The novelist and essayist Joan Didion has died, at the age of eighty-seven, after a battle with Parkinson’s disease. The author of sixteen books, including “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Didion established a deeply personal literary style that influenced a generation of journalists and critics. Her essay “Goodbye to All That” became a touchstone for those dealing with feelings of dislocation and ambivalence about New York City. (Didion, famously, left.)
Didion began writing for The New Yorker, from her native California, in 1988, contributing a regular column about politics and culture in her home state. Her dispatches, which ran under the rubric Letter from Los Angeles, combined meticulous prose with arresting insights about everything from the ravages of wildfires to the consequential history of the Los Angeles Times. Didion’s missives were keenly observant, full of language that cut like a skean. Two of my favorite Didion pieces are a riveting Profile of Martha Stewart, published in 2000, and an immersive essay on the Spur Posse scandal, in Lakewood, California, published in 1993. Both reveal Didion’s incisive, exacting approach to her subjects. Assessing the business mogul four years before her conviction for obstruction of justice in an insider-trading scandal, Didion dissects the complex feminist sensibility behind Stewart’s self-presentation as an “Everywoman” domestic goddess. “This is the ‘woman’s pluck’ story, the dust-bowl story, the burying-your-child-on-the-trail story, the I-will-never-go-hungry-again story, the Mildred Pierce story, the story about how the sheer nerve of even professionally unskilled women can prevail, show the men; the story that has historically encouraged women in this country, even as it has threatened men,” she writes.
One of Didion’s great gifts was an ability to see the story behind the story—to crack the enigmas stitched into individual lives. In her report on the Spur Posse, she takes a small-town scandal involving sexual violence by teen-age gang members and explodes it into a bristling opus about gender politics and the corrosion of the suburban middle class. “When times were good and there was money to spread around, these were the towns that proved Marx wrong, that managed to increase the proletariat and simultaneously, by calling it middle class, to co-opt it,” she writes. “When towns like these came on hard times, it was their adolescent males, only recently the community’s most valued asset, who were most visibly left with nowhere to go.”
Didion’s essays are indelible portraits of events and figures that, for good or ill, shaped American culture. Her pieces linger with us, continuing to unfurl crisp new layers of discovery at every turn. We’ve collected a few of her articles from our archive and listed them below.
—Erin Overbey, archive editor
By branding herself not as Superwoman but as Everywoman, Stewart made even her troubles an integral part of her success.
How a once idyllic postwar town fell under the sway of a teen-age gang.
A chronicle of the complicated history of the Los Angeles Times.
Those Hemingway wrote, and those he didn’t.