“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.”
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 mechanisms 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. Surprised by the conventional dreams of college girls who were more preoccupied with finding a husband, Beauvoir was also disappointed by the aggressive femininity of American women who seemed to have given up the fight for equality. “Instead of going even further than their elders, women content themselves with enjoying what they have already acquired. This is a grave mistake, as an end is only valid if it serves as a new starting point.”
During her time in America, Beauvoir made a point of traveling like “normal” people, by car, Greyhound bus, train, and only rarely by plane. Among the cities she visited, sometimes just fleetingly, one naturally had a special place in her heart. In Chicago, she met writer Nelson Algren, who became her lover, although she never expressed her feelings in her journal. They almost never met, as her French accent was so strong when she called him that he thought she was an old Polish neighbor and hung up on her! She had to try three times before he agreed to talk to her and meet. She asked him to show her Chicago’s underbelly, and they walked through the snow, visiting an overnight shelter where the well-read but drug-addled receptionist asked her for news of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Before flying back to Paris at the end of her stay, she returned to Chicago for a few days. She walked the stained sidewalks, visited slaughterhouses, a psychiatric hospital, and a prison where she met a death-row inmate, and sank ever deeper into the “black poetry” of a city that “smelled of man like no other city on earth.” As shown in her letters to Nelson Algren, published in France in 1997, Beauvoir maintained this “transatlantic love affair” for almost 20 years. But in May 1947, she decided to leave the United States, a place she compared to a “battlefield,” and returned to Paris, to “relearn France” and “get back into [her] skin.”
America Day by Day by Simone de Beauvoir, translated from French by Carol Cosman, University of California Press, 1999.
A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren by Simone de Beauvoir, The New Press, 1999.
Article published in the March 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.