I remember falling in literary love with the work of Joan Didion, who passed away on Dec. 23 at the age of 87. One spring, some years ago, I got her essay collection “Slouching toward Bethlehem” from the Baltimore Public Library and found myself enchanted by this chilly, yet beautiful and inspiring, writer. Two essays from that collection exemplified her unique appeal.
One was “Letter from Paradise 21° 19′ N., 157° 52′ W” (1966), about visiting Hawaii. Although her nonfiction writing covered many topics, what Didion excelled at was the description and analysis of a place: a state, a city, a neighborhood or even a specific building or structure. She was best known for writing about her home state of California and was probably most eloquent on this topic. Yet she wrote with similar skill on many other locales, including Hawaii, New York City, the Hoover Dam and Gilded Age mansions in Newport.
“Letter from Paradise” included the characteristic features of these essays on places. Didion provided a detailed, near-lyrical description of how the spot looked and felt. She described the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, located in an extinct volcano’s crater, how it was “high enough into the rainforest so that a soft mist falls most of the day.” She noted the presence of new graves that “do not yet have stones, only plastic identification cards” because “they are bringing in bodies now from Vietnam.” Didion found the telling human detail: When a female mourner placed three leis on a grave, they were wilted because of how long she twisted them in her hands.
Going beneath the surface, she analyzed the political and economic conditions underlying life in this part of the world. “Letter from Paradise” ranged widely across Hawaiian history and society, from the archipelago’s pre- World War II years as a colonial fiefdom run by a handful of families to its postwar growth into a hub of global American military might (“Perhaps nowhere else in the United States is the prospect of war regarded with so much equanimity”). Didion described the dissolute, desperate behavior of sailors on leave, and Hawaii’s complex race relations, including the growing racial diversity of the prestigious Punahou school. The essay offered a glimpse into the hard, often sinister, realities beneath the kitschy, tourist-friendly Hawaiian image that usually prevailed.
Last, she included an element of personal anecdote: how she cried at the submerged remains of the USS Utah and USS Arizona, relics of the Pearl Harbor attacks. This subjective dimension of Didion’s essays, which some might have found self-absorbed, added something for me. Didion’s discussion of how places affected her made her reportage relatable.
The other exemplary essay was “On Self-Respect” (1961), in which the usually pessimistic, even nihilistic, Didion became (for me, at least) inspiring. She described, in an impressionistic way, the characteristics she viewed as marking a self-respecting person.
One is a willingness to accept hardship and sacrifice in the pursuit of a goal. “One lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts,” she wrote. As she put it, “it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price.”
Another sign of self-respect is accepting one’s inevitable failures in life. Yet another is not being dependent on other people for our sense of self-worth and therefore being willing sometimes to forgo others’ approval and affection. The alternative is to be “peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notions of us.”
What links these characteristics, what is at the heart of self-respect, is to stick to one’s own code or goal (whatever that might be) even when it is difficult or means going your own way.
Didion touched on something powerful here and not only in the essay “On Self-Respect.” Her pursuit of a career as a writer and reporter (her famous painful shyness notwithstanding) and her idiosyncratic, sometimes cold, analyses and reflections demonstrated a similar determination to go her own way. In keeping with her California background and concerns, Didion’s life and work fit into an appropriately western mold: stoic, laconic, drawn toward solitude. She was hardly a heartwarming writer, but, for a certain kind of kindred spirit, her work is unforgettable.
John Whitehead (email@example.com) is a writer who lives in Baltimore.