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,...
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