Southern Discomfort

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Author Joan Didion at her New York apartment in 2005. 

The images are of water, the murky kind, the kind with snakes and water moccasins and alligators and mud, the kind in which the distinction between swamp and stagnant river is difficult to discern. Water is a familiar Joan Didion obsession, but as she journeys through the Gulf South in the summer of 1970, she begins to sense that, cut off from the cultural centers of the East and West coasts, steeped in a section of America suffocating in its past, she is “underwater in some real sense.” In Didion’s account of this road trip, the light, which on the highway to Biloxi, Mississippi, is “entirely absorbed by what it strikes,” is also an element of this haunting nightmare-scape, one with crushed oyster shells crunching underfoot at a gas station, and whose residents have a “vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.”

As she and her husband set off from New Orleans, Didion recounts her paranoia of snakes in the mud. She observes an atmosphere of decay and rot, death by drowning, the above-ground crypts, the people, who, having “mastered the art of the motionless,” exist in the “hypnotic liquidity” of this city where “there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead.” Perhaps, though, that is the lesson. Down in the 1970s South, where gift shops sell Confederate flag beach towels and roadhouse menus offer “Wop Salad,” where signs announce that “782,000 Alabama Baptists Welcome You!” and the wealthy want to leave white tenants to their food stamps, there really are snakes in the mud.

South and West (Alfred A. Knopf, March 2017), is a journal of previously unpublished notes on essayist and novelist Joan Didion’s 1970 journey through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. (The book also contains a brief section about California and the 1976 trial of Patricia Hearst.) While the observations of the South date from nearly a half-century ago, there is something disturbing about reading them for the first time in 2017. The notebooks describe a still-present divide in the nation, a divide that in November 2016 led to the election of a president by one of the lowest popular-vote totals in U.S. history (47th out of the last 49 elections).  

South and West also represents the latest chapter in the Didion revival of recent years, which began with the 2005 National Book Award–winning The Year of Magical Thinking about Didion’s grief over losing her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in 2003. A new generation of fans read the autobiographical account as a love story; many attended productions of the 2007 stage version, a one-woman play originally starring Vanessa Redgrave. This was followed in 2011 by Blue Nights, about the loss of Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, a book looser and more elliptical in its grief. In July 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Didion the National Humanities Medal. Still to come, her nephew Griffin Dunne is producing a documentary on the 82-year-old writer’s life, an effort that more than 3,500 enthusiasts helped fund through a Kickstarter campaign.

Because these more recent works are deeply personal, South and West is an incongruent piece of the revival. While the book is interesting as an example of Didion’s reporting process, offering insight into the time when she was producing the journalism that defined her style, it lacks the kind of research and more extensive reflections characteristic of Didion’s finished work. The first section of South and West reads as if Didion had begun to polish her notes into a full essay, while later sections read more as raw jottings and brief observations. We do get some of the personal, too. She relates, for example, that she bought that Confederate flag beach towel, leaving us to guess at her motivation but explaining that “it is ragged and gray now and sits in my linen closet in California … and my child prefers it to the good ones.” But these autobiographical details are infrequent, and South and West is short, a mere Didion fragment. It leaves her devotees wanting more about Didion herself. Who is the N. from Louisiana, for instance, who teaches her to cook? The N. she once tried to kill with a kitchen knife? Why did she never expect to return to the South married?

Several of Didion’s 1970 notes on racism, economic disparity, religion, sexism, and politics in the South feel as if they could refer to our present time. In the days following the 2016 presidential election, such signs as “Thank You, Jesus, for the Victory!” hung in rural Virginia towns alongside Confederate flags. Sixty-two percent of voters in small towns and rural areas voted for Donald Trump, compared to 34 percent for Clinton, according to the Pew Research Center. White voters in these areas, more than white residents in suburban and urban areas, are struggling to find jobs, believe immigrants are hurting American workers, and have deep concerns about their children’s financial future. While poverty in the South has declined since 1960, when the region contained 49 percent of the nation’s impoverished population, in 2010 it still contained 41 percent of the country’s poorest residents. Amid these realities, South and West offers a prescient parallel from the past about the South’s racial and economic anxieties and reminds us what hasn’t changed, what Americans living outside of the South and other rural areas have ignored, the lessons not learned. The South, Didion writes, “is a true earlier time” and acts as if “the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”

During her trip, Didion interviews Stan Torgerson, an announcer for the University of Mississippi football and basketball games, who bought WQIC, “the black radio station” in Meridian, Mississippi, when it came up for sale (“I own the ethnic station,” he tells her). He claims that the KKK is no longer a factor in the community and describes Meridian as progressing through, as Didion puts it, “ever higher flights of economic possibility.” The vague promise of industry that Didion continually encounters foreshadows Trump’s vow to voters that he will “Make America Great Again!”

When the interview with Torgerson is over, Didion tells us, “Glazed by the two hours in which this man in the green shirt had laid Meridian out before us as an entrepreneur’s dream, a Shoney’s Po’ Boy on every corner and progress everywhere, even at the country club, I dropped him off and drove through the still-deserted streets of the downtown.” She continues on, stopping to watch a man with a shotgun in the middle of the avenue. He’s shooting pigeons, he tells her, and Didion reflects, “In this one demented afternoon Mississippi lost much of its power to astonish me.”

Perhaps a more disconcerting parallel of South and West to today’s politics is one of information. After attending a brunch at the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention, Didion observes, “The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.” Sounds familiar. The issue today isn’t solely that the president of the United States lies constantly; it’s that his most fervent supporters, who appear to be removed from any kind of credible information, believe him and can’t understand why major media outlets aren’t portraying his administration as successful. Didion could be an outsider looking in on a Trump rally when she writes during her 1970 trip that “I had the feeling that I had been too long on the Gulf Coast, that my own sources of information were distant and removed.”

The South’s isolation from the rest of the country, as Didion depicts it, is also cultural. She describes her “long straight hair, which is not seen in the South among respectable women past the age of fourteen,”  and writes that she “kept escaping” to a new shopping center, as it seems a way “back into midstream America.” The road trip lasts only a month, but by its conclusion, the nightmarish atmosphere of racism and swamps and “another still, brown river” is all-consuming: “Every night in our motel room we got out the maps and figured out how many hours’ driving time to Jackson, to New Orleans, to Baton Rouge, to the closest place the planes left from.” She doesn’t visit the writer Eudora Welty “because planes left from Jackson for New York and California, and I knew I would not last ten minutes in Jackson without telephoning Delta or National and getting out.”

In the end, Didion doesn’t do the piece she originally intended to write. Had she attempted to complete a full essay, she might have drowned in all that murky water, taking her readers with her. During the trip, she says, “it occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken, would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?”

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