Ross Douthat reminded me of that this morning with his column, “Try Canceling Joan Didion.”
The headline — which by itself made me smile, before even reading the column itself — is framed as a challenge to the self-righteous mobs of cancel culture. Noting that there’s some rumbling about canceling Norman Mailer, he snorts with derision at the idea of attacking such an easy and obvious target. Want a challenge?, he asks. Try Didion.
He notes that this may be difficult. After all, she has been so recently absolved by the ideologically correct following her death. The official story is that she may once have been the sort of confused creature who would compose a hymn of praise to John Wayne, but she later got her mind right and pounded the Reaganites, etc. A lost lamb recovered, in other words.
But Douthat notes that her best work — sharper, more focused, more brilliant — was in the ’60s when she was casting a jaded eye upon the hippies. More than that, he suggests it’s an insult to such a brilliant writer to suggest that she would ever have consented to be confined within the narrow fold of either of the two (and you’re only allowed two, remember!) sides in our perpetual cultural-political wars.
I suspect he’s right on the first point — that her earlier stuff was better — and not on the basis of ideology. While I knew a lot less when I was young, I was a better writer. This is a pretty standard pattern among members of our species. The best writers are those who are able to see things clearly and maturely when they’re young enough to write about it in an impressive manner. Didion was one of those.
And I have little doubt that he’s right on the second — that neither faction within the “ones and zeroes” crowd has any right to claim her as one of their own.
That I have any doubt and merely “suspect” he’s right is a function of the fact that I am a Didion neophyte. I only discovered her a couple of years back. I had always wanted to read her Slouching Towards Bethlehem collection for the simple reason that, like most people who have read it, I love that Yeats poem. I may have mentioned this before.
I thought I bought it and downloaded it to the Kindle app on my iPad, although Amazon says I “borrowed” it. Whatever. The point is, it’s been on my device for three years now, and occasionally I have dipped into it — say, when I’m in a doctor’s waiting room and it looks like I’ll be there for a bit.
From the first essay I read, I was rather excited. “I’ve found another Tom Wolfe!” I thought, congratulating myself. Not only in a literary sense, but politically. While I didn’t think about it one way or the other when I was adoring his stuff in the ’60s and ’70s (I was too busy just digging the writing), the man had a genius for puncturing the pretensions of the left, which was so dominant in our culture at the time.
Were celebrated writers allowed to do that? Well, yes, if they were as wonderful as Wolfe. I’ve always enjoyed this anecdote from Acid Test, in which Ken Kesey plays a role with which Wolfe no doubt identified….
… blast it. Google Books won’t show me the page I want. Well, here’s the page that leads up to it:
The good bit comes right after that. Kesey shows up for the antiwar rally and takes the stage, and instead of delivering a lecture on American “imperialism” or whatever, he takes out a harmonica and plays “Home on the Range,” delivering a few cryptic remarks that seems to dismiss the whole event in a way that kind of pops the event’s balloon. (Or so I remember it. I guess I need to run down my tattered paperback copy, wherever it is.)
Who asked this bastard, indeed? But why not ask him, they would have said in self-defense! He’s a writer! And a significant figure in the counterculture! Surely he’s one of us!
No doubt Wolfe got similar reactions when he wrote such things as Radical Chic.
But that didn’t make him the right’s boy, any more than Didion’s later work made her the left’s. Or so I gather from what I’ve read. They were both too bright and perceptive for that.
Douthat bases his judgment on “many years of reading the essays of Joan Didion.”
Well, I need to read more of her myself. I suspect I’ll enjoy it, as I enjoy anyone who refuses to become a plaster saint of either of our two narrow-minded, monolithic tribes.
I guess I need to add to that reading list…