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America Day By Day

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I have an abiding fondness for travel books, especially of places I know. Part of it is a navel-gazing impulse to wander through my idyllic memories of, say, Britain, while leaving aside the time I got food poisoning and had to discard my pants on the train to Durham. But a greater part of it is a desire to see what others think of where I’ve been, and whether they think the same. I love the food in Pittsburgh– do they hate it? I loathe midtown Manhattan as a bleak wasteland of grasping industry and tourist despair. Others apparently lack my keenly honed critical faculties and love it to pieces.

Recently, my wife picked up Simone de Beauvoir’s recently-back-in-print memoir of her first trip to the United States, “America Day by Day” in a remainder bin. She read it with mounting excitement, and did everything she could to keep me from stealing it until she was done (damn the crafty minx!). In the meantime, I amused myself by watching football and starting Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” itself a travel book.

The contrast is striking. Although written for totally different reasons, there are marked parallels between the two books: both were written by French intellectuals touring the United States at critical points in its history– Tocqueville in the promising years of the early 1830s, de Beauvoir in the aftermath of World War II, just when the United States had emerged as the dominant power in the world, and Communism as its presumed nemesis; both attempt to extrapolate larger lessons from a partial view of the country; and both are intrigued by the ways in which Americans differ intellectually from their Continental counterparts.

But while Tocqueville’s account is a celebration of the American democratic urge, meant for the great minds of Europe to learn from, de Beauvoir’s is a much more personal account which, although it addresses some of the themes raised by Tocqueville 125 years previously, is a much more ambivalent (and nuanced) picture of American society on the rise. Whereas Tocqueville’s account of American society has become a main point of reference for fans of American exceptionalism, de Beauvoir’s text went out of print almost immediately. Whereas Tocqueville touted “equality” as the fundamental “point of origin” and wellspring of America’s greatness, de Beauvoir is more concerned with the fabric of American life, and questions whether that “equality” actually exists. Whereas Tocqueville intends an exhaustive survey of the American political landscape, de Beauvoir lives day by day, encountering each place face to face. Reading them back to back makes for a great contrast.

But enough of that hoo-ha. I?m going to leave Tocqueville aside for the time being, as he?s not really what?s setting me on fire these days, and summaries of his work are available plenty of places.

Having only read excerpts of Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy, I was delighted to find that “America Day by Day” is a rich, entertaining, and idiosyncratic depiction of the United States as it was in the aftermath of World War II. It’s shocking that the books has been out of print for fifty years, as I found it more credible than other accounts from the same period and just after (for example Gunnar Myrdal, and “The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit.”) While it’s a diary, it also manages to be much more.

De Beauvoir begins her journey across the US in New York, and uses the city as a sort of base camp. The early pages of the book are consumed with her culture shock and her first impressions of New York after seeing its images in so many films. What’s immediately noticeable to the modern reader (and this goes for most of the book!) is how little things have changed in the sixty years intervening. See if you don’t nod your head to her description of being overwhelmed by New York (this is pretty much exactly how it happened with me):

“I’ve often read, “New York with its cathedrals.” I could have invented the phrase– All these old cliches seem so hollow. Yet in the freshness of discovery, the words “contrasts” and “cathedrals” also come to my lips, and I’m surpised they seem so faded when the reality they capture is unchanged. People have told me something more precise: “On the Bowery on Sunday, the drunks sleep on the sidewalks.” Here is the Bowery: drunks are sleeping on the sidewalks. This is just what the words meant, and their precision disconcerts me. How could they have seemed so empty when they are so true? It isn’t with words that I will grasp New York. I no longer think of grasping it: I will be transformed by it. Words, images…– they will not help me at all…. It’s not possible to confront things here; they exist in another dimension– they are simply here. And I look and look, as astonished as a blind man who has just recovered his sight.”

Since she is a writer, de Beauvoir spent most of her time gadding about with other writers, intellectuals, and various hangers on. She writes eloquently about the differences between the American literary scene and the French, and wonders at all the young Americans who reject their homegrown authors except, reluctantly, Faulkner. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall and the horrors of Stalinism, it’s a little jarring to hear her defending Communism against its American critics. But it’s more than it seems; in the early years of anti-Communism, the stridency of anti-Communists seemed to threaten the idea of free speech. She recalls a drunken night getting into a shouting match with some friends-of-friends over this topic (as well as the mutually sheepish sobered-up aftermath), and it’s hard to find fault with her condemnation of knee-jerk anti-Communist fever, regardless of what time has shown us.

Once de Beauvoir gets out of New York, the book really takes flight. In Chicago, she goes slumming with Nelson Algren, and begins to encounter the myriad ways in which Americans, as she sees it, are obsessed with race. (Interestingly, though she and Algren would be lovers for years, not a hint of it enters into this memoir.) She is struck by the filth of Chicago’s suburbs, and by the natural beauty of the downtown. In Los Angeles, she hangs out with people who work in film, discovers that it’s impossible to walk anywhere, and explores the canyons and valleys of the outlying areas. (It’s fascinating to read a foreigner’s account of the same Los Angeles immortalized in classics like “Hollywood Boulevard” and Chandler’s Marlowe novels, and gratifying that she saw it pretty much the same way.)

She travels the Southwest by car, and marvels at the Grand Canyon as well as at the ways in which Native Americans integrated tourism into their cultural fabric. Always she has a keen eye for detail and remains fascinated by the little things Americans take for granted. She takes a Greyhound across Texas, learns to hate bus stations, and encounters segregation as the bus enters the South. When the black passengers find out she’s French, they begin comfortably speaking with her, and the unspoken tension between her and them becomes tension between her and the white passengers.

Class– or at least poverty and privelige– is a constant theme in de Beauvoir’s diary. She is constantly struck by the sheer plenitude of American consumer culture and by the standard of living enjoyed by most, remarking that no poor American writer would ever consider living in an unheated garret like their French counterparts. But she also finds this evident affluence doesn’t extend everywhere. Nelson Algren takes her to the scummiest dives in Chicago, and she spends time with Bowery Bums in New York as well.

By contrast, her lecturing obligations take her to some of the best American schools– Wellsley, Harvard, Princeton, UCLA– and she is repeatedly struck (and touched, and horrified) by the casual assumptions the students make about life and entitlement, by their casual affluence, and by their near-total incuriousness about the world. But she regards the students with a kind wonder, reserving her acid for those times where she feels American arrogance– that is, the casual assumption of “equality” that descends from Tocqueville and his peers– gets in the way of Americans seeing what they are really saying (or leaving unsaid).

Since it’s a travel book, de Beauvoir spends a fair amount of time in search of her favorite creature comforts. Meals are a constant theme (as in “the quest for an excellent meal”), as is jazz. She visits all the big New York clubs in search of “authentic” jazz and finds what seems to her to be only tourist trash, lazy swing, and bebop (which she detests as too white). Her favorite jazz moments (and meals!) happen by accident, such as in New Orleans.

We explain to [the owner] that we want to hear some good black jazz. His face darkens for a moment. The situation has been very tense between blacks and whites for some time now, and the blacks no longer want to perform for the whites. However, he suggests that we try the Absinthe House…. In the second room, there are several tables and a platform with three black musicians on piano, guitar, and bass.

Suddenly we’re transported. This music is nothing like the music at Cafe Society or even the music in Harlem– the three blacks are playing passionately, for themselves…. The band doesn’t try to please or dazzle anyone; it plays the way it feels like playing. If the bass player– a young black who’s only eighteen, despite his girth– sometimes closes his eyes in a trance, this isn’t servile mimicry: he’s just giving himself over to the music and the promptings of his heart. Right next to the band, there are two very young white men with black hair who are listening with religious attention and laughing amicably with the musicians between pieces…. They’re probably young people who are stifled by American civilization and for whom black music is an escape.

It’s impossible to write from memory without being selective, and the things de Beauvoir leaves unsaid are almost as important as what she dwells on– just witness the foregoing. She mentions the Marshall Plan in passing once or twice, then enters Times Square to go nightclubbing. She defends Communism (or, more correctly, the right to be a Communist) without entering into the whys and wherefores of being a Communist in 1947. She can be incredibly condescending about American standards of race and sex. She says surprisingly little about American philosophy, dismissing Pragmatism in a few short sentences, and although she is shocked by the indifference of American intellectuals to American literature she says little about why she felt it had more promise than European writing of the time. She discusses Faulkner at several points, but when she enters Faulkner’s South she does so without reference to him. Part of this, of course, is that Simone de Beauvoir was actually visiting territory she had only studied maps of; the maps were proving useless. But, naturally, a careful reading of what goes unsaid reveals much about her unquestioned assumptions about the world and America. This is probably the most valuable aspect of the book, and the one that makes me recommend it as essential reading.

I’m glad I’m reading this book back-to-back with Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” If I ever teach a class in US history as I keep meaning to do, I’ll probably assign excerpts from them that way. Tocqueville’s classic work describes an America at the brink of inheriting immense gifts, poised on a knife’s edge between wild success and chaos, and holds up the American system as a paragon for the world to follow. Despite repeated attemps to bury it, that legacy still persists as one major theme in American self-identity. Without intending to, Simone de Beauvoir’s book addresses similar themes more than a century later, and provides an idiosyncratic and compelling counter-assessment of Tocqueville’s promises.

In short, having read Tocqueville and de Beauvoir (admittedly, I’m a bit bogged down in the middle of Tocqueville), I have to say that, despite the influence Tocqueville has enjoyed, de Beauvoir’s long-forgotten memoir says as much or more about America as it actually exists. Part of that owes to the 125 year separating them, but part of it is that de Beauvoir is a hell of a writer.

The best part about travel books is the way in which immediate experience and writerly license throw into sharp relief the most pressing issues and nagging details. You can do much worse than Simone de Beauvoir on this count, and this time I didn’t even have to throw out my pants.

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About John Owen