New Review of an Old Book - Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Mary Catherine Ballou

Published in 1968, Joan Didion’s first nonfiction book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, recounts and muses upon various vignettes of social, political, and existential occurrences in American lives during the 1960s. She especially reflects on life in California, showing how its particular history and environment shapes and morphs the psyches of its inhabitants. Trained as a reporter, Didion began her journalism career working at Vogue for two years. Much of her writing resembles the style of seasoned reporters, appearing like evidence from eyewitness accounts. With an objective clarity, keen wit, and shrewd outlook, she composes each essay and eschews personal judgment, yet still implies tragic bents that cut to the heart of matters with descriptive analyses of people and their environments.


Didion prefaces her book with the poem written by William Butler Yeats in 1919 entitled “The Second Coming.” It contains the closing lines: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Written in the aftermath of World War I, Yeats’s poem is a reaction to the death and destruction of the war, in conjunction with the rapid rise of industrialization. The effects were widespread, unanticipated, and horrendous, and Yeats, among countless others, felt the world was falling apart.


Didion divulges the reasoning behind her book’s poem-derived title, stating, “…For several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem…have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern” (p. xxv). Didion uses the imagery of the poem to echo and propel her attempt to comprehend the chaos she senses around her during the 1960s. With this in mind, it becomes clear why she chose to transpose Yeats’s poem onto the feelings she emits through her collected writing.


Comprised of three main sections, each containing several short nonfiction stories, Slouching Towards Bethlehem also serves as the title of a piece within the section called “Life Styles in the Golden Land.” The other section called “Personals” includes essays published in various magazines that contain didactic tones, while “Seven Places of the Mind” portrays intimate anecdotes about Didion’s time in different locales, such as New York City, Hawaii, and Alcatraz Island. In “Lifestyles in the Golden Land,” Didion illuminates eccentric, sordid details surrounding the lives of West Coast residents, covering a broad range of social strata from stories of murderous housewives in the Los Angeles suburbs, to smoke-and-mirror, cash-strapped, dubious think tank centers in Santa Barbara, to the harmony-seeking school of musician Joan Baez in the Carmel Valley, to the ignoble proclivities of Hollywood, to the drug-induced, alternatively-minded haze of 1960s San Francisco youth culture replete with hippies, flower power, and anti-establishment mindsets.


Didion declares, “‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ is also the title of one piece in the book, and that piece, which derived from some time spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was for me both the most imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was printed. It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder” (p. xxv-xxvi). Didion did not write this piece merely to expose the lives of displaced youth in San Francisco – she wrote it in an effort to observe and hopefully come to terms with the inevitability of disorder. While this degeneration may be most apparent in her essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the entire book acknowledges the inclination for matter to tend toward entropy.  


Didion discloses the unpredictable nature of her own life in the last section. “Seven Places of the Mind” is a compilation of firsthand narrations, ranging from Didion’s upbringing in Sacramento, California to the fickle, unpredictable experience of her young adult years. She unveils aspects of her time living in New York City as a young woman, not exactly knowing what path she wants to pursue in life or where she will ultimately end up. Even though Slouching Towards Bethlehem was written and published 48 years ago, its lessons will always remain relevant. In addition to its expressive depictions of myriad lifestyles and mindsets, this book concedes that while chaos is inevitable, one must continue to think and act, because life moves on and the opportunities to rebuild are endless. People and circumstances change, but that is OK because change, although sometimes scary, is inevitable and translates to progress, and without change there is no progress, and without progress there is no hope.

Didion also emphasizes the importance of archives however futile they may seem, the enigmatic recollection of memories, and the silent cords of hysteria and subversive thought running through the undercurrents of society. Her essays assert, in both obvious and subtle ways, the difficult realization found in Yeats’s poem: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The Ceremony of innocence is drowned / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Still, Didion knows that things can always be rearranged and reassembled, and she confirms this by the simple fact that she herself found the courage and will to write this book, creating a documentation of both her life and the lives around her. These records help prove and sustain the worth and purpose of our existence, enlightening readers of the infinite ways life can morph but nonetheless carry on.