Slouching in White: Joan Didion and the Legacy of the Late Sixties

“One last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out,” Joan Didion concluded with an air of unassuming menace in her 1968 essay collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem. As the party ended, the 1960s closed with the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the rise of angrier more militant Chicano, Feminist, and Black Power Movements, and the reactionary moves of Nixon’s “southern strategy.” More than a few historians, Rick Perlstein among them, have noted the splintering of American culture. None of these examples even includes the carnage of the civil rights movement from Emmet Till (1955), whose memory Little Wayne recently besmirched, to the slain Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers (1963). Black Panther assassinations, Kent State in the 1970s, and the list goes on; the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a nervous America tiptoe from one era into another but hardly in lock step or even remote unison.

paris68 Occupying the Sorbonne in ’68

Still others, like Mark Kurlansky, noted that if the events and movements of the late 1960s divided societies internally, they also brought the world closer together. “What was unique about 1968,” notes Kurlansky, “was that people were rebelling over disparate issues and had in common only that desire to rebel, ideas about how to do it, a sense of alienation from the established order, and a profound distaste for authoritarianism in any form.”[1] Conservative forces gathered their strength and began to focus on internal suppression of dissent while dissidents united over the language of protest provided by philosophers like Herbert Marcuse. For historian Jeremi Suri, “détente” did little to reduce the nuclear threat but provided conservative forces in China, the USSR and the US the chance to reassert themselves. Détente at once demonstrated success in foreign relations for all parties involved but also the threat that necessitated increased state powers.[2] In this historical context, Didion’s point about writers selling everyone out seems particularly sharp: moving left or right meant settling into one form of authoritarianism or another. Didion may not have been a revolutionary, but nor was she a card-carrying member of the “silent majority.”

“The center was not holding,” wrote Didion. “It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four letter words they scrawled.”[3] Indeed, in some respects 1967 America sounds eerily similar to today, even if its horrors unfolded in the context of a Cold War America running on an ever expanding GNP while stuck in the mire of Vietnam. Instead, today the United States prepares for withdrawal from Afghanistan, a conflict that replaced Vietnam as the nation’s longest war, while looking back at what many argue was a failed effort in Iraq. Granted, all things are not the same; we do not suffer the political violence of the late 1960s, nor did our counterparts endure the economic malaise that seems to have dominated American life for the past several years. Born into postwar American expansion, boomers knew mostly fat economies and apple pie. Generation X got stagflation, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, supply side economics, and a growing division between rich and poor.

Forty five years ago, Joan Didion’s collection of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem appeared on American book shelves. Eleven years after Slouching, Didion dropped The White Album. Taken together the two works provide a certain cultural baseline for late 1960s and early 1970s; Didion tapped into her own, and society’s larger, anxieties, depicting an America awash in the excess and riddled by uncertainty. Her essays engage this burgeoning sense of discomfort, weaving their way through pop culture, Las Vegas, Hawaii, and California. Uninterested in laying siege to ramparts or suppressing dissent, Didion instead observed an America trying to come to terms with opposing impulses and make sense of a splintering political and social reality.


Didion found anxiety, rebellion, and resignation in the folds of popular culture. “The brutal images glaze the eye,” she wrote after having viewed numerous biker exploitation films popular at the time. “The senseless insouciance of all the characters in a world of routine stompings and casual death takes on a logic better left unplumbed.”[4] Films like Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels followed a simple course: better to die righteously in one fiery moment than to keep on enduring life’s slights and indignities or “paying rent” as some characters might assert. Yet, what Didion drew from her cinematic adventure was that these films served as “a perfect Rorschach of its audience,” a mass of children of “vague ‘hill’ stock who grew up absurd in the West and Southwest” living their lives “as an obscure grudge against a world they think they never made.”[5] One could argue that today we find this demographic in Tea Party propaganda and leftist radicalism, each blaming others for today’s reality, though admittedly from very different viewpoints.

More than anything in this period, despite her own apparent moderation, Didion seemed attracted to extremism. Not necessarily political extremism, but when people push outside their existential comfort zones. The American West seemed perfect for such elucidation. “In the interior wilderness no one is bloodied by history, and it is no coincidence that the Pentecostal churches have their strongest hold in places where Western civilization has its most superficial hold,” Didion reflected. “There are more than twice as many Pentecostal as Episcopal churches in Los Angeles.”[6] Indeed, in 1906, black itinerant preacher William J. Seymour – afflicted with small pox, “’disheveled in appearance,’” and blind in one eye – set up shop on Azusa Street in a dilapidated part of Los Angeles. Speaking in tongues, hugging, and ululating, Seymour’s interracial gatherings inspired deep faith and obedience among followers and rigid opposition from critics. The Los Angeles Times threw doubt on this “weird Babel of tongues” and “new sect of fanatics” who “work themselves into a state of mad excitement,” while establishment leaders, like their Great Awakening counterparts roughly 125 years prior, rejected Pentecostalism’s emotional appeal for a more doctrinaire and “rational” religiosity. Though considered marginal up until the 1950s, Pentacostalism reached national respectability in 1974 when over 1,000 congregants gathered at Washington D.C.’s National Cathedral for a service in which many spoke in tongues. Since then, Pencostalism’s popularity has only grown, especially in places like Guatemala, Brazil, and Kenya.

pt02_william_j_seymour-standing William J. Seymour Pentecostal Innovator

Fanaticism hardly reserved itself for the religious. Didion’s account of Joan Baez’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions revealed an equally radical view of the world, with softened edges and collective discussions. “I have long been interested in the Center’s rhetoric,” Didion reflected, “which has about it the kind of ectoplasmic generality that always makes me sense I am on the track of the real soufflé, the genuine American kitsch…”[7] CSDI was not Paris in 1968 or Occupy in 2011.

Located in the hills of Santa Barbara, the CSDI stood as foil to the John Birch Society. “’You can’t let the fascists drive them out of town,’” a local center supporter told Didion.[8] Movie stars sometimes populated proceedings – Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Dinah Short – though, as is often the case with celebrities, their grasp of politics seemed rather flimsy. Heavier political figures made appearances though, among them Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass, civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin, and Senator William Fulbright. In the end, however, the center seemed more like a place to babble on about the American future that made one feel better but accomplished little. “These sessions are way over my head,” one contributor told Didion over cocktails, “but I go out floating on air.”[9]

solana001_t479 Joan Baez’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Santa Barbara

Didion drops in on the absurdity of the marriage industry in Sin City. “Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies’ rooms attendants with amyl nitrite poppers in their uniform pockets,” she observed. No student protests or righteous upheaval here, no, more like consumerist coma.

No historical imperative created Vegas. The “geographical implausibility” of blinking eighty foot signs strewn with the words “’Stardust’” or “’Caesar’s Palace’” only reinforced the feeling that the city had no connection to reality. The entire enterprise depended on one’s view: Las Vegas existed only in the eye of the beholder. The nineteen wedding chapels, competing for nuptials, no matter their tackiness or gauche, gave participants some facsimile of what they desired. In an age of upheaval, fast food matrimony combined consumer convenience with a traditional bulwark against societal decline. Watching the post wedding bliss of one party, Didion noted the protean nature of Las Vegas reality. Jokes about “the wedding night” (though the new bride was clearly several months pregnant), pink champagne toasts (which the new bride was too young to imbibe), and a bored waiter suggested a subdued affair. Yet, the bride broke into tears of joy upon the second round of champagne exclaiming to Didion, “It was just as nice … as I hoped and dreamed it would be.”[10]


All these extremes, at least in her writing, seemed to take a toll on Didion. Her depiction of the San Francisco State protests in 1968 sounds weary and cynical. “The very architecture of California State colleges tends to deny radical notions, to reflect a modest and hopeful vision of progressive welfare bureaucracy,” she noted, “and as I walked across campus that day and on later days the entire San Francisco State dilemma – the gradual politicization, the ‘issues’ here and there, the obligatory ‘fifteen demands,’ the continual arousal of the police and outraged citizenry – seemed increasingly off key, an instance of the enfants terribles and the Board of Trustees unconsciously collaborating on a wishful fantasy (Revolution on Campus) and playing out in time for the six o’clock news.”[11] As our ToM colleague Clement Lime noted in a recent post: “Didion sounds like a woman waking up from more than a few too many 1968 cultural cocktails (a shot of sexism here, a shot of Third World Solidarity there).”

The West, and especially California, provided a muse but one that could stifle. Californians tended to speak of the past in grand terms behaving as if history had “simultaneously begun, tabula rasa, and reached a happy ending on the day the wagons started west.” Unfortunately this meant the state had already seen its “finest hour,” and the rest could only be denouement. “California is a place in which boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”


Didion even pushes out into the waters of American imperialism. Her 1966 sojourn to Hawaii at first reminds readers of the recent Mad Men season premiere. Like Don’s pitch to the owners of the Royal Hawaiian, the archipelago exists as another world – perhaps not the suicide destination the executives believe Don’s idea problematically suggests, but an otherworldly concept. Didion ascribes it an ineffable nature as well. “And so, now that it is on the line between us that I lack all temperament for paradise, real or facsimile, I am going to find it difficult to tell you precisely how and why Hawaii moves me, touches me, saddens and troubles and engages my imagination,” she confessed, “what it is in the air that will linger long after I have forgotten the smell of pikake and pineapple and the way the palms sound in the trade winds.”[12]

Amidst the Vietnam War, the island’s ties to European and American imperial ambitions and global conflict seemed overwhelming, but according to Didion, native Hawaiians viewed war differently. WWII “cracked the spine” of the Big Five (a handful of families/companies that dominated Hawaiian business and social affairs), opened up a closed economy, and brought new people and new ideas from the mainland. “War is viewed with a curious ambivalence in Hawaii because the largest part of its population interprets war, however unconsciously, as a force for good, an instrument of social progress.”[13] For Hawaiians, the war released them from the bondage of sugar plantation feudalism and brought investment. Nearly a third of the students attending the elite Punahou School, once reserved for missionaries and their children’s children, came from Asian homes. Local boy turned millionaire Chinn Ho started at the bottom and worked his way into the power elite. Whites prided themselves on the island’s cultural “melting pot.” As one woman informed Didion some white Hawaiians did mingle with local Asians. “The uncle of a friend of mine … has Chinn Ho to his house all the time,” one woman confided – akin to “’some of my best friends are Rothschilds,’” noted Didion. Even progressives used dodgy logic when one island teacher grabbed the arm of a pretty Chinese girl exclaiming to Didion, “’You wouldn’t have seen this here before the war. Look at those eyes.”[14]

In fact one wonders whether or not Matthew Weiner was somehow referencing Didion’s work. After all, Didion documented the young men barely out of their teens swarming the bars and brothels of Honolulu’s Hotel Street: “And the sailors get drunk because they are no longer in Des Moines and not yet in Danang.”[15] Don’s pre-dawn encounter with PFC Dinkins in the Royal Hawaiian Bar and his serving as witness to the private’s beach wedding represents an ostensibly more wholesome image.

“The Royal Hawaiian is a lush tourist fantasy, and therefore a gorgeous lie,” Molly Lambert argued in a recent recap of the show. “For years after World War II ended you could still spot the telltale barbed wire on the beach . . . History is erased and blocked out with electric-blue cocktails.” Yet, Didion found this history not erased but all too present. The solemn visit to Pearl Harbor and the 19,000 dead resting in the enormous sunken crater above Honolulu known as National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific serve as only two examples. At the National Memorial Cemetery, the dead from the Vietnam War had begun to arrive. “The graves filled last week and the week before that and even last month do not yet have stones, only plastic identification cards, streaked by the mist and splattered with mud,” she wrote. “The earth is raw and trampled in that part of the crater, but the grass grows fast, up there in the rain cloud.”[16]


Moderation in an age of revolution sometimes feels like stasis. In Slouching Toward Bethlehem and the White Album, Didion admits to not understanding the importance or significance of 1968. “[W]riting has not yet helped me to see what it means,” she confessed. She wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, for which more than a few people took her to task, but she kept her justification direct and simple: “The Post is extremely receptive to what the writer wants to do, pays enough for him [or her] to be able to do it right and is meticulous about not changing copy.”[17] Hardly the words of a revolutionary, Didion sounded simultaneously like a person clinging to solid ground during a storm and great writer trying to make sense of a confusing historical moment.

One can only hope, somewhere out there another Didion lurks, observing and documenting the bewildering pace of twenty first century life. Revolution nor retrenchment, just a voice that gives us insight. “Even the financial disclosure statements that political bloggers were required to post hadn’t stemmed the suspicion that people’s opinions weren’t really their own,” one character in Jennifer Egan’s recent novel A Trip from the Goon Squad thinks to himself. “‘Who’s paying you?’ was a retort that might follow any bout of enthusiasm, along with laughter – who would let themselves be bought?”[18] Even if she never bought into the revolution, nor did she sell out. Didion’s voice remained her own, a voice that even today instructs us to consider what our times mean and where we are going.

[1] Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, (New York, Random House, 2005), pg. xvii.

[2] Jeremi Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente, (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005).

[3] Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1968) pg. 84.

[4] Joan Didion, The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1968) pg. 100.

[5] Ibid, 101.

[6] Joan Didion, The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1968) pg. 99.

[7] Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, pg. 75.

[8] Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, 77.

[9] Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, 78.

[10] Ibid, pgs. 79-83.

[11] Joan Didion, The White Album, pgs. 38-39.

[12] Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, pg. 188.

[13] Ibid, 198.

[14] Ibid, 209.

[15] Ibid, 194.

[16] Ibid, 193-194.

[17] Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, pgs. xii-xiii.

[18] Jennifer Egan, A Trip from the Goon Squad, (New York: Random House, 2011)