Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a book of essays by the novelist and essayist Joan Didion. It was first published in 1968. The title is borrowed from W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming". The author explains in her preface that at the time was the United States was "atomizing" culturally, and in general more or less losing its way. The Yeats poem is an apocalyptic rant about the same thing. The relevant lines are these:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The book is divided into three sections: "Lifestyles in the Golden Land" (about California and America), "Personals" (about writing and being a writer (not the same thing)), and "Seven Places of the Mind" (America again).

The title essay is about life among the hippies of Haight-Ashbury. Never mind General Westmoreland; Ms. Didion met the hippies and didn't think they were taking us any place worth going. In her preface, she says that of all the essays in the book -- many of them a bit grim -- that was the only one that made her "despondent". In her early thirties at the time, Didion is an observer, not a participant. In psychedelic San Francisco, Didion sees a lot of disoriented, irresponsible young people milling around aimlessly. They have no goals, just passing enthusiasms, most of which are idiotic or unrealistic. Their hearts are sometimes in the right place and they occasionally create something worthwhile. On page 108, she writes, "We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum... we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing". There are few "analysis" moments like that in the essay. For the most part, Ms. Didion just sticks to the facts, and when Ms. Didion sticks to the facts her style is pleasantly journalistic and unaffected. She's not mindlessly or reflexively anti-hippie. She's just a thinking person who happens to have made up her own mind.

There are many other treats. "John Wayne: A Love Song" is about John Wayne. She spent some time on the set of Mr. Wayne's 165th (!) movie, The Sons of Katie Elder, with Dean Martin (!!). The result is a detailed and affectionate portrait of Mr. Wayne, and of how run-of-the-mill westerns were made back when men were men and Dino still had steaks flown down from the Sands to sound stages in Mexico. "The Seacost of Despair" is about the strange and disturbing summer homes built by 19th century "robber barons" in Newport, RI: " is hard for me to believe that Cornelius Vanderbilt did not sense, at some point in time, in some dim billiard room of his unconscious, that when he built 'The Breakers' he damned himself" (p 193).

Other subjects include Hawaii, Joan Baez's Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Monterey (and how the neighbors feel about it (not too friendly)), a sad and pointless marital murder in a small town in California, the abandoned prison island Alcatraz, and Didion's home town of Sacramento, CA.

It's a fun read.

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