as a prominent voice. She was born in 1934 to Frank Reese and Eduene Jerret Didion. As she noted in various essays, Didion was a child who developed a strong sense of place, in terms of both heredity and landscape. Her ancestors were among the unfortunate Donner-Reed party, and she represents a fifth generation of a family which has lived in the Sacramento Valley, a location which figures prominently in many of her works.

From 1942 to 1944, Didion’s family followed her father on four moves to different Air Corps bases in Washington, North Carolina, and Colorado. Didion’s sense of dislocation was acute, even after the family returned to...

(The entire section is 1013 words.)

Joan Didion Biography (Novels for Students)

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, California, on December 5, 1934, into a family that had put down roots in the region during the...

(The entire section is 511 words.)