Tag Archives: Haight-Ashbury

Essay Review: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

28 Oct

During spring of 1967, just before the Summer of Love, thousands of Americans flocked to San Francisco, the epicenter of the hippie movement that challenged everything that was understood about the world.

Psychoactive drugs, creative expression, revolutionary music and political ideals swept the nation. Long-haired flower children spoke of free love, peace and the necessity of exploring realms of consciousness. People questioned the policies of the generations before them and demanded change.

It was during this time that award-winning journalist Joan Didion stepped onto the scene. Embracing the changing landscape herself, Didion wrote about her experiences in what was called the “New Journalism” style, of articulating facts through narrative storytelling, which was popularized by Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and Truman Copote.

Didion spent months in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco not knowing exactly what she wanted to find out, but made friends “where the social hemorrhaging was showing up… where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves hippies.”

In her 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion draws upon her observations of Haight-Ashbury and removes the romanticized veil that has come to represent the hippie movement.

She bears witness to the social phenomena of the late ‘60s and communicates her experiences as an observer rather than a participant.

The title for the essay and the book of the same name, is taken from the last line of William Butler Yeat’s poem The Second Coming (1919) and shares the same apocalyptic vision.

During Didion’s time in Haight-Ashbury, she meets a 5-year-old on lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) who explains that her mother had been giving her drugs for the past year and that many of her fellow classmates “turn on,” too.

Didion, who was in her 30s at the time, describes her work Slouching Towards Bethlehem as the “first time I dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that all things fall apart.”

Throughout the essay, Didion encounters runaways who left their stable lives behind to live in the “Golden Land” of California, a place they believed promised freedom, love and acceptance, but instead found themselves homeless, hungry and looking for their next drug fix.

Didion is told to offer these vagabonds hamburgers and Coca Colas in exchange for interviews and comes to the conclusion that their lives are now filled with aimless endeavors where the past no longer matters and the future can’t be planned.

“We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum… we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it,” Didion writes.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” acts as a time capsule into the ‘60s with Didion reporting on the intrinsic pitfalls of the counterculture and allowing readers to catch an intimate glimpse into the lives of those entrenched in the hippie movement. Her essay portrays a darker, more removed account of 1967 than could be expected from the versions of her subjects.

Originally published at The Daily Titan

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