Slouching Towards Bethlehem Analysis

Joan Didion

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.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The first of Joan Didion’s collections of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem takes its title from the last line of “The Second Coming” (1924) by Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The apocalyptic images of that poem had been, Didion says, her “points of reference” at the time she wrote the title essay in 1967. Faced with what she called a “conviction . . . that the world as I had understood it no longer existed,” she went to San Francisco to learn about the emerging hippie culture in the Haight-Ashbury district: It was necessary, she wrote, “to come to terms with disorder.” Most of the reviewers of this volume have read the collection as a whole in the light of the themes of social upheaval and moral decay that were raised first in this piece.

A preface to the volume contains an explanation of the genesis of the title and the motivation for several of the essays, Didion’s reflections on her state of mind during the time she was writing, and descriptions of her habits as a writer during those years. The twenty essays were originally written for magazines—among them Vogue, The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times Magazine, and The American Scholar—during the years 1965 through 1967.

The book is organized into three sections. “Life Styles in the Golden Land” contains eight essays focused on California, which are typically read either as pieces of journalism or as...

(The entire section is 430 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

At the time that Slouching Towards Bethlehem was published, Didion was usually the only woman mentioned among the New Journalists. She is now one of the most recognized essayists in American letters, especially because the attention paid to the essay in college classrooms and literary magazines has grown in the second half of the twentieth century.

The essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, whether personal or reportage, present a woman’s point of view inasmuch as Didion writes out of the particularities of what is repeatedly noted by readers and reviewers as very personal experience. Grounded in the first person, they present the voice of a woman who is not afraid to make her doubts, fears, and longings the subjects of her public musings or to include them in her investigations. Didion does not, in this volume, identify herself as being explicitly concerned with women or women’s issues. Her nonfiction is rarely spoken of in terms of feminist concerns; perhaps for this reason, few reviewers and scholars have analyzed it from that critical perspective. This is less true of her fiction, largely because her main characters are all women.

In a 1970 interview, when asked specifically about the women’s movement, she responded that social action “does not much engage my imagination”; in a 1979 interview she was described as “skeptical” of it. Her essay “The Women’s Movement,” published first in The New York Times Book Review (1972) and later collected in The White Album (1979), is an unsympathetic analysis of what was a relatively young movement at the time of her writing. Response to it by feminist critics—Catharine Stimpson most prominent among them—has taken Didion to task for, among other things, what they claim to be a superficial and inaccurate understanding of the history of the women’s movement and of feminism.

Nonfiction by Didion includes the collections of essays The White Album (1979) and After Henry (1992) and the book-length works Salvador (1983) and Miami (1987). She remains foremost among American essayists, male or female, recognized for the elegance and distinctness of her style, the precision of her social critique, and the insistently strong presence of the first person in her work.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Anderson, Chris. Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Anderson closely examines the literary nonfiction of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Didion, attending particularly to the relationship between style and theme. Relying on classical and contemporary rhetorical and literary theory, Anderson claims that, despite the unique stylistic and rhetorical features of each, what these writers have in common is a self-consciousness about the limits of language. Anderson’s is the only major study that engages Didion’s nonfiction on its own terms rather than using it as an aid in reading her fiction or telling her biography.

Carton, Evan. “Joan Didion’s Dreampolitics of the Self.” Western Humanities Review 40 (Winter, 1986): 307-328. Carton reads the personal element in Slouching Towards Bethlehem as an assertion of self against the seeming disintegration of the cultural landscape which Didion appears to document. He makes his argument through an analysis of the theme and structure of the individual essays. He sees Didion’s project as paradoxically related to Marxist and feminist critiques of the “natural, autonomous, decontextualized self.”

Didion, Joan. “Cautionary Tales.” Interview by Susan Stamberg. In Joan Didion: Essays and...

(The entire section is 492 words.)