A major literary event: Library of America launches a definitive collected edition of one of the most original and influential writers of our time
The 1960s & 70s
David L. Ulin, editor
Fifty years ago, a collection of reportage appeared that was unlike anything anyone had seen before, a major advance in what would become known as the New Journalism. A series of wickedly incisive portraits of California and its people—from fading stars to homicidal housewives to drug-addled hippies—Slouching Towards Bethlehem was a sensation, signaling the arrival of one of the most original and influential literary figures of our time. It attracted for its author, not just readers, but fans, devotees, followers, and Joan Didion became more than just a celebrated author, she became an icon.
In this Authorlink AUDIO interview, the series editor, David L. Ulin, former book editor and book critic at the Los Angeles Times, talked to us about his admiration for the content, structure and language of Didion’s work, and insights into how her work overlaped with her personal life.
Joan Didion’s voice is electric on the page. Using autobiographical elements to stunning literary effect, she has captured the anarchic convulsions and anxious contradictions of the waning American Century and the coming new millennium with incomparable clarity and force. Now, Library of America inaugurates a definitive three-volume edition of Didion’s collected writings with the landmark works of the 1960s and 1970s, books that established her as one of the most original and influential literary figures of our time.
In a very real sense, the book’s central and most compelling character was Joan Didion. Cool, dispassionate, withering in her judgments but never condescending, Didion’s authorial persona is electric on the page, no less so today than a half-century ago.
Now, in time for her 85th birthday (December 5), Library of America inaugurates a three-volume collected edition that presents Didion’s works chronologically, enabling readers to experience anew the extraordinary arc of her career as a novelist, journalist, and memoirist.
JOAN DIDION: The 1960s & 70s, edited by acclaimed author and editor, David L. Ulin (LOA #325; 9781598536454; $39.95; November 12, 2019) gathers for the first time in one volume her first five books: the breakthrough masterpiece Slouching and its brilliant follow-up, The White Album, along with the early novels: Run River, Didion’s darkly nostalgic debut, set among the ranch families of her native Sacramento Valley; the cinematic Play It As It Lays, a harrowing story of a Hollywood life gone wrong; and A Book of Common Prayer, a Hemingway-esque tale of political terror and existential loss set in a fictionalized El Salvador. This volume is the first in a series of collections of Didion’s work yet to come.
With this publication Joan Didion becomes the second living writer in the Library of America series, joining Wendell Berry (inducted 2018). She is only the eighth writer overall to be so honored:
Eudora Welty (1999)
Saul Bellow (2003)
Philip Roth (2005)
John Ashbery (2008)
S. Merwin (2013)
Ursula K. Le Guin (2016)
Wendell Berry (2018)
Joan Didion (2019)
Didion’s darkly nostalgic debut novel Run River (1963) is set among the ranch families of her native Sacramento Valley, their prosperity and pioneer traditions threatened by suburban sprawl and the changing values of a postwar world. A riveting chronicle of passion, infidelity, and betrayal in the twenty-year marriage of Lily Knight and Everett McClellan, it eloquently evokes one woman’s alienation amid the landscapes of a disappearing California.
A major milestone in the rise of the New Journalism, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) gathers Didion’s kaleidoscopic essays of the mid-1960s: masterpieces whose subjects include an aging John Wayne, a Los Angeles Maoist, the Las Vegas wedding industry, and the acid-tripping counterculture of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. The collection showcases Didion’s signature literary persona—“a memorable voice, partly eulogistic, partly despairing, always in control” (Joyce Carol Oates)—while introducing a style of reportage that transformed the expectations of generations of readers and writers.
In Play It As It Lays (1970) model and actress Maria Wyeth, her brief career fading, finds herself adrift in a sun-drenched, air-conditioned, and utterly benumbed world in which pills, fast cars, and casual sex have replaced human connection. The pared-down, impressionistic prose frames a harrowing story of a Hollywood life gone wrong.
Well-meaning norteamericana Charlotte Douglas arrives in the lush, dangerously chaotic Central American republic of Boca Grande, in Didion’s third novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977), hoping to trace the whereabouts of her daughter Marin, an affluent teenager turned Marxist-revolutionary terrorist. “Immaculate of history, innocent of politics,” Douglas is swept up in intrigues and violence beyond her ability to comprehend, as Didion dissects the menacing realities of imperialism and revolution.
In The White Album (1979) Didion continues her intense, intimate, clear-eyed investigations of a California coming apart at the seams. In trips to shopping malls and to the Getty Museum; visits with Nancy Reagan, The Doors, and the Black Panthers; accounts of the prosecution of the Manson Family—all counterpointed with her own dark moods and obsessions—she offers a brilliant mosaic of a time that continues to shape our own and a monument of superlative literary nonfiction.
About the Editor
David L. Ulin, editor, is the former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the author or editor of ten books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, Labyrinth, and The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time. For Library of America he has also edited Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology.
Authorlink Editor’s note: Audio interview with David L. Ulin was done by Doris Booth.
About Library of America
Library of America is a nonprofit organization that champions the nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions and providing resources for readers to explore this rich, living legacy.