Joan Didion 1934-
American essayist and novelist.
The following entry provides an overview of Didion's career through 1997. See also Joan Didion Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 8, 14, 32.
Didion is one of the most highly regarded contemporary American writers of essays and novels. In her writing she focuses on the disintegration of American morals in both the public and private spheres and the cultural chaos that results from individual and societal fragmentation, using her own subjective experiences and observations as a vantage point.
Didion was born in Sacramento, California, in 1934. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956, she took a job as a promotional copywriter at Vogue magazine in New York, eventually rising to the position of associate feature editor. In this period she met and married John Gregory Dunne, with whom she collaborated on screenplays. Didion's first novel, Run River, was published in 1963, while she still worked at Vogue. The next year she and Dunne moved back to California, where Didion worked as a freelance reporter. Didion's writing soon attracted national attention, and some of her impressive early essays were collected in her first nonfiction work, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). Didion has earned numerous awards and honors for her writing.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album (1979) are both collections of Didion's journalistic essays, many of which criticize what Didion saw as the collapse of American culture in the 1960s and the shallow inarticulateness of members of the hippie movement. Intermingled with these observations are chronicles of Didion's personal struggles with debilitating migraine headaches, depression, and anxiety. In the title essay of The White Album, which concerns both the national chaos of the summer of 1968 and her own nervous breakdown at that time, Didion quotes the psychiatric evaluation she underwent and rejoins, “an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” This essay illustrates well the emphasis Didion places in all her writing on the relationship between personal and public dissolution. Geographic locations play an important role in emphasizing themes in Didion's works. The setting for Maria Wyeth's nihilistic crisis in Play It As It Lays (1970) is the superficial world of Hollywood, where people use one another to advance their own status. In A Book of Common Prayer (1977) the violent uprisings in the fictional Latin American country of Boca Grande mirror the sexual and emotional crises of Charlotte Douglas, who is eventually murdered, her body dumped at the American embassy. Turbulence and brutality again dominate Salvador (1983), Didion's book-length essay on the two-week trip she took with her husband in 1982 to El Salvador during a period of violent political upheaval. Like most of Didion's nonfiction, Salvador is not an objective report of facts but a detailed and personal account of the terror that pervades daily existence in such a place. In the novel Democracy (1984) Didion returned to her concern for the loss of traditional values and the absence of viable new ones. The story can be read on several levels: as a murder mystery, a love story, and an exposure of the fraudulence of public life. The various narrative threads interweave to form a picture of America's political decline and moral decay. Somewhat disarmingly, Didion provided the narrator with her own name, forcing the reader to question the fictional nature of the other characters. In the nonfictional Miami (1987) Didion indicts U.S. foreign policy from the administrations of John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan, concentrating on the thirty-year history of Cuban emigres living in Miami. After Henry (1992) is a collection of twelve essays organized around the geographic locations of Washington, D.C., California, and New York City, which Didion regards as the touch points at which the American dream collides violently with the corrupting influence of power. The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) is a difficult, circuitous romantic thriller that many critics have found to read more like an extended prose poem or a screenplay than a traditional narrative. Didion again used the backdrops of Hollywood, Florida, and Central America to weave a tale of covert activity, political intrigue, and personal fragmentation.
While critics are sometimes sharply divided over the effectiveness of Didion's unorthodox narrative and journalistic styles, almost all agree that the quality of her writing is exceptional. Known as a perfectionist, Didion values grammatical and rhetorical precision, which many reviewers hail as a great strength regardless of their opinion of her social and political analysis. Overall, Didion's essays are more highly regarded than her novels; Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album contain what many consider some of the best writing available on events in the 1960s. But the novels, too, despite mixed reviews, are praised for eschewing florid romanticism in favor of acute detail and sometimes morbid description of dark human impulses. While some critics accuse Didion of occasionally slipping into arrogance and snobbishness, John Leonard summarized the opinions of many others when he observed, “Nobody writes better English prose than Joan Didion.”