Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of Joan Didion’s nonfiction articles and essays, originally published in various magazines throughout most of the 1960s. Among the periodicals in which the contents appeared are the American Scholar and the New York Times Magazine.
California culture, as it inexorably transformed and moved to its epicenter in the Age of Aquarius, is really the dominant character of the anthology; at the very least, it is the unifying theme. As for flesh and blood characters, they range from John Wayne to the Flower Children of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, to the figure of Howard Hughes in his heyday, before he was already halfway to crazed recluse he would become by the time Didion wrote about him. As for the genuinely unifying theme, a hint is contained in the title, which is taken from a William Butler Yeats poem that also offers the following dire statement: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."
The non-fiction observation of the changing world of the 1960s as a whole—along with the the distinct imprint of Californian thought on that change—coalesces into the tie that binds. This awareness that the center of American society was very quickly starting to unthread and would soon come apart would come to be expressed by Didion through her concept of atomization. The term is literary shorthand for the symbolic splintering and fragmentation of every; the breakdown of the whole into its smallest, disconnected units.
Between the appearance of “On Self-Respect” in Vogue in 1961 and “California Dreaming” in a 1967 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, the only thing that underwent a dramatic and often drastic change in America was everything. Didion was hardly alone in sensing that the very center which had held America together could no longer hold together. The impending fear that anarchy was about to be set loose was palpable and on the verge of seeming to explode into inescapable reality in 1968 with the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the student takeover of Columbia University, and the violent crackdown on protestors at the Democratic National Convention, aired lived on TV for the world to see.
The acclaim which greeted the publication of Slouching Towards Bethlehem is usually regarded as instrumental in sending Didion’s novel Play It as It Lays to the top the bestseller list and earning it a National Book Award nomination.