Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Didion rejected, but found that she could not ignore, the negative aspects of the drug culture associated with the anti-Establishment movements that grew out of the Beat Generation. Because it was threatening California’s frontier traditions of responsible self-reliance, she decided to put aside her preference for privacy and describe the disorder. She discovered that in many ways the so-called counterculture mirrored the shallowness of the Establishment against which it purported to take its stand. The dropouts shared the same self-centeredness, indifference, and casual relationships that marked large corporations.
Many of Didion’s articles from this period (including those on the hippies of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco) first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. She believed she was describing the nature of love and death in a “golden land,” as revealed in sensational murder cases, or the limited realities of splinter groups of communists, drug addicts, such pacifists as singer Joan Baez and her disciples in Carmel Valley, or the Diggers, who tried to feed society’s dropouts. Didion’s descriptions are so accurate in their particulars that they seem impersonal; her anxiety over the slow erosion of solid citizenship can only be inferred from behind a mask of gentle representation. She had so successfully learned to distance herself through concreteness and compression—practiced by imitating Hemingway and that...
(The entire section is 530 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a book of thematically connected essays, most of which were originally published in magazines between 1965 and 1967. Didion took her title from a poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1920), and quotes it as an epigraph to the collection. Yeats’s poem, written in the aftermath of World War I, draws on biblical imagery to depict a world that has become unmoored, a world falling into anarchy. In her preface, Didion says that lines from the poem kept coming to her as she wrote, and, while not every essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem depicts a society falling apart, many of them do. Her title essay, in particular, depicts young people who have grown up without the centering influence of shared traditions and extended families, young people who are not so much rebellious as lost.
The collection is divided into three sections: “Life Styles in the Golden Land,” “Personals,” and “Seven Places of the Mind.” Most of the essays in “Life Styles in the Golden Land” focus on California as a fallen frontier—the place where the land simply ran out, a place where people go to reinvent themselves or make one final try at the American Dream. Didion’s California is more ominous than idyllic. Rather than a place of palm trees, pristine beaches, and sunny orange groves, her California is a world of dust-baked valleys, neglected tract houses, brush fires, and Santa Ana winds.
This ominous and oppressive atmosphere dominates the essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Didion’s profile of Lucille Miller, a middle-class housewife from San Bernardino, California, who may or may not have burned her husband alive in a Volkswagen on the way home from the all-night market. Despite the sensational subject matter, Didion’s essay is more social commentary than true crime. She makes no judgment about Miller’s guilt or innocence but is fascinated by the way Miller’s story seems to echo 1940’s film noir, such as Double Indemnity (1944). In contrast with the secondhand Hollywood drama of the Miller story, Didion’s account is distanced and ironic, marked by strong visual images and unexpected juxtapositions. Her description of the funeral of Lucille’s husband, Gordon Miller, details the casket and the sermon and the final hymn sung—then, almost offhandedly, Didion mentions that the service was tape-recorded so that Lucille could watch it from her prison cell.
Several essays in this section focus on well-known figures, but they are the antitheses of celebrity journalism. Didion’s “John Wayne: A Love Song” was not written to promote the actor or to condemn him, but to examine what the myth of John Wayne and the legendary West associated with his films meant for Didion, as a young filmgoer, and for American culture. The essay shows a curious dissonance, as childhood dreams meet adult reality. Didion had met Wayne as he was shooting a film. Older and already diagnosed with cancer, he was, even with his human frailties, less real for Didion than was his heroic, tough film character. Similarly, her portrait of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes is, as she frankly admits, not about the real Hughes (she had never met him) but about the idea of Howard Hughes and the stories people tell about him. For Didion, the essays in the section “Life Styles in the Golden Land” explore the gap between America’s official...
(The entire section is 1401 words.)