UC Berkeley alumna Joan Didion died Thursday, Dec. 23, due to Parkinson’s disease at age 87.
Campus professor emerita of English Catherine Gallagher said that before Didion was a pioneering voice of the “new journalism,” she “learned to think critically” as a student at UC Berkeley.
Didion came to UC Berkeley in the 1950s, when only 30% of students were women, according to Gallagher. She added that Didion was an English major and reporter for The Daily Californian and that it was clear she would become a writer.
“She’s really famous for reporting on all the things that other people think of as too personal and too painful to be shared with the public,” Gallagher said. “She has affected the lives of others by … just sharing the feelings she has about the things that she’s experiencing — helping people to make sense of chaotic historical times.”
In a thesis on Didion’s education, campus alumna Elizabeth Rainey wrote that during Didion’s senior year at UC Berkeley, she won Vogue’s Prix de Paris writing contest and was offered a position at the magazine after graduation.
Rainey also noted that Didion diverged from the typical path of her fellow female students as she aspired to a career in what was a male-dominated field.
An article from 150 Years of Women at Berkeley notes that Didion noticed many of her sorority sisters at Tri Delta enrolled in college to find husbands, a sentiment Didion did not share.
“She was known by our alumni as one to ‘always have her head in the books,’ ” said Tri Delta Pi chapter president Grace Naylor in an email. “We, at Pi Chapter, are deeply saddened by the passing of our sister, Joan.”
Naylor said Didion’s experience at Tri Delta informed her writings on collegiate culture.
Gallagher said Didion helped invent a new style of writing, which combined traditional reporting with first-person points of view, called “new journalism.” Didion’s work analyzed important midcentury cultural shifts, according to Gallagher.
“There’s something about Joan Didion’s very cool, sometimes unemotional, but nevertheless personal style of writing,” Gallagher said. “This is a person writing this, but she’s not a person that’s overwhelmed by it.”
Gallagher added that Didion’s writing seems to resonate with women in her classes because it defies characterizations of women’s writing as overly emotional.
Campus alumna Elizabeth Tang said she was introduced to Didion’s work in one of her sophomore classes. Tang was drawn to Didion because of their similar backgrounds and interests.
“Didion has had an immense impact on my writing style and how I approach character tone, my outlook on life and its uncertainties, and on the relationship between women and warped perceptions of self-worth,” Tang said in an email. “I, and many others, will always be impacted by her legacy.”