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Where I Was From

Where I Was From

3.4 5
by Joan Didion

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In this moving and unexpected book, Joan Didion reassesses parts of her life, her work, her history, and ours. Where I Was From, in Didion's words, "represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I


In this moving and unexpected book, Joan Didion reassesses parts of her life, her work, her history, and ours. Where I Was From, in Didion's words, "represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely." The book is a haunting narrative of how her own family moved west with the frontier from the birth of her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother in Virginia in 1766 to the death of her mother on the edge of the Pacific in 2001; of how the wagon-train stories of hardship and abandonment and endurance created a culture in which survival would seem the sole virtue.

In Where I Was From, Didion turns what John Leonard has called "her sonar ear, her radar eye" onto her own work, as well as that of such California writers as Frank Norris and Jack London and Henry George, to examine how the folly and recklessness in the very grain of the California settlement led to the California we know today-a state mortgaged first to the railroad, then to the aerospace industry, and overwhelmingly to the federal government, a dependent colony of those political and corporate owners who fly in for the annual encampment of the
Bohemian Club. Here is the one writer we always want to read on California showing us the startling contradictions in its-and in America's-core values.

Joan Didion's unerring sense of America and its spirit, her acute interpretation of its institutions and literature, and her incisive questioning of the stories it tells itselfmake this fiercely intelligent book a provocative and important tour de force from one of our greatest writers.

Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York. She is the author of five novels and six previous books of nonfiction: Political Fictions, After Henry, Miami, Salvador, The White Album, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Part literary memoir, part cultural critique, this collection of intelligent, idiosyncratic essays is seventh-generation Californian Joan Didion's revised look at the Golden State, its puzzling contradictions and legendary excesses, and its unique place in American history. Recalling her Sacramento upbringing in a family whose frontier roots extend back to the 18th century, Didion describes life as a sort of local "dreamtime" in which reality was shrouded in cultural myth. Decades later, she has come to see California as a series of connections that never quite add up.

In prismatic prose, Didion reveals the cloud behind each silver lining: Myth #1: California is a bastion of independent thought. Fact: California is a federally subsidized state with a long history of selling out to the highest bidder. Myth #2: Californians are tolerant freethinkers with a live-and-let-live philosophy. Fact: Californians have traditionally employed a "detain and commit" policy in dealing with immigrants, the mentally ill, and criminals. In similar fashion, she bursts more utopian bubbles, replacing romantic images with the grim reality of a people so in love with the ideas of fresh starts, good luck, and boom times that they refuse to accept the failure of the dream. As the promise of freeways, Silicon Valley, and the university system morphs monstrously into the nightmare of pollution, congestion, sprawl, and unemployment, Californians continue to delude themselves.

California writers, the prestigious Bohemian Club, and the curious, chilling episode of Lakewood's "Spur Posse" come in for their share of Didion's attention, as does her own California-drenched novel from 1963, Run River -- which she reviews through newly unblinkered eyes. Rife with insight, these remarkable reflections on Paradise Lost represent another triumph for one of America's most important writers. Anne Markowski

The Washington Post
… Didion has written a brave little book. An implacably honest writer (if at times a somewhat studied one), she has the courage to say a number of things that, while almost certainly true, will win her no friends among Californians. She also has, in effect, the courage to rewrite her own work. A significant part of Where I Was From is, if not an outright retraction of Run River, an acknowledgment that she no longer can stand behind many aspects of the portrait of California she painted in that novel four decades ago. — Jonathan Yardley
The New York Times
Ms. Didion's compelling if sometimes vexing new book, Where I Was From, is a kind of bookend to her earlier musings on California, a reassessment and reappraisal of her thinking about her home state. It is a love song to the place where her family has lived for generations, but a love song full of questions and doubts. — Michiku Kakutani
The New York Review of Books
...[I]ntensely written and powerfully imagined critical biography. — Christopher Benfey
The New Yorker
For four decades, Didion has written in masterly fashion about the contradictions of California culture. In this book, she casts an arctic eye on recent phenomena—the Rodney King riots, the Spur Posse—and on her own upbringing in the Sacramento area. Her great-great-grandparents “crossed” to California in the eighteen-hundreds, and she was brought up on wistful recollections of the past. Her family lived in dark houses, ate with tarnished silver, dressed her in “an eccentric amount of black,” and prized anything that was “old.” Along with a recipe for India relish and a green-and-red calico appliqué, she inherited a view that California had been spoiled. And yet “the logical extension of this thought, that we were the people who had spoiled it, remained unexplored.” Addressing her own confusion about the place, she identifies the settler imperative—“the past could be jettisoned, children buried and parents left behind”—in the fact that her birthplace is now "a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it."
Publishers Weekly
California comes under Didion's captivating, merciless microscope in her controversial look at the greed, acquisitiveness and wasteful extravagance lurking beneath the state's eternal sunshine. In admirably lean, piercing prose, she describes her ancestors, women who could shoot, handle stock and shake snakes from their boots every morning. These pioneers had lived through an arduous crossing far removed from the noble odysseys chronicled by California mythmakers and arrived in wrecked wagons, facing desolation and death. Didion dramatically highlights the gap between California's rosy notion of itself as a land that stood for individual entrepreneurship, and the reality of growing government control and reliance on federal money. As a Sacramento native now living in New York, she conveys the tension of loving an area that's also disappointed her. She utilizes the 1993 Spur Posse scandal, in which teenage boys in Southern California slept with as many girls as possible and then regarded them as notches on their gun, to portray the spiritual vacancy of young Californian men, particularly in light of an overindulgent public attitude that downplayed their moral callousness. Didion cites cozy, pastel paintings by artists like Thomas Kinkade as contributing to the hazily romantic view of a state that treated foreigners early in its history with vicious bigotry, underrated education's importance and committed disturbed citizens to institutions on unacceptably flimsy evidence of their mental state. Throughout, Didion digs deep to find the "point" of California. Many will find her conclusions inflammatory and may rise to California's defense, but the book is a remarkable document precisely because of its power to trigger a national debate that can heighten awareness and improve conditions on the West Coast and throughout the country. (Sept. 29) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The latest from Didion is a complex and challenging memoir, difficult to enter into but just as difficult to put down. It manifests Didion's continued interest in social disorder and unrest, the "telling detail," and how the personal and the social intertwine. On one level, this is a very personal story of Didion's family's history that starts with the birth of her great-times-five grandmother on the Virginia frontier in 1766. On another, it is a critique of American ideals of independence and the story of how the settling of California-and the character of the original settlers-led inexorably to the California of today. Didion is an acclaimed novelist, screenwriter, and journalist who has written numerous articles, essays, and reviews. Those who have long admired the clarity and precision of her prose will not be disappointed with this partly autobiographical, partly historical, but fully engrossing account. Suitable for academic libraries and most public libraries, this is of particular interest to genealogists and American history collectors and is essential for libraries in California. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/03.]-Terren Ilana Wein, Univ. of Chicago Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
With humor, history, nostalgia, and acerbity, Didion (Political Fictions, 2001, etc.) considers the conundrums of California, her beloved home state. Pieces of this remarkable memoir have appeared in the writer's usual venues (e.g., the New York Review of Books), but she has crafted the connections among them so artfully that the work acquires a surprising cumulative power. Didion tells a number of stories that would not in lesser hands appear to be related: the arrival in California of her pioneer ancestors, the nasty 1993 episode involving randy adolescents who called themselves the "Spur Posse," the fall of the aerospace industry in the 1990s, her 1948 eighth-grade graduation speech ("Our California Heritage"), the history of the state, and the death of her parents. Along the way she deals with some California novels from earlier days, Jack London's The Valley of the Moon and Frank Norris's The Octopus, and explores the community histories of Hollister, Irvine, and Lakewood (home of the Posse). She sees fundamental contradictions in the California dream. For one, older generations resented the arrival of the "newcomers," who in their minds were spoiling the view. But as Didion points out, the old-timers had once done the same. More profound is her recognition that Californians, many of whom embrace the ideal of rugged individualism and reject "government interference," nonetheless have accepted from the feds sums of money vast enough to mesmerize Midas. Water-management programs have been especially costly, but tax breaks for all sorts of other industries and enterprises have greatly enriched some in the state (railroad magnates, housing developers, defense contractors) while mosteveryone else battles for scraps beneath the table. Most affecting are her horrifying portrait of Lakewood as a community devoted to high-school sports at the expense of scholarship and her wrenching accounts of the deaths of her father and mother. Demonstrates how very thin is the gilt on the Golden State. First printing of 50,000
From the Publisher
“Compelling. . . . A love song to the place where her family has lived for generations, but a love song full of questions and doubts.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times“An arresting amalgam of memoir and historical timeline. . . . Exquisitely crafted, as subtle as the slow waking from a pleasant dream.” –The Baltimore Sun“One beautiful sentence follows another. . . . This is a book about history, about what we learn from genealogy and history books, novels and old newspapers, and how we square all that with what we see around us. . . . Didion has remained a clearheaded and original writer all her long life.” –Malcolm Jones, Newsweek“Succinct and quite beautiful. . . . Its rewards are many. If anyone needs further confirmation that she is one of the finest essayists currently at work, this book will nail it.” –The Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer“One of the most recognizable–and brilliant–literary styles to emerge in America during the past four decades. . . . [Didion is] a great American writer.” –The New York Times Book Review “Didion has written a brave little book . . . a fine book that must be read with as much care it was written. . . . [Didion is] an implacably honest writer.” –Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post“Valediction and elegy alike, Where I Was From is a storm-tossed book. Its history is dense . . . its prose sharp, direct and chiseled.” –The Los Angeles Times Book Review“Eloquent, spare, and rendered without sentiment.” –Boston Globe“[Didion is] a latter-day Walt Whitman, singing of America by singing of herself.” –Slate.com “Joan Didion is a brilliant explicator of the American political and cultural consciousness.” –Rocky Mountain News“Many of us have tried, and failed, to master [Didion’s] gift for the single ordinary deflating word, the word that spins an otherwise flat sentence through five degrees of irony. But her sentences could only be hers.” –Michael Gorra, Chicago Tribune“[A] fascinating, informative, obscure–and yes, moving–little book.” –San Jose Mercury News“A bracing mix of personal and public history.” –Benjamin Kunkel, Newsday“Odd, elliptical and ultimately revealing. . . . Didion discovers the exact locus where geography and personal journey intersect, and has produced a work as compelling and enigmatic as its subjects.” –Time Out New YorkWhere I Was From is a beautifully written and intensely personal tome. . . . One of the country’s most intelligent writers . . . Ms. Didion’s prose is like a razor cutting straight to the bone.” –New York Sun“[Didion's] appraisal is cool, her eye is sharp, and her turn of phrase is wicked.” –Time“How odd that bad news can be so much fun to read. Her essays are as sinewy as her novels, written in the same ice-pick/laser-beam prose.” –Harper’s

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.96(d)

Read an Excerpt

My great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Scott was born in 1766, grew up on the Virginia and Carolina frontiers, at age sixteen married an eighteen-year-old veteran of the Revolution and the Cherokee expeditions named Benjamin Hardin IV, moved with him into Tennessee and Kentucky and died on still another frontier, the Oil Trough Bottom on the south bank of the White River in what is now Arkansas but was then Missouri Territory. Elizabeth Scott Hardin was remembered to have hidden in a cave with her children (there were said to have been eleven, only eight of which got recorded) during Indian fighting, and to have been so strong a swimmer that she could ford a river in flood with an infant in her arms. Either in her defense or for reasons of his own, her husband was said to have killed, not counting English soldiers or Cherokees, ten men. This may be true or it may be, in a local oral tradition inclined to stories that turn on decisive gestures, embroidery. I have it on the word of a cousin who researched the matter that the husband, our great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, "appears in the standard printed histories of Arkansas as 'Old Colonel Ben Hardin, the hero of so many Indian wars.'" Elizabeth Scott Hardin had bright blue eyes and sick headaches. The White River on which she lived was the same White River on which, a century and a half later, James McDougal would locate his failed Whitewater development. This is a country at some level not as big as we like to say it is.

I know nothing else about Elizabeth Scott Hardin, but I have her recipe for corn bread, and also for India relish: her granddaughter brought these recipes west in 1846, traveling with the Donner-Reed party as far as the Humboldt Sink, then cutting north for Oregon, where her husband, the Reverend Josephus Adamson Cornwall, was determined to be the first Cumberland Presbyterian circuit rider in what was then called Oregon country. Because that granddaughter, Nancy Hardin Cornwall, was my great-great-great-grandmother, I have, besides her recipes, a piece of applique she made on the crossing. This applique, green and red calico on a muslin field, hangs now in my dining room in New York and hung before that in the living room of a house I had on the Pacific Ocean.

I also have a photograph of the stone marker placed on the site of the cabin in which Nancy Hardin Cornwall and her family, still short of their destination in the Willamette Valley but unable to get their wagons through a steep defile on the Umpqua River without abandoning Josephus Cornwall's books (this option seems to have presented itself only to his daughters), spent the winter of 1846-47. "Dedicated to the memory of Rev. J.A. Cornwall and family," the engraving on the marker reads. "They built the first immigrant cabin in Douglas County near this site, hence the name Cabin Creek. The family wintered here in 1846-1847, were saved from extreme want by Israel Stoley, a nephew who was a good hunter. The Indians were friendly. The Cornwalls traveled part way westward with the ill-fated Donner Party."

My mother was sent the photograph of this marker by her mother's cousin Oliver Huston, a family historian so ardent that as recently as 1957 he was alerting descendants to "an occasion which no heir should miss," the presentation to the Pacific University Museum of, among other artifacts, "the old potato masher which the Cornwall family brought across the plains in 1846." The letter continued: "By this procedure, such items can then be seen by all Geiger and Cornwall heirs at any time in the future by simply visiting the Museum." I have not myself found occasion to visit the potato masher, but I do have a typescript of certain memories, elicited from one of Nancy Hardin Cornwall's twelve children, Narcissa, of those months on what would later be called Cabin Creek:

We were about ten miles from the Umpqua River and the Indians living there would come and spend the greater part of the day. There was one who spoke English, and he told Mother the Rogue River Indians were coming to kill us. Mother told them if they troubled us, in the spring the Bostons (the Indian name for the white people) would come out and kill them all off. Whether this had any effect or not I don't know, but anyway they did not kill us. But we always thought they would come one day for that purpose. One day Father was busy reading and did not notice the house was filling with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it....As soon as Father noticed them he got up and got his pistols and asked the Indians to go out and see him shoot. They followed him out, but kept at a distance. The pistols were a great curiosity to them. I doubt if they had ever seen any before. As soon as they were all out of the cabin Mother barred the door and would not let them in any more. Father entertained them outside until evening, when they got on their ponies and rode away. They never returned to trouble us any more.

In another room of this house I had on the Pacific Ocean there hung a quilt from another crossing, a quilt made by my great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Anthony Reese on a wagon journey during which she buried one child, gave birth to another, twice contracted mountain fever, and took turns driving a yoke of oxen, a span of mules, and twenty-two head of loose stock. In this quilt of Elizabeth Reese's were more stitches than I had ever seen in a quilt, a blinding and pointless compaction of stitches, and it occurred to me as I hung it that she must have finished it one day in the middle of the crossing, somewhere in the wilderness of her own grief and illness, and just kept on stitching. From her daughter's account:

Tom was sick with fever the first day of the crossing, no chance for a doctor. He was only sick a day or two when he died. He had to be buried right away, as the train of wagons was going right on. He was two years old, and we were glad to get a trunk to bury him in. A friend gave a trunk. My aunt, the following year, when her baby died, carried it for a long time in her arms without letting anyone know for fear they would bury the baby before coming to a station.

These women in my family would seem to have been pragmatic and in their deepest instincts clinically radical, given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew. They could shoot and they could handle stock and when their children outgrew their shoes they could learn from the Indians how to make moccasins. "An old lady in our wagon train taught my sister to make blood pudding," Narcissa Cornwall recalled. "After killing a deer or steer you cut its throat and catch the blood. You add suet to this and a little salt, and meal or flour if you have it, and bake it. If you haven't anything else to eat, it's pretty good." They tended to accommodate any means in pursuit of an uncertain end. They tended to avoid dwelling on just what that end might imply. When they could not think what else to do they moved another thousand miles, set out another garden: beans and squash and sweet peas from seeds carried from the last place. The past could be jettisoned, children buried and parents left behind, but seeds got carried. They were women, these women in my family, without much time for second thoughts, without much inclination toward equivocation, and later, when there was time or inclination, there developed a tendency, which I came to see as endemic, toward slight and major derangements, apparently eccentric pronouncements, opaque bewilderment and moves to places not quite on the schedule.

Mother viewed character as being the mainspring of life, and, therefore, as regulating our lives here and indicating our destiny in the life to come. She had fixed and settled principles, aims and motives in life. Her general health was excellent and in middle life she appeared almost incapable of fatigue. Winter and summer, at all seasons and every day, except Sunday, her life was one ceaseless round of activity. The care of her family, to provide for hired help, to entertain visitors, and to entertain preachers and others during meetings which were frequent.

That was the view of Nancy Hardin Cornwall taken by her son Joseph, who was thirteen years old during the crossing. Nancy Hardin Cornwall's daughter Laura, two years old during the crossing, took a not dissimilar view: "Being a Daughter of the American Revolution, she was naturally a brave woman, never seeming afraid of Indians or shrinking from hardships."

A photograph:
A woman standing on a rock in the Sierra Nevada in perhaps 1905.

Actually it is not just a rock but a granite promontory: an igneous outcropping. I use words like "igneous" and "outcropping" because my grandfather, one of whose mining camps can be seen in the background of this photograph, taught me to use them. He also taught me to distinguish gold-bearing ores from the glittering but worthless serpentine I preferred as a child, an education to no point, since by that time gold was no more worth mining than serpentine and the distinction academic, or possibly wishful.

The photograph. The promontory. The camp in the background.

And the woman: Edna Magee Jerrett. She is Nancy Hardin Cornwall's great-granddaughter, she will in time be my grandmother. She is Black Irish, English, Welsh, possibly (this is uncertain) a fraction Jewish through her grandfather William Geiger, who liked to claim as an ancestor a German rabbi but was himself a Presbyterian missionary in the Sandwich Islands and along the Pacific coast; possibly (this is still more uncertain) a lesser fraction Indian, from some frontier somewhere, or maybe, because her skin darkens in the sun as she was told not to let it, she just likes to say that. She grew up in a house on the Oregon coast filled with the educational curiosities of the place and period: strings of shells and seeds from Tahiti, carved emu eggs, Satsuma vases, spears from the South Pacific, an alabaster miniature of the Taj Mahal and the baskets her mother was given by the local Indians. She is quite beautiful. She is also quite indulged, clearly given, although she knows enough about mountains to shake out her boots for snakes every morning, to more amenities than could have been offered in this mining camp in the Sierra Nevada at the time in question. In this photograph she is wearing, for example, a long suede skirt and jacket made for her by the most expensive tailor in San Francisco. "You couldn't pay for her hats," her father, a ship's captain, had told her suitors by way of discouragement, and perhaps they had all been discouraged but my grandfather, an innocent from the Georgetown Divide who read books.

It was an extravagance of spirit that would persist through her life. Herself a child, she knew what children wanted. When I was six and had the mumps she brought me, as solace, not a coloring book, not ice cream, not bubble bath, but an ounce of expensive perfume, Elizabeth Arden "On Dit," in a crystal bottle sealed with gold thread. When I was eleven and declined to go any longer to church she gave me, as inducement, not the fear of God but a hat, not any hat, not a child's well-mannered cloche or beret, but a hat, gossamer Italian straw and French silk cornflowers and a heavy satin label that read "Lilly Dache." She made champagne punch for the grandchildren left to sit with her on New Year's Eve. During World War II she volunteered to help salvage the Central Valley tomato crop by working the line at the Del Monte cannery in Sacramento, took one look at the moving conveyer belt, got one of those sick headaches her great-grandmother brought west with the seeds, and spent that first and only day on the line with tears running down her face. As atonement, she spent the rest of the war knitting socks for the Red Cross to send to the front. The yarn she bought to knit these socks was cashmere, in regulation colors. She had vicuna coats, hand-milled soap, and not much money. A child could make her cry, and I am ashamed to say that I sometimes did.

She was bewildered by many of the events in her adult life. One of her seafaring brothers became unstable when his ship hit a mine crossing the Atlantic; the son of another committed suicide. She witnessed the abrupt slide into madness of her only sister. Raised to believe that her life would be, as her great-grandmother's was said to have been, one ceaseless round of fixed and settled principles, aims, motives, and activity, she could sometimes think of nothing to do but walk downtown, check out the Bon Marche for clothes she could not afford, buy a cracked crab for dinner and take a taxi home. She died when I was twenty-three and I have of hers a petit-point evening bag, two watercolors she painted as a young girl in an Episcopal convent school (the watermelon still life, the mission she had never seen at San Juan Capistrano), twelve butter knives she had made at Shreve's in San Francisco, and fifty shares of Transamerica stock. I was instructed by her will to sell the stock for something I wanted and could not afford. "What will she have to look forward to," my mother scolded my grandmother on the occasions of the ounce of "On Dit," the Lilly Dache hat, the black scarf embroidered with jet to assuage the pain of dancing school. In the generational theater my mother, despite what I came to recognize as a recklessness quite outside my grandmother's range, had been assigned the role described in the stage directions as sensible. "She'll find something," my grandmother always said, a reassuring conclusion if not one entirely supported by her own experience.

Another photograph, another grandmother:
Ethel Reese Didion, whom I never knew. She caught fever during the waning days of the 1918 influenza epidemic and died, leaving a husband and two small boys, one of them my father, on the morning of the false armistice. Many times my father told me that she died thinking the war was over. He told me this each time as if it were a matter of considerable importance, and perhaps it was, since on reflection that is all he ever told me about what she thought on any subject. My great-aunt Nell, her younger sister, would say only that my grandmother had been "nervous," and "different." Different from what, I used to ask. Aunt Nell would light another cigarette, consign it immediately to a heavy quartz ashtray, and slide her big rings up and down her thin fingers. Ethel was nervous, she would finally repeat. You could never tease Ethel. Ethel was, well, different.

Meet the Author

Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York. She is the author of five novels and six previous books of nonfiction: Political Fictions, After Henry, Miami, Salvador, The White Album, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Joan Didion's Political Fictions, The Last Thing He Wanted, After Henry, Miami, Democracy, Salvador, A Book of Common Prayer, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Run River are available in Vintage paperback.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
December 5, 1934
Place of Birth:
Sacramento, California
B.A., University of California at Berkeley, 1956

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Where I Was From 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Joan Didion once again proves that she is one of the most skillful and intelligent essayists writing today. Even as a young writer she seemed to be at the top of her form: elegant, insightful, and most of all, absolutely crystal clear. Her prose is an editor's dream: rich and detailed but never wasteful or wordy -- spare somehow without being annoyingly minimalist. And always unblinkingly honest. In this book, she builds a compelling case for her latest view of California as a place quite different from the myths it has built and sustained about itself. At the same time, it's a story of what has gone wrong in this country as a whole -- and should be required reading for every American.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a soso bookm
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Completely horrid.