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Last Reviewed 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.

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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.

Summary

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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...

(The entire section contains 1558 words.)

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