Slouching Towards Bethlehem
January 1, 1968
ABOUT THE BOOK
“In her portraits of people,” The New York Times Book Review wrote, “Didion is not out to expose but to understand, and she shows us actors and millionaires, doomed brides and naïve acid-trippers, left-wing ideologues and snows of the Hawaiian artistocracy in a way that makes them neither villanous nor glamorous, but alive and botched and often mournfully beautiful…A rare display of some of the best prose writen today in this country.”
In essay after essay, Didion captures the dislocation of the 1960s, the disorientation of a country shredding itself apart with social change. Her essays not only describe the subject at hand—the murderous housewife, the little girl trailing the rock group, the millionaire bunkered in his mansion—but also offer a broader vision of America, one that is both terrifying and tender, ominous and uniquely her own.
A slant vision that is arresting and unique…Didion might be an observer from another planet—one so edgy and alert that she ends up knowing more about our own world than we know about ourselves.
Read an Excerpt
This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is also the title of one piece in the book, and that piece, which derived from some time spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was for me both the most imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was printed. It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, tht the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder. That was why the piece was important to me. And after it was printed I saw that, however directly and flatly I thought I had said it, I had failed to get through to many of the people who read and even liked the piece, failed to sugget that I was talking about something more general than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads. Disc jockeys telephoned my house and wanted to discuss (on the air) the incidence of “filth” in the Haight-Ashbury, and acquaintances congratulated me on having finished the piece “just in time,” because “the whole fad’s dead now, fini, kaput.” I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the timeby the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten feedback so universally beside the point.
Almost all of the pieces here were written for magazines during 1965, 1966, and 1967, and most of them, to get that question out of the way at the outset, were “my idea.” I wa asked to go up to the Carmel Valley and report on Joan Baez’s school there; I was asked to go to Hawaii; I think I was asked to write about John Wayne; and I was asked for the short essays on “morality,” by The American Scholar; and on “self-respect,” by Vogue. Thirteen of the twenty pieces were published in The Saturday Evening Post. Quite often people write me from places like Toronto and want to know (demand to know) how I can reconcile my conscience with writing for The Saturday Evening Post; the answer is quite simple. The Post is extremely receptive to what the writer wants to do, pays enough for hi to be able to do it right, and is meticulous about not changing copy. I lose a nicety of inflection now and then to the Post, but do not count myself compromised. Of course not all of the pieces in this book have to do, in a “subject” sense, with the general breakup, with things falling apart; that is a large and rather presumptuous notion, and many of these pieces are small and personal. But since I am neither a camera eye nor much given to writing pieces which do not interest me, whatever I do write reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel.
I am not sure what more I could tell you about these pieces. I could tell you that I liked doing some of them more than others, but that all of them were hard for me to do, and took more time than perhaps they were worth; that there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic. I was in fact as sick as I have ever been when I was writing “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”; the pain kept me awake at night and so for twenty and twenty-one hours a day I drank gin-and-hot-water to blunt the pain and took Dexedrine to blunt the gin and wrote the piece. (I would like you to believe that I kept working out of some real professionalism, to meet the deadline, but that would not be entirely true; I did have a deadline, but it was also a troubled time, and working did to the trouble what gin did to the pain.) What else is there to tell? I am bad at interviewing people. I avoid situations in which I have to talk to anyone’s press agent. (This precludes doing pieces on most actors, a bonus in itself.) I do not like to make telephone calls, and would not like to count the mornings I have sat on some Best Western motel bed somewhere and tried to force myself to put through the call to the assistant district attorney. My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so tempermentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.