Joan Didion is widely recognized as one of the most perceptive and innovative literary figures of our era. She is renowned for her novels, critiques of American culture, her devotion to craft in narrative journalism, and the simple elegance of her prose.
A tenth generation Californian, Joan Didion was born in 1934 and began her writing career in 1956, when she began working as an assistant at Vogue magazine after winning its Prix de Paris. She worked at the magazine for eight years in New York, until her marriage to writer John Gregory Dunne, with whom she collaborated extensively for forty years. Their work includes celebrated screenplays such as A Star Is Born, True Confessions, and Up Close and Personal, as well as a weekly column, “Points West” for The Saturday Evening Post from 1967-69.
On her own, Didion has contributed extensively, as both a journalist and essayist, to a number of periodicals, including Life, Esquire, and The National Review. Among her novels are the contemporary classics Play It As It Lays and A Book of Common Prayer; her nonfiction work includes The White Album, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and The Year of Magical Thinking, which won the National Book Award in 2005, and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Critic John Leonard wrote of Joan Didion, “I’ve been trying for four decades to figure out why her sentences are better than mine or yours.” Michiko Kakutani states simply, “California belongs to Joan Didion.”
“The White Album” appears in fifteen disjointed sections. This fragmented narrative technique enables the form of the essay to mirror its content: braided examinations of the chaos present in America at the close of the 1960’s and of Didion’s personal struggles with mental health. Paying homage to the era-defining Beatles album of the same name, Didion blends reportage and personal essay to explore cultural tensions that arose in the late sixties—protests, murder, racism, apathy—with her own neuroses. The duality of the essay’s content and form complicates Didion’s narrative and honors the complexity of her chosen subjects.
Robert Towers says that in “The White Album” Didion refines her discussion of personal neuroses “to the point where it vibrates in exquisite attunement to the larger craziness of the world she inhabits and observes.”
Regarding the uncertainty of the era, Didion tells us: “Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable….I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
Essay’s Immediate Context
Several portions of “The White Album” originally appeared as independent essays in The Saturday Evening Post. Sections 3, 5, and 9 were published, respectively, as “Waiting for Morrison” in March 9, 1968; “Black Panther” in May 4, 1968; and “The Revolution Game” in January 25, 1969; all appearing in Didion and Dunne’s
“Points West” column. At this point in time, The Saturday Evening Post was a middle class, general readership magazine whose letters to the editor reveal a mixture of politically conservative and liberal readers. The magazine regularly published long political and current affairs reportage, arts reviews, stories by writers as varied as Henry Miller and Agatha Christie, and scattered cartoons. After ceasing to publish from 1969 to 1971, it has since changed hands twice, and is now a periodical focused on science and medical breakthroughs.
“The White Album” was written during a period of political turmoil: civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated, student war and labor protests drew nationwide attention, and police brutality became a commonplace occurrence. During this upheaval, The Beatles released their influential “White Album,” which would be wildly misinterpreted by the Manson Family, whose acts of violence, in Didion’s eyes, drew a curtain on the idealism of 1960’s.
The essay was first published in its entirety in 1979, with twelve additional sections and significant changes (both in tone and in content) to the column portions, in the short-lived New West magazine under the title “The White Album: A Chronicle of Survival.”
Later in 1979, Didion published a collection of her nonfiction columns and essays entitled The White Album, which featured the piece as it was published in New West.
Contemporary Authors Online; Joan Didion. Detroit: Gale, 2011. Print.
Didion, Joan, and John Gregory Dunne. “Black Panther.” Saturday Evening Post 241.9 (1968): 20-. Print.
_____. “Waiting for Morrison.” Saturday Evening Post 241.5 (1968): 16-. Print.
_____. “The Revolution Game.” Saturday Evening Post 242.2 (1969): 20-. Print.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Joan Didion: Staking Out California.” New York, NY, United States: 1979. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007). Web. 1 Apr. 2011.
Towers, Robert. “The Decline and Fall of the 60’s: Didion.” New York Times (1923-Current file): BR1. Print. 1979.
Text and images: Julie Dow.