Slouching Towards Bethlehem

ISBN: 0374521727
ISBN 13: 9780374521721
By: Joan Didion

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Reader's Thoughts


Surprisingly, I found the title essay to be the weak link in this collection: too meandering and alarmist, in my opinion. Most of the others were sharper and often wonderful, though, especially the one about her girlish infatuation with John Wayne, another about the pleasures and neuroses involved with keeping a private journal, and another about being young and naïve in New York City (during the bittersweet twenty-something years when you're giddy about your expansive future and its myriad possibilities, before your plans get rerouted and often completely swept away — for better or worse — by reality's alternate schemes). Despite functioning largely as a 1960s zeitgeist-capturer, this collection is wise and well-written enough to avoid seeming outmoded; thoughtful readers will find plenty to appreciate here.


Joan Didion is a pleasure to read. I picked up this book because of the essay on keeping a journal but was captured by the essay "Slouching towards Bethlehem" named after the Yeats poem. The essay concerns San Francisco in the 60s and the powers growing here or the "beast". I am moved by her language and insight and her way of circling and sliding up to truths.

Hansen Wendlandt

When the whole world seems to be falling apart, a light tends to shine on those parts of your own life that tremble with the least stability and most ambiguous significance. For Joan Didion, in this collection that rings nearly as relevant today as it did initially in 1968, she shares gracefully from her scarred history, as she describes our world decomposing with moribund beauty—-a pessimistic aesthete. Hope exists, though it is neither revolutionary nor inevitable; any “rough” peace for one’s own soul or society is merely “slouching” along without urgency or sign. The preface ends with this warning: “writers are always selling someone out.” (xiv) Whether she means in this case that she has been a bit too truthful about her many interviewees, or too deprecating about her own self, her writing feels as close and revealing as a great story-teller, while maintaining the tone and distance of a misanthropic critic. Didion is a master at holding the reader’s attention with comedy, both clever and dark, before delivering her most poignant messages, both personal and philosophical. Especially the short stories in the first two sections are absolute must-reads, with enough memorable quotes to demand a bookside pen.

Quinn Slobodian

I realize what is disturbing about these essays and what leaves the acrid aftertaste on the leftist tongue about Didion. And I don't think it has much to do with her relatively measured take on the drug-addled Haight-Ashbury scene. For better, but admittedly and sadly often for worse, the radical leftist imagination has been characterized by a willingness and a desire to leap out of our skin into the skin of others, to experience a jump of radical empathy in which the concerns of "they" become the concerns of "we," to see through many eyes the way Virginia Woolf allows us to do. Which is why, especially if we are white, we vilify our roots because we often see in our own family histories, a palimpsest of larger histories of injustice and oppression. We have a melancholic view of history, in which moments of utopian potential are consistently being snuffed out in the name of "order" and "tradition," the very values, in other words, which Didion spent much of her time in the 1960s eulogizing. She is writing funeral speeches for the passing of milieus whose only apparent meaningfulness is that they are connected to her own biography. Why we should lament the disappearance of the pathetic stagings and affectations of a dusty fake aristocracy is not clear to me, why we should take the survivalist grit of the pioneer generation as ethical models for the present even less so. The Indians are amongst us, protect your own, defend your lifestyle against all costs. These are the imperatives of the Right, old and new, Goldwater and Bush. Circle the wagons against the strange and the new. I admire Didion for the razorblade incisiveness of her critique but her unwillingness to open her subjectivity up to the world makes it difficult to think of her as an ally.


The wry and casual elegance of Didion's prose style remains quite special despite the endless attempts at imitation in the decades that have followed; she also has that rare talent of being able to make you think you're reading something lightweight, even disposable and then at the last minute flooring you by unleashing an unexpected torrent of significance and resonance.But as lovely and thoroughly enjoyable as these essays were, I will always be grateful for a disclosure Didion makes in the collection's short preface: "I am not sure what more I could tell you about these pieces. I could tell you that I liked doing some of them more than others, but that all of them were hard for me to do, and took more time than perhaps they were worth; that there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic." I read these several sentences at a particularly dark moment early on in my thesis writing process where I also found myself suddenly unable to string together a simple sentence, despite the fact I was writing on topic I have been thinking about for years and years and am ready to share my thoughts on. I was ready to write: and suddenly couldn't.Needless to say I wrote this out on a index card and stuck it above the wall on my desk, and now it serves as kind of a talisman, the reminder I often need of the sheer hard work of writing and that even the very best--even those who give the impression of such effortlessness and ease of articulation--must valiantly struggle sometimes too. The next day I started writing again. And while there is much to appreciate about this book, I will always treasure it for that.


Good lord in heaven. I was transported in time and place in a way I didn't think possible from a collection of essays. If there was some way I could hop into my car, point it west, and drive to the California of the 1960s I'd already be on the road to bask in the culture, the uncertainty and the weirdness of the times. I can't wait to read more Didion.

Paul Haspel

Slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, the twenty essays of Slouching Towards Bethlehem develop Joan Didion’s dominant impression regarding life in late-20th-century America generally and 1960’s California specifically; and that dominant impression is grim indeed.The California of Didion’s essays is a place where a mild climate and a picturesque landscape conceal a social mindset of fear and intolerance, as when a Salinas matron in “Where the Kissing Never Stops” challenges the very existence of Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence by saying, “We wonder what kind of people would go to a school like this….Why they aren’t out working and making money” (p. 42). “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” tells the story of a socially ambitious San Bernardino woman who entered into an unhappy marriage, drifted into an affair with a socially prominent attorney, and was eventually convicted of murdering her husband for insurance money; in characteristically flowing prose, Didion describes the San Bernardino setting of the essay as “not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves” (p. 3). Celebrity culture is also a core subject of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. John Wayne: A Love Song” situates Wayne’s legendary status as Western-film icon against his final battle with cancer: “[W]hen John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams. It did not seem possible that such a man could fall ill, could carry within him that most inexplicable and ungovernable of diseases. The rumor struck some obscure anxiety, threw our very childhoods into question” (p. 30). “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38,” named for the location of Howard Hughes’s “communications center,” moves to a consideration of the reasons for the contemporary fascination with Hughes’s famed reclusiveness: “That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes…tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake…but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy” (p. 71).And the title essay, a tough-minded examination of the hippie drug culture of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, begins with a direct reference to Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” the poem that inspired the book’s title (“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”), and offers Didion’s most direct evocation of the book’s themes:”The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers….It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.” (pp. 84-85)Moving from San Bernardino to Salinas, from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to San Francisco and Alcatraz, from Hollywood to Watts, from Death Valley to the Central Valley, most of the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem focus in a similar way on California as landscape of alienation, where the bright sun shines down on desperate people. It is not a happy message, but Didion communicates it exceedingly well, and captures poignantly the tense and fearful mood of late-1960’s America.

Patrick O'Neil

Everyone I know who reads a lot or considers themselves writers has told me to read Joan Didion. I always cringe and go the other way when too many people tell me to do the same thing. I’m not sure where, or when, this resistance to Didion started. But it has somehow manifested itself in my psyche. During my first semester at Antioch University, Rob Roberge, in one of his brilliant seminars, made a few comical references to her. Not her writing, but of Didion, or more precisely the cult of Didion – much to the disapproval of my fellow students – so furthering the hype that I figured I had to finally discover just what all the brouhaha was about. Didion can write. Her descriptive narratives that make up the chapters in Slouching Towards Bethlehem prove that she can. Yet it is the “her” in her descriptive narratives that I tend to not want to experience. Maybe I’m just too jaded with preconceived ideas, or I’ve set my expectations too high. Whatever the case, I can appreciate the craft – yet find her attitude/ego too much to wade through. Funny, but this is probably what people say about my writing. Hmmmmmmm.......


“...I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”I loved these essays. I could go on quoting Didion on and on, there are just too many great passages, great insights from her.The truth is that I am full of envy. I envy Joan Didion’s facility with words. In a vernacular that is erudite without being stuffy, poetic without being overly romantic, extremely precise and sharp, she distill her thoughts skilfully. I actually listen to it in audio format, and I know I am going to listen to one or another essay when I need something short to amuse me. But I am also going to buy the book because I want to highlight some passages, and because I want to give my own cadence to her voice. Diane Keaton narrated the version I listened and I did enjoy her voice. She sounded youthful, and made Didion’s monologues less cultured or intellectual than I perceive Didion to be. Which, surprisingly, I felt worked well. It gave Didion’s thoughts a new layer, more accessible and amicable. This collection is said to capture the essence of 1960’s America, and I think it does. We have John Wayne, Joan Baez, San Francisco and hippies… yet, the personal essays will stay with me longer: self-respect, immorality and the power of going home are obviously more material to me than historical commentary on America.I don’t know what I will read next, because it will be such a letdown after this book. I feel I am coming down from a high, and right now all I wanted is more of Didion’s words. Like a junkie I may just start from the beginning again. Someone please help me!


Back in May, in an Essay Mondays post, I kicked myself for waiting so long acquaint myself with the wonders of Joan Didion's writing. After that post I lost no time in acquiring Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a classic collection of her early investigative reporting and personal examinations published in magazines from the early to late 1960s; and having now read it, my admiration for Didion has only increased. The bulk of the collection consists of mood pieces featuring the California and Nevada landscapes of the mid-1960s, along with a few of their famous and infamous inhabitants: a suburban housewife who murders her depressed dentist husband one dark night in 1964; a paranoid Communist bookstore owner obsessed with security; the distressed residents of the Carmel Valley who objected to Joan Baez's Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. Although I think of Didion as much more contemporary than the classic LA noir authors, her portraits of California's seedy suburban underbelly and the sad glitz of Vegas made me feel I was next door to a Raymond Chandler landscape. She captures the dirty mythos of place, so pronounced in the American West, and combines it with a wry, reserved wit, quiet with a hint of steel underneath, and an extremely keen eye for a memorable line or an odd juxtaposition. I love this passage on Vegas, not only for its evocation of the Rat Pack-era Strip, but for how accurate it remains as an explanation of the bizarre fascination of the American Babylon: Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies' room attendants with amyl nitrate poppers in their uniform pockets. Almost everyone notes that there is no "time" in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future (no Las Vegas casino, however, has taken the obliteration of the ordinary time sense quite so far as Harold' Club in Reno, which for a while issued, at odd intervals in the day and night, mimeographed "bulletins" carrying news from the world outside); neither is there any logical sense of where one is. One is standing on a highway in the middle of a vast hostile desert looking at an eighty-foot sign which blinks "STARDUST" or "CAESAR'S PALACE." Yes, but what does that explain? This geographical implausibility reinforces the sense that what happens there has no connection with "real" life; Nevada cities like Reno and Carson are ranch towns, Western towns, places behind which there is some historical imperative. But Las Vegas seems to exist only in the eye of the beholder. All of which makes it an extraordinarily stimulating and interesting place, but an odd one in which to want to wear a candlelight satin Priscilla of Boston wedding dress with Chantilly lace insets, tapered sleeves and a detachable modified train.One gets the impression that, whenever Didion observes a tableau, she immediately starts to tell a story about it, and that the story has both the weight of accumulated legend and allegory behind it, and a bubble-pricking sharpness of detailed observation. This potent mix is applied to people as well as places (John Wayne, Howard Hughes, Joan Baez) although the people she discusses are always rooted in the place where she encounters them: a dusty, latter-day film shoot outside Mexico City, a locked, hunkering compound in the L.A. suburbs; a ranch in the Carmel Valley. The soul of these essays is in the places where they occur, just as Didion's own soul, as she explores in "Notes from a Native Daughter," is rooted in a vanishing Sacramento. Indeed, writing about the land and its inhabitants is, for Didion, frequently a way of looking at herself, and of examining American culture more generally: how (and why) do we choose our living legends? Why are we obsessed by certain stories? What does it say about us? Toward the end of the book's first section is the long essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem": simultaneously a portrait of the hippie scene on Haight-Ashbury in 1967, and a heartfelt cry out against a perceived lack of meaning in the world. Didion writes in the Preface that she was crushed to find, upon publication, that readers perceived only the first mode and not the second: she had written a piece on coming to terms with disorder in the universe, and her readers encountered simple documentary on street drugs and teenage runaways. Personally, I think the essay works on both levels: I am glad to have such an evocative portrait of a now-vanished "scene," and I also recognize the all-too-universal darkness and chaos of the human condition in these stories of children who feed acid to their own babies. I was particularly impressed, in this piece, Didion's understated take on New Journalism: she is definitely a "presence" in this essay, and reading between the lines one can tell that she, the speaker, may be going through a pretty rough time herself, but she never plays up her own role. She acknowledges it, and lets it go. Norris and I are standing around the Panhandle and Norris is telling me how it is all set up for a friend to take me to Big Sur. I say what I really want to do is spend a few days with Norris and his wife and the rest of the people in their house. Norris says it would be a lot easier if I'd take some acid. I say I'm unstable. Norris says all right, anyway, grass, and he squeezes my hand.      One day Norris asks me how old I am. I tell him I am thirty-two. It takes a few minutes, but Norris rises to it. "Don't worry," he says at last. "There's old hippies too."I loved Didion's portraits of the shiny new California and the vanishing California of old, on self-important think tanks, dusty Valley towns, and suburban misfits who bought into the dream, but the real high point of the collection for me was "On Keeping a Notebook," one of the only pieces in this collection without explicit ties to place (although of course it gets worked in there somehow). In it, Didion relates her practice of recording seemingly "useless" tidbits in her notebook—disconnected scraps of overheard conversation, details of a scene that strike her, for whatever reason, as evocative. One might assume, she writes (in fact even she has sometimes assumed), that she does this in order to have a factual record of what she has been doing or thinking, or that she is accumulating bits of dialogue that may come in useful for other writing projects down the road. But when she interrogates herself about the real function of her notebook, she acknowledges that it accomplishes neither of these goals, nor is it intended to; the real reason for Didion's notebook scraps is, in an almost Proustian way, to evoke the visceral past, to remain in touch with the person she once was and feel what that person felt upon hearing, for example, a cashier remark that her ex-boyfriend "left her no choice," or upon seeing a woman in a dirty Crepe-de-chine wrapper in a train station. The shock of recognition is the point: "to remember what it was to be me." Given that object, the literal "truth" of the notebook's contents is irrelevant: [N]ot only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters. The cracked crab that I recall having for lunch the day my father came home from Detroit in 1945 must certainly be embroidery, worked into the day's pattern to lend verisimilitude; I was ten years old and would not now remember the cracked crab. The day's events did not turn on cracked crab. And yet it is precisely that fictitious crab that makes me see the afternoon all over again, a home movie run all too often, the father bearing gifts, the child weeping, an exercise in family love and guilt. Or that is what it was to me. Similarly, perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont; perhaps there never were flurries in the night wind, and maybe no one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow.I don't know whether I'm imagining the echoes of James Joyce's The Dead here, but either way that's a stunning paragraph.Reading these essays now, in 2010, I processed some of them as period pieces, others as still-relevant, still others as timeless: all of them, though, were a joy.


When I was feeding my mother's cat over Thanksgiving I liberated this from her shelves, an ancient copy that one of my best friends (who is still one of my best friends) gave me in high school -- it's inscribed "Lovely Lisa Meter Maid, where would I be w/o you?" and has as a bookmark a postcard I wrote to another high school friend but never sent, thick with all sorts of stupid private jokes and code words. Since today is Joan Didion's birthday and since I don't have the attention span for anything more than short essays, I started reading it, and it is not disappointing. There is a bit of a pentimento effect, picturing myself at 16 or 17 reading this for the first time. How did we have such good taste in high school? Older brothers and sisters, maybe? We passed around some awesome books, and they definitely shaped me -- shaped us all, which is why we're still close 30 years later.**This really left its mark on me when I was a teenager, not just her writing but a lot of the content. The essay on Keeping a Notebook, for one thing -- it's like Harriet the Spy grows up. And "On Self-Respect" -- my god, I'd forgotten how much that hit me when I read it, how important it felt to me at the time and, in retrospect, how much it affected who I became as I grew up and who I am now. Why is this not required reading for every 16-year-old in the world? Toward the end you get a little weary of how nervy and pronouncement-prone she paints herself to be, because time has born out that she's a lot stronger and more nuanced than she must have imagined herself in her late 20s, but still. Five stars, just for kicking my ass into gear when I was in 10th grade.

Benjamin Church

"In retrospect it seems to me that those days before I knew the names of all the bridges were happier than the ones that came later, but perhaps you will see that as we go along. Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve, for that is how those years appear to me now, in a long sequence of sentimental dissolves and old-fashioned trick shots--the Seagram Building fountains dissolve into snowflakes, I enter a revolving door at twenty and come out a good deal older, and on a different street. But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came ther from somewhere else, a city for only the very young." -- J.D. 'Goodbye To All That'


A word of advice; don’t read Didion before you go to sleep. Or first thing in the morning. Or on a day when you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. Her words will follow you around, and once they’re lodged in your brain, well, good luck doing anything else but contemplating them over and over again. These essays won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; they are piercing, often brutal distillations of the author’s social anxiety—Didion pours all of her insecurities about herself and the world at large into these pieces, and at times you can almost feel her nerves tensing and her head throbbing as she goes round and round the prickly pear of 1960’s America. Didion’s terse, fearless ingenuity turns even a potential puff piece into existential exploration; an article on Howard Hughes’s house becomes a ruthless deconstruction of the American dream; a trip to Las Vegas kicks off an exploration of modern-day marriage so ruthlessly incisive that it almost comes off as mean-spirited. And when she’s dealing with the Big Stuff, strap on your hard hat; the titular essay attacks the hippie movement with such keen ferocity that you’re likely to lose any remaining traces of Woodstock nostalgia. For the most part, this is a stimulating example of New Journalism; but the personal essays are just as good, if not better, than her newspaper work. “Goodbye to All That” and “On Keeping A Notebook”, are required reading for anyone interested in non-fiction writing. If Hemingway had written in the 60s and 70s, his work probably would’ve looked something like this: devastating in its honesty, agile in its economy, and voltaic in its cumulative power.

Jill Malone

A collection of essays that changed the way I look at writing--tone and syntax particularly. A tough, beautiful book.


Really? People like Joan Didion? Really? The best thing about this book is the fact that she includes William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming." I'd never read Yeats before and he is amazing!I always felt like Joan Didion was one of those authors I should read, and she does write lovely, fluid, effortless prose; I'll give her two stars just for that. However, the theme tying these essays together seems to be that things just aren't like they used to be. Didion was only in her thirties in 1968 when this collection was first published, and she spends way too much time whining about both her lost youth and the current state of the world. She has a nostalgia for the good old days that no one that young has earned.I'd like to read something else by her. What a waste of obvious talent to write these essays.

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