Joan Didion, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, establishes her unease with the disconnect between her memories of California and the pseudo-culture that she believes has replaced it. Her essays reflect both the nostalgia and appreciation for landscape that are characteristic of Romanticism, as well as the prevalence of subjectivity which dominates modernism. Didion, like many romantics, emphasizes the importance of individuality and emotion over logic. She uses the Gothic development of scene to reveal greater themes—nostalgia and resistance to change. In her sentimental descriptions of home, California, and of writing, she reveals a search for herself.
The original Romantic period grew out of the growing distaste for industrialism and the dogged rationalism of the Enlightenment. The Romantics such as Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley, often spurned Newtonian physics and other sciences that sought to define the natural world in terms of mathematical laws. Instead of logic, the Romantics embraced creativity, celebrated individual genius and self-discovery, believed in the purity of the child, and revered nature almost to the point of Pantheism. Mary Shelley, in her novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, intensifies Victor Frankenstein’s guilt after his monster murders Frankenstein’s younger brother, by complementing Frankenstein’s grief with the sudden fierceness of an approaching storm (Shelley, 76). Often Romantic painters, especially those from the German Sturm und Drang movement, placed the landscape as the dominate figure, leaving the characters dwarfed by the elements. Similarly, Didion develops and often personifies landscapes and natural forces giving them emotion and character, consequently leaving the people she describes as an afterthought. In Dreamers of the Golden Dream, Didion constructs a feeling of inevitable disaster out of her description of the San Bernardino Valley, which, through her lens, becomes “haunted by the Mojave” and “devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind,” a place where “every voice seems a scream (Didion, 3).” She continues to develop the scene by describing the type of people who live there, establishing a foundation for her dislike of the budding pseudo-culture. In much of Didion’s writing, the characters are a product of the scene and the scene itself is merely a melding of the facts and her opinions. Even her description of what she considers “home” centers more on the landscape in which she grew up than the people she grew up with. When Didion goes to see her family, their seemingly mundane discussions confuse her husband, who fails to understand that “when [they] talk about sale-leasebacks and right-of-way condemnations [they] are talking in code about the things [they] like best, the yellow fields and the cotton woods and the rivers rising and falling and the mountain roads closing when the heavy snow comes in (Didion, 165).” In an interview with the Paris Review, Didion hints that her extensive use of scenery comes from the influence of landscape and atmosphere in her own life. “[She] grew up in a dangerous landscape” and believes that “people are more affected than they know by landscapes and weather (Didion, The Paris Review).” Didion derives her sense of belonging more from California’s natural features and the resulting culture than from individual people.
The Romantic emphasis on individuality and self-discovery, which plagues Frankenstein’s monster throughout Shelley’s novel, plays a prominent role in many of Didion’s essays, in which Didion explores her own writing, her records of significant moments, as well as the meaning of “home,” in an expression of her individuality. As she rifles through the pages of an old notebook, she discovers an unusual collection of sentences, records, and memories. Wondering at “what kind of Magpie” compiled her loose collection of observations, Didion reflects on the meaning of her notes. She realizes that “notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always , transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’ We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful penseés; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, and indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker (Didion, 136).” Didion’s notebooks reflect the personal functionality of her writing. She writes about the world, collecting information, events, details about other people, and strands of conversations, but from her observations about the outside world, she gains knowledge about herself.
The Romantics valued writing and art imbued with emotion rather than dry factual accounts, and the Modernist movement in journalism, similarly, blurs the line between objectivity and subjectivity. The original European modernist movement emerged after the Victorian era. Modernist artists during that time demonstrated restraint and often minimalism in art and architecture, centering much of their work on clean, geometric, and utilitarian designs. Modernist writers, such as James Joyce, often wrote in stream of consciousness and employed subjectivity like the Romantics, but were also concerned with the technical aspects of writing, unlike the Romantics. Overall, the European Modernists rejected the gaudy, overly-involved art of the Victorian era, resulting in the minimalistic characteristics of modernist art. Slouching Towards Bethlehem reflects Didion’s tendency to shape her observations according to her perspective, which makes her a modernist writer both in the original sense, and the in terms of the newer modern journalism movement. Her social-conservatism demonstrates an interesting parallel between early modernists’ rejection of the flashy, overly-ornate or exotic culture of the Victorian era. In the essay Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, Didion depicts California’s San Bernardino Valley as culturally bereft by choosing to emphasize sites which hold commercialized, vaguely exotic, cultural references, such as a motel with “nineteen stucco tepees: ‘SLEEP IN A WIGWAM—GET MORE FOR YOUR WAMPUM’ ” or “Kapu Kai Restaurant-Bar and Coffee shop (Didion, 5).” Although her description remains factual, in the following sentences Didion demonstrates her subjectivity, blatantly calling the scene a “trail of an intention gone haywire, the flotsam of the New California (Didion, 5).” Through her commentary as well as her choice of details, Didion conveys her belief that California has been disinherited of its original culture. As she turns objective events into social commentary she attempts “then to close the gulf between herself and an objectified world and her method of doing so is what comes closest to home: her subjectivity (What Followed, 152).”
Some have criticized Didion’s subjectivity as well as her use of first person. Didion even stated that, in writing “you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture…The writer is always tricking someone into listening to the dream (Didion, Paris Review Interview.)” Her subjectivity renders Slouching Torwards Bethlehem less factual, distancing her writing from conventional journalism, and she admits that she lacks “an instinct for reality” which she sometimes envies but does not possess (Didion, 133). However, in the style of modern journalism, she manages to capture real events, to give us an accurate picture of them, but also to explore and display her own opinions.
While her choice of details and unique descriptions make this collection of essays interesting and enjoyable, her opinionated commentary is more suited for novels or an auto-biography than conventional journalism. Many of the essays in Slouching Torwards Bethlehem even seem slightly autobiographical because Didion relies so heavily on her own memories and opinions regarding California. Stephen Kern, in his book The Culture of Time and Space:1880-1918, discusses the beliefs of Sigmund Freud—one of the early European modernists and one of the fathers of psychology—who argued that the earliest memories are formative but are hardest to access because they are repressed. According to Freud, unhealthy obsessions and feelings of anxiety or depression can be relieved by releasing and analyzing memories from the subconscious. Didion’s access to her earliest memories comes from her exploration of landscape and of scenes. She untangles her earliest memories by writing down her thoughts about scenes, shaping her details as she deems appropriate, and in doing so, addresses her fear of change—her fear that the years are eroding the Californian culture that she pines for. Her writing unravels nostalgia, longing, and an uneasy sense that her vision of California—which she identifies with as “home”—is being slowly replaced by gaudy, mass-produced culture. Ultimately, Didion is “the heroine…surveying the grounds of her country place” as “the mechanical monster,” replaces the culture she understands and she loses touch with who she used to be (Didion, 148). She reflects in Notes of a Native Daughter:
“Perhaps in retrospect this has been a story not about Sacramento at all, but about the things we lose and the promises we break as we grow older; perhaps I have been playing out unawares the Margaret in the poem:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for (Didion, 186).”
Didion’s subjectivity, enhanced by Romanticism and Modern Journalism, renders Slouching Torwards Bethlehem an exploration not just of changing cultures or of separate observations, but of who she is and who she used to be.