Tag Archives: Joan Didion Farwell to the Enchanted City

Joan Didion and NYC

 

Joan Didion – Saturday Evening Post 1-4-1967

 

Reading Joan Didion’s obituaries this week, I was reminded in particular of an essay of hers I had heard about. I don’t think I have read it before.

Joan Didion

“Farwell to the Enchanted City” (subsequently republished as “Goodbye to All That”)

Saturday Evening Post

January 4, 1967

I desired to read it. I wanted to see what she thought about New Yok City when she first moved there from California, in the late 1950s. About ten years later, I myself first relocated to New York and settled there.

What things about the City attracted and delighted her? Repelled her?

 

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When I moved to New York, it both fascinated (I found it intoxicating) and overwhelmed me with a sort of fear or numbness (emotional deadness). Meaning that it was so impersonal; the buildings were so tall, dominating the streetscapes; there was no nature; the people were all in a hurry and seemingly cold and impersonal, too busy and goal oriented to talk to you.

Everything depended on having money, of which I had very little.

I had been to New York a very few times before. The first time was in 1953 when my parents took me to visit the City for a few days. We stayed in the Edison Hotel in Times Square. (Rooms were four dollars a day.) Still there, I believe. (We must have been able to park our car.) I could not get over the experience of the Empire State Building. Being on the observation deck on the top and looking down at the cars on Fifth Avenue, which seemed like toy cars. The Automat. The little windows where you would put a dime or nickel in a slot and get a piece of pie. My mother wanted to see Greenwich Village. We drove around the crooked streets. I don’t think we ever got out of the car. I recall the cobblestones and that the car was jolting.

We took the Staten Island Ferry to cool off. It was July or August and one of those sweltering NYC hot spells.

 

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As a young man and adult, I grew to love and appreciate — so much — New York. See my post

“I went to the school of New York.”

“I went to the school of New York.”

for one way in which this was true.

The art movie theaters. The bookstores. Libraries. Most of all, the intellectual energy and appetites of the people I got to know.

In Massachusetts, as a young man, I would have been embarrassed to go to a movie by myself. In Connecticut, where I worked briefly, I was once asked to leave a folk music coffee house because I was sitting at table by myself. In NYC, no problem. I went to movies almost always by myself. Good way to spend an evening or a Sunday afternoon if you felt lonely.

Sit at a restaurant table by oneself? No problem. It was the same with half the other customers.

I would go to Central Park on Sunday afternoons and sit on a park bench feeling a bit lonely but like I was an amorphous participant in something. The bars were an oasis. A glass of beer twenty cents. Every third one free. The bartender was your and everyone’s friend.

One day in a subway station, I asked some people a question of some sort (maybe directions). They answered politely and helpfully. I told a friend of mine from college who lived in Flushing, Queens about this.

“Someone was actually nice to me in the subway,” I said.

“New Yorkers are people, too,” he replied.

Indeed.

Wonderful people. So full of energy. So interesting. Except when I first came the people on the subway all seemed so pale and sickly to me.

 

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So what was Joan Didion’s experience?

Read her famous essay (attached).

It’s really about her — instead of, at bottom, the City. It is very self-centered. It is surprising how much it seems to be built upon – – to be a tissue of — generalities. Of musings, inner thoughts. It does not convey much INFORMATION, substance.

You learn hardly anything about what New York was like when she was there.

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“Joan Didion: Only Disconnect”

From Off Center: Essays by Barbara Grizzutti Harrison

I do not find Joan Didion appealing. … I am disinclined to find endearing a chronicler of the 1960s who is beset by migraines that can be triggered by her decorator’s having pleated instead of gathered her new diningroom curtains. … more …. of a neurasthenic Cher than of a writer who has been called America’s finest woman prose stylist. … her subject is always herself. …

Didion uses style as argument. … for Didion, only surfaces matter. … Didion tells us, many times, and in many ways, that her mind “veers inflexibly toward the particular.”

To what in particular?

 

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Enough said. Read Joan Didion’s essay if you feel like it.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

  December 25, 2021

 

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Facebook comments

December 25, 2021

 

Pete Smith

Interesting thoughts. But don’t most writer’s thoughts relate largely to themselves? Think of Truman Capote’s short stories, like Dazzle. Or Melville, talking as himself (Ishmael) throughout Moby-Dick. I don’t object to your objecting to Didion but were she still alive she might have the same complaints about those of your posts, including this one, that borrow heavily on your own experience. I think this is what makes your posts interesting, and don’t see why it wouldn’t also apply to Didion’s writing.

 

Roger W. Smith

Barbara Grizzutti Harrison’s essay is dead on. You should read it. You are wrong about my writing. Of course everyone writes about and from the perspective of themselves and their own experience. This post insofar as it relates to me is built on experiences I had that readers can relate to.

 

Pete Smith

Roger, I think your reply was hidden for some reason but you missed my point. I was not criticizing you for writing about your own history or own perspective; I was basically saying that that is what everyone usually does and that I found it odd that you were criticizing Joan Didion for doing so — and I was acknowledging that this did not mean you had to like her writing. . . .

 

Roger W. Smith

I was criticizing her writing — from a certain point of view (view of her writing); which of course does not mean that writers should not write about themselves. Harrison’s essay articulates what I was trying to say; I had not read it before. By the way, Melville created a character, Ishmael, that was sort of his alter ego, but to say+ that amounts to writing about oneself is not correct. I guess the best way to put it is that Didion’s writing seems overly self-absorbed and there is something missing content- or sustenance-wise that a reader wants to be able to take away. I read some Didion before, including one of her novels. I was sort of impressed then, but now have come to the opinions of my post.

 

Pete Smith

All I meant was that Melville’s writing, like Truman Capote’s and like much of yours, was based on his own personal experience — in his case, whaling. I can understand your comment about Didion’s self absorption but when she’s writing a book all about the tragic and terrible year of her husband’s death, I would guess it would be difficult for any passionate observer to accuse her of self-absorption.

 

Roger W. Smith

I have not read [Joan Didion’s] The Year of Magical Thinking. I began this post with one essay of Didion’s which disappointed me and, based upon which, I drew inferences about her writing which seem valid. She always wrote about herself in a way that Melville didn’t.

 

Pete Smith

Got it, but of course you understand that I wasn’t suggesting in any way that Melville and Didion wrote about themselves in the same way.

 

Roger W. Smith

No, I don’t think that (your first sentence).

 

Ella Rutledge

I’m no fan of Didion’s either. The only thing of hers I have read is The Year of Magical Thinking. (I think a negative review at amazon.com

called it “A Lifetime of Magical Thinking.”) She is a member of the NY literati and so they all praise her writing because she writes from their point of view. You, Roger, on the other hand, document and record NYC life from an “everyman” perspective. I hated that book. So shallow, so limited, in its view of grief, grieving, loss, death, faith, belief in anything other than the material world, of which she constantly reminded us with references to the best hospitals (reached by helicopter), the best doctors, Brooks Brothers suits, Hollywood and the Beverly Hills Hotel. Death is final and any tendency to hope for anything beyond is “magical” (or in her view deluded) thinking.

 

Roger W. Smith

Thanks very much for the incisive comments, Ella, What you say about The Year of Magical Thinking confirms what I have said. I based my comments (mainly) on the essay I read this morning and on Harrison’s devastating article about Didion. And, yes, I did see what I felt was a distinction between my own writing and hers — or do now — it wasn’t my main point, and I was thinking about her writing, not mine, but when I read her essay about leaving New York, I felt empty; and I realize now, in retrospect, that that is more or less how I felt years ago when I read “Play It As It Lays.”