Born in 1908, the philosopher, novelist, and essayist was 39 when she arrived in New York. She had not yet published her renowned feminist work The Second Sex (1949), but had written three novels, including She Came to Stay, and two essays.
Invited by the French cultural services to give a series of conferences at American universities, she spent four months in the United States from January 25 through May 20, 1947. She visited a number of cities, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Houston, and of course Chicago, where she met the love of her life, Nelson Algren. Published in France in 1948 and in the United States in 1999, America Day by Day is a travel journal, a diary, and a collection of musings on the sociological and political orders of a wildly different country that constantly fascinated her.
“Everything amazes me, both the unexpected sights and those I had planned,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir upon arriving in New York. While her partner, famed philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, had already spent time in the United States, this was her first American experience. U.S. writers were the only insight she had into the country. She was actually surprised to realize that Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck, popular figures in France, were looked down upon in their native land. Beauvoir left France as it struggled with the aftermath of World War II, the Occupation, and food rationing. Initially taken aback by the convenience and availability inherent to U.S. consumer society, she was eventually won over by the “taste of America,” the abundance of drugstores, the profusion of food, and whisky.
She wandered alone for miles through Manhattan along the Hudson River, sat on benches to watch children playing, and stared at Brooklyn from the East Side. For the first time in her life, she forgot Paris and truly experienced a feeling of otherness. “I’ve landed not only in a foreign country but in another world,” she wrote. “An autonomous, separate world.” She ventured off the beaten path, frequenting jazz clubs and artists’ studios, and preferred listening to gospel choirs in Harlem with black writer Richard Wright (author of Native Son and Black Boy), to whom the book is dedicated, to attending high-society parties. She mixed with liberal intellectuals, students, cab drivers, and shoe shiners.
A Chicago pool hall in 1948. © Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos/Sous Les Etoiles Gallery
Beauvoir was an existential philosopher and left-wing woman close to the Communist party. It was through this prism that she observed U.S. society and its inequalities, rubbing shoulders with drunks on the Bowery to better integrate into the city. “I couldn’t describe New York with words,” she said. “I have stopped thinking about descriptions, I am melting into the city.” Onlookers stared daggers at Wright when he came to meet her at her hotel, and through him she understood the mecha-nisms of segregation and discrimination. Quoting Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, she highlighted the American dilemma: values of dignity, freedom, and equality shared by all, which “are blatantly refuted in the condition of people of color.” While traveling by bus between Jacksonville and Savannah, she compared the attitudes of white Americans to those of French colonists. “They claim to ‘know’ people of color, as French colonists believe that they ‘know’ indigenous populations, just because their servants are black.”
She visited some 50 cities over four months, giving conferences at universities where she observed inequalities between rich and poor students. She deplored the passiveness of young people who had no major projects, clashing with the myth of the self-made entrepreneur. […]
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