Slouching Towards Bethlehem Essay - Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series Slouching Towards Bethlehem Analysis

Joan Didion

Masterpieces of Women's Literature Slouching Towards Bethlehem Analysis

By the time Slouching Towards Bethlehem appeared, Didion had already won acclaim for her piece by the same title, published in The Saturday Evening Post. She was one of the most talented among what had come to be known as the New Journalists. They were practitioners of a kind of “maverick” journalism, and their work was characterized by a focus on subjects considered marginal to mainstream culture, a personal involvement by the writer in the subject, unconventional form often suggested by the subject itself, and a style that violated or transcended (depending upon the point of view) the strict laws of “objectivity” in traditional journalism by placing in the foreground the presence and perspective of the writer. Critical response to Didion’s nonfiction has continued to address many of those features so highly touted in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”: her social commentary, her eye for detail, the quality of her voice, and the character or persona inhabited by her essays.

The first sentence of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”—“The center was not holding”—takes from Yeats’s poem the defining metaphor for Didion’s social analysis. Danger, cataclysm, and disintegration are evoked in the opening section by an apocalyptic vision of the cultural, social, and moral conditions of the country, drawn with the broad strokes of an epic and haunting cadences in past tense. Haight-Ashbury, with its hippies, drugs, and runaways, was “where the social hemorrhaging was showing up.”

Many of the stylistic devices for which Didion is best known are evident here, such as her use of anaphora in the way the sentences begin and clauses are joined, piling images in a tightening spiral of language and vision. Like a number of her other essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is constructed as a collage: bits of narrative, dialogue, and found texts organized in segments that sometimes break off abruptly and are separated only by white space, without traditional transitions, explicit connectors, or clear chronology. Some readers see the structure of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” as disjointed, a mirror of the atomization about which Didion writes. Others see its shape as a referent more for her investigative method—accumulating experiences and impressions—than for the social chaos she encountered.


(The entire section is 965 words.)