[By: Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]
In his foreword for Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), Nicholas Rich asserts that Didion’s prose has “cool majesty” as well as “an immaculacy as intimidating as Chelsea porcelain” (xi). The assertion and the subject of the assertion invite scrutiny. Truth be told, the sentence “Everyone in the place seemed to have been there a long time, and to know everyone else.” (29) is neither immaculate nor intimidating. It might refer as much to several restaurants in New Orleans or a now defunct restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi where everyone used to have breakfast as to a café in downtown Biloxi in the 1970s. Rich’s exaggeration is like a Donald J. Trump tweet, a desperate move. But its banality excites no one who knows red beans and rice about public relations in the Republic of American Letters. Inflation is the hot air that keeps a reputation afloat.
Didion is an iconic name in American literature, although it is less revered than Welty, Mitchell, or Lee in the white mythology of the Deep South. As Didion admits in the “California Notes” section of South and West, she is “at home” in the West. In the 1970s when she wrote up her notes, she was just an exotic outside agitator as far as the South is concerned. She still is.
The content rather than the prose of “Notes on the South” (5-107) might be intimidating. It’s intimidating to know so much about the South has remained intact since Didion meandered through it nearly fifty years ago. Rich himself feels obligated to note that “a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life” (xix). Now that is intimidating. Yes. The rock of ages is still nearer than God to thee.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of English at Dillard University, Honorary Professor at Central China Normal University, and HBW Board Member (Emeritus).