In post-World War II American letters, Joan Didion (DIHD-ee-on) emerged as a prominent voice. She was born in 1934 to Frank Reese and Eduene Jerret Didion. As she noted in various essays, Didion was a child who developed a strong sense of place, in terms of both heredity and landscape. Her ancestors were among the unfortunate Donner-Reed party, and she represents a fifth generation of a family which has lived in the Sacramento Valley, a location which figures prominently in many of her works.
From 1942 to 1944, Didion’s family followed her father on four moves to different Air Corps bases in Washington, North Carolina, and Colorado. Didion’s sense of dislocation was acute, even after the family returned to Sacramento, and the ten-year-old girl began writing stories. A loner through junior high school, Didion spent much of her time reading writers such as Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway, both of whom made lasting impressions on her. She matriculated to C. K. McClatchy Senior High School and later attended the University of California, Berkeley, from 1952 to 1956.
At Berkeley, Didion majored in English literature, and she later claimed that many of her adult attitudes were shaped by her experiences in college. In 1956, during her senior year, Didion won first place in a Vogue writing contest with an essay about William Wilson Wurster, a San Francisco architect, and took as her prize a job writing merchandising and promotional copy with the magazine. Under the tutelage of her editor, Allene Talmey, Didion began writing feature pieces in 1961 for Vogue and other magazines.
Eventually homesick, Didion began writing her first novel, Run River, and resigned her full-time position with the magazine. In 1964 she married John Gregory Dunne, then a writer with Time, and later that year the couple moved to Los Angeles. In 1966, they adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo, and during this period, in spite of marital difficulties, Didion steadily wrote articles, a number of which she collected and published in 1968 as Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Two years later, Didion published her critically well-received second novel, Play It as It Lays, which was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1971, she and her family moved to the beach community of Trancas, where they remained for the next seven years, a literarily productive period for both Didion and her husband. In 1971, Didion and Dunne collaborated on the first of the many screenplays they would coauthor.
In 1977, A Book of Common Prayer, an instant best-seller, was published, and two years later, The White Album, a second collection of essays dealing with the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, was published. In 1983, Didion published her first extended piece of nonfiction, Salvador, and followed that in the next year with a fourth novel, Democracy, a tale of political and sexual intrigue. In 1987, she published her second extended work of nonfiction, Miami, and in 1988 she and her husband moved back to New York.
Didion’s third, long-awaited collection of essays appeared in 1992 under the title After Henry, and like her earlier works it stirred controversy. She dedicated the collection to her former editor, Henry Robbins, and another writer, “each of whom did time with its publisher.” The publisher was Didion’s own, Simon and Schuster, with which she was dissatisfied and from which she sought a release. The collection, like Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is organized around locations–Washington, D.C., California, and New York–and reflects the bicoastal life she and her husband had been living in the 1980’s.
In her 1996 novel The Last Thing He Wanted, a journalist covering the 1984 presidential campaign quits her assignment, visits her sick father in Florida, takes his place running guns to the Nicaraguan Contras, and finds herself in the middle of an international conspiracy. In Political Fictions, a collection of eight essays from The New York Review, Didion unmasks the manipulation of American politics from the first Bush administration in 1988 to the crisis of the 2000 election.
While Didion’s works are highly individualistic, certain themes and concerns appear repeatedly. For example, in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion coins the term “atomization” to describe the sense of disruption and chaos that plagues contemporary American life. In essay after essay, Didion reveals a society cut off from tradition, ethics, and any coherent sense of the past. The subjects of various essays become living parallels for the metaphors from William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” which Didion offers as one of two revealing epigraphs for the collection.
In all of Didion’s work, fiction and nonfiction, there emerges a palpable sense of dread, often a free-floating anxiety that cannot be appeased or eradicated. In the beginning of The White Album, in a moment of uncomfortable candor, Didion shares a psychiatric report of her that reveals her pessimistic worldview; the ensuing essays stand as eloquent testimony for such oppressive feelings. While she never formally acknowledges it, this attitude is profoundly existential and forms the core of her literary and personal vision.
In her novels, the heroines are invariably of a certain type–thin, often frail, frequently neurasthenic, and usually victimized by their friends, lovers, and the world in general. They are characters for whom the ordinary promises of life–happiness, success, love–have somehow failed; often, like Maria Wyeth in Play It as It Lays, they search desperately and unsuccessfully for the reasons for this failure. At the same time, though, these women reveal a gritty determination to continue with life. Maria, for example, refuses escape through suicide and continues her search for meaning and fulfillment.
While the vision Didion presents is an uncomfortable one, there is no questioning her honesty and determination. As she reveals in her essay “Why I Write,” Didion is committed to writing itself, which for her, in the most literal sense, is a continuing act of discovery. Her prose is animated by a scrupulous honesty and a hard particularity. Much like her inspiration, Hemingway, Didion fills her works with carefully wrought sentences and clear, precise images. With each work, Didion reasserts her integral place in contemporary American literature and demonstrates a remarkably distinct talent.