South and West

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9781524732790Short but deep, light but profound, Joan Didion’s “South and West” is mainly comprised of notes Didion made on a a trip through the South in 1970 and on the Patty Hearst trial. In the introduction Nathaniel Rich says, “Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America.” Yes, but she gets the South in the process. Because of its agriculturally based society and feudal power structure the South has long been the shadow of America. Settled by people who created a slave society and caste system culture, the South has long valued states’ rights and local control and resisted the expansion of federal hegemony. In the best writerly tradition, Didion shows, not tells, this history. And here is where Rich’s observation rings true. Traits that characterized the Deep South — white supremacy, aristocratic privilege and economic inequality — are no longer geographically isolated, as they have spread ubiquitously across the US (and sadly into the top positions of our government).

Didion admits that fully fleshed out stories never materialized from these notes. Published together now, however, they seem prescient. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three main themes in this book are economic inequality, racial tension and white privilege. One of the key takeaways from the Hearst trial is that anyone without that extreme wealth and privilege would not have gotten off so easily. In the South, I hear the same sort of of white entitlement comments Didion overheard in New Orleans nearly 50 years ago still parroted today, not to mention the very same chorus of racist, xenophobic and sexist remarks from the left-behinds in the more rural areas. This illuminates a major fact about the US: that economic inequality in the US fell precipitously from 1929 to 1973 only to begin to rise again rapidly in the ’80s. I posit that Didion noticed something major in the South and West but did not know what to do with these these harbingers, because for her they felt like incipient gusts of wind. In the meantime, these gusts have choreographed into a storm, given us Trump and are the subject of tomes.

Nicole Charbonnet

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