Albert Camus, Rebuilding France from America

In a new English-language edition of his posthumously published travel diaries, Albert Camus – famed writer, philosopher, journalist, and hero of the French Resistance – offers a startling and refreshing view of the Americas in the aftermath of World War II.
Albert Camus in Paris, 1944. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Between the beginning of the German occupation in June 1940 and the Allied liberation in September 1944, the French port city of Le Havre was bombed 132 times – mostly by British planes trying to wipe out the Nazi fortress that had been established there. These 132 bombings razed 370,000 acres of land, destroyed 12,500 of the city’s buildings, obliterated the port and its 350 ships, which lay wrecked on the seabed, killed 5,000 people, and left roughly 80,000 more homeless. It would be 20 years before the city was fully rebuilt.

In 1946, not even two years after the liberation of Le Havre, Albert Camus glimpsed the city through the window of a bus – a “dirty, dusty old police wagon” – which was conveying him to the reconstructed port. What he saw would not have been unfamiliar to him, after living through war and resisting the heel of the Nazi boot for four years: “Le Havre, with its vast fields of rubble.” The ruined city was a living metaphor for France itself, devastated but still living, trying to emerge from the wreckage.

Seen through the dirty window, Le Havre would be Camus’ last vision of a city before sighting New York from the deck of the Oregon two weeks later. In the meantime, on the mostly rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean, he would compose the lecture he was soon to give at Columbia University on “the crisis of man.” He was a representative of his homeland in this matter. Like the workmen of Normandy’s many port towns, Camus was engaged in the business of rebuilding France. If their tool was the hammer and their concern the country’s infrastructure, his were the pen and the nation’s image. As U.S. historian Alice Kaplan puts it in her introduction to Travels in the Americas: Notes and Impressions of a New World (2023): “Camus’s official visits [to America] contributed to France’s urgent cultural mission in the postwar era: Erase the scourge of Vichy, promote French language and culture […] through events featuring writers and scientists capable of drawing large crowds.”

A New World, Haunted by the Old

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Camus’ diary from his first journey to North America makes very little mention of the lecture and the other public-facing events which were the ostensible purpose of his mission to the United States and Canada. He is much more concerned with documenting his impressions of a place that, in the mid-century order now finally emerging from the fog of war, seemed in many ways the opposite of France, and of Europe writ large. America had come out of the war with half the world’s wealth, most of its most important artists, and all of its optimism.

Albert Camus (standing in the center) on board the Oregon, the ship that took him to New York City, 1946. © Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Images
Albert Camus giving a conference on “the crisis of man” at Columbia, March 28, 1946. © Photo12/Alamy

America, to Camus, was many things – few of them favorable. When he first sees Coney Island, “in the cold, with the gray wind and flat sky,” he finds his heart “still and cold, as it is when faced with sights that don’t move me.” If New York harbor strikes him as the cradle of “order, power, [and] economic strength,” it is, for all that, a monument to “so much remarkable inhumanity.” When he finally sets foot in Manhattan, he is blinded by glowing signs and massive billboards advertising cigarettes. “No one ever has any change in this country,” he complains, “and everyone looks as if they’ve just stepped off a low-budget film set.” Passing by a tie shop, he remarks that “so much bad taste hardly seems imaginable.”

The commerce to which all parts of life (and death) are subjected grates on him: “One of the ways to understand a country is to know how people die there. Here, everything is planned. ‘You die and we do the rest,’ the promotional flyers say. Cemeteries are private property: ‘Hurry up and secure your spot.’” Even the smell of New York, “a perfume of iron and cement,” cannot prove to him the virtue of this brave new world. It’s only when he escapes New York, on a brief visit to Quebec City for a talk, that Camus can appreciate the flipside of the North American coin – that is, the natural splendor: “For the first time while on this continent, the real impression of beauty and true greatness.”

And yet Americans themselves pleasantly surprise Camus. After remarking upon the presence of race and racism in daily American life, he is comforted by the sight of a White man giving up his seat on the bus for a Black woman. And when, during his lecture at Columbia, someone steals the cashbox full of donations for war-ravaged French children, he is amazed to see that each audience member contributes a second time – more upon leaving than they had upon entering. “Typical of American generosity. Their hospitality and cordiality are also like this, immediate and without affectation. This is what’s best about them.”

What unifies the entries in Travels in the Americas is Camus’ obsession with unmasking and defining what he calls the “American tragedy”: “It’s what’s oppressed me since I arrived here, though I don’t know what it’s made of yet.” As he travels from New York to Philadelphia, to Washington D.C. and Quebec (he writes very little about these latter three), he begins to put his finger on the issue – the utter lack of self-reflection. In this country, “everything is put toward proving life isn’t tragic.” As a result, Americans “feel as if something is missing.” Fittingly, Camus can hardly look over what might otherwise be a magisterial view of the New York City skyline from the Plaza Hotel without conjuring an apocalyptic vision of the city’s future, which only resembles his own country’s recent past: “Illuminated windows and tall, black building faces blinking and flashing halfway up to heaven, it makes me think of a gigantic blaze burning itself out, leaving thousands of immense, black carcasses along the horizon, studded with smoldering embers.”

In a Cloud of His Own Celebrity

The South American journey, undertaken three years after Camus’ trip to New York, reads in many ways like a deepening of the uneasy feelings that were seeded upon his first encounter of the Americas. Whereas, in the contrasting images of New York and Quebec City, he could only see either stifling cityscapes or pristine natural beauty, in Brazil he comes to appreciate the interplay between these two New World elements. Here, he sees American civilization as having a tenuous hold on the land where it is found. The natural environment which New World cities attempt to dominate is slowly but irrevocably reclaiming its organic state: “Brazil, with its thin framework of modernity laid over this immense continent teeming with natural and primitive forces, makes me think of a building slowly chewed, bite by bite, by invisible termites.”

The biggest change between the trips of 1946 and 1949 is in Camus’ status. By 1949, he has become an international celebrity with the immense success of The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and especially The Plague. Upon arrival in Brazil, and upon landing in Montevideo and Santiago, where he travels by plane, he is routinely mobbed by journalists and fans. His talks, lectures, and debates pack the halls and auditoriums where they take place, and he is humbled and not a little stunned to see audiences spilling out into the hallways.

Albert Camus arriving in São Paulo, Brazil, 1949.

One gets the sense, in fact, that Camus’ rocketing celebrity affects his ability to see his trip to South America with the clarity and keenness of perception he had in North America, and even darkens his mood. In his 1949 journals, he writes frequently and for the first time about feelings of depression: “Forced to admit to myself that, for the first time in my life, I’m in the midst of a psychological meltdown.” Each day brings a new visitor – local poets, professors, socialites, philosophers, and many a sycophant – whose attentions drain him. Stays at the French embassy and trips to several of “those sad-as-death nightclubs you find all over the world” only get in the way of his encounter with this land and its peoples. It is not for nothing that he writes, while flying from Buenos Aires to Santiago: “We pass over the Andes at night – and I can’t see a thing – which just about sums up the trip.”

There are rare moments when Camus connects with the place as he desires. His description of a Brazilian macumba in Caxias is as rich as anything he wrote, not only in his journals but across his oeuvre. One has the feeling of being there with him, awed at the dancers: “Their rhythm increases, they go into convulsions, and they begin to cry out inarticulately. Dust lifts from the ground, suffocating, thickening air that already sticks to the skin.” Providing a glimpse into not only the customs but the theologies of other peoples, such moments ground Camus in his thoughts and remind him of the ideas fundamental to his personal cosmology. Staggering out of the macumba, he thinks: “I like the night and sky more than the gods of man.”

The Sea, the Sea

Much more than a riveting travelogue, Travels in the Americas provides a glimpse into the mind of one of the last century’s most astounding thinkers, a man whom communists, socialists, existentialists, and anti-colonialists all endeavored to call their own, but who always evaded their grasps. From France to the Americas and back again, he felt himself caught between two unfortunate places: one with an impossible past, the other with an impossible future.

His only solace, as it was in the time of his childhood in French Algeria, is the sea. “Yes, I’ve truly loved the sea – that peaceful immensity – those wakes covered over – those liquid roads.” Contrast this with the skies, through which he hurtles in a “metal coffin” across South America. Up in the air, his solitude is a “terrible sadness and feeling of isolation.” But on the seas, solitude is an inner peace, allowing him to be “lifted for an instant from the misery of days and the pain of being.” It is the sea alone which, rocking him to sleep between two continents, can contain the remedy to the troubles that the Old World and the New alike occasion him. It is the “symbol that persists” – for Camus, and for the reader.

Travels in the Americas: Notes and Impressions of a New World
 by Albert Camus, edited by Alice Kaplan, translated from French by Ryan Bloom,, University of Chicago Press, 2023.

Journaux de voyage by Albert Camus, edited by Roger Quilliot, Gallimard, 1978.

Article published in the March 2024 issue of France-Amérique.