Death of the Captivating Cultural Critic Joan Didion

Selina Zhang

Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.” That was Joan Didion, who wrote with an eloquent and electrifying sense of style. Didion, best known for being an American novelist and cultural critic, passed away at the age of 87 from Parkinson’s disease on December 21, 2021.

Didion was born in Sacramento, California, which social landscape would later become the subject of observation in many of her memoirs and essays. As a teen, she drew inspiration from the greats – Ernest Hemingway, George Eliot, and Henry James. Her earliest work Self-respect: Its Source” won a competition and was published in Vogue Magazine in 1961. After Didion graduated with a degree in English at the University of Berkeley in 1956, she began working at Vogue as a copy editor and soon an associate features editor. She later published Run, River as her debut novel.  

In 1964, Didion married John Gregory Dunne, who edited Run, River and worked for Time Magazine. Together they adopted Quintana Roo Dunne and stayed in the Los Angeles area for about another 20 years. Didion’s husband died from a heart attack in 2003, which prompted her to start writing The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) in response. In 2005, Quintana, whom Didion wrote about in Blue Nights (2011) passed away from acute pancreatitis. However, the amalgamation of losses and grief during those years only allowed more opportunity for expression. “She uses that pain in her writing to express her vulnerability and her ability to keep going after such a loss. I think that’s brave – when people can be their true selves, even in spite of pain and suffering,” exclaims Ms. Parker-Danam, 9th grade English teacher. 

Aside from writing on personal character and morality, Didion channeled a great deal of her philosophies and vulnerabilities through her works on California – the drama, ideals, and sentiments that lay buried deep in its region. It began with Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), centered on the hippie counterculture of 1960s Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood in San Francisco.  From tales of a mother who pushed her daughter to take LSD to a boy who tried to set a fire in his house, she portrayed the grim atmosphere of a land that magnified all sorts of emotional experiences for its inhabitants. The period after that publication marked a shift in attitude for Didion and in so the desire to tell the story the way she saw it. 

 It was in 1979 when Didion published another iconic book: White Album. Didion drew from her personal uncertainty and historical events to produce these collection of essays. One of her essays stripped bare the belief in the American dream, which had become consumerism culture encouraged by Hollywood craft. Other essays explored the Manson Murders case, Black Panthers movement, and the San Francisco College takeover. Didion asked, through the chaos within mass culture and society in the 1960s, how were we to make sense of the world around us?

Didion’s introspection finally culminated in her book Where I was From (2003), where she reassessed her understanding of California by examining the myths she had grown up with.  “One of the great moves of Where I Was From is that she undermines all of the mythologies upon which she was raised: the myth of California individualism, the myth of the so-called “purity” of agricultural California, when in fact it was built on the backs of black and brown workers,” former LA times editor and critic David Ulin remarks in a “Big Table” podcast. Albeit the change in perspective, Didion’s writing voice had still remained a constant. Ms. Parker-Danam praises, “That’s what makes her amazing – she’s able to stay consistent through her ability to be eloquent, to illustrate and to inform. It hasn’t really changed”.

Today, Didion is honored and recognized for her distinctive voice in the world of writing. Her awards include the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Year of Magical Thinking, 2007 National Book Foundation‘s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, 2013 National Medial of Arts, and countless other achievements.