Titular Implications in Joan Didion's The White Album

Alicia Young, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Words bear no inherent meaning; their import derives only from the values, correlation, and significance we appoint them. In "The White Album" section of The White Album, Joan Didion emphasizes the fact that she was named many times during a disjointed, senseless epoch in both her personal life and the life of her country:

It was a time in my life when I was frequently "named." I was named godmother to children. I was named lecturer and panelist, colloquist and conferee. I was even named, in 1986, a Los Angeles Times "Woman of the Year," along with Mrs. Ronald Reagan, the Olympic swimmer Debbie Meyer, and ten other California women who seemed to keep in touch and do good works. I did no good works but I tried to keep in touch. I was responsible. I recognized my name when I saw it. Once in a while I even answered letters addressed to me, not exactly upon receipt but eventually, particularly if the letters had come from strangers. [12]

Didion's tone toward names and titles seems puzzling at best. All she says about seeing her name next to the title "Woman of the Year" is that she recognized her name as her own. The title itself seems empty for Didion, as she shared the title with a dozen or so other women, which annulled any individual affirmation to be derived from the auspicious-sounding title. Bearing in mind Didion's disdain for titles, the fact arises that she also makes a point to italicize certain words and phrases throughout her narrative. "Too bad Morrison's not here. Morrison would know" (24); "Eldridge has got dubious credentials" (28); "Something we should stress at this press conference is who owns the media" (40); "I'm here to tell you that at College of San Mateo we're living like revolutionaries" (41); "I remember all of the day's misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and I wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised" (42).

Questions

1. Conventionally, italicized words that do not constitute titles are italicized for specific emphasis. Yet next to Didion's initial focus on "naming" and the many empty titles she assumed, what other meanings do her other italicized words and phrases shoulder?

2. What kinds of images do accentuated words like revolutionaries or who owns the media evoke?

3. Do those images correlate to the attitude with which Didion writes about her retrospective on the "senseless" 1960s? How do these emphases fit into Didion's statement that "Disorder was its own point" (37) in America's 1960s?

Cited Works

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


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Last modified 1 February 2005