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.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Slouching Towards Bethlehem Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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.
(The entire section is 1401 words.)