Joan Didion, Emily Post, and Reclaiming Pre-Feminist Handbooks
Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, finds Emily Post’s 1922 manual about etiquette to be the most helpful in helping her understand her own experience of grief. Didion culls through various texts in her mourning, looking for answers. It is surprising to both the author and reader that she finds what she is looking for not in literature or serious journalistic writing, but rather in what one might call a pre-feminist or even anti-feminist handbook of etiquette. Post’s book of etiquette feels Victorian in its reverence for convention and practicality in moments of crisis, rather than the kind of emotional release or “realism” (to take a word from J.M. Coetzee) that you might find in other texts about grieving. Didion notes that the higher mortality rate in Post’s moment contribute to her comfort in discussing matters of death and mourning.
Beyond this, I think there is something to be said about Didion’s reclaiming of a text that might otherwise be dismissed as middle-class, anti-feminist, and unemotional–the stuff of newspaper advice columns or a relic of a bygone era of formalities. Didion takes Post seriously. In fact, Post was a writer of fiction as well, and wrote a number of novels in the early twentieth century (one of which is about a woman in an unhappy marriage that might be seen as proto-feminist). In this sense, Didion takes the previously cast aside writing about domesticity and family and makes it the stuff of high philosophical interest in her writing about Post in her meditation about life and death. While Post is an unlikely character in this story, she might be the most surprising, and Didion shows, the most honest and accurate.
Lastly, this feminist move of reclaiming what might be seen as an outmoded form of unfeminist handbooks and how-tos might be catching on. Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl similarly takes up a text that would be easy to cast aside: Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All. Although Dunham’s take could verge on a kind of revisionism or even satire, she is careful to take Brown’s text, and its impact on her, seriously.
The moves by Didion and Dunham make me think that there is a value in mining the archive of text previously dismissed as overly domestic, anti-feminist, or unserious. Despite not being lauded for any kind of high literary contribution, these books can help us understand what it means to live and die.