May 1, 1992
ABOUT THE BOOK
Here, the National Book Award–winning author of The Year of Magical Thinking covers ground from Washington to Los Angeles, from a TV producer’s gargantuan “manor” to the racial battlefields of New York’s criminal courts.
At each stop she uncovers the mythic narratives that elude other observers: Didion tells us about the fantasies the media construct around crime victims and presidential candidates; she gives us new interpretations of the stories of Nancy Reagan and Patty Hearst; she charts America’s rollercoaster ride through evanescent booms and hard times that won’t go away.
A bracing amalgam of skepticism and sympathy, After Henry is further proof of Joan Didion’s infallible radar for the true spirit of our age.
Joan Didion has great instincts for metaphor. She can take an ordinary object…and make it as ominous as Hitchcock…She’s writing truths about American culture in the sand at our feet…With Didion leading, you could well follow one of her paragraphs into hell.
Read an Excerpt
“Girl of the Golden West”
Patricia Campbell Hearst’s great-grandfather had arrived in California by foot in 1850, unschooled, unmarried, thirty years old with few graces and no prospects, a Missouri farmer’s son who would spend his thirties scratching around El Dorado and Nevada and Sacramento counties looking for a stake. In 1859 he found one, and at his death in 1891 George Hearst could leave the schoolteacher he had married in 1862 a fortune taken from the ground, the continuing proceeds from the most productive mines of the period, the Ophir in Nevada, the Homestake in South Dakota, the Ontario in Utah, the Anaconda in Montana, the San Luis in Mexico. The widow, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, a tiny, strong-minded woman then only forty-eight years old, took this apparently artesian income and financed her only child in the publishing empire he wanted, underwrote a surprising amount of the campus where her great-granddaughter would be enrolled at the time she was kidnapped, and built for herself, on sixty-seven thousand acres on the McCloud River in Siskiyou County, the original Wyntoon, a quarried-lava castle of which its architect, Bernard Maybeck, said simply: “Here you can reach all that is within you.”
The extent to which certain places dominate the California imagination is apprehended, even by Californians, only dimly. Deriving not only from the landscape but from the claiming of it, from the romance of emigration, the radical abandonment of established attachments, this imagination remains obdurately symbolic, tending to locate lessons in what the rest of the country perceives only as scenery. Yosemite, for example, remains what Kevin Starr has called “one of the primary California symbols, a fixed factor of identity for all those who sought a primarily Californian aesthetic.” Both the community of and the coastline at Carmel have a symbolic meaning lost to the contemporary visitor, a lingering allusion to art as freedom, freedom as craft, the “bohemian” pantheism of the early twentieth century. The Golden Gate Bridge, referring as it does to both the infinite and technology, suggests, to the Californian, a quite complex representation of land’s end, and also of its beginning.
Patricia Campbell Hearst told us in Every Secret Thing that the place the Hearsts called Wyntoon was “a mystical land”, “fantastic, otherworldly,” “even more than San Simeon”, which was in turn “so emotionally moving that it is still beyond my powers of description”. That first Maybeck castle on the McCloud River was seen by most Californians only in photographs, and yet, before it burned in 1933, to be replaced by a compound of rather more playful Julia Morgan chalets (“Cinderella House”, “Angel House”, “Brown Bear House”), Phoebe Hearst’s gothic Wyntoon and her son’s baroque San Simeon seemed between them to embody certain opposing impulses in the local consciousness: northern and southern, wilderness sanctified and wilderness banished, the aggrandizement of nature and the aggrandizement of self. Wyntoon had mists, and allusions to the infinite, great trunks of trees left to rot where they fell, a wild river, barbaric fireplaces. San Simeon, swimming in sunlight and the here and now, had two swimming pools, and a zoo.