I Read Good: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

by Joan Didion

I admit that although I have claimed some general interest in literary journalism as an art form, I am not all that well versed in some of the work of the big names. My primary interest has been the work of Dr. Thompson and Charles Bowden. The connection between those two writers of slightly different content and active periods was immediately evident and was a happy comfort zone of dissident tones. Clearly I am coming from a frame of reference that strays pretty far from journalism in its purest form. Because of my interest in counterculture of the 60s and more importantly the wake produced, I know that my education in New Journalism (a very outdated term now, indeed) was no where close to complete.

So, I decided to flesh out my education with a little Joan Didion.  Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the collection including her seminal work of the same name on the San Francisco counterculture  is a good place to start. I immediately noticed a striking difference between her work and that of the Thompson. There is a great obtuse feeling. Of course, with Hunter there is never a question of where he stands. He stands in the middle of it all and makes it clear who the characters are: who are the winners, losers, those you are to feel sorry and those you are to feel contempt.  Even in Didion’s most personal essays, I feel her distance.  Perhaps it is the old journalistic tenets showing through, but her style is also not objective. I sense her feelings, her sadness but she allows the space in between the lines tell the moral and the story.

I had a very mixed reaction to the book. The themes throughout the book are the same as many of the late 60s/early 70s authors: of moral decline, of an America in great contrast. In Slouching, the writing style, the space and ease which she slips between poetic and journalistic is striking and beautiful.  She does not glamorize the lost children she sees in San Francisco in any way.  I sense a vague judgement, but a kinship as well.  It seems like much of her writing style exists and lives within the realm of this dichotomy.  She presents the story as a journalist, seems like a friend to her subjects, and speaks to her audience in an interesting combination of lush literary flourish and journalistic brevity.

Hunter resonated with me immediately. Truthfully, he can be compared to the others in this generation only in as much as he was there and documented life as only he could. Bowden is an easier point of comparison than Didion would ever be, which is a topic for a different day. Perhaps what does not quite sit well with me is that Didion walks the line. She befriends the junkies of Haight Street, but she does nothing to contrast the way in which they had been portrayed by other media outlets.  I want to know where she stands.  She was just writing it like she sees it, I know.

Towards the end of the essay where she writes about the living conditions of one of the hippie families, I couldn’t help thinking of this and laughing:

But it’s not really like that; it is just that she is more like a traditional journalist in many ways than the outlaw journalists that I have come to love and I sense that dichotomy between traditional journalism and the need to present the story in layers, in space and poetry.

But here, again, I come back to Bowden and Thompson.  Yes, they tell the story.  Yes, they befriend the junkies but somewhere you know that Bowden and Thompson are invested completely in the deconstruction.  They lament what is broken, but there is no nostalgia for some America gone by.  Hunter is only nostalgic for the optimism and potential lost in the fray of America in the 60s and Bowden is nostalgic for the nature and the culture bulldozed by progress.  I sense in Didion’s work a nostalgia for “the way things used to be” – not just in ‘Slouching’  but in her  essays about crime, Howard Hughes, and her “writer’s notebook” essays.  I found that section of the book to be a bit frivolous. Although it’s always interesting to see behind the scenes, if you ever…for a few brief moments, saw yourself as a writer.  However,  I did not find her personals to be a great benefit to the book even though I nodded along on the importance of keeping a journal to capture small moments (“On Keeping a Notebook”).

I have to say the Yeats poem may have been my favorite part of the book. This isn’t meant to be a slam towards Didion but the poem itself lent so much context and layering to the work, that I can’t help but think that what’s left unsaid is not always the strongest message to be sent.

I would be interested to read more, in particular The Year of Magical Thinking but I don’t believe I’m up for that sort of bummer right now. As for my assessment of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, ah well, I’ve always been more attracted to the bull in the china shop approach. This isn’t a world to be written about delicately.

The Second Coming

By William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


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