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Right At the Beginning

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books and culture

Right At the Beginning

Joan Didion’s obituarists largely ignore her early journalism for National Review under the stewardship of Frank Meyer. December 28, 2021
Arts and Culture
Politics and law
The Social Order

Joan Didion, who died on the eve of Christmas Eve at 87, penned screenplays, such as the 1976 version of A Star Is Born; pioneered, along with Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, the literary nonfiction of New Journalism; and settled into a cottage industry of writing about grief in her later years. But her eulogists, in fixating on her political journalism, tell us more about themselves than their subject—fitting, perhaps, for a woman whose critics often accused her of writing about herself when ostensibly writing about others.

David Masciotra in Salon, for instance, contends that Didion’s “political commentary and journalism fails to elicit attention equal to her cultural correspondences, novels, and the harrowing personal writing she published after the deaths of her husband and daughter. Given the ideological and mercurial biases of the corporate press, there are ground[s] for suspicion that book critics, journalists and obituary writers have reason to overlook Didion’s political work that goes beyond popular reputation.”

This lament finds itself strangely undermined by other obituaries sharing it. Worse still, neither this Salon piece nor a similar one by Jacob Bacharach in The New Republic note the earliest of Didion’s writing heavily appearing in that most unfashionable of postwar political magazines, National Review. Who, really, overlooks here?

Didion neither hid nor advertised her conservatism in her early years at Vogue. In National Review in late 1961, for instance, the California transplant humorously recalled, upon attending a 1956 Manhattan party, “my surprise that no one present wished William Knowland were running for President.”

Didion’s gateway to National Review came not via Garry Wills or John Leonard, two figures at the magazine during that period who later made greater names for themselves on the political left, but Frank Meyer, the former Communist Party commissar who played a similar role as the conscience and ideologist for the postwar conservative movement. “It was through Frank that Joan Didion,” Priscilla Buckley wrote, first appeared “in NR’s pages.”

In Meyer’s back-of-the-book section of National Review, Didion joined a talented crop of youngish reviewers that included Wills, Leonard, M. Stanton Evans, Guy Davenport, and Hugh Kenner. By an addiction to the telephone (rivaled only by his addiction to cigarettes), Meyer, from his mountain outpost in Woodstock, New York, identified these rising stars and helped coax an eclectic collection of established figures including Evelyn Waugh, Otto von Habsburg, and Theodore Sturgeon to write for a much-pilloried magazine less than a decade old.

One such rising star tabbed by Meyer, John Gregory Dunne, criticized the “fictitious novel” in a review of the same name in National Review’s books section in 1966. “He has created what he calls a ‘non-fiction novel,’ and more than that, a ‘new art form,” Mr. Joan Didion wrote in criticism of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. “It is here that I begin to quibble.” His wife, within a few years, did not quibble but instead imitated. But in her National Review writings she still dealt out cold criticism rather than new journalism.

Didion feared neither knocking masters nor praising fledglings. “Franny and Zooey is finally spurious, and what makes it spurious is [J.D.] Salinger’s tendency to flatter the essential triviality within each of his readers, his predilection for giving instructions for the living,” she explains in her 1961 review of the latest from Kennedy-era America’s hottest author. “What gives the book its extremely potent appeal is precisely that it is self-help copy: it emerges finally as Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes, as Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls.” On the other hand, Richard Stern’s first novel, Golk, struck Didion as “sharp, funny, intelligent, rare.” She described the tale about a TV mudslinger as “a first-rate comic novel.”

Elsewhere in Meyer’s fiefdom, Didion wrote of AromaRama beating Smell-O-Vision to the pungent, defended American intellectual life against an onslaught from The Times Literary Supplement, and affirmed Flannery O’Connor as “above all a writer, which is something different from a person who writes a book.”

Her most memorable National Review piece assessed British novelist (and civil servant) C.P. Snow’s The Affair. “C.P. Snow, whose novels read as if they were the products of a collaboration, over sherry, between Anthony Trollope and a speech-writer for Adlai Stevenson,” she began her July 2, 1960, review, “once explained that he writes the way he does because the ‘wicked, absurd social attitudes’ implicit in the way his contemporaries write had helped to bring ‘Auschwitz that much nearer.’ (This hallucination, that novels make things happen, is common among people who write them.) Mr. Snow’s own novels are as far from Auschwitz as they are from Agincourt; they constitute instead the literature of the National Health Service, and celebrate a world of committees, compromises, decisions and revisions, a world in which Civil Service Hamlets Behave Well in Difficult Situations.”

Joan Didion voted for Barry Goldwater and wrote for National Review. Her later outlook overshadowed her earlier one. But it did not change the inconvenient truth that, before Hollywood and the National Book Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters and honorary degrees from Yale and Harvard recognized Joan Didion’s brilliance, Frank Meyer—a wiry, chain-smoking, names-naming, energetic ex-Communist devising the structure and platform of the American Right from a mountain in Woodstock, New York—saw it first.

Photo by Janet Fries/Getty Images

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