South & West by Joan Didion

Taken from a notebook Didion wrote in during her travel through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama during June 1970, South and West consists of her observations, bits of overheard dialogue, conversations with strangers, and musings on the land, culture, and geography of the places and spaces Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne traveled through and stopped at during their journey.

The impetus for her travel came from a desire to understand something abut California, and the West, by learning and understanding more about the South. Her trajectory of thought may seem counter-intuitive, but one need only look back into recent history to understand her reasoning. 

Beginning in the early 1900's, the United States saw a mass exodus of African Americans leaving the South in favor for the West and Pacific-Northwest region. We refer to this moment in history as the Great Migration, and it was followed shortly after by the Second Great Migration, spurred by the Great Depression of the 1930's, and lasted until the 1970's. During this period of about 70 years, around 6 million people packed up their family, belongings, and culture, and looked to the West and all it represented for a better future. 

Didion's intention to better understand the West by means of the South directly aligns with this historical exodus, and as Nathaniel Rich says in his forward, "Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America. 

The West, and California specifically, have long represented a kind of romantic American ideal of ultimate freedom and opportunity; powerful and lasting remnants from the fever of manifest destiny in the 19th century. By contrast, the South has long been connotative of a space infinitely tethered to the past; steeped in it, in fact.  These associations compound onto the very land itself - the West fertile and abundant, whereas the forests of the South are almost Gothic in nature, malevolent and wild.

This theme of the untamed wild is a predominate one in the first section of Didion's book, "Notes from the South." Didion introduces us to New Orleans by first describing the nature around her: "In New Orleans, the wilderness is sensed as very near, not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent, the idea of wilderness not as an escape from civilization and its discontents but as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect" (22). 

In South and West, Didion gives us intimate insight into pockets and moments in small, rural towns via bits of dialogue she jots down while eavesdropping nearby, or, touring through a city by car with one of the locals, and the overall picture she paints of her time in the South, positions it as a sort of mystical place stuck in time, and out of sync with mainstream America: "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" (34). 

When describing New Orleans from the perspective of her car window driving down the road, Didion illustrates for us a sense of fear and dread that was pervasive throughout her and John's travel:

"The snakes, the rotting undergrowth, sulphurous light: the images are so specifically those of the nightmare world that when we stopped for gas, or directions, I had to steel myself, deaden every nerve, in order to step from the car onto the crush oyster shells in front of the gas station. When we got back to the hotel I stood in the shower for almost half an hour trying to wash myself clean of the afternoon, but then I started to think where the water came from, what dark places it had pooled in"(21).  


"Notes from the South" ends with Didion and John journeying back to California, arguing on the interstate and spending a "silent night" in a motel before flying back to San Francisco the next day, which transitions us to the second, much smaller section of the book, "Notes on California," where Didion is sent to write about the Patty Hearst trail in San Francisco. 

The lesson that Didion got from her travel, what she gleaned from the South to help her better understand the West is never explicitly stated or discussed. 

Nor should it be. 

That's the beauty of this book: it's not purposeful in its intention. In both sections from her notes, there is an introductory paragraph written by Didion in the present. Each one ends by stating that whatever piece she meant or intended to write during her travel to the South, or San Francisco never got written. 

Instead, "Notes on California"details Didion's time spent in San Francisco where she found herself only wanting to write about her childhood growing up in California, musing on her grandmother, tectonic plates, and the sharks that swim under the Golden Gate bridge. 

In these seemingly disparate sections of writing from her notebooks, what the reader ultimately gleans from South and West is a better understanding of influence, and the American cultural landscape as seen and experienced by one writer. 

In the end, it wasn't Didion's writing on or about her travel in South and West  that stuck with me. It was Didion and her process for exploring, learning and knowing the world around her that did. It was her methodology of calling on certain people in the towns she was visiting, like the owner of a local radio station, or a cashier at a gas station, to get a picture of the local scene. Didion has never been a conservative writer; known for giving readers full access into the emotional and mental state of herself and those around her, I found South and West to be one of Didion's more intimate writings. Her notebooks illustrate her thought process, and more interestingly, what strikes her, and what makes enough of an impression on her to write about it. 

If you're looking for a quick, meaningful and interpretive read that will inspire your own writing, I'd recommend South and West. If you love reading about places and spaces in America from the lens of a traveling writer, this is the book for you.

If you're looking for a cohesive, well-structured and purpose-driven read, I suggest you keep looking. 

Erin E BarrioComment