Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion
Noonday Press, 1968

DidionThis book of essays has been on a mental list as a must read for years. Aside from the usual reasons of not reading it due to time issues, the deeper reason I avoided it was because I also believed it a tad too intellectual and brainy for me. Didion is a member of the New York intellectual literati and I was afraid the holes in my mid-level education would become apparent and too hurtful to my ego.

What I found was an interesting, intellectual terrier. Didion is a hunter of words and ideas that she will latch onto and be as tenacious as the dog biting your heel. She’s a muller and when she latches onto an idea she stews. The first essay is a retelling of a contemporary love triangle in California’s San Bernardino Valley. It’s the 1960s, the verge of a sea change in American society, and the prominent wife of a dentist is tried for his murder though it is also argued there was no murder, only a series of unfortunate events.

To Didion the trial was a reflection of the time’s view of women, their choices in life, the selling of the American Dream in their new, expensive tract house, and more. An ending essay ruminates on similar subjects through the building of mansions on Newport Beach and more. There is always more for Didion to pull from an event. Perhaps a wreckage, a promise, parable, a warning. She peers to the root causes and wonders, hypothesizes, and sometimes determines.

Her first essay of the doomed marriage oddly, though probably purposely, reflected the tract of houses of California to its intrinsic character to the mansions of Newport Beach and how they also enclosed and defined women.

Several of the essays are personal explorations of herself that sometimes saw the point made by others, agreed with parts of it, but officially … well, she’s going to be Joan Didion. To that end she allows her version of an event may not be what happened at all. It is a writer’s lesson that the personal view of one’s life and events is all that can stir an individual’s capacity to relate it and understand it. In On Keeping a Notebook she writes of the importance of documenting thought and wonders like I do of notes I’ve made. Why did she have a recipe for sauerkraut in her notebook? The essay meanders to the need to “keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive or not.”

I discovered Didion is a California girl who ruminated on New York living. She believed when she lived there in her twenties that others like her were on “an indefinitely extended leave.” She did return to California, believing she needed to return to her roots to discover more about herself. The essays are of their time, ending in 1967, but the breadth of view of that time was worthwhile.

In the end, I know I never would have made it in New York’s literati, but my mid-level education proved adequate in understanding and appreciating her inspiration from a W.B. Yeats poem of the human burden and self-destruction in desiring a Second Coming, in his words, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

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8 Responses to Slouching Towards Bethlehem

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    Sounds very interesting. I know I should read more intellectual stuff like this, but I usually don’t. I guess after reading my professionally related requirements, I just want to zone out with a suspenseful, page-turning read. Not very evolved of me. :)

    • I know what you mean. When there is “required” reading you need funner stuff. The year I graduated from college I didn’t read a book for a year because I just needed to get away from them and all their “trying to teach me stuff” attitude.

  2. I volunteer at a used book store and picked a copy of this book out of the recycle. It’s ragged appearance is what forced it in there. Haven’t read it yet but lent it to a friend I’ll see this coming Tuesday. Can’t wait to get into it now. Dynamic review because I’m going to move this title to the top of my reading list.
    Have you read her book, The Year of Magical Thinking? This was my introduction to Joan Didion.

    • Outside of of few magazine articles by Didion The Year of Magical Thinking was my first book of hers too, Tess. I thought it was well written but a bit of a gloss over. You sound like you collect books like I do. No matter the age if it looks interesting or I know it’s a classic that would be good to read I have a hard time passing it by.

      • I’m running out of room to store my books and am disgustingly behind on what I read, what I being home (every week) and my wish list of books to read. There MUST be a better solution. :-)

  3. Interesting thought on slouching toward Bethlehem and the Second Coming– tying it to the human urge for self-destruction. I confess to never being overly enthralled with the event. I prefer the dog biting me on the heel. It’s less permanent. Had it happen to me once in North Dakota. I was bicycling across the state and felt something worrying my heel. I looked down and a big dog had snuck up behind me and was trying to grab my heel on each cycle. I hit him over the head with my bike pump. There was no damage to him or the pump but it did discourage him. –Curt

    • A traveler in a strange land must protect himself against local carnivores. You may have looked deliciously foreign. The Second Coming…yes, that is a subject. And why does all the literature and the plethora of current movies on the near future seem to be so very, very self-destructive and bleak? Plus, everyone dresses the same. There is absolutely no style in the foreseeable future. Hey! I just looked up plethora to make sure I was using it correctly and it fits better than expected. Besides abundance, it means a bodily condition characterized by an excess of blood. Well, sort of that has to do with current vampire and kill everyone movies.

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