Commentary Magazine


A French Lady on the Dark Continent:
Simone de Beauvoir's Impressions of America

Simone De Beauvoir, whose The Second Sex is now offering us in all the bookstores a compendious highbrow low-down on women, wrote an earlier book, not yet published in this country, into which she distilled the existential facts of American life as she was able to observe them in a four months’ tour of this country in 1948. William Phillips, who was one of those fortunate enough to come in contact with Miss de Beauvoir during her rapid progress, suggests that the observations on the American natives by this explorer from the outer space of Parisian intellectual life are possibly nearer to Jules Verne than to Alexis de Tocqueville.

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Since the defeat of Hitler, there has been a worldwide contest to choose the new Enemy Number One, and the finalists are now Russia and America. For most people the Soviet regime seems to deserve the palm; for some—Communists and their sympathizers, but also many non-Communists—the United States is the chief menace. Extremes being in fashion today, opinion on America has been polarized, with the flag-wavers on one side and the anti-Americans on the other. In between are some highminded people who still have an open mind on the question of whether America is a force for progress or reaction.

Intellectuals, of course, are never behind the times, and the presses have been kept busy, here and abroad, turning out books that prove America is black or white or just gray. The latest contribution is a book by Simone de Beauvoir called America Day by Day that has just been published in England and is coming out in this country in translation, though it appeared in France some time back. It is an account, complete with theories and interpretations, of a four months’ visit to the United States in 1948.

Aside from its merits or lack of them, I feel it is interesting at the very least as a case history.

I should explain, however, that my reaction to Miss de Beauvoir’s book is not wholly objective. I was one of the people who talked and argued with her when she was here, and She seems to describe my views or similar ones as part of a mélange of ideas she attributes to a group of New York intellectuals and writers, many of whom she disguises under initials. I assume, however, that my reaction is part of the general problem of communication today, when it is becoming more and more difficult even to disagree with many people, because we can no longer take for granted that our assumptions are the same, and we are reduced to pitting one stance against another.

When it got around that Miss de Beauvoir was coming to the United States, there was a good deal of excitement. We looked forward to meeting a leading French intellectual for the first time in almost a decade. Fascism, war, and occupation had cut us off from European writers, and we were eager not only to find out what had been going on underneath the surface of war all these years, but also to renew the exchange of ideas. Miss de Beauvoir seemed specially qualified to start the ball rolling. She belonged to Jean-Paul Sartre’s highly publicized Existentialist group, which had played a part in the Resistance, and was putting out the then best-known cultural magazine in France, Les Temps Modernes. At the time, writers like Albert Camus, Who later split off, were still associated with the group, and it seemed to be the source of much literary and political ferment. Here, it seemed to us, was a new school, anti-fascist and anti-Communist, genuinely literary, and radical in a creative way, that summed up the experience of the writer under occupation and liberation, and, in a typically French way, acquired the excitement of a new movement. If Existentialism—only later was it clear that very few in the circle were really Existentialists—as advanced by Sartre and his lieutenants, was not as new or authentic as in Kierkegaard or Heidegger, that was but a detail of intellectual life compensated for by the general literary élan.

Then Miss de Beauvoir appeared in the flesh. She was quite handsome, with a sturdy outdoor figure; her face, though full and rosy, was finely drawn and lifted by a high bun that looked as though it never came down. She was dressed casually, in flat shoes, with a feminist’s eye for comfort and lack of femininity. Her voice was erotically husky, not quite mannish, very much like Tallulah Bankhead’s. She had quick, luminous eyes that were constantly trying to size up everything and everybody. Her manner was confident, leaving no doubt she knew what she wanted—all business and no nonsense.

My first misgivings came when she began to ask questions about where to go and what to see. One question was how to get to Canarsie. I did not know, for I had never been there, but I could not understand why a French writer on a first visit had to rush out to Canarsie as soon as she got off the boat. Only later, when I became aware of what she was looking for, did it occur to me that she probably had heard that Canarsie was a “workers’ district,” in the European sense. Then came all the other stock questions: how could she see the Negro sections? She did not say “downtrodden,” but the intonation was there. Where were the slums:1 How do you get to Wall Street? Where do the workers eat? Again she did not say “exploited,” but it was not necessary. After these simple questions came the ideological ones: how fast was reaction galloping in this country? Could our imperialism be controlled? When was the next depression arriving? And so on.

Then came the arguments, some of which I got into, many of which I listened to. Most people were restrained, partly because she was a lady (her book on the rights of women had not yet appeared), partly because she was a guest, and a distinguished one—but mostly, I think, because they did not believe their ears. As Miss de Beauvoir admits in her book, she missed much of what was said in English. And she knew almost nothing about this country to begin with, beyond what anyone who has been to school learns about its literature and its history. But this did not prevent her from being dogmatic, even truculent, as she fired her prejudices and misinformation, like some provincial orator, without listening to or understanding what anyone else was saying. She proclaimed the great American writers to be Caldwell, Steinbeck, Horace McCoy, Dashiel Hammett, and a few others of whom I have never heard. She, on the other hand, had not read—or heard of—so far as I can recall, many of our other leading writers, even some of the best-known ones, not to speak of the younger talents. When anyone disagreed with her and tried to explain literary America she dismissed him as either a chauvinist or a malcontent, using these terms indiscriminately, often as though they were synonymous. Once I went so far as politely to suggest to her that instead of dispensing her opinions about American culture so freely she should try first to grasp what American writers had to say about it: if I were to come to France, I said, I would not immediately begin to set French writers straight about French literature, for I would assume that they, too, knew something about it. She looked at me as though I had just said something too shocking even to discuss.

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It is hard to say which, her literary or her political opinions, were the more arrogant. Her political attitudes were at least clearer. For example, I could not understand how she could say that American literature was vulgar and shallow and escapist at the same time that she was so enthusiastic about our most hard-boiled, “realistic” writing. Perhaps she thought that kind of writing was essentially a criticism of America. In the field of politics, however, her assumptions were unmistakable. She talked passionately about the workers, the revolution, capitalism, and Russia. When anyone disagreed with her on politics, she quickly characterized him as a reactionary, an imperialist, or a Trotskyite—again, terms she seemed to use interchangeably.

Her remarks on most subjects were usually couched in a strange mixture of Marxist and Existentialist terminology. But I also heard her talk a few times about philosophical questions, and while the position she made herself a representative of is part of a profound philosophical tradition, it did not justify the contempt she showed for all rationalist and empirical thinking, which she seemed to regard as a disease. In general, her formulations were quick, facile, readymade, and she often sounded more like a typewriter than the groping, questioning mind one hopes to find behind it. You were forced to suspect the authenticity even of her Existentialism because she was so glib about it. I once asked her, half-jokingly, what kind of Angst she felt most, and she replied with the heartiness of a woman athlete that she felt none at all, she was happy and well adjusted, never even missing an hour of sleep. I said nothing, but I wondered about the “anxiety” the Paris Existentialists were always talking about, and what connection it had with the anguish of someone like Kierkegaard.

Most of this was before she left for the Grand Tour of the continent. I assumed—or hoped—that at least she would slow down in her generalizations about life and letters in America, and that she was enough of a writer to cede somewhat to the testimony of her eyes and ears, and to realize that the picture was a little more complex than the neatly packed theories she had brought along with her. But when she came back to New York it was with the same prejudices, which she was now able to support with the argument that she had seen it all for herself, and that her views had been corroborated by any number of people she talked to. I don’t know who these people were, but I have no doubt it is possible to find them by looking hard enough. In her book she describes them as “friends whom I always seemed to have known. I knew they loved jazz, and hated American capitalism, racialism, puritan moralizing and indeed everything I most detest in America.” Some of her friends, she says, told her, “We need a depression; then things would change.” Others, less optimistic—or as she puts it, “more thoughtful”—disagreed: “A depression,” they said, “would only render the situation worse without rousing the political conscience of the masses. We have had depressions before and nothing resulted from them. If a new one were threatened it would only be averted, and once averted it would be forgotten immediately: we are not even ready to learn our lessons.”

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Naturally, the whole thing was sour, mostly because, I guess, some people like myself took her—and maybe ourselves—too seriously. After all, Miss de Beauvoir was quite charming and attractive and suppose you do not agree about slave labor camps, that isn’t all there is to life. A very brilliant woman, a European writer now living in this country, once chided me for treating Miss de Beauvoir as a thinker instead of a woman. I still don’t know whether this was a comment on Miss de Beauvoir or me, or both of us.

But I was really shocked when I learned that she had written a book describing her jaunt and telling everything there was to be known about America. Now, I think the whole notion of the responsibility of the intellectuals has been worked to death, since the very nature of their abilities is erratic, personal, irrational, and, in some ways, irresponsible. I also think everyone should be free to write nonsense—and take the consequences. But since Miss de Beauvoir’s book is basically a piece of interpretational reporting, I can judge it only on its accuracy, perceptiveness, and liveliness. On all these counts it fails. It is pretentious, full of both stale and fresh platitudes, runs roughshod over facts, and is at times unbelievably boring.

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America Day By Day is a tract disguised as a diary I say “disguised” because, while it is made up of daily entries, they are marshaled to prove a thesis rather than report a personal experience. The thesis is an old one with a contemporary twist: namely, that America is a spiritual wasteland and a sanctuary of reaction. All the familiar charges are trotted out: capitalist exploitation, imperialist aggression, “pseudo-democracy,” persecution of minorities, lack of values, addiction to money and possessions, and so on. What it all comes down to is that America is racing toward fascism, and nobody seems to care—certainly not the intellectuals, the teachers, or the “youth,” who usually keep their mouths shut and When they do open them do not know what to say.

Many of Miss de Beauvoir’s remarks are not directly political, but by indicating that life in America is almost unrelievedly absurd and horrible they become politically tendentious.

She says:

Too many people die of heart disease in New York.

Traffic circles are confusing, and fast and drunken driving is a menace (she thinks all cars go fifty miles an hour on the East River Drive).

The girls’ colleges are only for the rich and elite.

Roxbury is an artists’ colony.

Negroes are not admitted to Princeton University.

There are signs telling people to grin.

Congress is busy making anti-labor laws, beginning with a purge of colored workers.

Fifth Avenue has shops for the “elite” and “democratic shops” for the masses.

And so on.

She speaks of “Jewish beaches” in Connecticut, as distinct from Gentile and Negro beaches. And she says, “A good American

is never ill, and it is not polite for a stranger to catch cold in New York.”

Her generalizations are clear-cut. For example:

Scotch is the key to America.

Writers live in solitude and rarely talk to one another.

American girls pet without being aware of the consequences.

American women are frigid and the men do not know how to make love.

American women are not independent because they do not go on trips alone.

Negroes are free and relaxed, and it is “this relaxation that gives vent to dreaming, emotion, drifting, laughter, things that are ignored by the majority of Americans.”

University faculties are dead because they are not opposed to the Marshall Plan.

Women’s clothes are uncomfortable and servile.

The country is overrun by psychoanalysts whose sole object is to get people to accommodate themselves to society, especially soldiers returning from the war.

Perhaps the high point of the book is in the remark that rare steak, “red and underdone,” which she was served in California, “usually scares American puritanism.”

This is not to say that there are not a number of accurate observations and criticisms of American life. But the impression the book makes as a whole is of some kind of literal-minded fantasy, in which the image of America has just enough semblance of reality to create confusion. It reminds one of the pictures of Mars drawn by people with imagination too limited to make that planet different enough from the earth. As Miss de Beauvoir describes America, it sounds like a lost planet that was really here all the time.

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Yet Miss de Beauvoir’s absurdities do not even have the virtue of being her own. For the book could serve as a catalogue of the latest anti-Americanisms abroad. Hence it is pointless to discuss the merits of her case against America, which is more interesting as a phenomenon than a position: in fact, it is surprising how little she sees of what really is wrong with American life. In the face of such ominous things as Senator McCarthy and the new wave of “Americanism” and anti-intellectualism, a serious and radical criticism of American society is more necessary than ever, but the stereotyped anti-Americanism of people like Miss de Beauvoir, far from helping in the development of such criticism, actually compromises it.

Like Jean-Paul Sartre and other members of his circle, Miss de Beauvoir has acted at times as a spokesman for the experience and conscience of Europe. Is it asking too much of such standard-bearers of enlightenment that they at least get the facts straight and give us an authentic account of their own experience? Surely an Existentialist’s diary should be more than a handbook of popular distortions and stale panaceas.

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