A Home for American Literature

Selected Library of America Volumes

Some forty years ago, I visited my friend Mike Prendergast and saw some intriguing books on his shelf. They were early volumes published by the Library of America. They were slipcased hardbound volumes averaging 800-1000 pages each with authoritative editions of American authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Benjamin Franklin, and Herman Melville. The attempt was to do for the United States what the Pléiade editions did for France.

I wasted no time in contacting the L of A, and in no time at all I started receiving all the volumes they published. As the publisher branched out more, I had to cut back considerably. Today, I have more than 200 volumes containing the works of William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Henry James, and scores of other authors.

For a while, I started to look down on American literature and concentrate my reading efforts on European authors. I now realize that was short-sighted, so I started to dig into some of the volumes on my shelves. Among the works I discovered were:

  • Dawn Powell (The Locusts Have No King and Turn, Magic Wheel)
  • Kenneth Fearing (The Big Clock)
  • William Lindsay Gresham (Nightmare Alley)
  • Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle)
  • Jack Kerouac (The Subterraneans)
  • Henry David Thoreau (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and The Maine Woods)
  • William Faulkner (Soldier’s Pay, Mosquitoes, and A Fable)
  • Mark Twain (Following the Equator)

One of my long-term projects is reading all the published works of Joan Didion in order, which was made easier by the L of A publishing her novels and essays in two volumes (The 1960s & 1970s and The 1980s & 1990s). I have no doubt that her later works will appear in a volume to be published.

I am also thinking of reading all of Henry James’s shorter works, including some of the novels I have not yet read, such as The Awkward Age and Wings of the Dove.

There are hundreds of treasures to be found in the Library of America. I can only hope to live long enough to do them justice.


I have just finished reading Joan Didion’s short book on the right-wing death squad violence in El Salvador forty years ago. Back in 1964, she had voted for Barry Goldwater for President. A rancher’s daughter from Sacramento, she did not really personally encounter the disconnect between what Ronald Reagan was saying in Washington and what Roberto D’Aubuisson and his adherents were doing to the people of El Salvador.

Here Joan talks about something that shocked her about the availability of “actual information”:

Actual information was hard to come by in El Salvador, perhaps because this was not a culture in which a high value was placed on the definite…. All numbers in El Salvador tended to materialize and vanish and rematerialize in a different form, as if the numbers denoted only the “use” of numbers, an intention, a wish, a recognition that someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, needed to hear the ineffable expressed as a number. At any given time in El Salvador a great deal of what goes on is considered ineffable, and the use of numbers in this context tends to frustrate people who try to understand them literally, rather than as a proposition to be floated, “heard,” “mentioned.” There was the case of the March 28, 1982 election, about which there continued into that summer the rather scholastic argument first posed by Central American Studies, the publication of the Jesuit university in San Salvador: Had it taken an average of 2.5 minutes to cast a vote or less? Could each ballot box hold 500 ballots, or more? The numbers were eerily Salvadoran. There were said to be 1.3 million people eligible to vote on March 28, but 1.5 million people were said to have voted. These 1.5 million people were said, in turn, to represent not 115 percent of the 1.3 million eligible voters but 80 percent (or, on another float, “62-68 percent”) of the eligible voters….

A and Not-A, B and Not-B, C and Not-C

Joan Didion (1934-2021)

I am beginning to realize that what I admire most about the essays of Joan Didion is that they do not take a stand. They present both A and Not-A, B and Not-B, and C and Not-C. Take, for instance, the title essay in The White Album. There is a constant feeling of dread, yet Joan never takes the easy way out. Here, for example, she writes about Huey Newton of the Black Panthers:

I am telling you neither that Huey Newton killed John Frey nor that Huey Newton did not kill John Frey, for in the context of revolutionary politics Huey Newtons guilt or innocence was irrelevant. I am telling you only How Huey Newton happened to be in the Alameda County Jail, and why rallies were held in his name, demonstrations organized whenever he appeared in court.

There is also a description of a 1968 recording session by The Doors at which Jim Morrison was not initially present. When he arrived wearing his tight black vinyl pants, the scene was a discombobulated one:

The curious aspect of Morrison’s arrival was this: no one acknowledged it. Robby Krieger continued working out a guitar passage. John Densmore tuned his drums. Manzarek sat at the control console and twirled a corkscrew and let a girl rub his shoulders. The girl did not look at Morrison, although he was in her direct line of sight. An hour or so passed, and still no one had spoken to Morrison.

Didion does not say that Morrison was an inconsiderate dick: She presents the scene and lets you draw your own conclusions. Particularly revealing is a quote from a psychiatric evaluation of Didion in Santa Monica after she reported “an attack of vertigo, nausea, and a feeling that she was going to pass out.” The evaluation concluded:

Patient’s thematic productions on the Thematic Apperception Test emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world around her. It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal. In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure….

In her place, we might all be tempted to put our thumbs on the scale, to introduce our own prejudices and draw a conclusion which may be no closer to the truth, but mainly revealing of our own misperceptions. I do find it odd that she would quote a lengthy psychiatric diagnosis of her sense of dread near the beginning of the essay, or anywhere within it for that matter.

Joan Didion Terrifies Me

Joan Didion (1934-2021)

I am alternately in love with and terrified by Joan Didion. Behind that seeming fragility is a mountain of strength and eyes that cut through the obscuring fog. On one hand, the young Joan Didion was beautiful; but her marriage to John Gregory Dunne was a stormy one, and her relationship with him and her adopted daughter Quintana Roo was interrupted by their early deaths. I keep thinking of her heroine Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays:

She took his hand and held it. “Why are you here?”

“Because you and I, we know something. Because we’ve been out there where nothing is. Because I wanted—you know why.”

Joan was never a safe, sensible woman. She saw clearly to the heart of things, yet dulled herself with large amounts of alcohol and was rarely photographed without a cigarette in her hands. The daughter of a rancher, she was raised in Sacramento, a fifth-generation Californian, whose ancestors just escaped being part of the Donner Party in the winter of 1846-1847. There is in her eyes both wildness and clarity. She, too, has been out there where nothing is.

Though in one sense she terrifies me, I love her work. When she died last December, I felt that California had lost its muse.

Across Twenty Years of L.A. Life

Charles Manson Under Arrest

I am currently reading Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion entitled The Last Love Song. Halfway through the book, I feel as if I had relived the 1960s and the 1970s. I had never realized what a key literary figure that Joan Didion (as well as her friend Eve Babitz) were in my life. While Eve represented to me the world of L.A. celebrities, Joan’s wide screen writings took in the whole local and even international picture.

If one lives in the West L.A. area over a number of years, one finds oneself on the fringes of history. On June 5, 2004, for instance, Martine and I were turned away from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in the Simi Valley because the ex-president had just died. The funeral home that handled his body was within walking distance of my apartment, at 26th Street and Arizona in Santa Monica.

The scene of the crime when O. J. Simpson killed his wife and Ron Goldman was only five blocks north of me on Bundy Drive. (It building got so many visitors that they demolished the building.)

On June 25, 2009, I had difficulty getting home from work because thousands of people had showed up at the UCLA Hospital when they heard that Michael Jackson had died.

One of our clients at the accounting firm where I worked was the actor Richard Anderson, who lived at 10130 Cielo Drive, right next door to the house in which Sharon Tate and her friends were slaughtered by the Manson Family.

Joan Didion

While I never met Joan Didion, I always felt a curious parallelism between her works and my life. Not because I was a successful writer or filmmaker, but because she tracked life in Southern California the way I did. For the most part, what interested her interested me. I suspect that if I had met her, she and I would not have seen eye to eye: I am not interested in the kind of active social life she lived, or in heavy drinking, or raising a child (at which she self-admittedly failed).

The fact remains that, in following her works, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, I feel as if I am reliving my life during the formative years of my early adulthood. So much so that it is almost eerie at times.

Down Two Muses

Christmas 2021 was going to see Los Angeles minus two of her muses. We just lost Joan Didion (above) to Parkinson’s disease; and six days ago, we lost Eve Babitz (photo below) to Huntington’s disease. Didion and Babitz were, to my mind, the leading writers about life in Southern California over the last half century or so.

I remember when I was first introduced to Didion by my friend Stephanie Hanna, who recommended back around 1970 that I read her great collection of essays entitled Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Since then, I have read at least eight other volumes of her fiction and nonfiction.

Eve Babitz was a more recent discovery, thanks mainly to the New York Review of Books (NYRB), which brought out most of her work in the last few years. I consider Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company to be among the best works written about life in Southern California.

Joan Didion died in her 80s, and Eve Babitz at the age of 78. That makes me feel vulnerable, as I am a male who is about to reach his 77th year next month. In many ways, my acceptance of women as a source of outstanding literature about the local scene is due to these two powerful figures.

Now, as I look around me, who is there to take their places? No one that I can recognize at this point. I am just going to have to start looking….