Slouching Towards Bethlehem Essay Summary Format

For other uses, see Slouching Towards Bethlehem (disambiguation).

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a 1968 collection of essays by Joan Didion that mainly describes her experiences in California during the 1960s. It takes its title from the poem "The Second Coming", by W. B. Yeats. The contents of this book are reprinted in Didion's We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (2006).

Title essay[edit]

The title essay describes Didion's impressions of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco during the neighborhood's heyday as a countercultural center. In contrast to the more utopian image of the milieu promoted by counterculture sympathizers then and now, Didion offered a rather grim portrayal of the goings-on, including an encounter with a pre-school-age child who was given LSD by her parents.

In her preface to the book, Didion writes, "I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder."[1]


I. Lifestyles in the Golden Land[edit]

  • "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream"
    Appeared first in 1966 in The Saturday Evening Post under the title "How Can I Tell Them There's Nothing Left".
  • "John Wayne: A Love Song"
    Appeared first in 1965 in The Saturday Evening Post.
  • "Where the Kissing Never Stops"
    Appeared first in 1966 in The New York Times Magazine under the title "Just Folks at a School for Non-Violence".
  • "Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)"
    Appeared first in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post.
  • "7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38"
    Appeared first in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post under the title "The Howard Hughes Underground".
  • "California Dreaming"
    Appeared first in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post.
  • "Marrying Absurd"
    Appeared first in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post.
  • "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"
    Appeared first in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post.

II. Personals[edit]

  • "On Keeping a Notebook"
    Appeared first in 1966 in Holiday.
  • "On Self-Respect"
    Appeared first in 1961 in Vogue.
  • "I Can't Get That Monster out of My Mind"
    Appeared first in 1964 in The American Scholar.
  • "On Morality"
    Appeared first in 1965 in The American Scholar under the title "The Insidious Ethic of Conscience".
  • "On Going Home"
    Appeared first in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post.

III. Seven Places of the Mind[edit]

  • "Notes from a Native Daughter"
    Appeared first in 1965 in Holiday.
  • "Letter from Paradise, 21° 19' N., 157° 52' W"
    Appeared first in 1966 in The Saturday Evening Post under the title "Hawaii: Taps Over Pearl Harbor".
  • "Rock of Ages"
    Appeared first in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post.
  • "The Seacoast of Despair"
    Appeared first in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post.
  • "Guaymas, Sonora"
    Appeared first in 1965 in Vogue.
  • "Los Angeles Notebook"
    A section entitled "The Santa Ana" appeared first in 1965 in The Saturday Evening Post.
  • "Goodbye to All That"
    Appeared first in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post under the title "Farewell to the Enchanted City".


In The New York Times Book Review, the novelist and screenwriter Dan Wakefield wrote, "Didion's first collection of nonfiction writing, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, brings together some of the finest magazine pieces published by anyone in this country in recent years. Now that Truman Capote has pronounced that such work may achieve the stature of 'art,' perhaps it is possible for this collection to be recognized as it should be: not as a better or worse example of what some people call 'mere journalism,' but as a rich display of some of the best prose written today in this country."[2]


External links[edit]

  1. ^Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968. p. xiii.
  2. ^Dan Wakefield, "Places, People and Personalities," The New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1968.

As disparate as the pieces are, certain themes emerge; not the least of them involves Didion’s theory of “atomization, the proof that things fall apart.” Inspired by Yeats’s poem, Didion appears convinced that the United States, in the last half of the twentieth century, is undergoing a cataclysm, a major unraveling of the individual and social fabric, in which chaos has come to define the ordinary course of events.

The first essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” recounts Lucille Miller’s sexual infidelity and presumed murder of her husband. As Didion depicts it, Miller’s story becomes a modern morality play, complete with greed, lust, and homicide. As the title suggests, the principal players stumble about in states of delusion, dreaming the wrong dreams, misinterpreting the implications of the American Dream, and eventually allowing “the dream [to teach] the dreamers how to live.”

In “Marrying Absurd,” Didion aims her sights at Las Vegas and the “quickie” marriage industry which thrives there. Here she argues that Las Vegas, in all of its impermanence and unreality, operates as a fitting metaphor for a prototypical American industry. While her tone is wryly cynical throughout, she also strikes a note of despair when pondering the implications of transforming one of the most profound human experiences into a tawdry commercial venture.

“On Keeping a Notebook” details the often-inscrutable minutiae Didion includes in her notebook. As she reveals, these objects (napkins from a bar, for example) and observations mean nothing to anyone but herself and often appear to have no clear purpose or importance. In rather Proustian ways, however, they recover the past, bringing Didion back to where she once was and how she once felt. In one of her most eloquent passages, she writes:Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the [people] we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

Atomization is not merely a theme but a structural device she frequently invokes. Its most dramatic appearance comes in “Los Angeles Notebook”; the essay opens with a description of the effects of the Santa Ana winds on the inhabitants of Southern California. Many readers assume that Didion is arguing for a causal relationship between the Santa Anas and aberrant behavior. Her point, however, is that they reveal “something deep in the grain,” something already lying dormant: “The unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows how close to the edge we are.”

The remainder of the essay is then divided numerically into four separate vignettes—one dealing with a radio talk-show, another with the author’s encounter with a woman in a supermarket, a third with a nasty Beverly Hills party, and the fourth with a conversation in a piano bar. On first reading, these completely independent anecdotes make no apparent point, but on closer examination they reveal a divided, hostile society where predatory impulses have replaced all sense of shared purpose and community.

Another important Didion concern involves the antithesis of illusion and reality, and one of the most dramatic examples of this disjunction occurs in “John Wayne: A Love Song.” Didion took this assignment reluctantly, for she had always admired Wayne and the larger-than-life image he portrayed in all of his films. While Wayne still conveys that presence on the screen and even in some personal conversations, he is an older, definitely ill man. Recovering from surgery and suffering from a severe cold, Wayne must retreat each day to an inhalator. As much as she wants to retain the silver-screen image of Wayne, Didion is also forced to consider the actor’s weakness and...

(The entire section is 1705 words.)

0 thoughts on “Slouching Towards Bethlehem Essay Summary Format”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *