Essay Mondays: Didion


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

How have I waited this long to start reading Joan Didion? Chalk it up to my oft-misguided tendency to avoid things that everyone is raving about, perhaps. In this case, I can safely say that I've stayed away too long; the Lopate's Didion selections more than live up to the hype.

In particular "Goodbye to All That," her tribute and farewell to the eight youthful years she spent in New York City, struck a balance I really admired between nostalgic and cynical. I should say straight off that I've never particularly fallen in love with the romance of New York City myself, although I know it holds potent allure for so many. I'm certainly not immune to falling in love with the idea of a city: it's happened to me with London, with Paris, even, to some extent, with the seedy bygone Los Angeles I found in Raymond Chandler novels. New York and I were never particularly meant to be, though; in fact I often find myself annoyed by the assumption on the part of New Yorkers that their city is the acknowledged center of the universe and everyone would live there if they could. All of which is just to say that "Goodbye to All That" holds appeal beyond the romance of the New York scene. I have, of course, heard it quoted by people who do share young Didion's infatuation, who feel it expresses their own youthful love affairs with New York, and reminisce over passages like the following:

I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.

But although I have never sighed with longing to eat a peach on Lexington Avenue, I think Didion is actually describing something much more universal here: the giddiness of being young, living on one's own for the first time, when everything is new and exciting and you're not sure how or if things will work out. Being pretty certain that the way you're living your life is not sustainable, and casting caution to the winds because this is the way you glory in living right now. Those years, for Didion, took place in New York, but I can't help thinking they could happen anywhere: friends of mine spent theirs in Denver, or Philadelphia, or Olympia, or Ashevile, or Montreal, or Portland. That first giddy foray into adulthood, when earning enough money to keep yourself going feels like a tightrope act, and you have the frequent impulse to call out, like a kid riding her first bike without training wheels, "Hey, look at me! I'm doing it!" And the world feels so full of so many different kinds of people and experiences; everything comes as a novelty.

I never felt poor; I had the feeling that if I needed money I could always get it. I could write a syndicated column for teenagers under the name "Debbi Lynn" or I could smuggle gold into India or I could become a $100 call girl, and none of it would matter.
        Nothing was irrevocable; everything was just within reach. Just around every corner lay something curious and interesting, something I had never before seen or done or known about.

Inevitably, the giddiness doesn't last forever: the novelty wears off, the regular gambit of experiences come to seem like a chore instead of a delight; the thrill of living provisionally (Didion relates that she came to New York for six months and stayed for eight years, always expecting to take the next train back to California, which seems to me such a fitting metaphor for my own mental space in my late teens and early twenties) wears off and a person starts wishing for a more stable existence, one they can feel at home in for the long term. Again, Didion relates this process to New York itself: for her, it's a city in which to be young, and her implication is that she might not have had such a crash or identity crisis at twenty-eight if she had been living somewhere else. I find this hard to believe; in my experience, twenty-eight to thirty is often a difficult time of transition, and if a person isn't moving from New York to California, they're going back to school, or having a baby, or starting their own business, or taking some other similarly large life step (I know a few 28-year-olds, in fact, who moved TO New York City last year as part of their big life changes, as well as one who moved to Gainesville and another to Louisville). Nevertheless, despite her nostalgic New York-centrism, Didion does a fantastic job at evoking this process of gradual disillusionment and realization—eventual realization, because it comes on painfully slowly—that a change is desperately needed.

I remember one day when someone who did have the West Village number came to pick me up for lunch there, and we both had hangovers, and i cut my finger opening him a beer and burst into tears, and we walked to a Spanish restaurant and drank Bloody Marys and gazpacho until we felt better. I was not then guilt-ridden about spending afternoons that way, because I still had all the afternoons in the world.

This essay is a joy to read; I loved Didion's balance between nostalgia and wry self-criticism. More than that, it brought up questions about which aspects of one's identity are provisional and which are lasting, whether the core facets of a person change over time, and how huge life changes, the things we look back on as most meaningful in the long run, are sometimes initiated by happenstance, or a casual whim. As I mentioned a few days ago, I picked up Didon's collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem as part of my birthday trip to the bookstore, and am eager to sample more of her work.

Up next week: The final Essay Monday (at least for now): Richard Rodriguez, Gayle Pemberton, Scott Russel Sanders, or Lopate himself.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:


  • Yes, this was lovely. I have the same tendency to avoid things everyone else raves about, and was, like you, surprised to be so touched by this essay. I'm not much attracted by The Year of Magical Thinking, so I am interested to see what you think of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Thanks for this lovely review.

    Oh -- and I look forward to next week. I found all of those essays memorable except the Lopate, which I didn't like at all.

  • I read this essay back in high school and although I remember the essay, I had completely forgotten that Didion was the author. I quite liked Year of Magical Thinking and have been wanting to read one of her essay collections. Her writing is just so insightful.

  • Jenny: Oh really? That's so funny - I liked several of them, but I think Lopate was my favorite! Do you remember why you didn't like it? He's definitely kind of grouchy, but I was apparently in the mood to find it endearing. So interesting...

    Teresa: Year of Magical Thinking sounds great to me, but so sad...I've been putting off reading because I don't really want to go to such a heavy emotional place right now. But I'm starting to believe that I really like the way Didion thinks. There may be a time when I really need that book, and then hopefully it'll be there. :-)

  • I have a tendency to avoid things everyone raves about too. I have read and enjoyed this essay though. I know what you mean about the New York center of the world thing. Drives me nuts. Also makes me nuts that people on either coast tend to think that everything in between is a vast wasteland.

  • I enjoyed reading some Didion before. I don't think I've read this one, though. It sounds delightful.

  • Stefanie: Haha, I must admit I used to be guilty of that everything-in-between-is-a-vast-wasteland assumption, before getting whipped into shape by a passel of hipsters from the Twin Cities. :-) Didion manages to romanticize New York without being too obnoxious about it, I thought.

    Rebecca: Yes, I bet you would like it! I'm looking forward to reading more of her soon.

  • I have finally given in and ordered a copy of this book for myself. I have been trying to get our library to buy it for almost a year now but because of the current economic situation they have an embargo on buying anything at all so they're hardly going to splash out on something only one lone voice is crying out for. I love essays and everything I've read about this book suggests that there will be new feasts to be found. Thank you for reminding me about it and jogging me to actually do something about it this time.

  • Emily, I think it was the grouchiness that bothered me. I found it mean-spirited without any humor or self-deprecation to enliven it a touch. But you're right; I was probably in the wrong place for it. I wasn't wise enough to spread these essays out -- I barrelled through them at a pretty fast clip.

  • SW: Wow, looks like I just squeaked in under the wire of convincing you, with only one week left in my project! ;-) Seriously though, I bet you will find a lot here to love. The best thing I've gotten out of it is a huge wish list of authors whose essays I'd love to look into in greater depth. Happy reading!

    Jenny: Yeah, I can understand that. I had that reaction to Hazlitt when I read him as part of the Lopate book, and Lopate says that Hazlitt is his hero. But for some reason Lopate himself I found funny & even kind of charming. Maybe I was feeling particularly grouchy myself that day! :-)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography