Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In the summer of 1982, American novelist, essayist, and journalist Joan Didion visited the war-torn Central American nation of El Salvador; Salvador is the record of what she found there. Didion’s stay in El Salvador came at a time when the United States’ policy in this tiny republic was very much under fire, and her analysis never strays far from the essentially political question of what the United States government hopes to gain in a seemingly irreconcilable conflict. Part reporter’s notebook, part ironic travelogue, Salvador defies categorization. It is perhaps best described as an extended meditation on the hopelessness of communication between North and South American cultures and, by extension, on the futility of the colonial drive to “Americanize” a culture with a different history and geography.

The political situation into which Didion steps is complex. After years of brutal civil war between factions of the Right and Left, an American-style election has recently brought to power Jose Napoleon Duarte, the United States-backed “centrist” candidate for president. According to Didion, the administration’s official view of the election as a success, a demonstration of democracy in action, is simplistic and grotesquely optimistic. To the American government, El Salvador is a strategic stronghold in the fight against creeping Central and South American Communism; Didion’s El Salvador, contrasted throughout the essay...

(The entire section is 560 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Forche, Carolyn. “El Salvador: An Aide-Memoire,” in The American Poetry Review. X (July/August, 1981), pp. 3-7.

Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. The Autumn of the Patriarch, 1975.

Hoge, Warren. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII (March 13, 1983), p. 3.

Lyons, Gene. Review in Newsweek. CI (March 28, 1983), p. 69.

Sheppard, R.Z. Review in Time. CXXI (April 4, 1983), p. 76.

Sontag, Susan. “Trip to Hanoi,” in Styles of Radical Will, 1969.

Whitehead, Laurence. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. June 24, 1983, p. 663.