Joan Didion has been one of California’s most acute observers since the early 1960s; in such books as Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, she lays bare both the aspirations and the hypocrisies of the state. This fall, Library of America will publish Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s (950 pages, $39.95), the first in a multivolume set of her collected works. Edited by David L. Ulin (Alta’s books editor), The 1960s & 70s gathers three novels and two works of nonfiction and focuses on Didion’s early iconic work. Among the essays included is her astonishing “On the Morning After the Sixties,” which concludes with these pointed paragraphs:
At Berkeley in the Fifties no one was surprised by anything at all, a donnée which tended to render discourse less than spirited, and debate nonexistent. The world was by definition imperfect, and so of course was the university. There was some talk even then about IBM cards, but on balance the notion that free education for tens of thousands of people might involve automation did not seem unreasonable. We took it for granted that the Board of Regents would sometimes act wrongly. We simply avoided those students rumored to be FBI informers. We were that generation called “silent,” but we were silent neither, as some thought, because we shared the period’s official optimism nor, as others thought, because we feared its official repression. We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man’s fate.
To have assumed that particular fate so early was the peculiarity of my generation. I think now that we were the last generation to identify with adults. That most of us have found adulthood just as morally ambiguous as we expected it to be falls perhaps into the category of prophecies self-fulfilled: I am simply not sure. I am telling you only how it was. The mood of Berkeley in those years was one of mild but chronic “depression,” against which I remember certain small things that seemed to me somehow explications, dazzling in their clarity, of the world I was about to enter: I remember a woman picking daffodils in the rain one day when I was walking in the hills. I remember a teacher who drank too much one night and revealed his fright and bitterness. I remember my real joy at discovering for the first time how language worked, at discovering, for example, that the central line of Heart of Darkness was a postscript. All such images were personal, and the personal was all that most of us expected to find. We would make a separate peace. We would do graduate work in Middle English, we would go abroad. We would make some money and live on a ranch. We would survive outside history, in a kind of idée fixe referred to always, during the years I spent at Berkeley, as “some little town with a decent beach.”
As it worked out I did not find or even look for the little town with a decent beach. I sat in the large bare apartment in which I lived my junior and senior years (I had lived a while in a sorority, the Tri Delt house, and had left it, typically, not over any “issue” but because I, the implacable “I,” did not like living with 60 people) and I read Camus and Henry James and I watched a flowering plum come in and out of blossom and at night, most nights, I walked outside and looked up to where the cyclotron and the bevatron glowed on the dark hillside, unspeakable mysteries which engaged me, in the style of my time, only personally. Later I got out of Berkeley and went to New York and later I got out of New York and came to Los Angeles. What I have made for myself is personal, but is not exactly peace. Only one person I knew at Berkeley later discovered an ideology, dealt himself into history, cut himself loose from both his own dread and his own time. A few of the people I knew at Berkeley killed themselves not long after. Another attempted suicide in Mexico and then, in a recovery which seemed in many ways a more advanced derangement, came home and joined the Bank of America’s three-year executive-training program. Most of us live less theatrically, but remain the survivors of a peculiar and inward time. If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.
Excerpt from Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s, published by Library of America, originally published in The White Album by Joan Didion, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 1979 by Joan Didion. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All Rights Reserved.
• By Joan Didion
• Library of America, 950 pages, $39.95