Joan Didion: The National Review Years

Joan Didion speaks at an event at the College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif., February, 1977. (Janet Fries/Getty Images)

A collection of the famed essayist’s writings for this publication, in honor of her life and career

In the 1950s and 1960s, Joan Didion was a regular contributor to National Review, penning book reviews and essays on a range of topics that caught her eye. Her first piece here was published precisely on her 25th birthday. We’ve dug into the archives and collected a sampling of her essays from this era, in honor of her accomplished life and career. Joan Didion died Thursday at age 87.

Et Tu, Mrs. Miniver” — January 2, 1960:

In this essay, Didion attempts to understand the (London) Times Literary Supplement’s attempt to understand “the American imagination.” Going through the 84-page series of essays on topics from the American Western to John F. Kennedy, she finds them quite wanting, another failed effort by outsiders to make sense of this country. Or, as she puts it, it is “an indelibly British blend of gross clichés, vapidity, and startling misconceptions about the nature of American experience — one more round in that old Anglo-French game, Understanding America.” Click here to read.

Marriage a la Mode” — August 13, 1960:

“I write as one incurably addicted to the women’s ‘service’ magazines: Ladies’ Home JournalMcCall’sGood Housekeeping,” Didion memorably begins one of her early contributions to National Review. “As such, I have long been schooled in certain tenets of contemporary life which may well have passed you by.” What follows is a dryly humorous examination of the state of contemporary American womanhood, at least as much as one can understand it through these periodicals. (Mostly, that is, as it pertains to domestic settings.) Click here to read.

Wayne at the Alamo” — December 31, 1960:

Referring to herself modestly early in her career as merely “one of two utility infielders on the staff of a sixty-cent magazine,” Didion here presents a review of The Alamo, the 1960 film starring John Wayne. Somewhat in spite of herself, she admits to liking the film, largely due to the towering presence of Wayne. By the end of it, she reports, she was crying so loudly that one could hardly hear the snickers of two of her fellow moviegoers, “a couple of young men from Esquire, both of whom resembled Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.” In defiance of these (presumably) liberal snobs, Didion concludes, “They don’t make ’em like Duke on the New Frontiers.” Click here to read.

I’ll Take Romance” — September 24, 1963:

Here Didion once again takes dead aim at matters of the heart. Taking a look at some contemporary surveys of what Young America (her capitalization) looks for in relationships, she detects a distressing lack of genuine affection. It has been supplanted, in her view, by the rise of a kind of commercialized companionship. “What afflicts us is not Romantic Love at all but Marketable Love, the logical end of which is either satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the product,” Didion writes of this artificial affinity. Click here to read.

Questions About the New Fiction” — November 30, 1965:

Didion here endeavors to explain what she identifies as an emerging cultural phenomenon of the time — that is, people becoming likelier to discuss films than novels. Didion, herself a pioneer of “new journalism,” argues that this is because the medium of film demands a certain intentionality and commitment to form, whereas the most cutting-edge “new fiction” of the day was dead-set on abandoning convention, supposedly to be profound but ultimately leaving it with nothing to say. “They slip in and out of voice, interrupt a series of one-line gags to exhort the reader on some point or other, shoot wooden ducks, unwittingly improvise themselves into cul-de-sacs where actual moral questions lurk, and then lose their nerve, go soft,” Didion writes of these novels, naming Joseph Heller’s 1961 Catch-22 as a chief offender. Click here to read.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”