In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion‘s nonfictional profiles often serve as a commentary on the American dream in regards to California culture. She develops this complex idea by examining the personal, social, and/or political landscape of Carmel Valley and the “underside of Hollywood,” for instance, and pays great attention to the noteworthy figures who shaped the ideologies of these cultural hotspots. In her essays, “Where the Kissing Never Stops” and “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 28,” she analyzes, respectively, Joan Baez and Howard Hughes, and contemplates their motivations and idiosyncrasies as people, as well as how their personality traits historically connected to larger idealistic undertones in California at the time. The two were radically different people when focused upon, but a vital parallel between the two remains: they both were eager to express their true-blue American freedom in all its varying forms.
To Didion, Baez was a representation of political activism at the unwitting, innocuous level—she was at once “the voice that meant protest,” a “personality before she was entirely a person,” and a “hapless victim of what others have seen in her” (47). The singer was far more interested in eating potato salad out of bowls with her bare hands than making statements about the sociopolitical realities of the twenty-first century’s latter half. But as it so happened, she also enjoyed singing, and she was pretty damn good at connecting with the crowd while simultaneously coming off genuine and untarnished by singing coaches or entities of the like: “this openness, this vulnerability, is of course precisely the reason why she is so able to “come through” to all the young and lonely and inarticulate” (56). This wasn’t her deliberate and conscious aim though. As it was, and as Didion frames it, Baez was pure and instinctual, childlike in the way she felt and connected to the people of a culture trying to regain its identity and establish a community in the midst of chaos and confusion. It’s a funny irony, because political activism is almost always marked by premeditation, but Baez only wanted to be herself—an innocently authentic, song-stricken, nonviolent potato-salad-eating kid of the new generation—and further activism grew out of her willingness to be exactly who she knew she was: that is, the type of early-twenties singer who “told the Internal Revenue Service that she did not intend to pay the sixty percent of her income tax,” (47). No premeditation, just Baez being Baez. She was an effortless, intention-less microcosm of the time, a manifestation of the American dream for people who needed someone, if not themselves, to act in the truest, most sincere fashion available in times of paranoia and fear. The way Didion forms this nonfictional narrative is fantastic, as I see it, because the dream goes both ways so far as Baez keeps feeling the crowd and the crowd keeps feeling Baez, and the journal, or commentary, behind the persona itself all comes together piece by piece in a pretty suave and subtle manner.
Didion is more direct about asserting how the American dream involves the great Howard Hughes, focusing on his money, a notable factor in a great portion of American dream assertions (because everyone readily knows that a white picket fence and a victorian abode isn’t going to fly without a few dollar bills to throw around—I digress). Particularly, Didion smartly notes that, “Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves… tells us that the secret point of money… in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake… but absolute personal freedom” (71). In developing this point, Didion notes manifest destiny in passing—”the instinct which drove America to the Pacific” (71)—which reestablishes California as the final destination of American freedom, the place where, when the territorial manifest destiny met its end, a more personal, internal counterpart emerged out of the cultural necessity for more freedom. Howard Hughes had a barber 24/7; he bought up a fraction of Las Vegas, an acquaintance remarks, so he could “”find a restaurant open in case he wants a sandwich”” (71); he is the epitome of American freedom, Didion keeps implying, and further, “he is… the dream we longer admit.” In a way, thinking about all this freedom makes me think that the whole American obsession with asserting its volition is just another way of compensating for all those tea taxes back in the good ‘ole days.
Anyways, as shown, Didion is very methodical in her explication of these two cultural figures. She pays great attention to detail in forming her narrative—one that exists independent of her writing but would not otherwise reach an audience without such journalistic ventures. This commentary is important, in my opinion, because we are unknowing products of similar mindsets which underscore the basic foundation of America today. I don’t mean to be grandiose or excessive, but it’s important: people like Joan Baez and Howard Hughes extended the boundaries of how and why we dream the way that we do, and frankly it’s all become an even larger part of our collective consciousness whether we like it or not. The proof is in the potato salad—I swear.