Self-Absorption: Questions of Subject in The White Album

The White Album exudes Joan Didion's signature journalistic tone, braiding personal struggles together with salient social topics of the 1970s. The insight Didion gives her readers into the foreign worlds of Hollywood events and notable figures parallels the gradual, yet unrestrained unfurling of her own issues. Far from a collection of biographical essays, the most vibrant matters of The White Album deal with Didion's relationships, her femaleness, and her career. Under the guise of brief and fascinating biographies, Didion as the subtle protagonist never disappears. Her piece entitled "Georgia O'Keeffe," begins:

"Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant," Georgia O'Keeffe told us in the book of paintings and works published in her ninetieth year on earth. She seemed to be advising us to forget the beautiful face in the Stieglitz photographs. She appeared to be dismissing the rather condescending romance that had attached to her by then, the romance of extreme good looks and advanced age and deliberate isolation. "It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest." I recall an August afternoon in Chicago in 1973 when I took my daughter, then seven, to see what Georgia O'Keeffe had done with where she had been. One of the vast O'Keeffe "Sky Above the Clouds" canvases floated over the back stairs in the Chicago Art Institute that day, dominating what seemed to be several stories of empty light, and my daughter looked at it once, ran to the landing, and kept on looking. "Who drew it," she whispered after a while. I told her. "I need to talk to her," she said finally.

My daughter was making, that day in Chicago, an entirely unconscious but quite basic assumption about people and the work they do. She was assuming that the glory she saw in the work reflected a glory in its maker, that the painting was the painter as the poem is the poet, that every choice one made alone—every word chosen or rejected, every brush stroke laid or not laid down—betrayed one's character. Style is character. It seemed to me that afternoon that I had rarely seen so instinctive an application of this familiar principle, and I recall being pleased not only that my daughter responded to style as character but that it was Georgia O'Keeffe's particular style to which she responded: this was a hard woman who had imposed her 192 square feet of clouds on Chicago.


1. What evidence is given that "style is character" is true for Georgia O'Keeffe? James Jones? Are there characters (in this collection or others) for which this assumption is false?

2. Earlier in the book, Didion struggles with second wave feminism. How does her obsession with beauty relate to this? What does she mean when she talks about Nancy Regan and young brides as "pretty," and how is this different than what she says about Georia O'Keeffe?

3. Are Georgia O'Keeffe, Doris Lessing, J. Paul Getty, et al. really the subjects of their respective essays? To what degree?

4. Does Joan Didion think that her own writing style is indicative of her character? If so, drawing from the rest of the collection, how might she characterize herself?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

10 September 2007