Don’t Tread on Me: Didion on O’Keeffe

Throughout The White Album, Joan Didion conveys a sense of the chaos that was her own life through her experiences and interactions at the end of the ’60s and into the ’70s, constantly revealing more about herself through her portrayals of others. In the section of the collection titled “Women”, Didion includes the essay “Georgia O’Keeffe”, in which she presents us with the famed female artist who, in many ways, seemed to hold ideals that resonate with Didion’s own.

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. [126-27]

Didion goes on to describe O’Keeffe as hard and aggressive, a woman who “seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.” [129] The tone is one of subtle praise and reverence as Didion continues to describe O’Keeffe’s experience, revealing once again more about herself and her own views.


1. Didion asserts the thesis that “style is character.” Does Didion, then, believe that her own writing style expresses her character? In what ways could this be true for Didion? For O’Keeffe?

2. Is the idea that “style is character” more relevant to non-fiction than fiction works?

3. Didion critiques the second wave of feminism in her earlier essay, “The Women’s Movement.” However, could this essay on Georgia O’Keeffe be considered feminist? In what ways?

4. How does this portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe compare to the way Didion wrote of other women such as Doris Lessing and Nancy Reagan? Where do the differences lie?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

1 February 2011