An essay I read for English 325 that has been the most engaging essay I’ve ever read is “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion. It is an example of New Journalism at a time when it was just developing. Didion went to a popular area of hippiedom in the sixties called the Haight, in San Francisco, California. There, she followed and interviewed several different hippies, who were the main characters in her story. Not only that, she also created a character out of the Haight itself, as it was an essay that focused on place and setting.
Most of the essay is very descriptive with lots of dialogue intermingled. Didion doesn’t need to show much of her argument, because the evidence from her time there speaks for itself. She describes several of the young people she meets.
“Max sees his life as a triumph over “don’ts.” Among the don’ts he had done before he was twenty-one were peyote, alcohol, mescaline, and Methedrine. …Max dropped in and out of most of the schools and fashionable clinics in the eastern half of America, his standard technique for dealing with boredom being to leave. Example: Max was in a hospital in New York and “the night nurse was a groovy spade, and in the afternoon for therapy there was a chick from Israel who was interesting, but there was nothing much to do in the morning, so I left” (Didion 8).
In this description, Didion leaves her comments and queries out of the passage completely, because they are not meant to be the focal point. The reader can make their own assumptions as they read, and at the end, Didion finally states her argument.
“We were seeing the attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. …This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. …These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values” (Didion, 31)
Her message is at once clear and heartbreaking. Clear, because of all of the evidence she gave us in the 30 pages before she stepped in with the first-person argument. It was heartbreaking because of her evidence as well. All of the people she met in the Haight are teenagers, not even over 20 years old. To these hippies, she was seen as an old person at the age of 33. She goes on to say, “They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.” She says this to explain that although these kids think they have a worldly view on life, that they are the ones living freely, they actually have no clue what they are talking about. They simply name-drop different people and brands, thinking that they sound smart.
Her argument is that these kids fell through the cracks, that they were raised without parents who cared to educate them or help them mature into productive adults. Instead, these hippies were starving to death, desperately in need of someone to step in and take control.
Didion’s piece is so eye-opening to me, because she uses direct scene and observations to convey her message before finally giving us her insight and nailing it right on the head. I hope to emulate this passion and commitment to a topic as I continue writing in this class and the Minor.