Gasira Timir ’19, Joan Didion Summer Research

Gasira Timir ’19 recounts shuttling between archives in New York and New Haven all summer, researching contemporary implications of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem for her senior thesis project.

My thesis project, which I was able to begin this summer with support from the Hurford Center, centers Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem – a collection of nonfiction personal writing and formal reportage on Sixties’ America. The project, which emerged out of an Independent Reading course directed by Professor Lindsay Reckson on “American Utopias,” is currently moving in this direction: I am curious about the images we inherit; how mythologies consistently disrupted or debunked are somehow nonetheless able to resist collapsing entirely; and how collective affective orientations directed towards the nation in times of crisis, (such as suspicion, or paranoia) are often problematized by other seemingly more urgent effects, such as desire. I am interested in the image of the cowboy, and how the undercurrent of energy particular to the saying “Go West, Young Man” circulates in the present; I am also interested everyday citizens’ capacity to come to terms or make peace with decline. By turning to the year 1968 (Slouching Towards Bethlehem’s year of publication – a collection I am interested in as an approximate index of the nation leading up to and during that historic [to say the least] year), maybe we can begin to make sense of the moment of national crisis we are living in now.

I spent the summer shuttling extensively, mostly between New York and New Haven, conducting research with the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Yale University) and the New York Public Library, seeking to mobilize mostly the personal papers of Joan Didion from the late 60s/early 70s for my thesis on Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The most informative papers I came across were those of the publishing company “Farrar, Straus, & Giroux” at the New York Public Library. FSG published a lot of Didion’s early work – including Slouching Towards Bethlehem. A lot of the materials on Slouching Towards Bethlehem in this collection contain boring logistical correspondence about things like money matters, but in the year or so leading up to the book’s publication there is a good amount of content (in the form of correspondence between Didion and her editor, Henry Robbins) revealing the logic of how much of the book was pieced together. I’d hit what felt like the archival jackpot – and originally, I wasn’t even planning on looking at the papers of FSG. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that they were available, and hadn’t even thought to look.

Towards the end of the period in which I was doing this work, an archivist at the NYPL recommended that I look into the FSG collection. I ended up extending my sublease agreement in New Haven by a bit, and so most of the magic of this summer happened in its final 10 days. Leading up until this point, however, I was stressed because I hadn’t yet found anything genuinely helpful – it was all very interesting (and Didion’s personal papers have so much juicy goss, don’t get me wrong) but I wasn’t really able to find anything concrete up until that point that would likely make any significant contributions to the bulk of my project. However, just as I was beginning to come to terms with this, by some stroke of luck, I kind of found my “in…”

Written by Gasira Timir ’19

Edited by MacK Somers ’20