Where I Was From
Over the course of my life I have, on more than one occasion, had the opportunity to meet a ‘native’ Californian, a rare breed that harkens back to covered wagons and geographic touchstones in the middle of nowhere in a way that certain New England families, even those of what might be termed a lesser station, trace their origins to the Winthrop Fleet or the Mayflower. So aligned are the tales that one wonders whether the proper way into either is through a frame labelled immigration, flight or protest.
There’s a reason that paragraph reads the way it does that I’ll come back to. For the moment let us turn to this early 21st century work by Joan Didion, formally Joan Didion Dunne, which she published in the year of her husband’s death. That event led to the creation of her masterwork, The Year of Magical Thinking,
Nearly ten years after reading that work I am still bowled over by what she accomplished in telling a story that no one should have to live and in conveying a state of mind that one can only contemplate. I only collect death; Didion turned it into a powerful piece of high art.
Here she turns her attention to her home state. The Didions trace themselves back, through the Jerrets and Cornwalls and Hardins to those original wagons bound west. When almost everyone who’s in a place came after you and yours, what does that do to your mind? More specifically, how does it form the way you think about where you’re from? And when does it preclude thinking about it at all?
California is familiar ground for Didion and not just because she’s a native. There was a point in time when I was trying to read everything written and published during the sixties that helped to create the era. (I think the list was essentially the bibliography of Morris Dickstein‘s Gates of Eden.)
Listed among the printed works was Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s collection of essays on the state during that period. I started it and ground to a halt not terribly far in. The reason was the preponderance of sentences that all read like the first paragraph of this entry, groaning with commas and clauses. It might be her style but to me it felt mannered and overly weighty as though it was striving to be more than just journalism.
After that I stayed away although I often wondered how someone who wrote as she did made a seemingly healthy living as a script doctor, working as a team with her husband. As a writer, she led a charmed life, equally at home in the pages of Vogue, The New York Review of Books and, apparently, the Malibu writer’s colony.
The death book was so completely different I decided my youthful reaction might have been rash. Two hundred and some odd pages later I’m not so sure. Everything I disliked is still there and her weighty points seem, to me, well, not so weighty.
But back to the questions I posed earlier. This book is really a memoir of place. So there’s more than a bit of ‘before Santa Clara County became Silicon Valley‘ and ‘my father said it was cooler before the levees.’ Those two examples are from close to home; Didion is a native of Sacramento and a native of most anywhere in the US can probably do the same.
She gets closer to the truth, I think, in the chunk of the book she devotes to Lakewood, a Levittown-like community peopled by employees of the defense manufacturers in the area. One thing she makes clear is that the ‘reality’ of California is artifice. The state sits on an economy, even an infrastructure, made possible in large part, maybe even entirely, by the largesse of the Federal government. She quotes the advice of a Donner-Reed survivor: ” Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.” (p.75) For Didion this is a metaphor that explains the California psyche. If you are always in forward motion, if you are willing to leave everything behind to get to the end of the trail, the Promised Land, what is there left to remember?
Didion makes much of this failing to remember. It explains almost everything: the peculiar form of California politics that throws up both Ronald Reagan and Huey Newton. The ‘growers,’ never farmers, who impose big business on a harsh landscape creating an Eden or an environmental crime scene depending on where you stand. The free market ideologues backed by corporate welfare and the implicit subsidies to institutions like Stanford. The University of California system is here, too; Didion is a Berkeley alum which seems to be a family tradition although it, too, functions as metaphor when juxtaposed with the growth of the prison system.
In the end, I found her argument unsatisfying despite the pained search for meaning. Frederick Jackson Turner did a much better job, in 1893, in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”
You say that’s not fair, Professor Turner was a Johns Hopkins PhD? Let me offer a more contemporary example, although also from a PhD , this one from Yale. Tom Wolfe, and you all know how I love Tom Wolfe, wrote a profile of the first Silicon Valley generation in the early 1980s. He located the guiding spirit of the place (which, I’d argue, is still present) in Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
Until I’d read the Wolfe piece I’d had trouble identifying just what it was about California that irked me. Was it the artifice and lack of memory that Didion speaks about? No, when you’re in a place that’s imported three of its four baseball teams from a 90-mile swath of the East Coast you already lack authenticity.
Was it the boosterism? No, the almost missionary need to convince a listener (or is it oneself) of the promise that California presents is tiresome but you can always walk away. Was it the inability to recognize that a particular set of circumstances provides a poor blueprint for how everyone should or could live? Well, myopia always irks.
In the end Wolfe nailed it. California, all 39 million residents and 637 thousand square miles, is just the Midwest with scenery. From relentless boosterism to a quasi-evangelism for a way of life to turning almost every choice, personal or public, into a moral issue, it’s of a piece with the great interior.
And for a kid from the boroughs of New York, that’s never going to feel comfortable.