Interviews May 2006

A Woman's Place?

Caitlin Flanagan, America's feistiest stay-at-home mom, shares her thoughts on gerbils, gay marriage, and Robert Graves

Caitlin Flanagan
Caitlin Flanagan

Your title essay, “To Hell With All That,” seems to be a pretty direct allusion to Joan Didion’s 1967 essay “Goodbye To All That,” which is about her life as a working girl in New York.

Well, of course her title was an allusion to one of the greatest memoirs ever written, Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. Graves said the title was his one and only contribution to Bartlett’s; for many years it has been a famous expression—suggesting elegy, nostalgia, regret, the complete end of something. I used “To Hell With All That” to suggest both my nostalgia for the housewife era and also the vehemence and anger with which so many of those women ejected themselves from it.

A young woman reviewed my book for a New York newspaper and she went into some length about Didion’s use of the title, and I suddenly realized, “Bless her heart, she’s never heard of Robert Graves.” I was going to send her a copy, but these things can be misconstrued. The book is to be had for $2.95, and I would commend it to anyone who has a weekend to spare and the inclination to read a masterpiece.

Interestingly enough, when I taught school, we had the honor of having Maya Angelou come and speak to our students. She read her poetry to a mesmerized audience of six hundred—not a peep from all those teenagers. She had them in the palm of her hand. Afterward, during the question and answer period, someone much braver than I—Ms. Angelou is a formidable person—asked her about the literature that had most influenced her as a writer. She told us that her two biggest influences had been the King James Bible—in particular the Psalms—and Shakespeare. She recited Portia’s speech on the Quality of Mercy, and again the kids were rapt. It was a moment of pure vindication for those of us in the English department; at that time we were fighting a losing battle against political correctness. Two of the texts very much in the crosshairs were the King James Bible and Shakespeare’s collected works. We were moving toward a curriculum that would have more Angelou and less Shakespeare. And here was Maya Angelou herself paying homage to these great works—and proving that they could still carry meaning and beauty for the children of today.

Because of political correctness, we are raising a generation of young people who are familiar only with the echoes and reverberations of the great books. It’s always the moment just after, and never the blackbird singing.

Even so, I think there’s a reason your book brings Didion to mind rather than Graves. His book is a gritty World War I memoir, whereas Didion’s essay actually ties in with some of the issues you deal with in your book. Didion had a glamorous working girl’s life, but one day she woke up miserable, so she got married, left New York, and, in her own way, lived happily ever after. Your mother was a housewife, but one day she woke up miserable, so she put away the cleaning supplies and went back to work.

Joan Didion lived happily ever after? I think the reason so many women love her work so much is that it speaks to a particularly female kind of sadness. As far as her “Goodbye to All That” is concerned—I don’t think it was just the workaday world that made her depressed and miserable. Reread that essay enough times and it will give up its secrets.

Also, it was after Didion got married, quit Vogue, and moved to California with a man who loved her and believed fiercely in her writing that she began her true work: the writing that moves us all so deeply, and the making of a home for the two people she loved most in the world. I am sure if you asked her about the “work” that she has done in this life, she would give those two elements equal weight.

Every male American writer must grapple on some level with Hemingway, and every female one must work within the context of what Joan Didion created. The territory that she opened for us, her method of moving cunningly into the middle of an apparently banal subject and then wheeling upon it with everything she knows and everything she believes, the fearlessness balanced with the intense femininity—this, to me, anyway, constituted a kind of woman’s liberation. Reading her essays as a young teenager stuck in Dublin for another dreary summer, I felt explicitly and mysteriously liberated from something that I couldn’t even name. I felt a possibility for myself. Not as a writer—I never wanted to be a writer. But as a reader, and—in a complicated but very profound way—as a girl from California.

Interestingly enough, for much of Didion’s writing career—I am thinking of the early essays that will endure all tests of time—she was considered by many to be quite conservative, even reactionary. I remember hearing some Berkeley English professors—men who had taught Didion when she was an undergraduate, and who were in awe of her—speak of her great John Wayne essay as being “right wing.” Maybe it was. It is also one of the greatest essays ever written about the movies. At that time, for an intellectual to write something that a Berkeley English professor could construe as right wing was an act of pure, brazen fearlessness, intellectual honesty of the first order. I was dazzled by it.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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