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Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (1968)

de Joan Didion

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4,200862,858 (4.1)144
The "dazzling" and essential portrayal of 1960s America from the author of South and West and The Year of Magical Thinking (The New York Times). Capturing the tumultuous landscape of the United States, and in particular California, during a pivotal era of social change, the first work of nonfiction from one of American literature's most distinctive prose stylists is a modern classic. In twenty razor-sharp essays that redefined the art of journalism, National Book Award-winning author Joan Didion reports on a society gripped by a deep generational divide, from the "misplaced children" dropping acid in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district to Hollywood legend John Wayne filming his first picture after a bout with cancer. She paints indelible portraits of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes and folk singer Joan Baez, "a personality before she was entirely a person," and takes readers on eye-opening journeys to Death Valley, Hawaii, and Las Vegas, "the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements." First published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem has been heralded by the New York Times Book Review as "a rare display of some of the best prose written today in this country" and named to Time magazine's list of the one hundred best and most influential nonfiction books. It is the definitive account of a terrifying and transformative decade in American history whose discordant reverberations continue to sound a half-century later.… (mais)
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The essay about migraines was kind of amazing. ( )
  caedocyon | Mar 11, 2024 |
Summary: A collection of essays, most originally published as Saturday Evening Post articles describing Didion’s first years back in California, during the height of the hippie movement.

I never read Joan Didion’s work while she was alive. Only in recent years have I developed a taste for essays, and as I read essayists, Didion’s name comes up repeatedly as a master of the craft. This work is her first non-fiction (she published a novel, Run, River, in 1963). This set of essays, most of which first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, were mostly written between 1964-1967. These were her first years back in her home state of California after eight years of working for Vogue in New York City, to which she eventually returned.

The essays capture the ethos of California in the mid-1960s, the mix of sunny optimism, the agricultural belt of the Sacramento Valley, where she grew up, the nervous lassitude of Los Angeles when the Santa Ana winds rise, and the outlaw fighter John Wayne after he “licked the Big C” the outlaw cells that had threatened his life when she was on set covering the making of The Sons of Katie Elder, Wayne’s 165th film. In stark contrast, she profiles Joan Baez and her Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. She describes Baez as “a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be.”

Her title essay, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, recounts her time in 1967 in Haight-Asbury during the “summer of love” where youth from all over the country flocked to San Francisco signaling an unraveling in the social fabric of the country, an inchoate longing. She describes the people she met, the flophouses like The Warehouse they lived, the prodigious use of drugs, and the do-gooders like Arthur Lisch with utopian visions who ended up caring for kids when they crashed, and the Zen alternatives to trips. Already, the demise of Haight was apparent to some.

“Personals,” the second section collects articles with a more interior focus: her notebook keeping, thoughts on morality and self-respect (“Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home”). She reminds us of 1960’s monster movies and what is like to go home when it is no longer home.

The final part, “Seven Places of the Mind” take us from Hawaii to Alcatraz to Newport and to her eight years in New York. The essay on Newport, “The Seacoast of Despair” gave voice to my own experience of the lavish mansions of a bygone age, sterile and sad. In New York, she describes the point at which she stopped believing in “new faces” and felt herself becoming increasingly estranged from the whole scene, rescued by her husband who took a six-month leave that turned into a long-term residence in California.

There is so much of interest here. Didion masterfully crafts sentences and tells non-fiction stories. She is a keen observer of herself, the places where she visits or lives, and the times through which she was living. Whether profiling the famous or the unknown, like Comrade Laski of the Communist Party of the United States of America, she opens our eyes to both their individuality and the ways they serve larger than life roles as types.

Some of us are at a point of reflecting back over our lives, and summing up what they’ve meant. These essays were a lens to consider at least a part of that life. I’m intrigued enough to read more of her insights on the times we have both traversed and how she made sense of them. It strikes me that we had so many dreams of changing the world and indeed, the world has changed, but not as we expected. I wonder if Didion was as surprised and unsettled as I find myself in looking at the the world sixty years later. Or did she indeed foresee the center that cannot hold and the beast slouching toward Bethlehem? ( )
  BobonBooks | Mar 7, 2024 |
My own failing but there were times in some of these pieces that I had no idea what Joan Didion was writing about. The writing is so reliant on American popular cultural references that with the passage of time they have become opaque to non-American readers. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Joan Didion's insights, feistiness and her turn of phrase. This collection is a book I could and should re-read because there is treasure to be found and some of the pieces set me off into deep reflections on how to live. Perhaps the most memorable for me (because I read it yesterday) was in Seven Place of the Mind: The Seacoast of Despair. When the hopes and dreams of a mercantile culture come to fruition:

Who could think that the building of a railroad could guarantee salvation, when there on the lawns of the men who built the railroad nothing is left but the shadows of migrainous women, and the pony carts waiting for the long-dead children?
( )
  simonpockley | Feb 25, 2024 |
The essay about migraines was kind of amazing. ( )
  caedocyon | Feb 23, 2024 |
first published in 1968
  betty_s | Sep 18, 2023 |
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Joan Didionautor principaltodas as ediçõescalculado
Keaton, DianeNarradorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
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W. B. Yeats's poem beginning:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;


...is set down in full, as well as a quote from Miss Peggy Lee:

I learned courage from Buddah, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.
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This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.
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To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.
It is often said that New York City is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.
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The "dazzling" and essential portrayal of 1960s America from the author of South and West and The Year of Magical Thinking (The New York Times). Capturing the tumultuous landscape of the United States, and in particular California, during a pivotal era of social change, the first work of nonfiction from one of American literature's most distinctive prose stylists is a modern classic. In twenty razor-sharp essays that redefined the art of journalism, National Book Award-winning author Joan Didion reports on a society gripped by a deep generational divide, from the "misplaced children" dropping acid in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district to Hollywood legend John Wayne filming his first picture after a bout with cancer. She paints indelible portraits of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes and folk singer Joan Baez, "a personality before she was entirely a person," and takes readers on eye-opening journeys to Death Valley, Hawaii, and Las Vegas, "the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements." First published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem has been heralded by the New York Times Book Review as "a rare display of some of the best prose written today in this country" and named to Time magazine's list of the one hundred best and most influential nonfiction books. It is the definitive account of a terrifying and transformative decade in American history whose discordant reverberations continue to sound a half-century later.

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