The Books: The White Album: ‘The White Album’, by Joan Didion

Next book on the essays shelf is The White Album: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s first collection of essays, came out in 1969. The essays had been written in the mid to late 60s, and capture the cultural chaos she was witnessing and trying to understand. Didion is a clear writer, although not so clear as to be boring or didactic. She prescribes no solutions. She is more interested in, or consumed with, mourning what is passing from the earth. “The center was not holding.” She came from an upscale Sacramento family, a multigenerational California family, with deep roots in the American West (and, to Didion, the American West translates into America writ large). The social re-engineering going on in the “revolutions” of the late 60s held no appeal for her, except as a fascinating thing to write about and observe. But she’s not so fascinated that you can’t feel her depression at what was happening, what was going down. Didion is clearly a depressive, her prose oozes with it. She is not, however, just a personal writer. She is also a journalist. She does not look at the world and only see how it impacts her, something that has become so rote in terms of “personal” writing that it is actually somewhat despicable to me. Not everything has to do with YOU, boring writers! She does not look at the world and see a huge mirror. But she does allow her own responses to the events of the late 60s, her own sense of what was passing from the earth, to come out in her pieces. That’s what makes her unique (not to mention her daunting verbal gift). I have read essays by her on topics I literally don’t care about, and because it’s by Didion, I find it fascinating and engrossing. I always want to know her “take” on things.

The White Album, Didion’s second collection of essays, came out a decade later, in 1979. It is an eerie collection, depressing. But also quite funny at times. I think people might miss Didion’s humor. Hell, I miss it sometimes. I recently re-read her essay on the freeways in Los Angeles (one of my favorites of hers), and for the first time really clicked into her capturing of the absurdity of driving in LA, her wonderful evocation of that group event, thousands of cars careening on those freeways, and what it feels like, what it means. She writes in a very “local” way. Her perspective is sheer Californian.

The title essay of the book is a multi-part essay detailing events in America, and in her own life, in the years 1968, 1969. It shouldn’t work as well as it does. She goes from interviewing Huey Newton, to talking about how she would pack for her journalistic trips, and then to hanging out with The Doors, and then to describing the house she lived in during those years. What does it all have to do with each other? You can feel Didion asking that question, too, and several of the sections end with her wondering, worrying, obsessing over how all of these events connect. Something was rupturing during those years, something was rupturing on a national level, a social level, and a personal level, and she can’t separate events. She can’t put the personal in one little column, and the national in another. Events connect. California is almost a small town in her writing. She writes about Linda Kasabian, the all-important witness for the prosecution in the Manson trial, the sweet damaged little hippie girl who testified against her friends. Didion had gotten involved in the case. It was Didion who bought the dress that Kasabian wore when she testified. Some sections in “The White Album” essay are longer than others, but you still feel a writer piercing to the heart of these disparate events, trying to find the connecting thread. What was happening to America? It is a testament to her gift that it works. It is also self-involved, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it is an excellent thing if you have the chops to make it all interesting. What I get from “The White Album” is that Didion, someone raised a certain way, was thrust into the center of the giant events of those years, as a journalist, as a bystander, as a Californian of a certain class and status (she and Roman Polanski were both godparents to the same child), and she also was having some troubles psychologically during that time, and so all of these events start to seem ominously connected. She knows she might be being silly. But she is trying to tell “how it was for her”.

This essay starts with the sentence Joan Didion is probably most known for: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

If there is one underlying theme in all of Didion’s work it would be her interest in narrative, its forms and purpose, and how we construct narratives “in order to live”. She, taking all of these different events, Huey Newton, Linda Kasabian, The Doors, the student protests, her own blossoming career, and tries to put them all together. She knows they may not be actually connected, but it feels to her like they are … and putting the narrative together will help her “to live”.

It’s a groundbreaking essay, a window into a specific time, seen through the eyes of a very specific narrator.

Here is just one section of it.

The White Album: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion

At San Francisco State College on that particular morning the wind was blowing the cold rain in squalls across the muddied lawns and against the lighted windows of empty classrooms. In the days before there had been fires set and classes invaded and finally a confrontation with the San Francisco Police Tactical Unit, and in the weeks to come, the campus would become what many people on it were pleased to call “a battlefield”. The police and the Mace and the noon arrests would become the routine of life on the campus, and every night the combatants would review their day on television: the waves of students advancing, the commotion at the edge of the frame, the riot sticks flashing, the instant of jerky camera that served toe suggest at what risk the film was obtained; then a cut to the weather map. In the beginning there had been the necessary “issue,” the suspension of a 22-year-old instructor who happened as well to be Minister of Education for the Black Panther Party, but that issue, like most, had soon ceased to be the point in the minds of even the most dense participants. Disorder was its own point.

I had never before been on a campus in disorder, had missed even Berkeley and Columbia, and I suppose I went to San Francisco State expecting something other than what I found there. In some not at all trivial sense, the set was wrong. The very architecture of California state colleges tends to deny radical notions, to reflect instead a modest and hopeful vision of progressive welfare bureaucracy, and as I walked across the campus that day and on later days the entire San Francisco State dilemma – the gradual politicization, the “issues” here and there, the obligatory “Fifteen Demands,” the continual arousal of the police and the outraged citizenry – seemed increasingly off-key, an instance of the infants terribles and the Board of Trustees unconsciously collaborating on a wishful fantasy (Revolution on Campus) and playing it out in time for the six o’clock news. “Adjet-prop committee meeting in the Redwood Room,” read a scrawled note on the cafeteria door that morning; only someone who needed very badly to be alarmed could respond with force to a guerrilla band that not only announced its meetings on the enemy’s bulletin board but seemed innocent of the spelling, and so the meaning, of the words it used. “Hitler Hayakawa”, some of the faculty had begun calling S.I. Hayakawa, the semanticist who had become the college’s third president in a year and had incurred considerable displeasure by trying to keep the campus open. “Eichmann,” Kay Boyle had screamed at him at a rally. In just such broad strokes was the picture being painted in the fall of 1968 on the pastel campus at San Francisco State.

The place simply never seemed serious. The headlines were dark that first day, the college had been closed “indefinitely”, both Ronald Reagan and Jesse Unruh were threatening reprisals; still, the climate inside the Administration Building was that of a musical comedy about college life. “No chance we’ll be open tomorrow,” secretaries informed callers. “Go skiing, have a good time.” Striking black militants dropped in to chat with the deans; striking white radicals exchanged gossip in the corridors. “No interviews, no press,” announced a student strike leader who happened into a dean’s office where I was sitting; in the next moment he was piqued because no one had told him that a Huntley-Brinkley camera crew was on campus. “We can still plug into that,” the dean said soothingly. Everyone seemed joined in a rather festive camaraderie, a shared jargon, a shared sense of moment: the future was no longer arduous and indefinite but immediate and programmatic, aglow with the prospect of problems to be “addressed,” plans to be “implemented”. It was agreed all around that the confrontations could be “a very healthy development”, that maybe it took a shutdown “to get something done”. The mood, like the architecture, was 1948 functional, a model of pragmatic optimism.

Perhaps Evelyn Waugh could have gotten it down exactly right: Waugh was good at scenes of industrious self-delusion, scenes of people absorbed in odd games. Here at San Francisco State only the black militants could be construed as serious: they were at any rate picking the games, dictating the rules, and taking what they could from what seemed for everyone else just an amiable evasion of routine, of institutional anxiety, of the tedium of the academic calendar. Meanwhile the administrators could talk about programs. Meanwhile the white radicals could see themselves, on an investment of virtually nothing, as urban guerrillas. It was working out well for everyone, this game at San Francisco State, and its peculiar virtues had never been so clear to me as they became one afternoon when I sat in on a meeting of fifty or sixty SDS members. They had called a press conference for later that day, and now they were discussing “just what the format of the press conference should be.”

“This has to be on our terms,” someone warned. “Because they’ll ask very leading questions, they’ll ask questions.”

“Make them submit any questions in writing,” someone else suggested. “The Black Student Union does that very successfully, then they just don’t answer anything they don’t want to answer.”

“That’s it, don’t fall into their trap.”

“Something we should stress at this press conference is who owns the media.”

“You don’t think it’s common knowledge that the papers represent corporate interests?” a realist among them interjected dubiously.

“I don’t think it’s understood.”

Two hours and several dozen hand votes later, the group had selected four members to tell the press who owned the media, had decided to appear en masse at an opposite press conference, and had debated various slogans for the next day’s demonstration. “Let’s see, first we have ‘Hearst Tells It Like It Ain’t’, then ‘Stop Press Distortion’ – that’s the one there was some political controversy about -”

And, before they broke up, they had listened to a student who had driven up for the day from the College of San Mateo, a junior college down the peninsula from San Francisco. “I came up here today with some Third World students to tell you that we’re with you, and we hope you’ll be with us when we try to pull off a strike next week, because we’re really into it, we carry our motorcycle helmets all the time, can’t think, can’t go to class.”

He had paused. He was a nice-looking boy, and fired with his task. I considered the tender melancholy of his life in San Mateo, which is one of the richest counties per capita in the United States of America, and I considered whether or not the Wichita Lineman and the petals on the wet black bough represented the aimlessness of the bourgeoisie, and I considered the illusion of aim to be gained by holding a press conference, the only problem with press conferences being that the press asked questions. “I’m here to tell you that at College of San Mateo we’re living like revolutionaries,” the boy said then.

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7 Responses to The Books: The White Album: ‘The White Album’, by Joan Didion

  1. DBW says:

    This is just brilliant. It’s not just her way with words, it’s also the rhythm and cadence of her writing. And you are right– she captures the essence and feel of THE MOMENT. While her writing is very nuanced, it’s also no-nonsense–which is a difficult combination. I’m also struck by how familiar the language and posturing of the ‘protesters’ seems. It could be right out of today’s “revolutionary playbook.” I’ve never read this collection of Didion’s before–not sure why–but I’m going to see if it is available on my Kindle.

  2. sheila says:

    DBW – Also, her contextual understanding of what being from “San Mateo” means – maybe only a Californian would pick up on that, would dig deeper. It’s such a nice detail.

    9 writers out of 10 would have had contempt for that boy. 9 writers out of 10 would have let their prose drip with contempt, and therefore it would be unreadable. Didion certainly doesn’t take him seriously. (And I love her mockery of the misspelling of Agitprop – yes, if you don’t know how to spell it, then you don’t know what it means: in that case, it is quite true). But she looks at him with a bit of faint humor (really? you’re living like “revolutionaries”? In San Mateo????) , and sees the “tender melancholy” of his background. San Mateo, San Mateo – it says it all to Didion.

  3. sheila says:

    And I agree, DBW – she’s “no nonsense”, which is why the 60s baffled her – and why she was able to make such a unique name for herself in that decade. Her voice was not “current” – she didn’t sound like the other cultural writers at the time. Her piece on feminism and the women’s movement … it is unbelievable how prescient it is. She wrote it in 1972, but I feel like it could be written by Camille Paglia in 1998. She saw it all. She was never a “joiner”. She had (has?) real suspicion of groups of any kind.

  4. sheila says:

    // the campus would become what many people on it were pleased to call “a battlefield”. //


  5. DBW says:

    Yes, the “tender melancholy” is perfect. I live in a suburb filled with angst-ridden youth–many of whom drive their Toyota Land Cruisers and BMWs to the Country Club. And don’t take me wrong, I was once one of them. Perhaps not angst-filled, but just as laden with my own self-importance, and searching dearly for….meaning.

  6. Cara Ellison says:

    Just read this. Flat-out stunning.

  7. In case you’re interested, here’s a documentary about the 1968 San Francisco Student Strike entitled “Activist State.”

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