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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1754

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Like much of Joan Didion’s best work, Where I Was From performs a precarious balancing act: It manages to be simultaneously deeply intimate and broadly political. The book is both a personal memoir and an exploration of the big issues that define the author’s home turf, the state of California. The opening paragraphs contain a capsule history of the eventful westward journey of Didion’s pioneer family, focusing particularly on the women in the family and tracing back six generations the pedigree of her famous migraines. She tells the charmingly absurd tale of how her cousin donated to the Pacific University Museum the old potato masher that their ancestors carried across the plains. It is through her personal and family attachments to the place, Didion tells the reader, that she “began trying to find the ‘point’ of California, to locate some message in its history.”

Personal and family history, however, quickly give way to other stories. Didion tells, for instance, of the immigrants who, as they draw near to the promised land, come across an abandoned adolescent girl and her sick brother, left by a previous group of pioneers to be found or to die. These two abandoned children, along with many other characters and incidents, are mentioned in passing, are then left, and then again returned to at various appropriate moments in the book. The old potato masher, likewise, returns several times as an ironic icon. By approaching California’s myths from various angles and layering small snippets of stories upon one another, Didion allows the bigger picture to emerge. The technique is a familiar one to her fans, who will recognize it—along with some actual settings and incidents—from her best-known essays, including “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” both published in 1968.

Where I Was From is, in part, a series of verbal portraits of people with a real stake in the California dream: novelist Jack London, painter Thomas Kinkade, generations of ranchers and railroad men and developers, and the author’s own family. In painting these portraits, Didion exposes what she believes to be the very heart of the California conundrum, the disconnect between the steadfast belief of the state’s citizens in their individual freedom and self-determination and its nearly total reliance on government (mostly federal government) handouts in the form of tax relief, subsidies, and defense and building contracts. In describing many individual Californians, including earlier versions of herself, she allows the reader to perceive the warping of internal logic that allows these people to continue insisting they are free and self-determined, in spite of the pervasive evidence to the contrary.

Throughout this book, as in her earlier work, Didion uses the small, trenchant observation to lead her readers to the big picture. In discussing the aerospace industry, for instance, she focuses upon the Southern California community of Lakewood, planned and built by that industry. In the late 1990’s this community faced a series of troubling reports of sexual harassment and rape perpetrated by a gang of youths who called themselves the Spur Posse. Didion contends, without quite making it seem a contention, that the collapse of the local industry is what has led to desperation among the local youth and their subsequent antisocial behavior. Her research for this portion of the book is wide-ranging enough to present her readers with the low SAT scores of students from Lakewood High School as well as quotations from the alleged criminals, their alleged victims, and the parents of both. All of this is aligned with statistics and interviews about the consistent decline in employment and salaries in Lakewood. Characteristically, she tracks not just the fact of the aerospace industry’s collapse but also the language used to describe that fact—from “correctives” to “restructuring,” further evidence of the citizens’ unwillingness to face squarely the problems of their communities.

Where I Was From examines the persistent—and utterly untrue—notion that California is rich and that therefore poverty in any of its citizens must be either a temporary condition or a problem somehow less serious than it might be somewhere else. “Such was the power of the story on which I had grown up that this thought came to me as a kind of revelation: The settlement of the west, however inevitable, had not uniformly tended to the greater good, nor had it on every level benefited even those who reaped its most obvious rewards.” Of course, the author is not as naïve as this statement might seem to indicate, and those who know Didion’s work well will hear something slightly disingenuous in such a remark. She has, since the late 1960’s, addressed the problems in California society and the flaws in the state’s golden self-image. What has changed in this book is both the depth of her analysis and the candor with which she admits her own previous willingness to buy into at least selected portions of that image.

Thus the author peels away layer after layer of mythologies—personal, familial, local, regional, national. Didion is too hardheaded, too much an intellectual, to look away from the uncomfortable truth she slowly uncovers: that the glorious California, whose passing she (along with so many others) laments, never really existed at all. Still, hard-headed intellectual or not, she is clearly saddened by her own revelation. What she is (and readers are) left with, then, is not nostalgia for a lost golden age but rather nostalgia for nostalgia, a desire to return not to some past state of reality but to a past state of mind in which it was possible to believe that the dream had once, in some dim past, been real. In the end, though, she turns away (and takes her readers with her) from this once-removed nostalgia. For adults, she makes clear that it is counterproductive to believe in fairy tales. The consequences of such belief are too real and potentially too devastating to the environment and the society which, despite all, she still loves.

The “where” of the book’s title may be California, but the book has significance far beyond this one state. (Indeed, Didion makes a point of reminding her readers frequently that she used to live in California but now makes her home in New York. Even the book’s past-tense title reinforces this point.) “This is a country,” the author says, “at some level not as big as we like to say it is.” Didion asks difficult questions about California, and in the specific history and present of California she seeks answers. The same questions might well be asked about Nebraska or Georgia, or even New York: What are the myths of this place? What are the realities? Why does one continue to believe in the former despite all the visible evidence of the latter? What does it mean to be from a particular place? To what degree is one obligated to question and probe the myths of one’s native places?

Didion sees how deeply political the myth of California really is. What might be surprising is what she identifies as the center of the politics. California, in Didion’s analysis, is not “about” what one familiar with the California myth might expect. It is not about tourism, agriculture, motion pictures, and gold. Rather, it is about railroads, water, aerospace, prison building, and capital. It is, ultimately, about “a familiar California error: that of selling the future of the place we lived to the highest bidder.”

Didion writes so compellingly, with such conviction and in such unerringly superb prose, that one is inclined simply to think her right. As with all things to do with the myth of California, the truth is not that simple. The author has a point to make, an ax which she grinds so subtly and with such verbal finesse that one almost cannot hear the whetstone. She is trying to press Californians (and others) into seeing that perhaps—just perhaps—California is not paying its fair share, not really carrying its own substantial weight, and that its success is not based on the fact that it is inherently special but on the fact that it has had unearned privilege. It is a tough case to make, given the pervasiveness of California’s dream image of itself, aggressively marketed in everything from art to advertising to popular song.

All these various sources of the image come under the author’s scrutiny at some point. The book’s greatest strength, that it gives voice to Didion’s academic bent, might be considered by some readers to be its greatest weakness as well. There is much quotation, much detailed analysis of data, and even a bit of literary criticism. Indeed, she might be considered an adherent of the school of criticism known as New Historicism, in that she compares a number of documents from widely varying sources to draw her portrait of the place. These documents are as diverse as Frank Norris’s novel The Octopus (1901), contemporary newspaper stories, publications of the United States Bureau of Reclamation, her great-great-grandmother’s letters, and her own eighth grade graduation speech made in 1948.

More than 200 pages into the 226-page book, the reader learns that Didion’s mother recently died and that the author returned to California to help set her affairs in order and distribute various family mementos among the children and grandchildren. In a different sort of social history, this might seem a self-indulgent finale, but in the case of Where I Was From, the revelation comes to seem, like so much in Didion’s work, not only necessary to the text but also an inevitable part of it. The author’s convoluted but powerful speculations about family, history, and location make sudden sense when one sees her self-searching as brought on by both the death of a loved one and the return, under difficult circumstances, to a once-familiar place. When all one has loved about a place is gone, what is left but one’s memories and illusions? Didion pushes the reader to ask the question: What is the use of such memories and illusions when they are built on a foundation of sand?

Review Sources

American Scholar 72, no. 4 (Autumn, 2003): 146-148.

Booklist 99, no. 21 (July 1, 2003): 1843.

Kirkus Review 71, no. 13 (July 1, 2003): 891-892.

Library Journal 128, no. 11 (June 15, 2003): 72.

National Review 55, no. 24 (December 22, 2003): 52-53.

The New York Review of Books, December 4, 2003, pp. 4-5.

The New York Times Book Review, September 28, 2003, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 26 (June 30, 2003): 68-69.

Time 162, no. 17 (October 27, 2003): 76.