In two dazzling collections of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” Joan Didion used her own experiences, observations and anxieties as a kind of index to the times, as America lurched through the convulsions of the 1960s and ’70s. The political pieces she later wrote for The New York Review of Books — beginning with the 1988 presidential campaign, through the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the 2000 face-off in Florida — were less original, less idiosyncratic, but were oddly prophetic about the growing gap between the electorate and the political elites, and the growing dysfunction of the system.
Her 2003 book, “Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11,” would be even more explicit about a “disconnect between the government and the citizens,” about how our political process not only spurns consensus but works by “turning the angers and fears and energy of the few” against “the rest of the country.”
Didion has now published “South and West,” two excerpts from her notebooks and written in the 1970s, which similarly shed light on the political moment. At a remove of more than four decades, she maps the divisions splintering America today and uncannily anticipates some of the dynamics that led to the election of Donald Trump and caught so many political and media insiders unawares.
The shorter entry is a meditation on California, where Didion grew up. The more substantial piece is an account of a monthlong trip that she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, took through the Deep South for a never-finished assignment that her editors at Life magazine came to refer to as “The Mind of the White South.”
As bookends to each other, the pieces give us two Americas, two ways of looking at history: the South, deep in the grip of the past — a place where many people are invested in holding onto ancient prerogatives of race and class; and California, insistently focused on the future and the horizon — a place where the frontier ethos of shucking off roots is the one real tradition.
It’s 1970, when the nation is being rocked by seismic cultural and political shifts, yet Didion has the strange intuition that the South, not California, will come to exert a gravitational pull over the rest of the country. She had “some dim and unformed sense that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”
Didion’s account of her travels from New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., to Meridian, Miss., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., and to Faulkner’s hometown, Oxford, Miss., makes it clear that she feels like an outsider there. Her notes lack the depth and understanding of J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” which depicts the frustrations and anger of poor white communities from within. And while Didion’s estrangement sharpens her reportorial eye, it can curdle, at times, into condescension.
Writing about high school gymnasiums in small Southern towns, she says she has “the sense of sports being the opiate of the people.” And writing about a visit to two small towns in Alabama, she observes: “It seemed a good and hopeful place to live, and yet the pretty girls, if they stayed around Guin, would end up in the laundromat in Winfield, or in a trailer with the air-conditioning on all night.”
What Didion does capture, powerfully, is the insularity of many places in the South and, by implication, how insular the elites (like herself) are in places like California and New York and Washington — a thought she would develop further in her essays in The New York Review of Books (collected in the 2001 volume “Political Fictions”) and in “Fixed Ideas.”
Here, she writes of small-town Southerners: “The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down. Does it matter where Taos is, after all, if Taos is not in Mississippi?”
There was a kind of time warp there, she says: “The Civil War was yesterday but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about 300 years ago.”
The people Didion interviewed or tried to interview tended to greet her questions with defensive remarks about the pace of change in the South, or with nostalgic and what can only be called racist talk about old ways of life.
Although it was 1970, the attitudes Didion encountered can sometimes sound like those described by Harper Lee in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” set in 1930s Alabama. The chilling thing is, some of the attitudes about race and outsiders that Didion chronicles also sound like attitudes expressed by some Trump supporters during the 2016 campaign.
“South and West: From a Notebook” by Joan Didion, foreword by Nathaniel Rich, 126 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, $21.