America, According to Simone



I just read Simone de Beauvoir’s travel journals, America Day by Day, a chronicle of her 1947 three-month journey across the US of A. From New York to San Francisco, LA to New Orleans, DC to Boston, de Beauvoir travels solo on a tour of college campuses and along the way occasionally reunites with her lover Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Marcel Duchamp, and other famous and semi-famous writers and artists of the era.

De Beauvoir’s discovery of America is a strange mix of attempted conquest, intellectual competition, and condescending observations on American “simplicity” overlaid with the conflicted envy of an outsider looking in on a party she’s not even sure she wants to attend.

America, according to Simone de Beauvoir:

Here the creams are creamy, the soaps are soapy: this honesty is a forgotten luxury.

I drink Scotch docilely because scotch is one of the keys to America.
Men remain bareheaded, but many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sits on their hair like a ribbon–it’s hideous.
There’s always some holiday going on in America; it’s distracting.
In America, the individual is nothing. He is made into an abstract object of worship; by persuading him of his individual value, one stifles the awakening of a collective spirit in him.
America is a box full of surprises.
Americans are nature lovers, but they accept only a nature inspected and corrected by man.
But in the end, people are always faced with what they wanted to escape: the arid basis of American life– boredom.
How I regret being unable to love more unstintingly a country where the reign of man is affirmed with such magnificence, where the love of one’s fellow man seems at first sight so easy to achieve?
All human problems are posed here on a gigantic scale; and to a greater degree, the solutions they find here will illuminate these problems, retrospectively, in a moving way or swallow them up in the night of indifference.
America is one of the pivotal points of the world, where the future of man is being playing out. To “like” America, to “dislike” it–these words have no meaning. It is a battlefield, and you can only become passionate about the battle it is waging with itself, in which the stakes are beyond measure.
And just for kicks, de Beauvoir on Chicago:
It’s hard to breathe in the lobby [Palmer], which is permeated by a stifling heat and the thick scent of dollars.
At least I had a glance behind the painted set. I saw a real city, tragic and ordinary, fascinating like all cities where men of flesh and blood live and struggle by the millions.
And one of my favorite descriptions:
He also writes about gastronomy and world affairs. The last piece was entitled “Mayonnaise and the Atomic Bomb”
Related Post: What does one need to watch to have really watched everything? Recommended viewing.


Filed under Books, Chicago, Really Good Writing by Other People

3 responses to “America, According to Simone

  1. As a European American I completely understand SdB’s ambivalence about this country. I’m interested in the fact that her comments have stood the test of time so well… I love America, but I can see what’s wrong with it, too. Luckily, this is a country where I’m allowed to do that, and talk and write about it without getting thrown in jail or worse. Gotta love that!

  2. It is refreshing to see our country from someone else’s eyes, and to be reminded that we are not perfect after all! That said, to have traveled to other countries and back again, the U.S. is often a sight for poor eyes. Thanks for posting these quotes!

  3. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove people from that service?

    Appreciate it!

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