Journalism, Context, and Technique

Brian Baskin, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

I am telling you neither that Huey Newton killed John Frey nor that Huey Newton did not kill John Frey, for in the context of revolutionary politics Huey Newton's guilt or innocence was irrelevant. I am telling you only how Huey Newton happened to be in the Alameda County Jail, and why rallies were held in his name, demonstrations organized whenever he appeared in court. LET'S SPRING HUEY, the buttons read (fifty cents each), and here and there on the courthouse steps, among the Panthers with their berets and sunglasses, the chants would go up. [p. 27]

The journalist actively tries not to judge, unlike the satirist. I think Didion instead infuses her work with a passive commentary that does not qualify as satire, but makes her occasional references to her own anonymity and impartiality, as in the passage above, somewhat inaccurate. She avoids portraying anyone as a hero or a villain, but that's not the same thing as not taking sides. We watch an incredibly emotional moment through the dispassionate eye of a somewhat detached observer, but isn't what Didion chooses to commit to paper as much a commentary on what she witnesses as Wolfe's more direct essays? Couldn't she just as easily written a moving piece about the funeral of one of the men killed in the Newman incident, giving a completely new slant to the entire period she is trying to examine? Is it possible for her to have "deliberate anonymity"? (p. 35)

The other aspect of Didion's writing I found interesting is how she strives at all times to make her writing current. She has an obsession with names and dates, as if she feels the need to constantly remind the reader of when and where she is writing. Didion's focus on detail almost for the sake of detail is what separates her from Wolfe, who used every word to provide some insight into what he was describing Many names have no context, so while someone picking up her book in 1979 would recall instantly the details of the Manson trial or the California bishop whose mistress attempted suicide, a reader twenty years later might have no idea what she is referencing. At the same time, anyone from any time can follow her writing and understand her message. Her need to be current also makes her a journalist. Though each vignette has its own message that is in many ways timeless, that glimpse at the author's intent is always firmly grounded in the now.

How is her work altered by the passage of time? Do readers from different generations reach different conclusions from her work? We bring something different to the table when we read Didion, because we have no memory of the times she's describing. I know who the Black Panthers are and some of what they were about, but nothing about the Huey Newton. incident.


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Last modified 6 February 2002