Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Joan Didion: A Writer of Scope and Substance

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Joan Didion: A Writer of Scope and Substance

Article excerpt

Establishing support for my claim that Joan Didion is a writer of scope is easy enough. In whatever manner one might wish to define scope--in terms of an author's literary longevity, in terms of proficiency in a variety of genres, or in terms of a maturing and expanding vision--Joan Didion's canon offers impressive support for each definition. One need only to look at her notable list of literary accomplishments which remain relevant now after twenty-five years. Beginning in 1963 with the publication of her first novel, Didion has published regularly throughout the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and signals no decline for the 1990s. One might wish to consider production in a number of genres as a factor that would prove authorial scope; in which case, Joan Didion demonstrates a breadth Of talent matched by few. Didion's canon currently stands at eight published works: among them four novels, two collections of essays, and two nonfictional, largely political, works. In addition she has a number of screenplays and many uncollected pieces to her credit. And if one insists upon an expanding vision to indicate writerly scope, Didion's work adequately fulfills this criterion as well. Because Didion was born in Sacramento and her first few works used details of her home state to inform her settings or subjects, certain critics perhaps prematurely classified Joan Didion as a regionalist, a writer of the California milieu. Her subsequent work, however, reveals ever-broadening perceptions that extend far beyond California and transcend regional concerns. In terms of Didion's lasting interest and the range of her talents, therefore, we may assert Didion's broad scope as a writer. Finally, that Didion's work exhibits an increasing mastery of literary skills suggests not only her scope as a writer but also her substance. A summary of Didion's eight works will validate my claim that she is a writer of substance.

Didion's first novel, Run River (1963), is set entirely in California among the Sacramento valley's lush acres of fruit orchards and hops fields. Each productive acre declares another victory for the determined settlers who fought hardship, bitter weather, even starvation to continue their treks westward a century ago and to claim for their own a corner of the land. The agricultural setting of Run River, therefore, emphasizes its important themes of family, tradition, historical power, and the particular tragedy of their loss. Lily Knight, the daughter of a wealthy fruit grower, marries Everett McClellan, whose family has grown hops for four generations in the fertile valley. Despite the factors of family, tradition, and wealth that should help assure a happy marriage, the years between 1939 and 1959 produce only troubles for Lily and Everett.

The troubles begin for Lily and Everett in 1942 upon the birth of their second child because Lily feels she is unable to fulfill the roles expected of a young wife and mother of two. Later that same year Everett is called away for armed services, and in his absence Lily begins an adulterous affair. Their troubles thicken when Lily becomes pregnant and has an abortion. In fact, their marriage never recovers from the sense of mutual blame and guilt the abortion creates between them: Lily continues to have affairs, while Everett remains cold and distant to her. Their troubles grow when Everett's jilted sister, Martha (to whom Everett was preternaturally close), commits suicide.

Most serious are the troubles that begin to appear in the late 1950s. The agricultural way of life on which the McClellans and the Knights have depended for generations begins to be phased out, replaced by major industry and technology. Huge conglomerations such as the aerospace industry begin to occupy the valley. Lily's and Everett's son, Knight, admits he wants no part of the family's expansive acreage nor his father's agrarian lifestyle. The long agrarian tradition of the McClellan family comes to an end with Knight's decision to head east to attend Princeton; he seems a traitor to the only way of life Everett has ever known. …

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