Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 157
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion is a selection of essays about life in the US in the sixties.
Essays in the collection include studies of popular figures at the time, such as Howard Hughes and John Wayne. But the essays aren’t just about famous stars. It also includes meditations on what it feels like to grow up as a girl in California during the time period, for example.
The essay that comes at the beginning of the book is about Lucille Miller and her trial in 1965. The charge was that she killed her husband. Her claim was that her tire just caught on fire, and not that she burned him with gasoline.
The essay with the same title as the collection focuses on hippies in San Francisco. Didion interviews various people connected to the movement and writes about young people who ran away from their parents, who were highly disapproving of their free love lifestyles.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1401
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a book of thematically connected essays, most of which were originally published in magazines between 1965 and 1967. Didion took her title from a poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1920), and quotes it as an epigraph to the collection. Yeats’s poem, written in the aftermath of World War I, draws on biblical imagery to depict a world that has become unmoored, a world falling into anarchy. In her preface, Didion says that lines from the poem kept coming to her as she wrote, and, while not every essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem depicts a society falling apart, many of them do. Her title essay, in particular, depicts young people who have grown up without the centering influence of shared traditions and extended families, young people who are not so much rebellious as lost.
The collection is divided into three sections: “Life Styles in the Golden Land,” “Personals,” and “Seven Places of the Mind.” Most of the essays in “Life Styles in the Golden Land” focus on California as a fallen frontier—the place where the land simply ran out, a place where people go to reinvent themselves or make one final try at the American Dream. Didion’s California is more ominous than idyllic. Rather than a place of palm trees, pristine beaches, and sunny orange groves, her California is a world of dust-baked valleys, neglected tract houses, brush fires, and Santa Ana winds.
This ominous and oppressive atmosphere dominates the essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Didion’s profile of Lucille Miller, a middle-class housewife from San Bernardino, California, who may or may not have burned her husband alive in a Volkswagen on the way home from the all-night market. Despite the sensational subject matter, Didion’s essay is more social commentary than true crime. She makes no judgment about Miller’s guilt or innocence but is fascinated by the way Miller’s story seems to echo 1940’s film noir, such as Double Indemnity (1944). In contrast with the secondhand Hollywood drama of the Miller story, Didion’s account is distanced and ironic, marked by strong visual images and unexpected juxtapositions. Her description of the funeral of Lucille’s husband, Gordon Miller, details the casket and the sermon and the final hymn sung—then, almost offhandedly, Didion mentions that the service was tape-recorded so that Lucille could watch it from her prison cell.
Several essays in this section focus on well-known figures, but they are the antitheses of celebrity journalism. Didion’s “John Wayne: A Love Song” was not written to promote the actor or to condemn him, but to examine what the myth of John Wayne and the legendary West associated with his films meant for Didion, as a young filmgoer, and for American culture. The essay shows a curious dissonance, as childhood dreams meet adult reality. Didion had met Wayne as he was shooting a film. Older and already diagnosed with cancer, he was, even with his human frailties, less real for Didion than was his heroic, tough film character. Similarly, her portrait of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes is, as she frankly admits, not about the real Hughes (she had never met him) but about the idea of Howard Hughes and the stories people tell about him. For Didion, the essays in the section “Life Styles in the Golden Land” explore the gap between America’s official heroes and the imperfect folk heroes who are truly, if secretly, admired.
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the long essay that concludes this section, is perhaps Didion’s best-known essay. On the surface, it is about the hippie phenomenon, a look at the thousands of young people who flocked to San Francisco during the summer of 1967. Actually, the essay is an expression of Didion’s mournful and ironic worldview, her sense that the “center” of things, as in Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” is no longer holding. This lack of a center is expressed even through the structure of the essay, which lacks a conventional beginning, middle, and end. Instead, Didion gives readers a series of vividly described moments, juxtaposed in seemingly random fashion: odd details such as graffiti on a wall or a snatch of song lyrics, overheard conversations, chance encounters, and unproductive interviews. Didion’s one attempt at conventional journalism is a study in comic absurdity. After jotting down two words from a brief conversation she had with a police officer, she is told that she is not allowed to speak with anyone in the police department and that she must turn over her “notes.” The people and incidents in Didion’s essays all work as synecdoche, small parts that say a great deal about the whole.
Perhaps the most powerful images of the disordered culture Didion describes are the two images of children that conclude “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”: a five-year-old child on acid and another small child who had started a fire, burned himself, and had been ignored by the adults around him who were preoccupied with retrieving some hashish that fell through some floorboards during the fire. In a style characteristic of her writing, Didion presents these scenes without commentary, letting the reader make the final judgment.
The essays in the section “Personals” are shorter and more focused on Didion’s own life and opinions. (Labeling only this section “personal” is somewhat misleading.) For those writing as part of the New Journalism movement, which includes Didion, all writing is personal, even when it is “about” someone or something else. Still, it is true that the essays in “Personals” lack the journalistic framework of those in the first section. Didion talks about her writing in the essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” analyzes Hollywood in “I Can’t Get That Monster out of My Mind,” addresses the abstract concepts of self-respect and morality, and writes about her family in “On Going Home.”
The final section, “Seven Places of the Mind,” begins with the essay “Notes from a Native Daughter.” Here, Didion writes about the California of her youth—Sacramento and the Central Valley—a California that traces its heritage to the wagon trains that survived the dangerous trip West. Didion writes with a note of melancholy that her California is receding a little more each year.
Didion also writes of other places she has lived or visited: Hawaii; Alcatraz Island; Newport, Rhode Island; Mexico; Los Angeles; New York City. Although the works are essays about place, they are not “travel writing” in the usual sense and are miles from anything that might promote tourism. Didion’s view of most places is depressing. Outside Honolulu, for example, she is haunted by the World War II-era deaths at Pearl Harbor; in the marble halls of a Newport mansion, she can only imagine unhappy women retiring to their rooms with migraines. Taken as a whole, the essays in this section suggest that Didion’s despair is not in the places she visits but in herself.
“Goodbye to All That,” the final essay, is a perfect example of this tendency toward inner despair in her writing. Didion came to New York in her early twenties, a young woman so naïve that she shivered in her hotel room because she did not know how to turn down the air conditioning and was afraid to call someone to fix it because she did not know how much to tip that person. Whatever her struggles, Didion remembers her early years in New York as filled with a sense of expectation and endless possibilities. All mistakes could be mended, she believed, and something magical could happen at any moment. In her late twenties, and near the end of her stay in New York, a more jaded Didion felt that she could no longer bear to see the same people and places she had once found exciting. She describes her sense of having “stayed too long at the fair,” a paralyzing inertia that she connects with the place New York, but which clearly comes from within herself.
One review of Slouching Towards Bethlehem suggests that aspiring writers could use the collection as a textbook; indeed, Didion’s collection is frequently assigned in creative nonfiction and journalism courses. Quirky, pointedly honest, often melancholy, but sometimes mordantly funny, Didion’s unique voice gives Slouching Towards Bethlehem a freshness that allows it to be rediscovered by new generations of readers born well after the decade it describes.