What is the South? The answer isn’t easy; hell, getting enough facts in one pile is hard enough, then you have to figure in observer, perspective, and perception. A dedicated minority of natives maintain that the South is a fluid, protean, shattered chimerical idea as well as just a place to hang your hat. This embracing grassroots duality is compounded (likely compromised) not only by Cash, Woodward, Foote, and their myriad lesser ilk, but also those from outside the South–the nation, the continent, even the hemisphere–who come here to write about it. And they are legion.
Joan Didion, a product of New Journalism, is best known for her introspective writings on culture and politics, though her most acclaimed works are deeply personal; The White Album (1979), including the title essay dealing with a nervous breakdown and The Year of Magical Thinking, (2005), written shortly after the deaths of her daughter and husband. It’s worth noting that her trip to the Gulf South was taken only two years after her critically acclaimed Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a gritty, myth-busting account of California’s counter-culture during the 1960s. The notes for South and West were published almost fifty years later.
Didion begins her excursion through Darkest Dixie in New Orleans with images of procreation, death and decay:
“In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray; the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead. One afternoon on St. Charles Avenue I saw a woman die, fall forward over the wheel of her car.”
Some might consider this an inauspicious beginning for a book about the Deep South, but then striking a gothic note isn’t out of order. Then her focus narrows:
“I could never precisely name what impelled me to spend time in the South during the summer of 1970. There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went at the time I went: nothing “happened” anywhere I was, no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God. I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be; the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. I did not much want to talk about this.”
Throughout the work, Didion interacts with prominent locals, including Walker Percy and (surprisingly) Stan Torgerson, but not Eudora Welty, stating that she dared not visit Welty in Jackson because she was certain that so near an airport, she’d catch a flight to the west coast. I find it telling that she couldn’t find Faulkner’s grave in that cemetery in Oxford; perhaps it’s just as telling that she even went looking. In Meridian, Didion describes an audience in Mississippi watching an American movie “as if it were Czechoslovakian; this is quite literally the purest form of projection, for it is Didion who is staring at a screen without comprehension, driving through Dixie in a distracted daze. We should bear ear to her dispassionate observations, if only to see ourselves in her eyes.