Joan Didion, who owned the most recognizable and durable style in postwar American journalism, died two days before Christmas at the age of 87. (That style, to my mind, failed her in fiction, where it became mannered and sclerotic.) A onetime Goldwater conservative who moved somewhat ambiguously left, Didion was not a joiner. Her most infamous expression of her resistance to movement politics came in the 1972 essay on “The Women’s Movement,” which struck her as hopelessly reductive: “To those of us who remain committed mainly to the exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities, the feminist analysis may have seemed a particularly narrow and cracked determinism.”

In a 2018 essay for Popula that did the rounds again after Didion’s death, Maria Bustillos finds this political agnosticism unforgivable: “Didion’s work is an unrelenting exercise in class superiority, and it will soon be as unendurable as a minstrel show.” Behind the classist sneer, Bustillos says, lurked an implacable commitment to the status quo. “Didion and co. produced fake cultural leadership for the comfort and protection of the well-heeled and powerful. Better people, better writers, would have connected with the youth movement and the working class to protect and expand democracy.”

Bustillos’s disdain is overdrawn, energized by the thrill of blasphemy. But the class content of Didion’s style is undeniable. Didion shared with the novelist William Gaddis and the editor Lewis Lapham a disappearing social location: the quasi-aristocrat’s distance from popular sentiment and popular politics, especially the politics of the countercultural left. The argument of Didion’s style, of her prose persona, is this: Only the aloof vision of the alienated patrician can encompass the totality of a fracturing democratic culture.

When her aspiration to the Olympian long view succeeds, Didion’s precise illuminations seem as likely to help “protect and expand democracy” as journalism ever is. “Didion was a pattern-seeker,” as Nathan Heller put it, “a writer with an uncanny ability to scan a text, a folder of clippings, or an entire society and, like a genius eyeing figures, find the markers pointing out how the whole worked.” Heller celebrates not the first-person confessionalist of The White Album, with its excerpts from Didion’s psychiatric records (a physician observed “regressive libidinal preoccupations many of which are distorted and bizarre”) but the “systemic” analyst of Miami (1987), about Florida’s Cuban exilios, and “Sentimental Journeys” (1991), about the prosecution of five black and Hispanic adolescents (long referred to as the Central Park Five but known since their exoneration as the Exonerated Five) for the violent rape of a jogger in Central Park.

“Sentimental Journeys” is arguably Didion’s masterpiece, and it cleanly refutes Bustillos’s identification of Didion’s style with the class interests of the powerful. At once a brilliantly turned analysis of the language used by the press and a full-scale sociology of the psychic lives of New Yorkers at the end of the 1980s, the essay’s every sentence reveals something profound about the phantasms of class and race in urban America. Both the media’s and the prosecution’s rhetoric, Didion shows, revitalized generic motifs “of a slightly earlier period,” converting the brutalized jogger into “the well-brought-up maiden who briefly graces the city with her presence and receives in turn a taste of ‘real life.’” The accused, by the same token, were similarly transformed from real adolescents, innocent until proven guilty, into malevolent symbols of underclass ferality (a “Wolf Pack,” as one paper had it). This “dreamwork” — Didion uses the Freudian phrase — turned entirely on the language of class:

The defendants ... were seen as ... ignorant of both the norms and accoutrements of middle-class life. “Did you have jogging clothes on?” [prosecutor] Elizabeth Lederer asked Yusef Salaam, by way of trying to discredit his statement that he had gone into the park that night only to “walk around.” Did he have “jogging clothes,” did he have “sports equipment,” did he have “a bicycle.” A pernicious nostalgia had come to permeate the case, a longing for the New York that had seemed for a while to be about “sports equipment,” about getting and spending rather than about having and not having: the reason that this victim must not be named was so that she could go unrecognized, it was astonishingly said, by Jerry Nachman, the editor of the New York Post, and then by others who seemed to find in this a particular resonance, to Bloomingdale’s.

The press, as Didion notes, had quickly made up its mind as to the guilt of the accused, and was therefore all the more free to expend its resources on elaborating, spinning out, building up into more and more satisfying narrative form the core fantasy that made the case interesting in the first place: the equivalence between the jogger’s victimhood and the victimhood “of the city itself.” Didion had not made up her mind, and the skepticism toward the courts and the police running through this 30-year-old essay — a skepticism much harder to find among white elites then than it is now, when cellphone videos have taught the privileged things about the police that they previously preferred not to know — is one of the many virtues securing its relevance to the present. If journalism can serve democracy, then Didion’s alchemical blending of reportage, social history, rhetorical critique, and mythography did so. That it served literature, too, is not incidental.

Write to me, at len.gutkin@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin

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