A Series of Female Revolutionaries: Joan Didion

3 min read

Ty Deery ’22

Contributing Writer

The work of American writer Joan Didion spans nearly six decades. She began her career at Vogue in 1956 after winning an essay competition sponsored by the magazine during her senior year at UC Berkeley. Didion published her first book, Run, River as an homage to her home state of California in 1963 while still working at the magazine. In the years that followed, Didion wrote articles for the Saturday Evening Post, published novels, penned political commentary, and compiled books of essays. Her relentless activity established Didion as one of America’s finest literary talents to ever put pen to paper. 

Didion grew up idolizing the work of Ernest Hemmingway. However, she soon became disabused of the prototypical image of the male novelist. She said of Hemmingway and others in an interview for The Paris Review, “Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts.” Didion created a space for female novelist that did not exist when she began writing in the 1950’s and 60’s. Her relationship to feminism as a movement is nuanced however, perhaps only because she was ahead of her time. Didion’s primary complaint with second wave feminism was the lack of intersectionality in the movement. Although Didion undoubtedly took for granted some of the doors that were opened for her by the feminist movement, she opened many more during her career.  

Didion’s essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) was hailed by The New York Times Book Review as “the finest magazine pieces published by anyone in this country in recent years. Now that Truman Capote has pronounced that such work may achieve the stature of ‘art,’ perhaps it is possible for this collection to be recognized as it should be: not as a better or worse example of what some people call ‘mere journalism,’ but as a rich display of some of the best prose written today in this country.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem details San Francisco at the height of the counterculture movement. The unravelling of the communal society which had momentarily governed The Golden City in the late 60’s left the children of the hippie movement holding on to threads. Didion’s signature style of inhabiting a space between dispassionate journalist, and empathetic storyteller is clearly defined in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The societal rot responsible for the necessary creation of a counterculture movement is painted with the cruel brush strokes of a realist. However, the predicament of the children left behind by the movement’s fleeting passage is treated with tender, pitying compassion. 

Joan Didion is complex. Her whole person is completely vulnerable and visible in every piece she writes. She unapologetically staked out the novel as equally belonging to women as it did to men. She made no attempts to make her work more masculine, or to hide her voice. Didion wrote heartbreaking material about motherhood, and the death of her daughter and in doing so exposed a side of femininity that is rarely discussed in popular culture. Didion’s life’s work has been an exercise in demolishing gender stereotypes about what women can and should write.  

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    Didion’s chief complaint with feminism wasn’t its lack of intersectionality; that’s a 2021 retcon of her work. She derided the women’s movement as paradoxical and utopian, and thought the large majority of its adherents were bored middle class women seeking romance (in the broad sense). In addition, while Didion was a trailblazer for, and defied expectations of, women writers, it is important to remember that these were not the objects of Didion’s writing. She didn’t regard herself as a “woman writer.” Her confessional writing style, though frequently associated now with expressive feminine literature, was for her in service of detached, honest analysis. It was Didion’s objectivity, intellectual curiosity, and willingness to plumb the depths of human brokenness and depravity that she’d likely want to be remembered for, not her complicated relationship with feminism.

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