Read 12 Masterful Essays by Joan Didion for Free Online, Spanning Her Career From 1965 to 2013

Image by David Shankbone, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In a clas­sic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Good­bye to All That,” the nov­el­ist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time—to prod her read­er. She rhetor­i­cal­ly asks and answers: “…was any­one ever so young? I am here to tell you that some­one was.” The wry lit­tle moment is per­fect­ly indica­tive of Didion’s unspar­ing­ly iron­ic crit­i­cal voice. Did­ion is a con­sum­mate crit­ic, from Greek kritēs, “a judge.” But she is always fore­most a judge of her­self. An account of Didion’s eight years in New York City, where she wrote her first nov­el while work­ing for Vogue, “Good­bye to All That” fre­quent­ly shifts point of view as Did­ion exam­ines the truth of each state­ment, her prose mov­ing seam­less­ly from delib­er­a­tion to com­men­tary, anno­ta­tion, aside, and apho­rism, like the below:

I want to explain to you, and in the process per­haps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from some­where else, a city only for the very young.

Any­one who has ever loved and left New York—or any life-alter­ing city—will know the pangs of res­ig­na­tion Did­ion cap­tures. These eco­nom­ic times and every oth­er pro­duce many such sto­ries. But Did­ion made some­thing entire­ly new of famil­iar sen­ti­ments. Although her essay has inspired a sub-genre, and a col­lec­tion of breakup let­ters to New York with the same title, the unsen­ti­men­tal pre­ci­sion and com­pact­ness of Didion’s prose is all her own.

The essay appears in 1967’s Slouch­ing Towards Beth­le­hem, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive text of the lit­er­ary non­fic­tion of the six­ties along­side the work of John McPhee, Ter­ry South­ern, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thomp­son. In Didion’s case, the empha­sis must be decid­ed­ly on the lit­er­ary—her essays are as skill­ful­ly and imag­i­na­tive­ly writ­ten as her fic­tion and in close con­ver­sa­tion with their autho­r­i­al fore­bears. “Good­bye to All That” takes its title from an ear­li­er mem­oir, poet and crit­ic Robert Graves’ 1929 account of leav­ing his home­town in Eng­land to fight in World War I. Didion’s appro­pri­a­tion of the title shows in part an iron­ic under­cut­ting of the mem­oir as a seri­ous piece of writ­ing.

And yet she is per­haps best known for her work in the genre. Pub­lished almost fifty years after Slouch­ing Towards Beth­le­hem, her 2005 mem­oir The Year of Mag­i­cal Think­ing is, in poet Robert Pinsky’s words, a “traveler’s faith­ful account” of the stun­ning­ly sud­den and crush­ing per­son­al calami­ties that claimed the lives of her hus­band and daugh­ter sep­a­rate­ly. “Though the mate­r­i­al is lit­er­al­ly ter­ri­ble,” Pin­sky writes, “the writ­ing is exhil­a­rat­ing and what unfolds resem­bles an adven­ture nar­ra­tive: a forced expe­di­tion into those ‘cliffs of fall’ iden­ti­fied by Hop­kins.” He refers to lines by the gift­ed Jesuit poet Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins that Did­ion quotes in the book: “O the mind, mind has moun­tains; cliffs of fall / Fright­ful, sheer, no-man-fath­omed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.”

The near­ly unim­peach­ably author­i­ta­tive ethos of Didion’s voice con­vinces us that she can fear­less­ly tra­verse a wild inner land­scape most of us triv­i­al­ize, “hold cheap,” or can­not fath­om. And yet, in a 1978 Paris Review inter­view, Didion—with that tech­ni­cal sleight of hand that is her casu­al mastery—called her­self “a kind of appren­tice plumber of fic­tion, a Cluny Brown at the writer’s trade.” Here she invokes a kind of arche­type of lit­er­ary mod­esty (John Locke, for exam­ple, called him­self an “under­labour­er” of knowl­edge) while also fig­ur­ing her­self as the win­some hero­ine of a 1946 Ernst Lubitsch com­e­dy about a social climber plumber’s niece played by Jen­nifer Jones, a char­ac­ter who learns to thumb her nose at pow­er and priv­i­lege.

A twist of fate—interviewer Lin­da Kuehl’s death—meant that Did­ion wrote her own intro­duc­tion to the Paris Review inter­view, a very unusu­al occur­rence that allows her to assume the role of her own inter­preter, offer­ing iron­ic prefa­to­ry remarks on her self-under­stand­ing. After the intro­duc­tion, it’s dif­fi­cult not to read the inter­view as a self-inter­ro­ga­tion. Asked about her char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of writ­ing as a “hos­tile act” against read­ers, Did­ion says, “Obvi­ous­ly I lis­ten to a read­er, but the only read­er I hear is me. I am always writ­ing to myself. So very pos­si­bly I’m com­mit­ting an aggres­sive and hos­tile act toward myself.”

It’s a curi­ous state­ment. Didion’s cut­ting wit and fear­less vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty take in seem­ing­ly all—the expans­es of her inner world and polit­i­cal scan­dals and geopo­lit­i­cal intrigues of the out­er, which she has dis­sect­ed for the bet­ter part of half a cen­tu­ry. Below, we have assem­bled a selec­tion of Didion’s best essays online. We begin with one from Vogue:

“On Self Respect” (1961)

Didion’s 1979 essay col­lec­tion The White Album brought togeth­er some of her most tren­chant and search­ing essays about her immer­sion in the coun­ter­cul­ture, and the ide­o­log­i­cal fault lines of the late six­ties and sev­en­ties. The title essay begins with a gem­like sen­tence that became the title of a col­lec­tion of her first sev­en vol­umes of non­fic­tion: “We tell our­selves sto­ries in order to live.” Read two essays from that col­lec­tion below:

The Women’s Move­ment” (1972)

Holy Water” (1977)

Did­ion has main­tained a vig­or­ous pres­ence at the New York Review of Books since the late sev­en­ties, writ­ing pri­mar­i­ly on pol­i­tics. Below are a few of her best known pieces for them:

Insid­er Base­ball” (1988)

Eye on the Prize” (1992)

The Teach­ings of Speak­er Gin­grich” (1995)

Fixed Opin­ions, or the Hinge of His­to­ry” (2003)

Pol­i­tics in the New Nor­mal Amer­i­ca” (2004)

The Case of There­sa Schi­a­vo” (2005)

The Def­er­en­tial Spir­it” (2013)

Cal­i­for­nia Notes” (2016)

Did­ion con­tin­ues to write with as much style and sen­si­tiv­i­ty as she did in her first col­lec­tion, her voice refined by a life­time of expe­ri­ence in self-exam­i­na­tion and pierc­ing crit­i­cal appraisal. She got her start at Vogue in the late fifties, and in 2011, she pub­lished an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal essay there that returns to the theme of “yearn­ing for a glam­orous, grown up life” that she explored in “Good­bye to All That.” In “Sable and Dark Glass­es,” Didion’s gaze is stead­ier, her focus this time not on the naïve young woman tem­pered and hard­ened by New York, but on her­self as a child “deter­mined to bypass child­hood” and emerge as a poised, self-con­fi­dent 24-year old sophisticate—the per­fect New York­er she nev­er became.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Joan Did­ion Reads From New Mem­oir, Blue Nights, in Short Film Direct­ed by Grif­fin Dunne

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

10 Free Sto­ries by George Saun­ders, Author of Tenth of Decem­ber, “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year”

Read 18 Short Sto­ries From Nobel Prize-Win­ning Writer Alice Munro Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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