LPD Reads: Joan Didion's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"
What did the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s feel like? This a question that we at LPD have been considering lately as our series 1968/2018: Year of Revolt has gotten underway.
It is also the question at the heart of Joan Didion’s treasured collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published as a complete book fifty years ago in - you guessed it - 1968. An account of this iconic decade, Slouching Towards Bethlehem presents us with a rare portrait of the 1960s that is not as utopian, glamorous, or romantic as it has been remembered in popular culture. Instead, Didion, one of the greatest living American essayists, does what she does best in capturing the spirit of the times, showing us that this rebellious chapter in history was more complicated, challenging, and even painful, than we may often recognize.
The first third of the book deals with “Life Styles in the Golden Land,” and opens in 1964 in the San Bernardino Valley with a true account of a woman on trial for setting fire to her husband in his car one summer’s night. Lucille Miller, the accused, was raised by Adventist parents in the prairies of Manitoba, married swiftly and young, and moved to California “in search of something she had seen in a movie or heard on the radio.”
Image c/o A. Davey, San Francisco Wedding 1968
After settling down in the Sunshine State however, her dream was not as easy to realize as she had expected. The Millers fell out of love just as readily as they had first come upon it, and Lucille took up an affair with a local attorney whose wife mysteriously died before the Millers decided to divorce and Gordon Miller met his tragic fate. Covering the sensationalized court proceedings, Didion softly suggests that the whole debacle isn’t really about homicide, deceit, or adultery, but something far more philosophical in the minds of restless youth, like Lucille. Instead, she shows us the lengths to which Lucile’s generation have internalized a growing state of rebellion - so much so that their desire to transgress might culminate in a burst of flames early one morning on Banyan Street.
Didion quietly follows this thread throughout essays on John Wayne, Las Vegas weddings, self-respect, monster movies, and California hippies, peeling back the glamorous veil of an era marked by rock stars and fashion, to reveal considerable myopia within the countercultural movement. In the most famous of her studies, Didion spends time with squatters in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, documenting the daily existence of the fledgling hippy community; here, she writes about missing children - some as young as fourteen - who have run away from comfortable homes, and taken up acid, joined cults, and bucked convention.
“The center was not holding,” she writes at the onset of the titular essay. “It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled.”
Image by Kent Kanouse in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, 1967
It can be easy to gloss this over in our culture’s remembering of the ‘idyllic’ ‘60s, which were, in fact, very much underpinned by poverty and chaos. As Didion acknowledges, many of the white youth who left their suburban homes for Haight-Ashbury came from families of means, and as such, their idealization of poverty comes across as naive and uninformed. The portrait of these teenagers that Didion paints is, while not patronizing, not particularly optimistic either. One of the most exemplary images in Slouching Towards Bethlehem is that of a five year-old on a living room floor, tripping on acid and peyote given to her by her mother; in their mission to subvert conventional society, the hippies Didion meets in Haight-Ashbury are largely ignorant of the collateral damage they left in their wake.
Today, when we look back with admiration for the social activists of the 1960s, I hope that we do so with a greater sense of awareness, and an appreciation of what mechanisms of counterculture were more legitimate than others. While black activists around the United States risked their lives in sit-ins, marches, and strikes, and faced racism and segregation, Didion’s privileged hippies casually dismissed their access to democratic systems for an extended recess from society. In many ways, Slouching Towards Bethlehem can be read as a cautionary tale against rebelling out of ennui rather than in response to oppression, or for losing sight of the sociopolitical aims of counterculture in favour of what is easy and ‘cool’ - such as withdrawing from civilization and imagining a better world, instead of endeavouring to create one.
In 2018, students are not leaving society because of our frustrations with it, we are demanding that society wake up and accept our point of view. We are not walking out of our families to create change, we are walking out of our schools and classrooms as acts of organized protest. Our brand of activism - while inspired by the energy and commitment of those who came before - feels distinct from the rebel-at-all-costs ideology; whether this is sustainable is yet to be seen, but with continued resistance and a willingness to rethink, adapt, and revise, time will tell.
Maybe one day, the great future Joan Didion’s of the world will write about us too, but this time, they will be more optimistic. I know that I am.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is an anthology of essays and creative non-fiction written by American writer Joan Didion and published in 1968, lauded by the New York Times Book Review as some of the finest written American prose of the modern age. Didion is a National Book Award winner and was presented the National Medal of the Arts by Barack Obama in 2013.
Join La Pietra Dialogues for “March of the Millennials,” a workshop by and for students from New York University and University of Florence discussing contemporary student activism, on April 17, 2018.