The Abandonment of California by Joan Didion: A Comparative Glance at Run River and Where I Was From

In an alternate universe, perhaps Joan Didion herself might have become some version of Lily Knight, the dissatisfied, cuckolding Sacramento girl who couldn’t seem to fathom how to be a good wife to the man who loved her. Without her writing talent as a ticket out of town, Didion could have easily become just another Golden State tragedy, damned to a lifetime of complacence and strip mall mediocrity. But because her mother seemed to off-handedly encourage her to apply to a contest called the Prix de Paris, sponsored by Vogue, and once won by Jacqueline Bouvier before she was Mrs. Kennedy, she managed to get out. She filed her mother’s encouragement away, applying for the prize in her senior year at Berkeley (where her lead character in Run River also attends before growing wary and returning to Sacto). The man she will ultimately marry, Everett McClellan, a fellow Sacramentan who grew up on the river as well, and also tried his hand at leaving by attending Stanford, is equally as inexplicably beholden to the land that created them. With the McClellans and the Knights being “river families” of considerable renown (at least before the city’s “new people” came along), it seemed Lily and Everett were always destined to form the alliance of a marriage, even if it wasn’t necessarily forged by a romantic bond. There was something deeper than that between them. An upbringing that so few others could understand. Not just in terms of being raised to a “grower” family on the river, but being from Sacramento, a place that might be the capital, but is still somehow so little thought of when one imagines California.

Ironically, Sacramento is the “every town” of the state. A milieu where the descendants of pioneers that took the risk on the rugged path to the wild, uncharted frontier still remain. But to believe this particular demographic is what California is solely composed of—people with the residual “pioneer spirt” in their blood—might very well be a key part of why the state can’t seem to progress beyond its own image, why it has come to rely so heavily on what is supposed to be the ingrained characteristics of their nature (adventurous and willing to gamble big—hence the existence of so many casinos in Lake Tahoe and other Nevada-bordering towns?) rather than actually taking steps to prove said nature is genuine, and not just another part of (West) coasting on the laurels of the past. What’s more, to ignore the fact that there were only indigenous people in California long before any white pioneers came along is to ignore the population of the state as viewed in a complete portrait. Measures taken by California to acknowledge their extreme cruelty toward not only immigrants (Chinese ones in particular), but Native Americans most especially, have come in fits and spurts and, obviously, too little, too late. Case in point, an exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum that commenced in Fall 2019, entitled “When I Remember, I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California.” A prime example of how the best attempts Californians have made to reckon with their exploitative, callous past can only come in the smallest and most occasional of gestures.

Didion’s entire debut novel, Run River (the way she intended it to be spelled—without the comma in between), is her first nostalgic portrayal of a trope that has never been real. Or at least, it’s only as real as Californians descended from pioneers have made it. Passing down the legends of the various “crossing stories” with as much care and concern as donating the heirlooms of such crossings (say, a quilt or a trunk, as referred to in Where I Was From) to a museum, the reiterative statement to subsequent generations has consistently been: preserve your heritage. Yet the history of California has shown time and time again that the only constant of “being Californian” is dispensing with everything. “Jettisoning” it, to use a word preferred by Didion throughout her 2003 memoir. The characteristic of “flightiness” in the Californian, indeed, stemming from the fact that those who landed their descendants in the Golden State did so precisely because they turned to “flight” as a means of seeking greener pastures. Better opportunity… a.k.a. more money-making potential.

In truth, the modern evolution of seeking fortune in California transformed in the twentieth century to journeying there for the sake of “discovering” (by being discovered) fame in the movies. Still attracting the Southern and Midwestern (and even some Easter Coasters “deigning” to defect) “new people” that “native” Californians found vexing—a cause for all the change that was taking away from the purity of the land—in this form as much as when they were calling “new people” Okies. Yet still, as though to continue to entice and inveigle others from outside the state to “try their luck” in Hollywood, the tale of Lana Turner (born Julia Jean Turner) being discovered at Schwab’s Pharmacy on Sunset remains, to this day, a standard of film industry folklore. A means to say, “See? It can happen to anyone. You just have to try your luck.”

Lily never much tried hers, possibly believing that playing it safe was the best way to honor all the sacrifices made before her. Sacrifices made in the bid for “carving out a stake in the land.” Lily’s dad, Walter, instills within her the idea that the land is “theirs” precisely because the soil can’t truly belong to someone until their dead is buried in it, further expounding, “‘…if a lot of people a long time back hadn’t said what they wanted and struck out for it, you wouldn’t have been born in California. You’d have been born in Missouri maybe. Or Kentucky. Or Virginia.’ ‘Or abroad,’ Lily suggested. Walter Knight paused. To have been born abroad was not, even within the range of his own rhetoric, quite conceivable.’ ‘What I mean is you come from people who’ve wanted things and got them. Don’t forget it.’” A dichotomous reminder. For those are still the types of people that migrate toward California. Just because they haven’t been there as long as someone else doesn’t mean that they’re not allowed to want things and get them. If the pioneers and the robber barons were permitted the same luxuries back in the day, then surely such allowances can still be made to others. Those “given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they [know].” For this, in the end, is the California way. It is not to stay loyal to any one thing, or even any one place. Which is why the “great flight” out of the state presently being reported should come as no surprise. Not viewed as a “betrayal” by long-standing residents. It’s in their blood to seek greener pastures. To roll the dice on something better. Or at least, something that’s not burning (or, at the bare minimum, yielding a profit among the flames, as the state once did in its earlier modern history).

Yet herein lies another paradox with regard to Didion’s own specific origin. In Sacramento and the suburbs thereof, there is no great push to achieve, to try for something beyond California, let alone the city. “Here, [academic performance] did not seem to matter. As [Lily’s] mother had observed, she had read some interesting books and gone to some nice parties; once she was home, that was about the sum of Berkeley. She did not want to go back anyway. She could read books at home; she could have a better time at parties at home.” This decided townie mentality, and a comfortableness with not striking out too far is also all in keeping with the California way—yet another contradiction when taking into account the origin stories passed down from generation to generation about those ancestors who were willing to risk it all on the potential for a shot at living in Paradise. A classification that also makes it impossible for many Californians to dream of living anywhere else, high taxes, extreme weather and hellfire conditions within said Paradise be damned. That California is Hell within Heaven, Heaven within Hell also feeds the identity chasm.

An attempt at being anywhere else, however, and “native” Californians like Lily seemed to exhibit a patent “social uselessness.” Though Lily tries to see herself as being with someone outside of her natural Sacramento Valley environment, all experiments seem to fail, including a dalliance with a Jewish boy from the Bronx who she invites to dinner so that he might see her in “her native decay,” as he calls it. His assessment is proven correct to himself when he tries to engage with Lily’s father on the subject of John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California movement. Afterward, as she drives him back to the train station (the railroad then still being the grand achievement in Sacramento and all of CA), he remarks, “‘You’ll be glad to get away from all this,’ …taking a last drag on a cigarette and throwing it out the window. ‘Get away from all what?’ she said, watching the sparks in the rearview mirror. ‘I meant you’ll feel free in New York. You’ll develop.’ Uncomfortably aware that she had at some point agreed to go to New York with him (although she had never had the slightest intention of doing so), she increased her pressure on the accelerator. ‘I’m not likely to get away from all this,’ she said, for once safe enough to say what she meant… ‘Any more than you’re likely to get away from wherever it is you come from. And we don’t throw cigarettes out the window here. It starts fires.’” Indeed, it does (a more timely beratement than ever). And so here we have Lily’s sudden recognition that she cannot change what she is any more than a bird can become a fish (or vice versa, which would perhaps be a more appropriate analogy here considering the river environment at play). And that escaping where you’re from seems most impossible of all when that place happens to be California. It is, in contrast to those born there, the milieu people try to escape to, not from—even in the face of all of its internationally broadcast environmental issues.    

Tragedy results from change. This seems to be what Didion tells us over and over again in Run River, as well as Where I Was From, a half memoir, half indictment of the paradoxes of California and the myths it likes to uphold about itself. It is in the latter, however, that she negates the veracity of her first novel. She questions her intent in perpetuating the reverent attitudes toward “old American stock” via the pioneer claim made by “real” Californians. What “claim” of “special rights” did anyone in California (who wasn’t Native American or Mexican) really have? Run River, through her hindsighted lens, now seems mere propaganda bolstering a myth that isn’t real. An idea “true” Californians have of themselves as being fiercely independent and scrappy, in addition to having a responsibility to their ancestors to preserve their land at all costs.

This self-perception of independence and reluctance to sell to whoever has the best offer is at war with another factor: California’s need for the sweet teat of federal funding. Didion describes that need as follows: “This extreme reliance of California on federal money, so seemingly at odds with the emphasis on unfettered individualism that constitutes the local core belief, was a pattern set early on, and derived in part from the very individualism it would seem to belie… Charles Nordhoff complained of California in 1874 that a ‘speculative spirit invades even the farm-house,’ too often tempting its citizens ‘to go from one avocation to another, to do many things superficially and to look for sudden fortunes by chances of a shrewd venture, rather than be content to live by patient and continued labor.” In short, the Californian was the trailblazer in the art of looking for the easy way out, in normalizing the idea that work shouldn’t have to be hard, nor the according principle of making money. Later, in fact, no one would seem to “make” anything except that—this alluding to the man-boys in Silicon Valley who spent all day at “work” with only an imaginary series of 0s and 1s to show for it.

Didion admits that Run River possesses “a warp, a persistent suggestion that these changes brought about by World War Two had in some way been resisted by the ‘true’ Californian. Had not any such resistance been confined to the retrospect? Were not ‘changes’ and ‘boom years’ what the Californian experience had been about since the first American settlement? Were we not still willing to traffic our own history to get what the railroad could bring us?” In other words, Didion seems to be writing a book called California Sells Itself—and only to the highest bidder. How does one think the “correctional” system in the state started booming so much by the early 90s? It was thanks to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, under union leadership from Don Novey, who saw the power of getting in bed with political leaders by way of generous campaign donations.

If it wasn’t the railroad, it was always going to be something else (be it aerospace, tech, etc.) California looked to as a means to bolster its “riches,” not seeming to understand that the bounty of Mother Nature itself is finite. And once she’s gone, there will be little money (or actual essential resources for sustaining life) left to plunder out of her. Learning the lessons of the past, however, has never really been anyone’s forte, Californian or otherwise. Didion goes on to note, “‘What the Railroad Will Bring Us,’ remained, into my generation at least, routine assigned reading for California children, one more piece of evidence that assigned reading makes nothing happen. I used to think that Henry George had overstated the role of the railroad, and in one sense he had: the railroad, of course, was merely the last stage of a process already underway, one that had its basis in the character of the settlement… This process, one of trading the state to outside owners in exchange for (it now seems) entirely temporary agreement to enrich us, in other words the pauperization of California, had in fact begun at the time Americans first entered the state, took what they could, and, abetted by the native weakness for boosterism, set about selling the rest.”

Didion herself embodies certain mercurial contradictions pertaining to this phenomenon, having built a considerable portion of her career on the tragedy porn romanticization of California (Run River commencing the motif), most notably Los Angeles in Play It As It Lays (which Bret Easton Ellis admitted to ripping off for his own L.A. opus of a debut, Less Than Zero). Oddly, in Didion’s anti-establishment rhetoric throughout the decades she rose to prominence, she herself was a Goldwater Republican, and quickly became part of the literary establishment. Though one supposes such a fate was inevitable. After all, she got her start with Vogue, working at Condé Nast for many years when, some still posit, it was at least mildly edgy and not a mere barrage of ads intermittently broken up by ass-licking articles.

She, too, is a conundrum as perhaps only a Californian born in California can be. Yet that still doesn’t excuse her return to New York. Especially after such grand posturing in “Goodbye to All That,” an essay title, in the end, that seemed to be directed more toward her home state, which she has been remarkably mum about as it burns with an unprecedented fury. Possibly enraged at the slight that she could abandon it so cruelly after making such a profit from it. Again, Didion—whether conscious of it or not—self-referentially acknowledges this is the Californian method.

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