The White Album

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Joan Didion’s novels and journalistic writings, which express the dilemma of contemporary society, are difficult to dismiss. To some, Didion is a keen observer of American life; to others, she is merely a neurotic California writer, expressing the faddish, rootless character of a state still viewed by many as having a distinct, atypical voice in America. Yet, however one might view Didion’s writing, the impact of her voice and the skill with which she relates her impressions cannot be denied. Her collection The White Album drew critical praise for capturing the national neurosis which became most evident during the period in which these selections were written and about which they speak: 1966-1978. The reading public responded enthusiastically as well, making the book a rapid best-seller.

The title piece, the strongest in the collection, serves as an introduction to the volume. Didion begins “The White Album” by stringing together events which, because of their lack of cohesion, appear absurd; she then presents her thesis that “We live entirely . . . by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ’ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Her own experiences illustrate that this narrative line can no longer be imposed on our lives. Between 1966 and 1971, she sees her responses as “improvised,” yet she recognizes that her education prevents her from functioning this way, without a “plot.” She requires a “script,” a narrative line, a movie, not “flash pictures in variable sequences.” It is this conflict which lies at the heart of the article and loosely unifies the entire collection.

Didion develops the title essay through film technique, offering prose snapshots of people and events which she considers emblematic of the period, juxtaposed against her own psychiatric reports (flash cuts). She begins with Robert and Thomas Scott Ferguson, two young brothers tried and convicted for the 1968 murder of silent film actor Ramon Novarro. Reading the transcripts of the murder trial, Didion finds that she cannot “bring the picture into focus.” The testimony of the young men and those who have known them does not follow the cause-and-effect rules of life which we have learned.

Didion notes a similar incongruity in her encounter with Black Panthers Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. During Newton’s 1968 trial for murdering two policemen and kidnapping a bystander, she went to see him, interested in the issue he represented. However, she finds that Newton unintentionally has become a cause. It is Cleaver, with his press card from Ramparts, who directs the interview, pulling from Newton statements which can be used as slogans for the cause. Didion, in considering an excerpt from the testimony of a nurse who spoke to Newton at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital where he went after being wounded in the gun battle, first thinks she is viewing “a collision of cultures, a classic instance of an historical outsider confronting the established order at its most petty and impenetrable level.” But she destroys her own theory when she realizes that Newton himself was enrolled in the Kaiser Health Plan.

The episode which embodies the absurdity of the social situation more strongly and personally than any other is the Manson murders. Living in Los Angeles, Didion hears of the murders immediately and listens to the telephone conversations filled with speculation. Although she expects the response, it is frightening to know that “no one was surprised.” Didion relates many insignificant yet personal associations with the murders: Roman Polanski, whose wife was one of the murder victims, spilled a glass of red wine on the dress Didion was married in; she and Polanski are godparents to the same child. The events appear absurd. Furthermore, Didion’s relationship with Linda Kasabian, one of the principal witnesses in the trial, is full of those “little ironies so obvious as to be of interest only to dedicated absurdists.” Instead of talking of the murders, they talk of Linda’s background. The avoidance of the central issue unsettles...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

An examination of American culture in the late 1960’s, Joan Didion’s second collection of essays takes as its title the popularly accepted name of the Beatles’ untitled double record album, an album that many argue was the defining or capstone musical production of that decade. The metaphor of album also serves to describe the rhetorical structure of the title essay, one of Didion’s best-known works. A number of the essays in this volume are structured as collages or as series of vignettes loosely strung together thematically or associatively.

The twenty essays in this volume were written between the years 1968 and 1978. Most had been previously published in magazines such as Life, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times Book Review, Travel and Leisure, and New West. Many were composed and revised over a number of years, and some of those that were previously published appear in slightly different forms. The thirty-seven-page title essay occupies the first of five sections in the book. Under the heading “California Republic,” the next section contains seven essays, each about significant or emblematic people and places in California. The third section, “Women,” begins with one of Didion’s most controversial works, “The Women’s Movement.” Also included in that section are essays on the British novelist Doris Lessing and the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. The heading “Sojourns” covers seven pieces on places as varied as the Hoover Dam in Nevada and the Hawaiian Islands. The volume ends with “On the Morning After the Sixties,” which gives the title to the section, and “Quiet Days in Malibu.”

The White Album is very much a continuation of the sort of chronicling of American culture, particularly in California, that Didion had begun in her first collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). As it was in that volume, the personal voice is very much at the center of most of these essays, even when their subject is not ostensibly Didion, and thus Didion, as a woman and a writer, is often taken to be the subject of her own writing. A number of these essays have become well known by virtue of being frequently anthologized in college readers as the very best examples of the genre of personal essay.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Didion is among the foremost American essayists, male or female, of the twentieth century. She is recognized for the elegance and distinctiveness of her style, the precision of her social critique, and the insistent presence of the first-person voice in her work. In her refusal to separate her personal voice from her cultural analysis, Didion brings her perspective as a woman into all the essays in The White Album. She is not, however, typically identified as a writer who is concerned with women or women’s issues. Her nonfiction is rarely spoken of in terms of feminist concerns, and few reviewers or scholars have analyzed it from that critical perspective.

Response to “The Women’s Movement” (first published in The New York Times Book Review) by feminist critics such as Catharine Stimpson and Barbara Grizzuti Harrison has taken Didion to task for displaying a superficial and inaccurate understanding of the history of the women’s movement and of feminism. At the time of the publication of The White Album, it was Didion’s only direct treatment of the issues raised by the contemporary women’s or feminist movements.

In addition to her first collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s nonfiction includes her third collection, After Henry (1992), and the book-length works Salvador (1983) and Miami (1987), both of which collect essays that had been previously published as a series. Her nonfiction in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s contains much less of the personal voice, as do, for example, her essays on the 1988 and 1992 U.S. presidential campaigns collected in After Henry and in periodicals such as The New York Review of Books. She has also written an introduction (1989) to Some Women, a selection from the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Anderson, Chris. Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Anderson, a major theorist of literary nonfiction, characterizes the work of Didion, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer as bearing witness to disjunctions in American experience. Relying on classical and contemporary rhetorical and literary theory, he focuses on the relationship between style and theme. Rather than reading Didion’s essays to explicate her fiction or explain her personality, he analyzes them as texts, attending closely to structure, tone, voice, and presence.

Duffy, Martha. “Pictures from an Expedition.” The New York Review of Books 25 (August 16, 1979): 43-44. This review essay praises The White Album primarily for the quality of Didion’s voice. Duffy’s analysis of some of the essays, particularly “The Women’s Movement,” is clear and balanced, though brief.

Felton, Sharon, ed. The Critical Response to Joan Didion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Felton’s introduction to this collection surveys Didion’s body of work up to 1993, drawing thematic connections across the genres. The volume contains reviews, selected critical response, a chronology, and an excellent bibliography.

Harrison, Barbara Grizzuti. “Joan Didion: The...

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