More than a half century later, Didion’s first collection of essays still delivers essential truths

Slouching Toward Bethlehem is that rare book that offers at once a glimpse in our national past, present and future


Dave Winter

First published in 1968, “Slouching” has been celebrated as an essential text of “the new journalism” and lauded as “a watershed moment in American writing.” The number of republished editions that exist more than 50 years after its initial publication gives some indication of its enduring cultural value.

Meredith Grotevant, Mac photojournalism

Joan Didion paints a picture of 1960s America in the collection of stories and essays entitled Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The title is from a Yeats poem “The Second Coming,” which Didion drew inspiration from while writing the book between 1965 and 1967.

Didion ties each essay together through her ability to create portraits of individuals that dig beneath the surface and show the commonality of all people. ”

The book is separated into three sections. The first contains stories of California and its diverse people and landscapes. The second section consists of five essays written by Didion about many different topics. The last section features essays set in a variety of cities across the U.S. and Mexico. Didion’s purpose in this collection is to demonstrate defining moments and people in the United States in the 1960s. 

Some stories in the book like “John Wayne: A Love Song” and “I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind” focus on Hollywood, celebrities, and the effects of fame. Others such as, “Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)” and the titular story, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” follow more everyday people and show the wide variety of lives lived in America. While these two themes seem utterly different, Didion ties each essay together through her ability to create portraits of individuals that dig beneath the surface and show the commonality of all people. 

In her personal essays, Didion continues to show her unique perspective on life. She combines self-reflection and observations of the world around her. She writes with specific and valuable details that make the reader feel engrossed in the environments she writes about. 

My one critique of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is that not every piece contains a natural arc of storytelling. Some readers might find this style less enjoyable or dull. These stories are harder to get through, but still important to the overall collection. 

Didion’s style includes humor and introspection that feels like a conversation with the reader. She has opinions but does not let them interfere with her investigation into human nature. This book still holds up over 50 years after its original publication. Her works teach us that there are some aspects of America that have changed and others that are still true today.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a window into America’s past, present, and future.