"This book," Joan Didion announces near the beginning of Where I Was From, her meditation on the ways "California" signifies in the American psyche, "represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely."
Would that we all were confused the way Joan Didion is confused. Yes, the book is "oblique" and goes at the "California conundrum" from a variety of idiosyncratic angles: in its 226 pages, Didion passes from examinations of diaries of Donner Party survivors to a (sly, funny) analysis of California's schlocky "painter of light" Thomas Kinkade; from contemplations of the Bay Area's world-leader retreat called the Bohemian Club to studies of the Lakewood Spur Posse scandal of the early 1990s; from discussions of the development of California's agriculture, railroads and real estate to arguments about the way the waves of immigration "obliterate" Californian memory; from analysis of literary work on the state by Josiah Royce, Frank Norris, Jack London and Henry George (as well as Didion's own first novel) to (extremely guarded) reflections on her family's history.
But, as Emily Dickinson knew, obliqueness is a virtue in a writer ("Tell the truth but tell it slant"), and in the end, a provocative, intense and very clear idea runs through Didion's book: California, as an idea, is a lie we can't stop believing, and it has been a lie from the beginning. No wonder, then, that Didion no longer lives here, that the title is in the past tense.
The California promise, the dream of "the golden state," began, of course, with the gold rush, and Didion gives us a number of versions of the Edenic mythologies of the place that arose along with the hysteria for riches. She quotes Henry George about the early white prospectors: "There has been a feeling of general hopefulness and self-reliance, and a certain large-heartedness and open-handedness which was born of the comparative evenness with which property was distributed, the high standard of wages and comfort, and the latent feeling of everyone that he might 'make a strike.'"
Didion doesn't discount the well-intentioned George's analysis of such "feelings," but with her usual devastating way of marshaling historical fact, she debunks just about every aspect of the myth presented here. Aside from the well-known fact that most prospectors went broke damn quick, Didion notes that Californians were almost never "self-reliant," but counted on federal land giveaways, grants and guaranteed loans to initiate everything from small local farms to huge railroad projects. (And, to extend the argument: the huge post-World War II expansion in California was due less to individual inventiveness and "the entrepreneurial spirit" than it was to the cornucopic billions in defense contracts flowing for 40 years from the Pentagon.) And the "large heartedness" of white settlers was directed mostly at other white settlers: violence against Chinese and Mexican immigrants was common—and mostly unreported.
The idea of California was for the first settlers a strange and alluring compound, the result of a response to its admittedly gorgeous landscapes (which is where we get John Muir's encomia to the state); the blind optimism of its settlers; and large, brutal and often unnoticed economic forces that gathered the state's enormous resources into the hands of a few (the Huntingtons, Crockers and Stanfords) while propagandizing about the state's opportunities for all. Didion finds the California dream mythology everywhere, resilient as hell, as Teflon-protected from the little disturbances of fact and history as Arnold Schwarzenegger was during the mind-glazing political theater of the past few weeks. (Arnold, of course, is the latest version of the myth and deserves his own chapter in this book—maybe she'll add an epilogue for the paperback.) She finds it in an eighth-grade graduation speech she gave in 1948: "California has accomplished much in the past few years. It would be easy for us to sit back and enjoy the results of the past. But we can't do this. . . . We must live up to our heritage, go on to better and greater things for California." She finds it in the landscape painting of Albert Bierstadt, especially his famous Donner Lake painting, which while it possesses the "lustrous pearly mist" that Mark Twain raved about, just happens to obscure the fact that the area represented in the painting is most notable not for its sublime views but for the cannibalism of the Donner Party. She finds it also in the many versions of the "crossing story," those tales of migration from East to West that always involved danger and the overcoming of danger, the vaulting of obstacles through hardscrabble individualism and stubborn devotion to an end that was to redeem the journey's troubles.
It's understandable that the crossing story would enter the California idea of itself, but in the passage from fact to myth, Californians erased such stories as the one related in a diary written by Bernard Reid, who crossed to California in 1849 and came upon a girl of 17 sitting in a wagon whose oxen had been stolen by Indians. Both her parents had died of cholera two days before—their fresh graves were beside the road—and her brother was sick of the disease inside the wagon. Her eyes, Reid wrote, were "apparently directed at vacancy," and when finally roused by Reid, she told him that the train of wagons she'd been traveling with had abandoned her, "fearful, if they delayed longer, of being caught by winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains." Reid asked in the diary, "Who could tell the deep sense of bereavement, distress and desolation that weighed on that poor girl's heart, there in the wilderness with no telling what fate was in store for her and her sick brother?" For her part, Didion asks us how she could have been abandoned like this and how those who abandoned her and her brother could ever redeem their voyage West.
By forgetting it, of course. Forgetting is the great secret that allows the California myth to bloom, Didion suggests. Forgetting is what allowed Virginia Reed, one of the survivors of the Donner catastrophe, to write to her cousin: "But thank God, we are the only family that did not eat human flesh. We have left everything, but I don't care for that. We have got through with our lives. Don't let this letter dishearten anybody. Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can."
Forgetting, not caring for having left everything, hurrying along as fast as one could was what seemed to animate Didion's mother, who, despite having roots in California that went back for generations, "spoke enthusiastically . . . about moving to the Australian outback."
"Just leave California?" her husband asked. Could she really give it all up and forget California?
"In a minute," she replied. "Just forget it."
Mass forgetting is what allows Californians to stand aside while their landscapes, their buildings, their developments, sometimes their whole towns are periodically torn up and rebuilt. And it's forgetting that ultimately strands Californians in history, dulling the past and making the myth that has come to replace it the only thing to hold on to—the mirage come to replace the desert.
Where I Was From, with its astringencies of argument, its stubborn refusal to respond to the glamorous and giddy illusions California has spawned for itself, is a deeply melancholy book, perhaps the most joyless of Didion's career. Even the prose seems tamped-down. Mostly, it lacks the blood-barbed wit, the icy drop-dead irony, the long sentences sinuous as the snakes that reliably pop up in her work as reminders of the dread possibly lurking under every rock. It's not a wicked read, as Play It As It Lays is, nor does she give us the pleasure of hating a villain that her last collection of essays (Political Fictions, mostly on horrible Republicans) provides. Where I Was From is a final reckoning with one part of Didion's past, but its sadness isn't the sadness of one who mourns a lost past—not the sadness of nostalgia—but of whatever replaces nostalgia in the heart of a writer who now firmly believes that the golden age of her youth was never golden, that it was illusion and lies from the start.
Where I Was From by Joan Didion; Alfred K. Knopf. Hardcover, 226 pages, $23.
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