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Have you ever gone on a trip around the Gulf South for no apparent reason?
Do you want to go on one? How about having Joan Didion for a companion?
If the answer to both of the questions above is “yes” then – hop on:
Who Should Read “South and West”? And Why?
If you’ve ever read anything by Joan Didion, you already know that she is – as a Guardian review once noted – not only a good novelist but one of USA’s greatest essayists.
Well, this book is a collection of notes which never got to become essays; but the writing still has the same power, sharpness, and beauty.
In addition to being a Joan Didion book, there’s another reason why you should read South and West: in retrospect, her observances of the South seem prophetic.
Read more carefully, and you’ll see Trump’s name written over some of these pages – even though they date from the 1970s.
About Joan Didion
Joan Didion is an American journalist, novelist, and essayist.
Widely admired for her writing style and her capability to portray the disintegration of American morals and the social fragmentation of the USA, Didion is often considered one of the most prominent voices in the New Journalism literary movement.
Winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction for her autobiography The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion is the author of six novels and as many screenplays, a play, and about a dozen nonfiction works.
“South and West PDF Summary”
Described as “a scrapbook of background notes, thoughts and early drafts by one of the most extraordinary writers of our time,” Joan Didion’s South and West, for the most part, looks like a book that never should have been written.
And, in a way, it never was: comprising two sections – the substantial “Notes on the South” and the pretty brief, even less structured, and no more than trivial “California Notes” – the book is nothing more but a string of beginnings no middle and an end, sort of would-be essays, if you please.
And they all date back to the 1970s, the second part being peculiarly and almost anachronistically topical, covering (mostly) the abduction of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Then why should these notes be published at all?
“No doubt Didion has now decided to publish South and West,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in her review for The New York Times, “because they similarly shed light on the current political moment. At a remove of more than four decades, she maps the divisions splintering America today, and uncannily anticipates some of the dynamics that led to the election of Donald J. Trump and caught so many political and media insiders unawares.”
In other words, the ever-intuitive brilliant mind of perhaps the greatest modern American essayist felt, back in the 1970s, that the American story most of the other people believed in is not the whole story.
And feared that, one day, the untold parts of it would feel like a twist.
South and West is proof that they shouldn’t.
California and the South
At first glance, even the arrangement of the book seems strange: why should Didion’s “Notes on the South” from her 1970 notebooks be paired with her “California Notes” from six years later?
Aren’t the two incompatible on so many levels?
Well, in a way, that is exactly the reason why Didion grouped these two selections.
“I had a theory that if I could understand the South,” she explained her decision to the Paris Review in 2006, “I would understand something about California because a lot of the California settlers came from the Border South.”
“It is a counterintuitive theory,” writes Nathaniel Rich in the “Foreword” to South and West, “for the South and the West represent the poles of the American experience – the South drowning in its past, the West looking ahead to distant frontiers in a spirit of earnest, eternal optimism.”
“The future always looks good in the golden land,” wrote Didion in Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, “because no one remembers the past.”
“In the South, no one can forget it,” adds Rich.
Almost impossible to be summarized – after all, it is a string of purposefully unstructured notes – South and West chronicles traces and window-glances of two Didion’s trips.
The first one is a tour Didion and her husband John took of the Gulf South for a month in the summer of 1970, making notes and recording conversations for a future piece – one that would never be completed.
The second part records some notes of a visit to San Francisco in 1976, paid by the Rolling Stone magazine so that Joan Didion can provide them with an account of the trial of Patty Hearst.
Like another famous Rolling Stone offer, this one too gives birth to something better.
Notes on the South
“I could never precisely name what impelled me to spend time in the South during the summer of 1970,” writes Joan Didion in one of the first notes from the first part of South and West.
“There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went at the time I went: nothing ‘happened’ anywhere I was, no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God.”
But what she writes next strikes with prophetical fervor:
I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. I did not much want to talk about this. I had only the most ephemeral ‘picture’ in my mind.
“And so,” Didion goes on, “instead of talking about it I flew south one day in the summer of 1970, rented a car, and drove for a month or so around Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama, saw no spokesmen, covered no events, did nothing at all but try to find out, as usual, what was making the picture in my mind.”
The notes – some longer, some brief – chronicle Didion’s travels from New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi, to Meridian, Mississippi, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and, finally, into Faulkner’s hometown, Oxford.
A Death in New Orleans
Didion’s first note opens with an anthologically beautiful paragraph:
In New Orleans, in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray: the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere, all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead.
“In New Orleans,” Didion writes in another note, “they have mastered the art of the motionless.”
One afternoon on St. Charles Avenue, Joan witnesses the death of a woman, falling forward over the wheel of her car.
What strikes Didion most is the fact that not many people consider this death a special event.
“Dead,” says an old woman upon seeing the body and, afterward, when asked by a waitress whose fault it was, says that it’s nobody’s.
And then, suddenly, the two start talking about the weather, noting how incredibly hot it is.
“The death had seemed serious but casual,” notes Didion, “as if it had taken place in a pre-Columbian city where death was expected and did not in the long run count for much.”
A Stranger in Her Own Land
In a brilliant study of the American South nowadays – aptly titled Strangers in Their Own Land – Arlie Russell Hochschild reveals why most of USA’s poorest states are radically Republican and why they don’t intend to change this.
Half a century before, Joan Didion got a glimpse of this and penned it down in a few notes which kind of tell the same story from the other side: just as to a Louisianan, a Californian may seem a natural enemy who understands nothing about reality, to a Californian, being in New Orleans, may seem as if he/she’s visiting another country.
And here’s a simple note which demonstrates this.
Since Didion falls and hurts a rib in New Orleans, she decides to see a doctor in Meridian. She goes to the Rush Foundation Hospital (where all doctors are members of the Rush family), and, while waiting, starts seeing the world through their eyes:
A woman walks into a clinic, a stranger to Meridian. She has long straight hair, which is not seen in the South among respectable women past the age of fourteen, and she complains of an injured rib. She gives her address as Los Angeles but says the rib was injured in a hotel room in New Orleans. She says she is just ‘traveling through’ Meridian. This is not a story to inspire confidence, and I knew it as I told it, which made meeting her eyes difficult.
And it gets even worse than that.
When asked if she is traveling alone, Joan Didion says she’s traveling with her husband, but she’s not wearing her wedding ring.
A long pause follows.
In Isolation, Time Warps
“The past is never dead – it’s not even past,” wrote the South’s greatest writer, William Faulkner, in his 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun.
Anyone who has ever visited the red-state counties on the American South knows exactly what that means.
But very few would ever be able to put it into words better than Didion:
“The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”
Bear in mind that Didion is writing about the 1970s, the years after the Civil Rights Movement, and the years when it seems America is finally becoming America for all Americans.
However, Didion doesn’t feel this; on the contrary: it feels as if the South is buried deep into the past, with most of the people she overhears speaking nostalgically about things such as cheap labor and racism.
And why is that?
One word: isolation.
“The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold,” writes Didion. “All their information was fifth-hand and mythicized in the handing down. Does it matter where Taos is, after all, if Taos is not in Mississippi?”
Has something changed 50 years later?
Of course not!
“Readers today will recognize,” writes Nathaniel Rich in the Foreword, “with some dismay and even horror, how much is familiar in these long-lost American portraits. Didion saw her era more clearly than anyone else, which is another way of saying that she was able to see the future.”
In other words, Didion’s intuition wasn’t far off: the South wasn’t the past but the future.
And the election of Trump and the era of fake news – unfortunately – proved her more than right.
Move along – not much to see here.
“California Notes” (which you can read in their entirety here) started with Joan Didion telling Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that she’s interested in covering the Patty Hearst trial.
No need to go into the trial in detail, because the notes barely even mention it.
And you already know the main facts: in 1974, William Randolph Heart’s (aka Citizen Kane’s) granddaughter Patty was kidnapped by the far-left Symbionese Liberation Army and, in the most famous Stockholm syndrome twist in history, two months later, decided to change her name to Tania and start robbing with the SLA; she was caught a year and a half later.
Joan Didion went to San Francisco to follow the trial, but this pushed her into examining her thoughts about California.
They did evolve into something in the end – but not an article on Patty Hearst: though published in 2003, Didion’s book Where I Was From is the final result of her 1976 trip to San Francisco.
And these notes, for the most part, seem as if the few that didn’t make it there – most of them being about Didion reading Gertrude Atherton than anything else.
Key Lessons from “South and West”
1. Isolation Breeds Fifth-Hand News and Alternate Facts
2. The South and the West | The Past and the Future
3. We May Be Through with the Past, But the Past Ain’t Through with Us
Isolation Breeds Fifth-Hand News and Alternate Facts
Though Joan Didion visited the South half a century ago, she did notice something the consequences of which we notice only today: “all their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.”
In other words, Didion observed (that what we now consider) fake news is not a new phenomenon, but a way of life for America’s Southerners, going all the way back to the tall tales of the 19th century.
After all, someone who has no present has no option but to feed his/her imagination on myths.
The South and the West | The Past and the Future
We chose to separate the two in the title with a vertical bar mainly because we didn’t know how.
Even though at first glance it may seem that the South (New Orleans) represents the past and the West (California) the future of the United States, Didion had some doubts about this already in the 1970s.
In fact, as she hints in the very first notes, she had some strange feeling that it might be the other way around.
Back then, probably nobody would have believed her.
And then Trump got elected – and now she’s thought of as a prophet.
We May Be Through with the Past, But the Past Ain’t Through with Us
That’s a quote taken directly from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.
We don’t really know the exact origin of it – believe us, we’ve tried finding it – but, in a way, it’s a variation (and an update) on William Faulkner’s famous “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.”
We won’t delve more deeply into these quotes, but we would say that they seem like the best lesson one should take away from Joan Didion’s 1970 notes on the South.
Take that to mean whatever you want it to mean.
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“South and West Quotes”In New Orleans, they have mastered the art of the motionless. Click To Tweet It was the kind of Sunday to make one ache for Monday morning. Click To Tweet To be a white middle-class child in a small southern town must be on certain levels the most golden way for a child to live in the United States. Click To Tweet I have been looking all my life for history and have yet to find it. Click To Tweet In the South, they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Dubbed “one of the best books of the year” by both the NPR and the Harper’s Bazaar, South and West is an exceptional book, not the least because it doesn’t even try to be one, being just a string of unstructured and barely connected notes from two trips of the 1970s.
Didion’s notes, however – as Nathaniel Rich notes – “surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers” and “are a fascinating record of [the] time.”
Even more, they are an unsettling look into our present and, perhaps, even our future.