The American novelist and essayist Joan Didion died yesterday, just a few weeks after her eighty-seventh birthday. In 1976, the great political scientist James Q. Wilson reviewed her most recent collection of essays—titled The White Album after its first essay, which discusses the Beatles—in Commentary. He praises her as a “splendid writer” who stood apart from her own times, in ways that make her even more unusual in 2021, beginning with the way her work resists pigeonholing into political categories:
Her latest collection of essays offers . . . a characterization of liberal Hollywood political activism as a “kind of dictatorship of good intentions,” a “peculiar vacant fervor.” And, of course, there is her well-known essay on the women’s movement in which she suggests that there are aspects of feminism that reveal a “narrow and cracked determinism” and numerous feminists who want romance rather than revolution.
The central passage is one in which she observes of her generation that it was the last to identify with adults. An adult view of the world was that it is imperfect owing less to an error in social organization than to a defect in man’s nature. The “silence” of the 1950’s reflected neither self-congratulation nor fear of repression, but a suspicion of political action as a tranquilizer that temporarily masks personal inadequacies. The world of adults was ambiguous: one had to make commitments, but of necessity they would be partial ones. There was a distinctive process called Growing Up; no one supposed, save the Beatniks, that one could or should forever remain an adolescent. But to grow up meant surrendering some measure of sincerity for some measure of accomplishment. In the 1960’s, one rejected the adult world, denied that growing up was either desirable or necessary, clung to sincerity (renamed “authenticity”) and chose to be young, which is to say self-indulgent, forever.