Christian Lorentzen writes:
A pair of relatively liberal plantation owners speak well of school integration, even as they admit to sending their children to private schools. “I can’t sacrifice my child to my ideal,” a father says. Her longest interview is with Stan Togerson, white owner of the black radio station in Meridian, Mississippi. “We’re not nearly as inbred as we used to be,” he boasts to her, mentioning that the local Sears now has a couple of black department heads. He’s all for the coming of industry, education, and integration, but he has his limits: “I’m not saying I’m going to have a black minister come home to dinner tonight, ’cause I’m not.” Didion seems to have come up against her own limits on the Gulf Coast, and she knew it. There are few black voices in these notes, mostly just glimpses, as at Ole Miss. (…)
Failure is part of the origin myth of the New Journalism: Tom Wolfe procrastinating until he sent Esquire his notes on the hot rod, and it published them in lieu of the piece; Gay Talese interviewing everybody except the subject of his profile; George Plimpton humiliating himself on the gridiron. In the decades that followed, the story of the failure to get the story would become its own genre of reporting, though rarely a glorious one. Didion was aware that the South had somehow defeated her: “The way in which all the reporting trips I had ever known atrophied in the South. There were things I should do, I knew it: but I never did them. I never made an appointment with the bridal consultant of the biggest department store in any town I was in. I never made the Miss Mississippi Hospitality Contest Semifinals, although they were being held in little towns not far from where we were, wherever we were. I neglected to call the people whose names I had, and hung around drugstores instead. I was underwater in some real sense, the whole month.” South and West is a marvelous time capsule, and a reminder that sometimes even the great ones let themselves down. Didion wasn’t one to make a show of failure in her prime, but five decades on South and West is an act of generosity.