Alexis de Tocqueville called ours “a nation full of memorials.” He said this just fifty-five years after America was founded, a decade before the Civil War had started, and over a century before the Second World War had given the nation, in some people’s minds, an excuse to memorialize not only its war veterans but even those who had simply lived during wars. Nevertheless, de Tocqueville had already seen enough of America by then to be able to foresee its peculiar present—a time when the number of gravestones commemorating America’s dead citizens—according to a recent study by the United States Geological Survey—actually outnumbers its dead citizens by about four hundred thousand. De Tocqueville foresaw our 106,937 square miles of cemeteries, our 79,893 square miles of national monuments, and our 75,381 listings on the National Register of Historic Places. He foresaw the more than two million individual war memorials we would build to commemorate the nine wars America would fight. And he probably could have also seen on the blank nineteenth-century American horizon—squinting, if on a clear day—all our highway dedication plaques, and all our high school honor rolls, and our handmade wooden roadside crosses, our certificates of appreciation, our certificates of participation, our memorial park benches, memorial park trees, memorial garden plots, memorial theater seats, memorial office buildings, memorial conference rooms, memorial college dorms, memorial scholarships, memorial football fields, memorial football field scoreboards; all those bricks inscribed with people’s names to help raise money to pave things; all those books in all those libraries with dedication placards; all those stars whose naming rights we have purchased for our lovers, pets, dead children, and selves from the Ministry of Federal Star Registration, International Real Estate Star Corporation, Interstellar Sightings, Inc., and the Universal Star Market, four of more than a dozen Web-based American companies whose combined revenues over the past five years have totaled over $225 million for the naming rights to an estimated three million stars, even though only six thousand stars are visible in the evening sky, and even though none of these companies actually has the authority to grant such naming rights, according to the International Astronomical Union, which does. “Add up all the memorials we’ve got in this country,” Bill Andrews, president of the American Institute of Commemorative Art, recently told me, “and I would bet we already have enough commemorated objects in the United States to dedicate one of them to every American who’s ever lived, plus every American who’s currently living, as well as five or so generations’ worth of Americans yet unborn.”
And then there are our memoirs.
According to literary scholars, we’ve been writing memoirs longer than we’ve been writing anything else. As early as 1639 there was a printing press established in the four-year-old Massachusetts Bay Colony, just nineteen years after Puritans first arrived on its shore. For forty-three years the press primarily printed imported English poetry, paperback hymnals, and religious pamphlets by various Puritan clergy. But then, in 1682, after years of urging by her reverend, a forty-four-year-old widow from Connecticut finally sent to the tiny print house a one-hundred-page manuscript she had written five years earlier—a meditation on her capture by the Narragansett Indian nation during an attack on her village in 1676. Sixteen of her village’s residents were killed during that raid, including the author’s father, the author’s sister, and the author’s six-year-old daughter. Twenty more of the village’s residents were taken captive during the raid, thirteen of whom eventually were also killed. The author, Mary Rowlandson, was marched barefoot through blizzards from her coastal village, through the craggled forests of southern New Hampshire, and through the flagstone cliffs of the eastern Berkshires. Eleven weeks later she was released near Providence for a ransom estimated at $13.
“Now away we must go with those barbarous creatures, with our bodies wounded and bleeding and our hearts no less than our bodies,” she writes. Rowlandson’s work, written throughout in the present tense, was unsurpassed at the time for the immediacy of its tone. “Oh, the roaring and singing, the dancing and yelling of those black creatures in the night,” she writes,
which makes the place a lively resemblance of hell. And as miserable is the waste that is made here of horses, cattle, sheep and swine, calves, lambs, pigs and fowls—some roasting, some lying, some burning and boiling to feed our merciless Enemies who are joyful enough, though we are disconsolate…. All for me is gone—my Husband gone, my Children gone, my Relations and Friends, our house and home, all our comforts, within doors and without, gone. All is gone—except for my life, although I know not but in the next moment that it might go as well.
In The New England Annals, Edmund Pastor’s 1699 cultural biography of the American colonies, passages of Rowlandson’s book are said to have been read aloud during church services, “causing the spells of several ladies in the pews.” Cotton Mather called the book “terrible and necessary.” And “a dramatic evocation of Satan Himself” is how the seventeenth-century essayist Matthew Byles described it.
At the time of its publication the book was considered a Puritan personal testament, providing clear evidence of God’s grace for sparing Mary Rowlandson, and absolute proof of his insistence that this New World be one of temperance, faith, and utter religious obedience.
Around this same time, in the Old World, the Netherlands were growing tulips. René Descartes was declaring, “I think, therefore I am.” And thanks to new colonies established in northern Africa, there was soon so much surplus sugar barreling into Europe that for the first time, across the Continent, people were drinking lemonade. But here, in the New World, settlers had been settling for over two centuries then, but still the place had not yet proven itself of much worth. Jamestown had been abandoned. There was no gold in Florida. And the average life span of white colonists was two-thirds that of Europeans. By the time, then, that Mary Rowlandson’s small book of faith was finally published, there was among white settlers a ready audience for a story of personal triumph.
Considering, for example, the impact that AIDS had on late-twentieth-century American culture—with about five hundred thousand deaths by the late 1990s, or one-tenth of 1 percent of the period’s population—or considering the impact that the Civil War had on mid-nineteenth-century American culture—with about six hundred thousand deaths by the 1860s, or 2 percent of the population—or considering the impact that smallpox had on mid-eighteenth-century American culture—with about two hundred thousand deaths in the 1740s, or 4 percent of the population—the estimated thirty thousand Indian captivities that occurred by the end of the seventeenth century—in a population that the American Antiquarian Society figures at just eighty thousand whites in 1680—surely were not experiences of which the average person was just aware, but experiences the average person, statistically speaking, may have actually had.
Rowlandson’s book, The Narrative of the Captivity, was, understandably, an instant success. And despite the fact that only about 50 percent of the white male population was literate at the time—and 25 percent of white females—by the end of its first year in print Rowlandson’s book had gone through an additional three editions, with a fourth forthcoming in London, and had sold a total of 5,500 copies in 1682 alone. At the time, the average number of copies in a book’s standard printing was fewer than six hundred.
This, then, was America’s first genuine bestseller. In fact, according to Frank Luther Mott, a historian of American popular literature, there is not a single extant copy of the book’s first edition because, he theorizes, “they were all literally read to pieces.” Rowlandson herself is said to have become so popular that upon her return from captivity, the town in which she eventually settled, Wethersfield, Connecticut, voted to award her £30 annually for life. And the book’s own importance was such that advertisements for the first American printing of Shakespeare’s plays appear in later editions of the book’s back pages. Since the seventeenth century there have been a total of fifty-two editions of The Narrative of the Captivity, and scholars rank it among the top four bestselling titles in American publishing history—two of which are Indian captivity narratives, too.
“Our American ancestors did not believe in the corrupting influence of fiction,” R. W. G. Vail wrote in Voices of the Old Frontier, “so they limited themselves to true tales of horror in the form of deathbed confessions, stories of shipwreck, piracy, plague, torture, destruction, and the ever-present thrill of Indian captivities.”
Indeed, along with Rowlandson’s book, the Newberry Library in Chicago holds over two thousand more individual titles of captivity narratives. In California, in the early eighteenth century, missionaries published a kind of literary annual, The Jesuit Reader, which lasted for fifty consecutive years and featured nothing but Indian captivities. The oldest existing book club in America, the Navy Club in Andover, Massachusetts, was founded in 1777 and, according to its charter, was initially devoted exclusively to reading Indian captivities. Even the McGuffey Readers, the Christian grammar books responsible for educating millions of American children, were still including examples of Indian captivities as models for prose style as late as 1962. The form became so popular, in fact, that the earliest short stories by Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville are said to be structured on captivity narratives, and even popular contemporary stories like The Last of the Mohicans, Lonesome Dove, and Dances with Wolves are themselves essentially forms of the Indian captivity.
As one contemporary critic has noted, “in lieu of fiction, these books set the trend-making formula for tales of true torment of the time… the roots of that peculiarly American proclivity for confessional narrative nonfiction.”
In English the term memoir comes directly from the French for memory, mémoir, a word that is derived from the Latin for the same, memoria. It has been so stable a word, in fact, that even Caesar’s personal history of the Gallic wars was referred to in his day as memoriae. “They are the very best memories of fact we have,” Cicero said of the book. Indeed, the presence of the moniker on a book today still suggests a document of instructional memory—remembrances of something through which one has survived; something since that has been digested, reconstituted, understood, and now, for the benefit of others, shared. This is experience rendered not anew—as in the lyric tradition—nor observed—as in the narrative tradition—but historic—stalwartly poised in the tradition of moral storytelling. “What we have learned from it,” Cicero wrote of his contemporary’s memoir, “may our children’s posterity also learn.” Whether the memoirist is Mary Rowlandson, Jean Rousseau, St. Augustine, or Julius Caesar, the foremost purpose in making a memoir, at least in traditional terms, is to inform readers about one’s suffering and to teach them how to overcome theirs.
However, more deeply rooted in the meaning of the term memoir is a far less confident activity. For embedded in Latin’s memoria is the ancient Greek word mérmeros, an offshoot of the Avestic Persian mermara, which itself emerged from the Indo-European root for all that we think about that is not present: mer-mer, “to vividly worry,” “be anxious about,” “exhaustingly ponder.” In such dusky light of human memory, the term is one much less sure of itself than the effortlessly remembered facts of today’s sculpted memoirs.
Instead, according to its roots, memoir is an assaying of ideas, images, and feelings. It is, in its best sense, an impulsive exploration. It is not storytelling. It is not moralizing. It is not knowing, learning, nor even theorizing. Etymologically at the core of every memoir are anxiety and wonder and doubt.
But, as America pushed farther west and Indian conflicts became more frequent, the subsequent captivity narratives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries began to insist more overtly on the factual relevance of their memories, de-emphasizing the private redemptive experiences of their authors and emphasizing a more publicly relevant political concern: Manifest Destiny. Memoir, in some regard, became the voice of national policy.
“As the first literary form American writers mastered,” James Richards notes in his study of the form, Captive Readers, “it was also one of the earliest successful forms of American propaganda.” As Richards explains, Indian captivity narratives eventually lost the spiritual intimacy of their earlier incarnations, and instead became vehicles through which the “savagery” of Native Americans could be exaggerated, justifying the calls for their annihilation.
Despite their popularity and prevalence, however, the memoirs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries represented no truth at all. As Benjamin Franklin himself noted as early as 1797, “More captives have stayed among the Indians than have chosen to return.” Indeed, according to a study by Alice Wright of the Smithsonian Institute, when Indians were raised among whites they almost always wanted to go back; when whites were raised among Indians, however, they almost always preferred to stay. “The brutal stories found in captivity narratives, however numerous they appear,” she reports, “probably represent the minority of actual Indian captivities.… [They] might have been the first authentic form of American literature, but they were rarely the most authenticated.”
Claims of authenticity in nonfiction have long been the form’s strongest selling point. In other genres, authenticity is an idea that has evolved since Aristotle into the more sophisticated concept of mimesis—perhaps the most important notion engaging literary criticism today—but in nonfiction the term mimesis is used almost exclusively to define a concern much less literary than that which concerns poetry, fiction, or drama. In nonfiction, mimesis means veracity: Are the facts in a text verifiable or not?
Several years ago, the facts in Fragments, a best-selling memoir from Germany and the winner of the Prix Memoire de la Shoah in France and the National Jewish Book Award in America, became the latest to be debated in terms of their verifiability when Schocken Books, the memoir’s European publisher, discovered that the book’s author, Binjamin Wilkomirksi, was not a German Jewish orphan who survived two Nazi death camps, as the author suggests he is in the book, but instead is a man from Switzerland named Bruno Doessekker, who is not an orphan, is not Jewish, and is actually too young to have even lived during the Second World War. Schocken immediately canceled plans to publish the book in the United States, pulling it from shelves throughout Germany, and promising to reimburse all other stores for their overstock. Earlier deemed a “masterpiece” in its European reviews, the book soon essentially vanished due to the fact that its facts, simply, weren’t.
But, as the author’s supporters asked in a press release distributed at the Frankfurt Book Fair that year, “what does this have to do with the book’s literary value?”
When it came to this particular nonfiction book, however, facts had everything to do with the book’s assumed literary value, regardless, for example, that American Jewish groups remained supportive of Fragments, even after learning that its story was made up. “It tells our story, the way most of us remember the experience,” a representative of the Holocaust Child Survivors Group of Los Angeles told The New York Times in 1996. “It doesn’t matter whether this was Doessekker’s own experience or not.” For readers, the details of the book—rats rummaging among human corpses, starving children sucking their fingers to the bone—illustrate something that “feels” real. But this activity—making something that is invented feel authentic—is one usually reserved exclusively for fiction writers. After all, what other differences can there be between nonfiction and fiction if both genres are engaged in the same imaginative enterprise, if both treat facts as images rather than rules, if both endeavor to attain a truth that is more felt than documented?
But such questions about the purpose of genre were never raised during the Bruno Doessekker case; the two sides—the one wanting to view the book as imaginatively true, and the one wanting to view the book as verifiably true—never seemed to be discussing the same issue. Instead, the decision by Schocken Books to cancel the publication of Fragments only further entrenched the perceived role of nonfiction in contemporary literature, relegating the judgment of a nonfiction text not to art but to ethics.
More recently, ethics again were allowed to determine a nonfiction book’s literary worth when essayist Vivian Gornick mentioned this summer at a writing conference in Maryland that some of the memories in her acclaimed memoir, Fierce Attachments, were imagined. At first, news of this spread through the nonfiction community by rumor. I recall, less than twenty-four hours after Gornick mentioned this, receiving three phone calls in the Midwest from people on the east coast who were, they said, respectively, “shocked” and “stunned” and “shocked” by Gornick’s announcement. Then, within ten days, an essay was commissioned by the website Salon in which a student from the Maryland writing conference detailed her professors’ “frustration” and “disappointment” and “shock” at Gornick’s announcement. And finally, within three weeks, there was the four-minutes-long commentary on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air in which a book reviewer claimed that Gornick’s “dishonesty” was akin to plagiarism. “I am shocked,” the reviewer said.
In the intervening two months, nonfiction writers have been sending letters to the editors of websites, newspapers, magazines, and radio shows about Gornick’s imaginations. The phrase “moral contract” has been used several times. Participants from that Maryland writing conference have emerged in order to detail, with “shock,” how “matter of factly” Gornick mentioned these imaginations at the conference, and how “appalled” they were to have heard them. The great majority of nonfiction writers sending these letters to editors have quoted the “offensive” final line in the brief essay Gornick composed in order to respond to the nonfiction community’s uproar: “memoir writing is still in need of an informed readership.”
I have learned so far in my brief three years as a member of the nonfiction community that members of the nonfiction community do not like to be called stupid. However, when nonfiction writers themselves perpetuate the threat to the genre’s literary legitimacy by attacking on grounds of “ethics” and “honesty” and “morality” a work of art, one must question the intelligence of those members of the nonfiction community and wonder to what extent they have actually read the imaginative history of this genre that they feel compelled to morally defend.
Cicero, nonfiction’s first true master, discussed in several letters that were later published publicly how he and his contemporaries frequently invented facts in their senatorial speeches—speeches that we have since inherited as the foundation of literary nonfiction. “As I see it, it is the strength of the argument that matters most,” Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus, and then to the larger world, “not the precision of its evidence.” Daniel Defoe was five years old when the plague about which he writes in his memoir Journal of the Plague Year occurred. Thomas de Quincey was still very high when his memoir about getting sober was published. George Orwell’s schoolmates claimed they had no idea what he was talking about in his memoir about his schooldays. And Mary McCarthy, who wrote over two dozen highly acclaimed memoirs, extensively addressed the fallibility of memory throughout her long career. “There are no facts,” Emerson told us, “only art.”
It does indeed seem uninformed for writers of nonfiction to claim that another nonfiction writer’s wish for an informed readership is “offensive” when those same writers of nonfiction also claim to be “shocked” when a writer acknowledges doing in nonfiction what writers have been doing in the genre for the past two thousand years.
“I felt duped,” Stephanie Carter said to the Associated Press, in May 2001, when her complaint to the Illinois Department of Consumer Affairs about the Universal Star Market’s star-naming service resulted in a $3,000 fine for “misleading advertising.” Carter explained that after receiving her “star deed” from the Universal Star Market she called a local observatory to ask for help pinpointing her star. When the astronomer she spoke with happened to mention that no professional astronomer would ever likely refer to her star by the name she had chosen for it—“Princess Di,” one of apparently eleven “Princess Di” stars that have so far been dedicated to the late British royal—Carter said she was shocked. “They should have made it clear that this wasn’t real,” she said. Mimesis in nonfiction is also a marketing tool.
Consider, for example, what is called in the film industry the “nonfiction rule”: the phenomenon that seems to guarantee Academy Awards to the actresses who portray real-life heroines. Most recently, for example, have been the Oscar-winning roles of Nicole Kidman in The Hours, Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind, Marcia Gay Harden in Pollock, Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, and Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking. Indeed, seven out of the last ten leading-actress Academy Awards have gone to actresses who have portrayed real women.
“It makes you wonder what the Academy is actually rewarding,” a producer commented to Variety in 2002, “the particular performances of these actresses, or the women these actresses are portraying.” More interesting to the issue of literature, however, are the ways in which these nonfiction performances are reviewed. Jennifer Connelly’s performance of a woman who bravely endures a turbulent marriage to a schizophrenic Nobel Prize–winning theorist, for example, was described in The New York Times in 2001 as “brave.” Julia Roberts’s performance of a woman who inspires a small cancer-stricken town to sue its local power company was described in the Chicago Tribune in 2000 as “inspiring.” Hillary Swank’s performance of a young woman whose sad secret life in a small Nebraska town leads to her heartbreaking rape and murder was described in the Los Angeles Times in 1999 as both “heartbreaking” and “sad.”
If one were to examine recent high-profile nonfiction book reviews likewise, one might venture to argue similarly that the reception of nonfiction literature is also often focused on the books’ autobiographical facts—the illness, the incest, the poverty, the depression, the rape, the heartbreak, the screwing of the family dog—rather than on the strategies employed to dramatize those facts, rather than on the “how” of their tellings, instead of only their “who,” only their “what,” only their “where,” their “when,” their “why.” Only their facts.
Dave Eggers’s writing in his popular memoir about the conviction with which he raised his younger brother after the deaths of their parents, for example, was described by The Toronto Star in 2000 as having “gorgeous conviction.” Mary Karr’s writing in her memoir about growing up in the rough east Texas town of Leechfield among the tough-minded family and friends who raised her was described in The Nation in 1997 as “rough and tough.” Frank McCourt’s writing in his memoir about the searing conditions of his childhood in Limerick, Ireland, was described in the Detroit Free Press in 1995 as “searing.” In fact, nearly every review describing Frank McCourt’s writing seemed to insist on linking the qualities of the prose directly to the condition of the author’s childhood, as in, for example, The Clarion Ledger’s review—“Frank McCourt has seen hell, but found angels in his heart”—or USA Today’s review—“McCourt has an astonishing gift for remembering the details of his dreary childhood”—or The Boston Globe’s review—“A story so immediate, so gripping in its daily despairs, stolen smokes, and blessed humor, that you want to thank God that young Frankie McCourt survived it so he could write the book.”
This of course is in some ways insidious to all genres, but only nonfiction’s reception as literature seems to be limited exclusively to such fact-based judgments of its value. For example, one does not even need to examine nonfiction book reviews in order to conclude that these texts are sold, read, and judged primarily based on the information contained in them. Instead, one needs only to consider the way in which nonfiction is packaged, and how therefore it is intended to be received. When, after all, was the last time there appeared a subtitle on a Philip Roth novel? Or a Don DeLillo novel? Or a Cormac McCarthy novel? For that matter, when was the last time informational subtitles were used on novels by fiction writers considered more “commercial” than “literary”? Why not The Firm: A Story of Redemption in a Corrupt Southern Law Office? Why not Fear of Flying: How to Become a Sexually Liberated American Woman By Dating Europeans and Analyzing their Toilets? Why not Carrie: On Why Being Nice Is So Very Important? And why have there been no subtitles on any of the twenty-three covers of John Ashbery’s poetry collections? Nor even on Jewel’s, Paul McCartney’s, former president Jimmy Carter’s? Why not The Waste Land: A Meditation on the Disarray of Our Contemporary Lives? Or, The Odyssey: Finding Your Way Home Through a Journey of Spiritual Growth? Or, Beowulf: How to Survive?
Why A Memoir?
Why A True Story?
Why Based On a True Story?
An Incredible True Story?
A Story of Shocking Truth?
Or A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of a Minister’s Wife in New England, Wherein Is Set Forth the Cruel and Inhumane Usage She Underwent Amongst the Heathens for Eleven Weeks Time, Including Her Deliverance from Them; Written by Her Own Hand, for Her Own Private Use, and Now Made Public at the Earnest Desire of Some Friends for the Benefit of the Afflicted; Whereunto Is Annexed a Sermon on the Possibility of God’s Forsaking a People That Have Been Near and Dear to Him, Preached by Mr. Joseph Rowlandson, Husband to the Author?
There is after the title of Joan Didion’s new book no subtitle.
This, according to the rules of nonfiction, means either that Joan Didion’s new book is not nonfiction or that it is nonfiction of a different sort.
Where I Was From is a book-length meditation on California in the same way Salvador was a book-length meditation on El Salvador and Miami was a book-length meditation on Miami. Less an attempt to quantify a meaning from the place, the book is more an accumulation of the qualifying ways in which California is, as a subject, unknowable. “You will have perhaps realized by now,” Didion writes toward the end of the first section of the book, “that this book 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.”
There are no answers, in other words, in Where I Was From. No historical lessons, no modern fables, no morals, no theses, no truths. And while the book impressively employs streams of facts, statistics, and quotations about the place, the only argument that those streams could be said to service in the book is that none of them is at all reliable. Like its subject, therefore, the book’s surface feigns a busy purposefulness: Its data are impeccably researched as usual, its tone is moodily observant as ever, its sentences are plied in the service of illustrating the book’s self-exposition—“misapprehensions and misunderstandings”—but California itself remains “oblique.”
What is spotlit, instead, is Didion’s effort to understand the place, a structural motivation that is of course not a particularly new one for Didion, and one that concerns a subject that has been a subject in several of her previous books.
So why now this book of personal meditations from a writer whose work has consistently examined the very limitations of personal narrative?
Early in her career, Didion mentioned in an interview with The New York Times that she was currently working on two things: a vaguely described novel about Hawaii—“very pink and smells like flowers”—and a nonfiction book about California entitled “Fairytales.” Considering that Salvador resulted from a two-week journey to Central America with her husband and Miami emerged from three essays written over the span of thirteen months for The New York Review of Books, the twenty six intervening years since Didion first mentioned wanting to write a book about California and the recently published result of that wish suggest that this is a book whose lack of answers was especially hard in coming. “I don’t want to do anything that I don’t do well,” Didion commented once to an interviewer. “What interests me is total control,” she has written elsewhere about her work. But “there is no real way to deal with everything we lose” is how she ends this latest book.
“A good deal about California does not,” she writes, “on its own terms add up.” And so, like the protagonists in the stories of California’s invented and inherited myths, Didion’s own narrative about the place consciously examines a history that very likely never was. “The gravity of the decisive break demands narrative,” she writes,
conflicting details must be resolved, reworked into a plausible whole. Aging memories will be recorded as gospel. Children recount as the given of their personal and cultural history what neither they nor even their parents could possibly have known.…
This, then, is a book about what cannot possibly be known.
“It seems to me that you’ll never get a Nobel Prize for Literature,” Susan Stamberg said to Didion one evening on National Public Radio. This prediction was made in reference to what Stamberg perceived as an overall “pessimism” in Didion’s work, a prediction with which Didion agreed in the end, but a characterization to which Didion made one adjustment: that the “pessimism” Stamberg recognized in the work was more a refusal to accept, as Didion had just written in The White Album, “the most workable of multiple choices… the imposition of a narrative line… the ‘ideas’ with which we learn to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
“My adult life has been until now a succession of expectations and misperceptions,” Didion said to Stamberg that evening on the air. “I dealt only with an idea I had of the world, not with the world as it is. But reality does intervene, eventually.”
The reality Didion finds herself eventually confronting in Where I Was From is that she should be at least as well equipped to write about California as any other contemporary writer, yet she feels otherwise. Her great-great-great-grandmother, she tells us, traveled west to the state with the Donner Party. She learned to swim, she writes, in the Sacramento River, and then she learned to drive on its levees. She explains that the first real essay she ever wrote was her eighth-grade commencement address, “Our California Heritage.” She wrote the quintessential essay about 1960s San Francisco in Slouching Toward Bethlehem and the quintessential essay about 1970s Los Angeles in The White Album. She wrote novels acclaimed as “love songs” to the state, and returned to finish each of them to her childhood Sacramento home. She attended school in California, raised her child in California, buried pets and friends and family there. And yet, “California remains in some way impenetrable to me,” Didion writes, such that she says that upon first actively trying to learn about the place she picked up a large critical study on California, but, when she found that she herself was cited as an authority in the book, abandoned it.
If Joan Didion never receives the Nobel Prize for Literature, it will not be because she does not trust the world, but rather it will be because she does not trust its facts.
What facts, instead, are good for in Where I Was From is a stylized exploration of “history” and therefore of “memoir”—the two categories under which this book is being sold. The mix results in an exploration in which the experience of California’s varied meanings and lack of meanings—“misapprehensions and misunderstandings”—is replicated through form rather than fact.
For example, in a discussion of the floundering aircraft industry in southern California, Didion observes an assembly plant and its workers, presenting information, and an inferred exposition, in a descriptive catalogue—
They are the last of the medieval hand workers, and the spaces in which they worked, the huge structures with the immaculate white floors and the big rigs and the overhead cameras and the project banners and the flags of foreign buyers, became the cathedrals of the Cold War, occasionally visited by but never entirely legible to the uninitiated.
Or, in a discussion of the hole for a pool she and her brother never dug in their backyard, at a time when pools began to define the landscape of California, Didion presents information processionally in a periodic sentence—
Five years older than Jim, doubtful that either he or I could dig a twenty-by-forty-foot hole eight feet deep, equally doubtful that our father—were such a hole to miraculously materialize—had any intention of following through (as I saw it, he might string a hose out there and turn on the tap, but no gunite, no filter, no tile coping), I declined to dig.
Or, in a discussion of the Lakewood “Spur Boys,” a gang in southern California accused of raping several dozen high school girls in the early 1990s, Didion presents information redundantly in an unframed character indictment—
“I think people are blowing this thing way out of proportion,” David Ferrell of The Los Angeles Times was told by one Spur. “It’s all been blown out of proportion as far as I’m concerned,” he was told by another. “Of course there were several other sex scandals at the time, so this perfectly normal story got blown out of proportion,” I was told by a Spur parent. “People, you know, kind of blow it out of proportion,” a Spur advised viewers of Jane Whitney. “They blow it out of proportion a lot,” another said on the same show. A Spur girlfriend, “Jodi,” called in to offer her opinion: “I think its been blown way out of proportion, like way out of proportion.”
And then there are the plain lists—
There was an oval Victorian table with a marble top that had come to my mother from some part of the family, I no longer remember which. There was a carved teak chest that had been in my mother and father’s bedroom when I was a child. There was a small piecrust table that had been my grandmother’s. There was, from among my mother’s clothes, an Italian angora cape that she had been wearing ever since my father gave it to her, one Christmas in the late 1940s.
—lists that seem more in the service of a tone than an argument, more an attempt to re-experience something than prove it, more a search for the terms by which she might make sense of her experience. In the above passage, for example, Didion’s mother has just passed away, and the author finds herself inevitably cataloging what remains in a series of lists that ultimately form a startlingly pathetic elegy.
It is an impulse that informs the entire book. For there is a certain stylistic desperation in the gestures of all these lists, as if the employment of a periodic sentence, for instance—the suspension of Didion’s final point, her lack of point, her irritable reaching after facts for points—could guarantee that the reader will not abandon the writer until she has had her say, until she has cleared her mind, until she has figured out that memory’s meanings are not the point of this memoir. Here is a memoir that is anxious, confused, and worrying over details that will not ever yield. Here is a memoir that gives in place of confidence a formal experience of confusion—the very enactment of memory.
“Oh don’t you wish that you could hear them ring,” Didion recalls singing with her Girl Scout troop in a California insane asylum, the memory of which engenders in the penultimate section of the book the last and most ecstatic list in it, a series of desperate references to some of the book’s most impressively documented earlier facts, here, however, put in the service of pure emotion—
one by one faltering, only the strongest or most oblivious among us able to keep the round going in the presence of the put away, the now intractably lost, the abandoned, that will happen only when the angels sing. If it was going to be us or them, which of us in that sunroom would not have regressed in Royce’s view to that “novel degree of carelessness,” that “previously unknown blindness to social duties”? Which of us in that sunroom could not have abandoned the orphaned Miss Gilmore and her brother on the Little Sandy? Which of us in that sunroom did not at some level share in the shameful but entrenched conviction that to be weak or bothersome was to warrant abandonment? Which of us in that sunroom would not see the rattlesnake and fail to kill it? Which of us in that sunroom would not sell the cemetery? Were not such abandonments the very heart and soul of the crossing story? Jettison weight? Keep moving? Bury the dead in the trail and run the wagons over it? Never dwell on what got left behind, never look back at all? Remember, Virginia Reed had warned attentive California children, we who had been trained since virtual infancy in the horrors she had survived, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can. Once on a drive to Lake Tahoe I found myself impelled to instruct my brother’s small children in the dread lesson of the Donner Party, just in case he had thought to spare them. “Don’t worry about it,” another attentive California child, Patricia Hearst, recalled having told herself during the time she was locked in a closet by her kidnappers. “Don’t examine your feelings. Never examine your feelings—they’re no help at all.”