In Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” essay she emerges herself in the hippie movement, a look at the thousands of young people who flocked to San Francisco during the summer of 1967. Actually, the essay is an expression of Didion’s mournful and ironic worldview, her sense that the “center” of things, as in Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” is no longer holding. This lack of a center is expressed even through the structure of the essay, which lacks a conventional beginning, middle, and end.
Instead, Didion gives readers a series of vividly described moments, compared in a seemingly random fashion: odd details such as graffiti on a wall or a bit of song lyrics, overheard conversations, random encounters, and unproductive interviews. Didion’s one attempt at conventional journalism is a study in comic absurdity. After jotting down two words from a brief conversation she had with a police officer, she is told that she is not allowed to speak with anyone in the police department and that she must turn over her “notes.” The people and incidents Didion explored in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” all work as small parts that say a great deal about a larger meaning.
Perhaps the most powerful images of the disordered culture Didion describes are the two images of children that conclude “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”: a five-year-old child on acid and another small child who had started a fire, burned himself, and had been ignored by the adults around him who were preoccupied with retrieving some hashish that fell through some floorboards during the fire. In a style characteristic of her writing, Didion presents these scenes without commentary, letting the reader make the final judgment.
“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” is not about the Kentucky Derby’s races as much as it is about the people who attend. They were looking for “that special face,” a drunken person with a good mix of booze, failed dreams, and a terminal identity crisis (Cohen, 2005) that would capture the true spirit of the Kentucky Derby. Thompson talks about going to the inner field to watch the “real beasts perform.” He and Ralph Steadman, an artist from England, spent the weekend at the race drinking heavily and immersing themselves in Thompson’s story. When writing this story, Thompson focused on the heavily intoxicated people in attendance in order to show that the Kentucky Derby was not as glamorous as the general public may have thought. While he did report on the winner of the race, Dust Commander, it was not his main focus.
There were other stories that were going on at that particular time that he mentioned as well. One particular story was that Diane Crump was about to become the first woman jockey to race in the Kentucky Derby (Thompson, 1970). However, this particular bit of information was only mentioned a couple times in the text. He uses many references to Nixon, the military, and the Black Panthers. These references show the reader that there were many other things going wrong in the nation, but all these people cared about was going to a race and having a big party. They didn’t even seem to care about the race as many of them were either too incoherent or just not even paying attention. This story shows that Thompson himself was by far no saint.
In order to talk this way about the people he was writing about, he had to be able to write about himself in the same manner (Grant, 2013). He spent almost the entire essay talking about the drunken maniacs that attended the race. He talked about them being very rude and offensive, as well as unmannered in that they were vomiting on themselves and passing out on the ground, but he also revealed that he was as well. He talks about finding that face of the beast, that puﬀy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature and it being himself.
I believe Thompson and Didion used first person to write their stories for the same reason: because it gave them room to say what they wanted. This differs from traditional journalism because when others read this, they could just say, “It’s just some drunken guy shooting his opinion of us.” It shows his lack of omniscient knowledge because he was himself a character instead. Thompson could have used other techniques to address certain topics in the story, but they wouldn’t have been as effective because it wouldn’t have allowed him to express the feeling he wanted to get across.
If they wrote the stories in the traditional journalistic way, they would’ve been forced to simply state facts. This would have made the stories less creative and in turn less interesting to the reader. They would not have been able to tie in problems across country and give the story more of a meaning instead of an objective report about the Kentucky Derby or hippie movement.