Joan Didion's California

Where I Was From, Joan Didion's meditation on the myths of California (Knopf, 2003), has been in the pile for quite a while, and I don't know why I put off reading it. I do know why I picked it up; Ms Didion's recent piece in the NYRB on Terry Schiavo (which I wrote about last week) left me hungry for more of the writer's peculiarly addictive blend of dry humor, muffled oracle, and utter sérieux (she must translate very well into French - although it appears that anybody là-bas who wants to read her can do so in English). And because I've been reading Them to Kathleen, I needed an alternative memoir to satisfy the craving that Francine du Plessix Gray has excited. Voilà, the perfect moment.

Where I Was From is a book of awakening, a work of grasping her earliest interior furniture, holding it up to the light, and finding it somehow fake or insubstantial. The writer springs from generations of Californians; many of her ancestors crossed the plains and the mountains before 1868, the year of the railroad. We can forget, nowadays, what a desert almost a third of our heartland is, but from the Rockies just beyond Denver to the Sierra Nevada on the California-Nevada border, the terrain is not hospitable to human beings. And it is not easily traversed, either, in wagon trains pulled by oxen. Many people died en route, most notoriously the Donner Party, in which some forty-odd people perished out of a company of ninety when the Party could not clear the snows of the Sierrra Nevada in the fall of 1846. Making the passage was an ordeal that, like warfare, produced legends but also silence. The people who got to California were heroically taciturn. This tough calmness was the ideal breeding ground for mythology, and by Joan Didion's day the mythology was so ingrained that she could give, in eighth grade, a concise account of it.

They who came to California were not the self-satisfied, happy and content people, but the adventurous, the restless, and the daring. They were different even from those who settled in other western states. They didn't come west for homes and security, but for adventure and money. They pushed in over the mountains and founded the biggest cities in the west. Up in the Mother Lode they mined gold by day and danced by night. San Francisco's population multiplied almost twenty times, until 1906, when it burned to the ground, and was built up again nearly as quickly as it had burned. We had an irrigation problem, so we built the greatest dams the world has known. Now both desert and valley are producing food in enormous quantities. California has accomplished much in the past years. It would be easy for us to sit back and enjoy the results of the past. But we can't do this. We can't stop and become satisfied and content. We must live up to the our heritage, go on to better and greater things for California.

Seen along one plane, squinting slightly, this is all fairly true. California attracted adventurers and gamblers. And so on. What happened to Ms Didion in her forties, it seems, is that she suddenly saw California along another plane entirely, and understood that she had never bothered to press the meaning of what now struck her not as history but as mythology. Although the word does not appear in the excerpt from her valediction, the passage is heavy with the implication that what all those heroic pioneers did, from building the biggest cities in the west to building the greatest dams the world has known, was constructive. The world, and California in particular, was a better place for all that building, and the building must continue, so that the California and the world might become even better. It's an admirable call, if indeed surprisingly more boosterish than one can imagine Ms Didion ever being.

The moment of revelation occurs appropriately near to the end of Where I Was From. In the early Seventies, taking a dopey stroll through "Old Sacramento," the wooden-sidewalked, utterly touristy "redevelopment" of her hometown's downtown, accompanied by her parents and her adopted daughter, Ms Didion perceives something that takes time to develop in her mind:

Later it seemed to me that this had been the moment when all of it - the crossing, the redemption, the abandoned rosewood chests, the lost flatware, the rivers I had written to replace the rivers I had left, the twelve generations of circuit riders and county sheriffs and Indian fighters and country lawyers and Bible readers, the two hundred years of clearings in Virginia and Kentucky and Tennessee and then the break, the dream of America, the entire enchantment under which I had lived my life - began to seem remote.

She has lived under an enchantment because she has believed in the redemption. Redemption was the biggest legend to come out of the crossing of the plains and the mountains. Those who made it, having been saved in one sense, saw themselves saved more widely. But from what? And for what?

Ms Didion grew up identifying with an "original" California, populated by stout pioneers, who prospered with resolution. As how could they not, in a promised land? She grew up inclined to protest the "changes" that came to California as she grew older, such as the breakup of farms into tacky developments, or the mushrooming of the state prison system. She grew up believing that Californians, not the Federal Government, had built the vast irrigation system upon which the agriculture of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys depended. She grew up not really thinking about these things. When she did think about them, writing her first novel, she did so under the enchantment, telling her story with a nostalgia that, decades later, she regards as "pernicious." It is not until the stroll on fake wooden sidewalks that the enchantment cracks.

Where I Was From is a collection of several pieces of journalism, but the tone is consistent. The first of its four parts is about the pioneer myth, seen through both family documents and the novels and history of the latter part of the nineteenth century in which the myth was burnished. Ms Didion deconstructs, in her perfectly accessible way, two novels, The Octopus, by Lincoln Steffens, and The Valley of the Moon, by Jack London. Both novels pit insiders, "natives" against outsiders - foreigners or big-city capitalists, but they do so on a footing that Ms Didion shows to be specious. The tension of contradiction mounts as she compares to great sell-offs, of the Hollister and Irvine ranches, the one disposed of reluctantly, and in big lots, the other, diced up quickly. Ms Didion's dismissal of Thomas Kinkade's creepy evocations of old California can only be called Olympian.

The second part tells the tragedy of Lakewood, a postwar development just to the north of Long Beach. Now I know who the Mark Taper of the "Mark Taper Forum" is or was: a developer. Lakewood was built to house workers for the burgeoning aerospace industry. It was a town in which sons followed their fathers into the plants, and were very proud to do so. And when they weren't working, they were doing something with a ball. (The women shopped.) As she often does, Ms Didion stops short of drawing painful conclusions but makes it impossible for the reader not to do so, and here her tacit judgment of Lakewood as a town without much contact with the outer world, a town focused on itself as an all-American place, makes for chilling reading. For Lakewood was the child of circumstance. Looking back at its success as of 1969, Mark Taper said, "Things happened that may never happen again."

What he meant, of course, was the perfect synergy of time and place, the seamless confluence of World War Two and the Korean War and the G.I. Bill and the defense contracts that began to flood Southern California as the Cold War set in. Here on this raw acreage on the flood plain between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers was where two powerfully conceived national interests, that of keeping the economic engine running and that of creating an enlarged middle or consumer class, could be seen to converge.

What follows is a rough case study, like so many others, of the impact of corporate consolidation and global competition upon American livelihood. It is also a look at American denial. For when the jobs begin to dry up, the now-futureless kids misbehave, and a gang of thugs, the Spur Posse, soon has everyone's attention. They're what's wrong with Lakewood, and they're the product, in the denial version, of a disrespect for American values. In their pathetic way, the people of Lakewood - newcomers all to "old California" scions such as the author - reiterate their predecessors' laments about "change" without really understanding what it is. But they are relatively powerless, and more and more of them now live in motels. The "Lakewood" portion of Where I Was From must be classed along with such critiques of our high voodoonomics as Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed.

In the third part, Ms Didion sketches the overhaul of her ideas about California. She looks back on River Run, as I have said, with a disapproving eye; she is similarly unconvinced by Victor Davis Hanson's The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (2000), a classics scholar who still lives on a family farm that, however, he no longer farms. What she learns from Mr Hanson - not a lesson he intends, perhaps - is that "change" is a word whose polarity switches according to the speaker's date of birth. Changes that occurred "before" are good; they're progress. Changes occurring later are bad; they squander the speaker's birthright, which is of course the disappearing Paradise of California. Ms Didion learns that the changes for the worse that she has deplored during her adult life are not significantly different from the changes that built the cities and the dams. And she learns, as I have said, to wake up from the enchantment.

The final, and very short, part is a meditation occasioned by the death of the writer's mother in 2001.

When my father died I kept moving. When my mother died I could not.

She had to sort out the ideas with which her mother (as much as anyone) had woven the spell of enchantment.

In the aftermath of my mother's death I found myself thinking a good deal about the confusions and contradictions in California life, many of which she had herself embodied. She despised, for example, the federal government and its "giveaways," but saw no contradiction between this view and her reliance on my father's military reserve status to make free use of Air Force doctors and pharmacies, or to shop at the commissaries and exchanges of whatever military installation she happened to be near. She thought of the true California spirit as one of unfettered individualism, but carried the idea of individual rights to dizzying and often punitive lengths. She definitely aimed for an appearance of being "stern," a word she seemed to think synonymous with what was not then called "parenting." As a child herself in the upper Sacramento Valley she had watched men hung in front of the courthouse. When John Kennedy was assassinated she insisted that Lee Harvey Oswald had "every right" to assassinate him, that Jack Ruby in turn had "every right" to kill Lee Harvey Oswald, and that any breakdown of natural order in the event had been on the part of the Dallas police, who had failed to exercise their own right, which was "to shoot Ruby on the spot."

California has its special features, to be sure. The only state that it's anything like is Texas, which also has several metropolitan areas and multiple climates. Thousands of miles from any other state of the Union for decades, California always shared something of the Texan spirit of independence from the rest of the country. The two states are dysfunctional in similar ways: overdependent on automobiles, careless about poverty. But Texas has never been to anything like the same extent a promised land. No part of it is a Paradise, as so much of California is. The specialness of California aside, however, the subject of Where I Was From is more than just California. It is more than the West or the Southwest. I think that it is everywhere but my corner of the country, the old East. Up here we don't get so upset about change because we don't dream of birthrights. At the same time, we're less doggedly entrepreneurial, less negligent of the past. We have an almost European sense of living well. Calvinism often seems to me to have gone West with the pioneers, leaving Easterners not debauched but clear-headed. If powerful dreams were required to create this country, waking up is the only thing that will save it.

At the beginning of the "Lakewood" section of Where I Was From, Joan Didion dwells as on an aching tooth on the art collection of Joan Irvine Smith, the heiress who oversaw the subdivision of her family's ranch of ninety-three thousand acres. Ms Smith opened a museum of "California impressionist or plein air paintings" in the city that she created (Irvine), and told an interviewer,

There is actually more nostalgia for me in these paintings than in actually going out to look at what used to the ranch now that it has been developed, because I'm looking at what I looked at as a child.

(And, besides, you can carry the art with you, and always have it on hand.) Going on to point out that "This has not been a case in which the rising tide floated all boats," Ms Didion concludes

Joan Irvine Smith told Art in California about the collection she bought with the proceeds of looking exclusively, and to a famous degree, forward. "I can see California as it was and as we will never see it again." Hers is an extreme example of the conundrum that to one degree r another confronts any Californian who profited from the boom years: if we could still see California as it was, how many of us could now afford to see it?

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