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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 210

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The White Album by Joan Didion is a collection of pieces about America in the 1960s. As a result, writing about the White Album is definitely going to force you to make choices about exactly which stories in the collection you focus on.

Joan writes about going to a press conference for the Black Panthers, for example. The Black Panther Party was a group of Black extremists. She writes about the events around the famous Manson family incidents, where a number of people followed the cult leader Charles Manson, who directed them to kill people.

You can also talk about the feel of the collection in general, such as how it explores the '60s period in California in an age of interest in spiritual enlightenment when people were exploring new ideas.

There are five major sections of the book. The first is just called “The White Album.” The second is called “California Republic,” the third “Women,” the fourth “Sojourns,” and the fifth is titled “On the Morning After the Sixties.” These sections can also serve as a structure for your essay if you want. If you’re trying to represent everything evenly, then the fourth section and the second section are the longest in terms of numbers of stories.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581

In “The White Album,” the first essay of the collection, Joan Didion states her prime concern—U.S. national myths do not fit the facts of American lives. She states that there came a time when “I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.”

This long first essay begins with the description of her own experience with psychiatric examinations, with living in an old house on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles. The house was scheduled to be torn down; it was waiting for the wrecker’s ball. She records the bizarre testimony of two young men who had murdered the film star Ramon Navarro for no reason and describes her friendship with Linda Kasabian, who testified at the Manson trial. There were also the unfocused and almost friendly anti-Vietnam Black Panther demonstrations and a recording session with the Doors, who seemed to hardly know each other, and a mystifying interview with Eldridge Cleaver. None of these experiences held together to make a narrative of America in the years between 1966 and 1971, although this essay represents ten years of searching on Didion’s part.

All nineteen of these essays point up the gulf between the facts and what people make of them in order to tell themselves a story and thus give meaning to what they experience. Bishop James Pike of San Francisco is revealed as a man interested only in the show although myth would make a mystic of him when he disappeared into the desert. The facts of his life reveal an ambitious man who entered the church for power and fame only. The essay bears the ironic title, “James Pike, American.”

Didion is fearless in exposing what she sees as systems of thought that give a false sense of authority, and of party lines that make narratives for their own purposes out of facts that do not come together or that do not really explain what it is said they explain. An example is the trivialization of the women’s movement in a litany of shared household chores, day care centers, and exciting jobs. The result is an expectation of romance, of fun, and a chance to work at a potter’s wheel. Says Didion, “The movement is no longer a cause but a symptom.”

In 1970, Didion visited Hawaii but her report of that visit, “In the Islands,” was not meant for a travel magazine. She visits the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which is on the island of Oahu and in the center of an extinct volcano. She watches an American family arrive from California to bury their son who has died in Vietnam. She interviews a commanding officer at Schofield Barracks, made famous by James Jones in From Here to Eternity (1951), but none of the officers or soldiers knows who James Jones is.

“Good Citizens,” is Didion at her cynical best, questioning the final unimportance of the highly publicized political actions of liberal film stars, capturing the falseness of the “photo opportunity” in Mrs. Ronald Reagan’s garden (in which the photographer has the first lady of California pretend to pick a rhododendron), and describing a visit to a meeting of optimistic Jaycees who hope the world is what it no longer can possibly be. The White Album spares no one, Didion’s factual description tells the true story. Critics agree that she is an elegant prose stylist and that she is rightfully one of America’s most celebrated journalists.

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