Joan Didion_lowres

Joan Didion's observations on her 1970 trip to New Orleans form the 2017 travelogie, 'South and West.'

Author Joan Didion, who died last month at 87, had gained a renewed profile in recent years for a couple of memoirs, “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights,” that explored her grief over the loss of loved ones.

It’s possible, though, that Didion first began thinking deeply about our complicated attitudes toward death when she visited Louisiana in 1970.

That wasn’t Didion’s plan when she came to the state back then. In fact, she had no clear agenda at all. “The idea,” she’d later recall, “was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan.”

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Didion kept careful notes of her visit, presumably to work them up into a magazine piece or book. They languished for decades, not coming to public light until 2017, when her jottings were published as a travelogue, “South and West.” The book seemed like an effort to tidy up Didion’s literary affairs before she passed from the scene.

Despite that spirit of expedience, “South and West” doesn’t read as if it were thrown together. Didion was such an exacting stylist that even her notes are fine enough to stand as published prose.

Why, then, did Didion so long avoid publishing her account of coming to New Orleans? Maybe she felt that she hadn’t quite figured out the city. In “South and West,” she makes a lot of detailed observations of the locale, but you get the sense that for all her genius, she can’t yet draw a bead on her subject.

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No one would call “South and West” a love letter to New Orleans. Didion wryly notes the city’s challenges with poverty and race — problems well known to the locals, though it stings more sharply when a visitor brings them up.

She seems mystified after witnessing a woman die on St. Charles Avenue as her car strikes a tree, noting how quickly the city’s rhythm resumes after the tragedy. “It was a fatalism I would come to recognize as endemic to the particular tone of New Orleans life,” she writes.

What Didion describes as fatalism, others might call resilience. The ability to hold these two competing thoughts — that loss is terrible, yet life goes on — isn’t a uniquely New Orleans idea, of course. But the city’s history, in which beauty sublimely mingles with loss, gives this notion a special resonance.

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Years later, Didion would remind the world that her own losses could live alongside daily routine. This is, in essence, the “magical thinking” she described in her 2005 memoir about her newfound widowhood. The book came out the same year that New Orleans, an early touchstone for her in considering the mysteries of grief, endured Hurricane Katrina.

It wasn’t fatalism, one gathers, that got the city through. It was the hard-won knowledge — one Didion had discovered herself — that carrying on after loss might be the only way to make sense of it.


Email Danny Heitman at danny@dannyheitman.com.