Seeing the Governor's Mansion and Noticing America's Moral Decline

Katharine Gorman, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Joan Didion's description of visiting the old Governor's "Mansion" combines social commentary and architectural observations. Juxtaposed against her enumeration of the new "Residence's" qualities, the old Mansion represents a kind of realistic ideal. The new Residence is open and sprawling and is full of frivolous gadgets. The old Mansion is a considerably more divided and closed off space. Somehow, in developing a stylistic preference for open space and the latest appliances, we as Americans have lost something more that mere architectural elements -- hallways, closed-off rooms, "waste space" -- and furniture -- we've lost privacy, and the things that make a house a home. The old Governor's Mansion is meant to be lived in. One can cry, read and bathe a child in its rooms. The old Governor's Mansion seems to remind Didion of how un-romantic and gratuitous we've become in our preference for grand entryways, trash compactors, bidets, and kitchen islands. We favor wet bars over pantries and the practicality of hampers in the bathroom; herein, Didion suggests in her poetic and detailed prose lays an example or manifestation of America's moral decline.

Firetrap or not, the old Governor's Mansion was at the time my favorite house in the world, and probably still is. The morning after I was shown the new "Residence" I visited the old "Mansion," took the public tour with a group of perhaps twenty people, none of whom seemed to find it as ideal as I did. "All those stairs," they murmured, as if stairs could no longer be tolerated by human physiology. "All those stairs," and "all that waste space." The old Governor's Mansion does have stairs and waste space, which is precisely why it remains the kind of house sixty adolescent girls might gather and never interrupt the real life of the household. The bedrooms are big and private and high-ceilinged and they do not open on the swimming pool and one can imagine reading in one of them, or writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner. The bathrooms are big and airy and they do not have bidets but they do have hampers, and dressing tables, and chairs on which to sit and read a story to a child in the bathtub. There are hallways wide and narrow, stairs front and back, sewing rooms, ironing rooms, secret rooms. On the gilt mirror in the library there is worked a bust of Shakespeare, a pretty fancy for a hardware merchant in a California farm town in 1877. In the kitchen there is no trash compactor and there is no "island" with the appliances built in but there are two pantries, and a nice old table with a marble top for rolling out pastry and making divinity fudge and chocolate leaves. The morning I took the tour our guide asked if anyone could think why the old table had a marble top. There were a dozen or so other women in the group, each of an age to have cooked unnumbered meals, but not one of them could think of a single use for a slab or marble in the kitchen. It occurred to me that we had finally evolved a society in which knowledge of a pastry marble, like a taste for stairs and closed doors, could be construed as "elitist," and as I left the Governor's Mansion I felt very like the heroine of Mary McCarthy's Birds of America, the one who located America's moral decline in the disappearance of the first course. [71-72]

Questions

1. How does this passage fit in with the rest of the essay?

2. What does Didion's inclusion of the tour group incident, where her tour group does not know what the marble top on the table is for, do for her essay as a whole? How does it enhance her argument?

3. Didion states that when she left the Mansion, she felt akin to "the heroine of Mary McCarthy's Birds of American, the one who located America's moral decline in the disappearance of the first course." What has disappeared? In what ways are America's morals declining in Didion's eyes?

4. Didion includes careful details such as "on the gilt mirror in the library there is worked a bust of Shakespeare" and makes conjectures about how the rooms may be used if a family lived there. How does Didion's style affect the way we read and interpret her social commentary?

5. What deeper meaning might the old Mansion have for Didion?

Cited Works

Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.


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Last modified 1 February 2005