Joan Didion has a fine eye for detail. It was one of the prime features of her collections of essays, especially Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. It’s in evidence in her latest book, South and West: From a Notebook (Knopf, 2017), which is mostly about her one-month trip through the deep South in 1970. This is not a formally completed book. It’s a collection of notes Didion took on her trip, as well as notes she took while covering the Patti Hearst trial in 1975 (she mentions Hearst twice—her notes are mostly about her own family history). I assume that Didion edited these notes prior to their publication, but she seems to have left them as they mostly were when she wrote them. Didion found the South she was looking for in 1970—a conservative backwater of swampy decay and middle- and upper-class white Southerners trying to frame themselves as progressives when in fact they were still on the defensive against the civil rights movement. Such a South did exist in 1970. It exists, to a lesser but still significant extent, now. Didion interviews (or attempted to interview) a number of Southerners during her trip, including the owner of a cosmetology school, a white owner of an-black format radio station, Hodding Carter, Walker Percy (briefly), and others. She allows her subjects to talk, and some of them talk at length. Didion was on the lookout in 1970 for a South not yet accepting of the many social changes that had come. She found what she was looking for, a South that ignored or did not know about such literary figures as Willie Morris and Faulkner, that prided itself on beliefs and habits that set it apart from the rest of the nation. We don’t get the big-city South here, mostly the small towns and purlieus.
We learn from Didion’s notes how uncomfortable many Southerners were in 1970 with their changing social situation. It’s interesting to read these notes from the perspective of the forty-seven years that have passed. They don’t seem dated.
Although this may not be a “finished” book, it contains keen insights, beautifully turned phrases and details, an unsettling sense of reality and unreality. Didion is a fine writer whom I admire, but she’s always writing from within her own emotional and intellectual environment. When she writes about the mood or atmosphere of a place, she is really writing about the inside of her own head. It’s a cocoon, the cocoon of her consciousness, her self-consciousness. It’s what made Slouching towards Bethlehem such a good book, and it’s a primary characteristic of her work.