In the summer of 1970 Joan Didion was 35 years old, truly famous for the first time, and professionally adrift. Play It As It Lays, her second novel, was published to rapturous reviews. In the Times John Leonard called it “just about perfect according to its own austere terms” and compared her to Nathanael West; it would be nominated for the National Book Award and garner a hefty advance for paperback rights after several precarious years she and her husband John Gregory Dunne had spent freelancing. But the Saturday Evening Post — the magazine that had sustained the couple through the late 1960s and the original home of most of the essays collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) — had gone belly up. Didion had been writing a column for Life that exposed her sometimes very personal writing to a mass audience (“We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce,” she wrote in the winter of 1969), but Life wouldn’t send her where she wanted to go: Vietnam. “Some of the guys are going out,” her editor told her. As Tracy Daugherty reports in his 2015 biography The Last Love Song, sometimes Life didn’t even run the columns she filed, so she broke the contract after six months. The release of the first film from a Didion-Dunne screenplay, The Panic in Needle Park, was still a year away. Didion was at the height of her powers, but as a journalist she was homeless.
That June of 1970 Didion and Dunne set out on a monthlong trip to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. “At the time,” she writes, “I had thought it might be a piece.” Her jottings from that trip are now the bulk of her new book South and West: From a Notebook, a slim volume that also includes a short fragment from an abandoned assignment to cover the Patty Hearst trial of 1976, in San Francisco, for Rolling Stone. Both pieces are raw and clearly unfinished, but both are fascinating documents spiked with virtuosic turns. “I had only some dim and unformed sense,” Didion writes in a passage that comes as close as she gets to a statement of purpose for her Southern passage, “a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”
Nearly half a century later, it’s difficult to evaluate this vague and ominous pronouncement. Certainly, there was a lot of benevolent and malevolent energy coming out of the South at the time, in the form of the civil-rights movement and the violent reaction it faced, which was being harnessed by the Republican Party in the Southern strategy that has shaped national politics ever since. And the South of 1970 has a claim on our present in the Southernization of rural America; as country-music stations crept north, Confederate flags followed. The effects on our politics are evident in the alliance between the race-baiting demagogue in the White House and the Alabama senator he installed as attorney general. On the other hand, the thesis has its limits: The personal computer wasn’t invented in Biloxi.
Didion’s portrait of New Orleans is a vivid exercise in modern gothic. “The place is physically dark,” she writes, “dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray: the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.” She watches a woman crash a car into a tree and die at the wheel. She dines with a local aristocrat who scolds Didion’s husband for letting her “spend time consorting with a lot of marijuana smoking hippie trash” in the course of her reporting. She sees in the city’s preoccupations with “race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style” the source of a “childlike cruelty and innocence” that had been erased in the West by a frontier ethic that denied those distinctions.
Casting the South as a foil for the West, Didion is seeking out a counter-America unleveled by defense contractors, agribusiness, and corporate media. “I guess you think southerners are somewhat anachronistic,” an old friend had told her, and there’s something wishful about her sense of the South as a beacon for the American future. There’s also something circumscribed about her interactions with Southerners. She seems to meet most of them either at dinner parties through social connections, or at nail salons, Pony League baseball games, and roadside burger joints. As she’d write in 1988 when she went on the campaign trail, “it had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations.” Her sociological methods are idiosyncratic, and though she’s brilliant at the art of overhearing, the technique only goes so far. Without a central event to cover or an angle to pursue, her vision of gothic isolation keeps recurring, occasionally punctured by the sight of someone who seems out of place, as on one afternoon at Ole Miss: “I saw a black girl on the campus: she was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey, and she was quite beautiful, with a NY-LA coastal arrogance. I could not think what she was doing at Ole Miss, or what she thought about it.” And oddly, the famously shy reporter doesn’t seem to have asked.
On the road in Mississippi and Alabama, she and Dunne pass through a “nightmare world” of rotting bananas, boa constrictors, capuchin monkeys, armadillos, and crops of corn and tomatoes growing “aimlessly” in contrast to the industrial farms of California. A stop at a gas station occasions a half-hour shower at the hotel to wash the day away. She discloses that every night she and Dunne looked at maps to figure out how far away the nearest airport was if they were tempted to decamp to New York or Los Angeles. Didion was captivated by the South but also filled with an animating sense of dread. One rainy afternoon, she slips in the mud and panics that she’s surrounded by snakes. She swims in motel pools and attracts attention: “Hey, look, there’s somebody with a bikini on.” One pool smells like fish, another is garlanded with algae and a cigarette butt. In Alabama, there’s no comfort in food: “Eating is an ordeal, as in an institution, something to be endured in the interests of survival. There are no drinks to soften the harshness of it. Ice is begrudged.” On being told that “Southern girls are notoriously husband hunting, but I guess that’s the same anywhere,” she imagines what might have been her own predicament: “It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?”
There’s an aftermath quality to the landscape, in the form of debris lingering from 1969’s Hurricane Camille, and an aftermath quality to the mentality of Southern whites: “The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.” Many of them bemoan the passing of “the feudal system” and are paranoid about the presence of the FBI. Just after midnight on May 15, 1970, two black students at Jackson State were killed by police in an incident that drew national attention in the wake of the National Guard killings at Kent State; Didion hears a lot of defensive talk about the incident but doesn’t visit Jackson, even to visit Eudora Welty, as she’d intended. (She says she fears that if she goes to Jackson, she’ll board the first flight to one of the coasts.) A pair of relatively liberal plantation owners speak well of school integration, even as they admit to sending their children to private schools. “I can’t sacrifice my child to my ideal,” a father says. Her longest interview is with Stan Togerson, white owner of the black radio station in Meridian, Mississippi. “We’re not nearly as inbred as we used to be,” he boasts to her, mentioning that the local Sears now has a couple of black department heads. He’s all for the coming of industry, education, and integration, but he has his limits: “I’m not saying I’m going to have a black minister come home to dinner tonight, ’cause I’m not.” Didion seems to have come up against her own limits on the Gulf Coast, and she knew it. There are few black voices in these notes, mostly just glimpses, as at Ole Miss.
It’s not uncommon for writers to publish work from the drawer when they reach Didion’s age — she’s now 82 — and these fragments would be of interest even if Didion’s sojourn in the South didn’t resonate with our moment of political reaction. They cast light backward and forward on her work, illuminating her reportorial process and the themes she would develop in later novels and nonfiction works like Miami, Salvador, and Where I Was From. But most intriguing is the mystery of the last line of her Southern notebook: “I never wrote the piece.”
Failure is part of the origin myth of the New Journalism: Tom Wolfe procrastinating until he sent Esquire his notes on the hot rod, and it published them in lieu of the piece; Gay Talese interviewing everybody except the subject of his profile; George Plimpton humiliating himself on the gridiron. In the decades that followed, the story of the failure to get the story would become its own genre of reporting, though rarely a glorious one. Didion was aware that the South had somehow defeated her: “The way in which all the reporting trips I had ever known atrophied in the South. There were things I should do, I knew it: but I never did them. I never made an appointment with the bridal consultant of the biggest department store in any town I was in. I never made the Miss Mississippi Hospitality Contest Semifinals, although they were being held in little towns not far from where we were, wherever we were. I neglected to call the people whose names I had, and hung around drugstores instead. I was underwater in some real sense, the whole month.” South and West is a marvelous time capsule, and a reminder that sometimes even the great ones let themselves down. Didion wasn’t one to make a show of failure in her prime, but five decades on South and West is an act of generosity.
*This article appears in the March 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.