When asked what they knew about Joan Didion, a not insignificant number of people might mention her famous essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” It is the eponymous essay of Didion’s 1968 collection, the first non-fiction collection of her career.
The essay ends with the oft-repeated description of Susan, a five-year-old in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. She wants a bicycle for Christmas, likes ice cream, Coca-Cola, and the beach — and gets high on acid. Didion describes the domestic setup, and her own discomfort: she “falter[s] at the key words” when asking her if she has other friends on drugs. Didion immortalized the scene of Sixties freedom gone wrong; there is no utopia here.
Other Didion fans might be drawn to her essay “Goodbye to All That.” Didion describes the pain and anguish of being “very young” in New York, and writes eloquently about the naivety of youth, which lets you believe that “nothing like this…has ever happened to anyone before.”
Others would choose different essays, from those about Joan Baez and Bob Dylan to The Doors or John Wayne. Or her writings on Californian identity: Didion “got it” better than John Steinbeck.
Still more Didion readers might prefer to mention her memoirs. Didion had a blindingly difficult personal life. In The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), she wrote about the experience of husband John Gregory Dunne dying from a heart attack in 2003 whilst her adopted daughter Quintana Roo was in hospital with septic shock. Blue Nights (2011) tells the story of Quintana’s long decline from a brain injury.
Didion also authored brilliant fiction, from the brittle, fragile women of Play It As it Lays (1970) and Run River (1963) to the politics of Democracy (1984) and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996).
There was a Didion for every reader — and she wrote something for every thought. The breadth of her reach has become clear in the wake of her death, age 87, from Parkinson’s Disease. Twitter is awash with people sharing what Didion meant to them. Her personal reach is unavoidable.
It is, of course, this personal lens that was the hallmark of the New Journalism of the 1960s and ’70s. Among Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson, Didion was the only woman to, in Mailer’s words, make the narrator one of “the elements in which the reader would finally assess the experience.”
Didion defined this personal focus much better than Mailer. In her 1966 essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” she wrote, “My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.” A decade later in “Why I Write” (republished in her 2021 collection Let Me Tell You What I Mean), Didion tells her readers that “writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people.” For Didion, there is no writing without I-ing.
Given its intensely personal nature, it might be shocking that her writing has had such a wide reach. But that would be to conflate a personal focus with a self-indulgent one. Didion did not record her own feelings, emotions, or discomfort to make herself the subject of her essays, but to better demonstrate the lens through which the reader is reaching this subject. There is no Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album (1979), or Miami (1987) worth reading without the presence of their small, fiercely stylish, incongruously shy author.
It is this individual Didion that should not get lost amidst the outpouring of grief for her work, her America, and her moment in time. But the difficulty of writing about Didion is that she has, without fail, already said what needs to be said. In her moving essay “Last Words” (1998), she mourns Ernest Hemingway: “This was a man to whom words mattered. He worked at them, he understood them, he got inside them.”
Well, twenty-three years later, and mourning a different American titan of letters, all that can really be said is “This was a woman to whom words mattered.” She worked at them, understood them, and got inside all of us.
Francesca Peacock is the deputy online editor of The Critic Magazine.