Her credo was that real Americans can only fall from grace, and any journey in the other direction is simply wrong.
When I wandered into a bookstore in Palm Beach, Fla., a few weeks ago, I found a collection of modern Christmas short stories. It included an entry by Joan Didion. “That’s funny,” I thought. “I didn’t know she celebrates such things.” And, sure enough, the story ends in tears. I wasn’t surprised when Didion celebrated this Christmas early in her own, rather morbid way: She succumbed to Parkinson’s disease on Thursday in her Manhattan apartment.
That news came as a shock to no one else, either. Didion was 87 years old and wispy. She’d been effectively retired since 2011, when she released Blue Nights, a memoir of her daughter’s freak death and a sequel to The Year of Magical Thinking, which covered her husband’s own untimely demise. These are no doubt the first entries in a massive library of posthumous Didioniana.
None of these books will dampen Didion’s reputation, because she’s no longer known for her writing: She’s a cultural icon now. Her cigarettes are fetish objects for the same people who obsess over Hunter S. Thompson’s haircut and Tom Wolfe’s suits. But, unlike those two, who relied on their cult status after their literary gifts crapped out, Didion toward the end of her life was constantly trying to un-deify herself. In an interview with Time at the beginning of this year, she snapped at a young reporter who asked her what it felt like to be a fashion icon: “I don’t know that I am one.” And when that same interviewer asked her what she thought it meant to be the voice of her generation, Didion shut the notion down: “I don’t have the slightest idea.”
Didion didn’t say these things because she was humble. She said them because she was cold — even to herself — and she was proud of that fact. She paused, and then flashed him a big smirk. “Let me tell you, it was gold,” she said. “You live for moments like that.”
Malcolm, who passed away this summer, thought of herself as a teller of uncomfortable truths, and she was constantly praising the people whom she viewed as confrères: J. D. Salinger, Rachel Maddow, and a host of other bleeding-heart personalities. For this same reason, she excelled at the savage take-down essay. She truly believed there were things worth upholding.
Didion dismissed this attitude as self-righteous, and she resented anyone who behaved in earnest. Early in her career, she most frequently attacked brainy celebrities. In a nasty assessment of Annie Hall, she described Woody Allen’s demeanor as “exactly the false and desperate knowingness of the smartest kid in the class.” When an Allen defender wrote to her to accuse her of the same fault, she replied with two words: “Oh, wow.”
As she grew older, Didion turned her critical eye to politics. She famously ragged on Peggy Noonan, Edmund Morris, and anyone else who perpetuated the myth of Ronald Reagan. Twenty years later, she applied the same criticisms to Barack Obama and his cult following. “Naiveté, translated into ‘hope,’ was now in,” she wrote in reference to the 2008 presidential election.
How did these people earn Didion’s scorn? They sinned against her credo, which was that real Americans can only fall from grace, and any journey in the other direction is simply wrong. This was a belief that Didion expressed over and over again in her writing for decades on end.
“Every real American story begins in innocence and never stops mourning the loss of it,” Didion wrote in a 1962 NR piece.
Anyone who saw the world otherwise was a fool. This is why Didion thrived when she was condemning hippies, Reaganites, and Obama’s adoring fans.
We can only pray that Saint Peter had a sense of humor when she approached his gate.