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America Day by Day by Simone de Beauvoir

A couple years ago I read America Day by Day, a travelogue by French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. It's the most erudite -- and the most real -- travel book I have ever read.

A good teacher turns out students and followers. American Day by Day is a book that opens minds and might even change lives, even if it is merely a road book. I almost suspect that the act of holding the book increases the intelligence of anyone who does.

America Day by Day is more than a conventional diary about a four-month visit to the U.S. in 1947, though de Beauvoir writes about what she did and where she went as part of her coast-to-coast tour. Her insights about the American nation and its virtues and failings are fascinating. And there are plenty of them.

De Beauvoir is even handed in her treatment of sensitive topics. Take the belief among non-Americans that Americans are immature:

"I think that the majority of adolescents in America do not make it; and this is what gives a certain truth to the otherwise superficial slogan 'Americans are just big children'", she writes. "Their tragedy is precisely that they are not children, that they have adult responsibilities, an adult existence, but they continue to cling to a ready-made, opaque universe, like that of childhood. Conversely, American children are already little men." This is trenchant given the fragmented, competitive, status-obsessed way of life in the US.

She also writes about Americans' tendencies towards inertia, racism, obsessive materialism, political defeatism and dozens of other foibles.

"The American is smitten with concrete reality, but the only manifestation of reality that he recognizes is an entirely abstract sign -- money. Other values are too difficult to appreciate."

Her insights about the essential passivity of Americans from all backgrounds are the most captivating. The people of America are inert, and they are deprived of any means of action, she claims.

"This passivity can be explained by the whole history of America," de Beauvoir says. "Immigration has led to the heterogeneity of cultures that is not conducive to collective conscious." She doesn't spare American intellectuals either. They lack projects and expectations, content to turn to their coterie of friends and bookshelves, possessing the veneer of intelligence. Action -- the true measure of an intellectual -- is missing.

The book isn't only about unearthing defects in the American character. De Beauvoir finds much to celebrate in the people she meets. They are authentically warm, generous and pragmatic. When Americans have something to say, she notes that they say it with more fire and passion than in any other country.

It might come as a surprise that the great French intellectual is intimidated by Americans. Dozens of times, she is overwhelmed by late-night debates over drinks in bars in New York and other places about politics, culture and literature. Indeed, de Beauvoir is practically exhausted after some debates. The great thinker has her own intellectual limits, it seems.

Though America Day by Day is primarily a cultural work, it is also represents a guidebook on how to travel. De Beauvoir sometimes bypasses the cultural gems. She wants to find the true character of a place. In Chicago, de Beauvoir does not even bother to write about the museums and cultural offerings. She is drawn to the city's skid row. There she sees the morphine addicts, prostitutes and down-and-outers who go about their lives almost in a zombie state.

And, I suspect, Simone de Beauvoir was never satisfied. Her appetite for discovery and insight was nearly unlimited. An insatiable appetite is another characteristic of the intellectual. There were few who could devour as much food for thought as she did.

Posted by
67 posts

This sounds terrific, this goes to the top of my list. Thanks!

Posted by
6375 posts

Wow, thanks, Craig! I'll look for this one.

Posted by
2586 posts

thanks for the recommendation; her "The Second Sex" is due for a revival in this current online environment as well, where anything published before digitalization is overshadowed by things that are easily retrieved, whether those things merit retrieval or not. Ha.

Posted by
14580 posts

Thanks for mentioning and recommending this great book with its penetrating analysis of American society, inciteful comments, certainly worth reading. Good that she does not omit the pejorative aspects of US society.

I was not aware of this work by her, only her Memoirs , in particular those observations pertaining to June 1940 when the Germans occupied Paris.

Posted by
67 posts

Hey Craig, I just wanted to come back and thank you again for highlighting this book. I had never heard of it and it sounded so intriguing. I finally found an old copy and now have just finished reading it. What a great book on several levels. As a travelogue of America in 1947, a period in time that seems to be under-studied historically; also as a look at America from a European's viewpoint (on my European trips I like to duck into a couple bookstores and buy their guidebooks to my town, Las Vegas, for a new perspective); and a pretty honest look at our faults as a country, so many of which stem from racism. Lots to think about and I expect this book will stay in my mind for a good long time.

Helen

Posted by
512 posts

Helen:

You're welcome. Glad you liked the book. I plan to reread it. It was so good that I gave it as a gift to my sister recently.

Craig