Sunday, January 9, 2022

After Henry

Joan Didion (1934–2021)
From Joan Didion: The 1980s & 90s

Joan Didion in Berkeley, California, April 1981. Photograph by Janet Fries/Getty Images.
When Joan Didion delivered the commencement address at the University of California, Riverside, in 1975, she urged upon the graduates a worldview that could just as well summarize her attitude toward writing:
I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace.* Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.
You wouldn’t guess from the confident tone of her speech that, less than ten years earlier, she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, were freelance magazine writers evicted from their home in Rancho Palos Verdes. They had just adopted their infant daughter and had earned $300 between them over the previous three months when Henry Robbins flew in from New York and took them to dinner in June 1966.

A senior editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Robbins was on the West Coast looking for new writers. He had been impressed with Dunne’s and Didion’s magazine articles and hoped to persuade them to develop book-length projects. He was also in California to encourage labor activist Cesar Chavez to write a memoir but, when that didn’t pan out (Chavez was too busy), he convinced Dunne to write a book-length journalistic essay about the California grape workers’ strike. In February 1967 Robbins sent a contract to Dunne for his debut book, Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike, and added in the cover letter, “And now that you’re with FSG—how about bringing your charming wife along?”

The following month Dunne wrote to Robbins and asked if it were true that Tom Wolfe (one of Robbins’s writers at FSG) was at work on a book about the “acidheads.” His response, whatever it may have been, didn’t prevent Didion from heading off to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco to do her own report on the counterculture. Although her essays for magazines paid the bills, she still hoped to be a novelist; three years earlier she had published Run River, “a novel that nobody read” (as she later put it), and she was at work on a new novel, “Maria Talking,” which would end up with the title Play It As It Lays. So, in July, Robbins sent her a contract for her second novel and for a book about “the LSD life in California,” with an advance of $6,000 each.

Her essay on the Haight-Ashbury hippies, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” appeared as the cover story in the September 23, 1967, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Didion couldn’t imagine how she might turn the piece into a book-length work, so Robbins convinced her to make it the centerpiece of a collection. “Henry functions mainly as a sounding board,” Dunne told New York Times reporter Tom Buckley. “He lets you talk your way through your problems. ‘How do you propose to fix this?’ he’ll ask. He won’t impose himself on you. Joan says he thinks like a writer in terms of structure. Slouching Towards Bethlehem was completely his idea. Joan had no intention of publishing a book of pieces.” The collection, with its famous title essay, was published in May 1968 and although sales were modest at first, many of the reviews were rhapsodic. If there had been any lingering competitiveness between Didion and Tom Wolfe for covering each other’s beat, it was certainly laid to rest a few months later, when she and her husband opened their home for a party to celebrate the publication of Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Hundreds of people showed up, including Janis Joplin who, fresh from a concert, downed tumblers of brandy and (according to Wolfe) passed out on their couch.

During the following decade both Dunne and Didion became two of Robbins’s numerous celebrity authors. “I can’t say that I’m surprised by my success,” Henry Robbins told Buckley in June 1979. “With more and more publishing houses becoming parts of conglomerates, personal publishing might seem to have become an anachronism. I don’t think it has. The essential ingredient of good publishing is still strong and competent editors who have good relationships with their authors.” Two months later, Robbins was dead of a heart attack.

A few weeks later, Didion eulogized her editor and friend in an essay titled “A Death in the Family,” which details their initial meeting and the special relationship that launched her career. In 1992, when she gathered for a new book some of the articles she had written in the thirteen years since Robbins’s death, she included her remembrance as the introduction, renaming the essay with the title she gave to the collection: After Henry.

* “The Grave’s a fine and private place, / But none I think do there embrace,” is a couplet from Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” (c. 1650).

A few of the details in the above introduction, including the quote from Robbins’s letter to Dunne, are from Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion (2015).

Notes for the essay: The Daisy was a members-only Los Angeles nightclub, established in 1962. “In the Midnight Hour” was a hit for Wilson Pickett in 1965; “Softly As I Leave You,” for Frank Sinatra in 1963. Didion quotes two poems: “Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” by Edna St. Vincent Millay and “Time’s Declaration” by Delmore Schwartz.

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In the summer of 1966 I was living in a borrowed house in Brentwood, and had a new baby. I had published one book, three years before. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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