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...
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