The White Album by Joan Didion

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    Joan Didion writings in The White Album is a true expression of her life and career which depicts America's tempestuous history. She critically focuses on America's politics, culture, and landscape especially on her home state, California. The White Album drew both positive and negative criticism across the world. Some people viewed her a writer who showed eagerness in observing the American life. Others viewed her as a depressed writer who tried to express the short-lived and unsettled character of the California state which never represented/ cared about its people. The impact of her writing cannot be underestimated as it was enthusiastically welcomed by the people who read her book, making it one of the bestsellers in the time. This is a clear indication of her great talent which is a great inspiration to the world of journalism.  She talks of events that happened at the time which lacked cohesion and appeared preposterous. She uses her writings to express the sorry state of America in an interesting way, but at the same time suggesting what needs to be done

            The social realigning that happened in the late sixties was not appealing to her but offered fascinating things to watch and write about. Across the reading, a clear picture of depression comes out as she is not happy. What follows is a clear indication that Joan is not just a self-centered person but a good journalist. She doesn’t look at things that will only impact her life only but focuses on the entire world.

              In her writings, Joan Didion expresses herself as a reporter in a way that she tries to report what she saw in the sixties and seventies.  She was keen in emphasizing both the underlying message in every event that she witnessed and the music of that time.  She at first tries to show the carefree attitude at that time by sharing her interaction moments with the band The Doors, and their nihilistic lead singer Jim Morrison. Joan clearly shows the level of carelessness that was present in that period by analyzing the relationship between the members of The Doors.

At the beginning of the vignette, Joan Didion begins by noting the members of the band who were present in the studio upon her arrival. She clearly indicates that lead singer Jim Morrison was not in the studio when she arrived. This somehow led to the carefree response from the other band members.  As the vignette continues, Joan draws special attention to Morrison nihilistic attitude, which doesn't seem to raise eyebrows from the other band members. She later mentions a conversation where the members discuss if Morrison is going to show up for them to finish recording the album. Finally, when Morison arrives, the other band members continue to behave as if Morrison is not in the room. She writes, "The curious aspect of Morrison's arrival was this: no one acknowledged it,"(24).

Joan clearly indicates that the interaction between the band members and their lead singer Morrison shows the carelessness of the period time. The bands' main target was to finish the recording of their album, but they felt the best way to deal with both the urgency to record the album and their self-centered lead singer Morrison was to conform to his nihilism. She wrote of the band’s interaction with their lead singer,   "An hour or so passed, and still, no one had spoken to Morrison. Then Morrison spoke to Manzarek. He spoke almost in a whisper as if he were wrestling the words from behind some disabling aphasia"(24).   The carefree attitude associated with the late sixties and early seventies is greatly pointed out through Joan's writing as she uses dialogue and her own perspective to take the reader into the time period.

Race and equality in the late sixties and early seventies is also featured in Joan's The White Album. This is clearly seen in the sixth vignette as she addresses the issues in a cleaver and indirect way. She compares her career as a writer with that of activist and Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. An analysis of the process of entering into Cleaver’s apartment is what is covered at the beginning of this vignette. This analysis helps her to know the truth in Cleaver’s lifestyle. Joan writes, “To be admitted to this apartment it was necessary to ring first and then stand in the middle of Oak Street, at a place which could be observed clearly from the Cleaver’s apartment,” (33). She continues to say that the visitor had to be visually examined for permission to be granted or denied. Once inside Cleaver’s apartment, she compares her life to that of Cleaver, who receives numerous threats due to the fact that he is an activist. 

Joan acknowledges the fact that even though there were other people in Cleaver’s apartment, she only had a conversation between Cleaver and his parole officer. The conversation was based on the Cleaver’s soon to be published Soul on Ice. The vignette ends by clearly stating that “It was not an unusual discussion between writers, with the difference that one of the writers had his parole officer there and the other had stood out on Oak Street and been visually frisked before coming inside,” (34). It's through this that she clearly brings the difference between Cleaver's lifestyle and that of her. Joan as a journalist lived a carefree life in that she could enter her apartment freely. With the Cleaver's encounter, she felt how it would be like to be constantly monitored every minute.

            One of the most notable points is that Joan tries to discuss the effect of time on her career as a reporter and also the period that they were. This happens in the seventh vignette of the essay where she gives a list that would help her pack within a short notice which included a typewriter, toiletries, and clothing.  She also noted that in that list, that she had failed to list the importance of a watch. She wrote, “There is on this list one important omission, one article I needed and I never had; a watch"(36). She clearly indicates that her struggle in timekeeping was not only during the day when she could only stare at her car radio but also at night during her lonely moments in her hotel room (36).

            Joan clearly indicates her challenges in timekeeping in the same vignette, “This may be a parable, either as my life as a reporter during this period or the period itself.”  This might be a clear suggestion that the time period flew very fast that she even didn't realize. This implies that both her career and the events of the period itself made her become lost within the time. Joan never talks about her fascination with time but we can clearly conclude that she really longed for the time to slow down. This may be because she really wanted to enjoy each and every free second of her busy lifestyle. 

            In Joan’s writings, she uses a detailed description to sink the readers into her writings. The use of sensory and imagery makes the reader as if he or she is in the writer. The way she describes the settings helps the reader to come up with a clear picture of the house and the entire community being discussed. She uses the film technique to develop the title essay which also enables the reader to directly place themselves into her work.   As the tenth vignette begins, she gives a detailed account of the setting. This is clearly seen as she writes, “There was a jasmine vine grown over the verandah of the big house on Franklin Avenue, and in the evenings the smell of jasmine came in through all the open doors and windows,” (41).  She uses sensory details that enable the reader to form a mental image of the jasmine's smell as it carries in the house. At the beginning of this vignette, the reader is given a relaxed feeling from the detailed given in regard to the setting. In the end, the details are given leaves the reader in an eerie feeling. This is clearly seen as she says, “A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full,” (42). This shows the kind of fear in the entire community and also sets the tone of fear.

She also incorporates the life she lives as a reporter where she writes, "There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable,"(41).  Here she emphasizes two important scenarios; the life she lives as a journalist where she constantly waits for a report to the surface and also where she would warn of the deaths that were about to happen. A sense of mystery is created in regards to Joan's lifestyle and at the same time not sure of the next story she will report.

All the essays in the White Album in one way or another try to ask the question “What is wrong with the society?”  The rot in the society is clearly depicted especially by the youths who engage themselves in drugs, crime. Also, gender and racial politics are seen to be in existence. She says, "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 “She wholly blames the American parents for lack of commitment in providing proper guidance to the youths in time.

Joan clearly links her own bad imaginations with that of the society exposing the dark part of the society's culture. She captures the jailhouse visit of Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton and links it with her unique blend of insight and irony. She also notes the how Nancy Regan pretends to pick flowers just to appease the cameras. A deep insight of the Getty Museums, the cool mountains of Bogota and the Jordanian Desert is given to the readers in a way that they feel to have visited the place.  She breaks down the culture of shopping malls -”toy garden cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes” and also exposes the irony of the women movement.

The murder of Mason which she describes as “a terrifying crime that surprised no one” is documented. This murder gave her uneasy mind state in her years. The issue of murder really hurts her feelings as she further talks of the happenings around the famous family of Charles Manson. He is also depicted as the one who ordered the killings of various people. All this happened when the American people were beginning to develop an interest in spiritual matters. The emergence of cults was witnessed as people were exploring new religious ideas.

The White Album was written in a unique voice for the readers and generally in contemporary journalism. The power to thrill and inform remains very active in this book very many years later after it was published. Joan Didion will always remain to be one of the most prolific reporters of all times. Her entire collection not only shows her level of intelligence but also reveals a clear picture of the problems faced by American in the late sixties and early seventies. This book can be used by the future generation to gauge the level of transformation America has undergone to be where it is.




1. Amis, Martin (February 1980) "Joan Didion's Style."London Review of Books, Vol II No 2. Page 3-4. (Retrieved 10-16-2014.)

2. Didion, Joan. The white album. Macmillan, 1990.

3. Kakutani, Michik. "Joan Didion: Staking Out California."The New York Times. Accessed November 7, 2014

4. Didion, Joan. The White Album. , 1979. Print.

November 24, 2023



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