Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of twenty essays on various subjects written by Joan Didion between 1961 and 1968. In the book’s preface, Didion discusses the origin of the title, a phrase taken from William Butler Yeats’s apocalyptic poem, “The Second Coming.” She relates that in writing the title piece, about the gathering of hippies in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1967, she suddenly realized that the world as she knew it no longer existed. When one reviews the essays included here, it is obvious that the forces of chaos and change form the thematic adhesive that binds most of the collection.

The work is divided into three sections, the first of which, “Life Styles in the Golden Land,” contains eight pieces that deal with personalities or incidents that seem quintessentially Western, if not Californian. Thus, one finds the story of Lucille Miller, who is convicted of murdering her dentist husband in San Bernardino; a profile of an exhausted John Wayne as he completes another film after cancer surgery; a wary look at Joan Baez’s Center for the Study of Nonviolence in Big Sur; a meditation on Howard Hughes and his asocial behavior; and a satiric view of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, among others.

In the second section, “Personals,” Didion shifts the focus from society to herself. Here similar thematic concerns prevail; however, they are developed in decidedly subjective ways. She discusses abstractions such as self-respect and morality, ponders the implications of keeping a...

(The entire section is 648 words.)