The Last Best Hope? Understanding America from the Outside In
The Last Best Hope Shorts: Simone de Beauvoir
Series 2 (Michaelmas term 2020)
Published 28 October 2020
NB the text below was transcribed automatically by https://otter.ai.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 00:00
I feel like I'm leaving my life behind. I don't know if it will be through anger or hope. But something is going to be revealed. A world so full, so rich and so unexpected that I have the extraordinary adventure of becoming a different me.
Charlotte Moberley 00:32
From Oxford's Rothermere American Institute, welcome to this episode of The Last Best Hope shorts in which we explore how extraordinary people were altered by their encounter with America. I'm Charlotte Mobley. In this episode, Simone de Beauvoir, the French writer and philosopher whose unconventional trip across America in 1947 took her off the beaten track and inspired much of her later work. Just two years after her trip, Beauvoir will publish The Second Sex the seminal feminist tax and inspired many activists in the 60s and 70s. Without her adventurous trip across the States, that culture-shaking book could never have been written. "Something is about to happen." Simone de Beauvoir wrote these words on the plane to New York from Paris. It was January 1947. This was her first trip to America and up to now her impressions of the country had been formed from novels, music and films. Beauvoir had been invited to the States for a four month lecture tour. At 39 she was a successful writer who'd made a name for herself as a leading intellectual in France. She'd written two novels, she came to stay and the blood of others, as well as nonfiction philosophy essays. She was also known for open relationship with the philosopher john Paul Sartre, her lifelong partner and collaborator. Like Sartre, Beauvoir was an existentialist. Her work focused on the subjective experience of individuals and their freedom to shape their development through their choices. Many intellectuals in the US were fascinated by her work and highly anticipated her visit. William Phillips, editor of the left wing quarterly, the partisan review, described the feeling in his circle of writers when it got around that Beauvoir was visiting.
Reading: William Phillips 02:23
There was a good deal of excitement. We look forward to meeting a leading French intellectual for the first time in almost a decade. Fascism, war and occupation had cut us off from European writers. And we were eager not only to find out what's been going on underneath the surface of the war all those years but also to renew the exchange of ideas. Mr. Bove was seemed specially qualified to start the ball rolling.
Charlotte Moberley 02:51
Landing in LaGuardia, Beauvoir was driven through New York to her hotel, gazing at the city from her car that evening as they passed Broadway. She was both amazed and overwhelmed.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 03:05
It isn't with words that I will grasp New York. I no longer think of grasping it, I will be transformed by it.
Charlotte Moberley 03:13
France was still struggling with the impact of world war two and rationing. America was a different world.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 03:21
I feel such a dizzying attraction for America, with a memory of the pioneers are still recent and palpable, because it seems to be the realm of transcendence, compressed in time, magnificently expanded through space. Its history is the creation of a world. And this is what moves me about the skyscrapers. They proclaim that man is not a being who stagnates but one who is full of energy, expansion, conquest.
Charlotte Moberley 03:51
Even drugstores were fascinating.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 03:55
In the extravagant profusion of drugstores, there's a poetry is exciting as in a Baroque church. Man has caught the wrong thing in the trap of his desires. He asserts the power of his imagination over matter.
Charlotte Moberley 04:16
Beauvoir decided if she was really to get to know, she must get to know with New Yorkers at a dinner party. She was delighted to see Richard Wright, an African American author she had known in Paris. She liked his work a lot and found him as charming and engaging as she had in Paris. between parties and lecture engagements, she spent time with him and his wife, and they took her around the city. They went to drink whiskey and listen to jazz at the Savoy, the biggest Dance Hall in New York, as well as attending a black church service. But writes New York was very different to the one she had experienced so far.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 04:54
He comes to fetch me at the hotel and I observed that in the lobby, he attracts on toward notice, if he asked for a room here, he would surely be refused. We go to eat in a Chinese restaurant because it's very likely that they wouldn't serve us in the Uptown restaurants. Wright lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, a white woman from Brooklyn. And she tells me that every day when she walks in the neighbourhood with her little girl, she hears the most unpleasant comments. And what's more, while we are looking for a taxi men dart hostile looks at this black man with two white women. There are drivers who deliberately refuse to stop for us.
Charlotte Moberley 05:39
Wright also introduced Beauvoir to the book "An American dilemma", an analysis of American racial oppression by another European visitor, the Swede Gunnar Myrdal Beauvoir was very impressed by the book. She was planning to write a long essay about women, and she decided she wanted her work to be an equivalent to models text for women. By talking with Wright, she began to formulate the framework she used to explore the treatment of women. In her later book, "The Second Sex". There, she drew analogies between racial and gender oppression. New York, then, made a strong impression on Beauvoir. While she was shocked by the inequality she saw that as she pulled out of the city on the train to Washington, she realised it had really come to mean something to her.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 06:30
My heart is torn, as if I were leaving someone special. I didn't think I could love another city as much as Paris.
Charlotte Moberley 06:39
And just as New York had made an impression on Beauvoir, she had made an impression on it. Janet Flanner wrote in The New Yorker,
Reading: Janet Flanner 06:48
Aware that Mme de Beauvoir is regarded in Paris as the female intellectual counterpart of Jean-Paul Sartre we were all set for a grim half hour. Well, surprise, Mme de B is be is the prettiest existentialist you ever saw. Also eager, gentle, modest, and as pleased as a Midwesterner with the two weeks she spent in New York.
Charlotte Moberley 07:12
De Beauvoir set out across the country, giving lectures at universities, meeting students and intellectuals, and exploring the places she passed through. She's travelled through New York State and the Midwest over the course of a few weeks. In the towns and cities she visited, she met many women from different walks of life.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 07:30
American women are not really on equal footing with men. They feel contemptuous, often with good reason of the civility of French women, who are always ready to smile at their men and humour them. But the tension with which they twist around on their pedestal conceals a similar weakness. In both cases through docility or arbitrary demand. Man remains king. He is essential, and woman is inessential.
Charlotte Moberley 08:02
American women had surprised her. She'd expected them to be much freer than in France. But the reality she found was quite different. After a lecture and a woman's college, she chatted to the students, and she was so astonished by what they told her that she felt compelled to write about it in The Second Sex.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 08:23
In American colleges, the student status is based on the number of "dates" she has. Marriage is not only an honourable and less strenuous career than many others, it alone enables woman to attain her complete social dignity.
Charlotte Moberley 08:45
In late February, Beauvoir arrived in Chicago on the first morning train from overland, she only had 36 hours for her visit. wanting someone to show her around she called Nelson Algren, whose name had been given to her by friends in New York, Algren had just published a collection of short stories, "The Neon Wilderness", which focused on the experiences of the lower classes and unemployed, as well as social outcasts. Complete strangers, at first they were unsure what to talk about. Language barriers made conversation difficult. Algren spoke very little French, and Beauvoir struggled to understand his English, but then he offered to show her parts of Chicago visitors did not normally see he took her to West Madison Avenue, which was full of rundown bars and shelters where the poorest looked for a bed for the night. They settled in a bar with a band and watched the regulars dancing.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 09:49
They dance with a joyous abandon that verges on madness and ecstasy. So ugly, so old, so wretched, for a moment they lose themselves. The happy I would have no nothing of Chicago, except a stage set with lights and stone, a deceptively opulent and orderly facade. At least at a glance behind the painted set, I saw a real city, tragic and ordinary, fascinating like all cities were men of flesh and blood, live and struggle by the millions.
Charlotte Moberley 10:26
Beauvoir I was intrigued by Algren, whose life seemed so different to the intellectual she had met in New York, attracted to him and not wanting the evening together to end, she went back with him to his flat to continue talking. And that evening, they slept together. It was the start of a long affair. When she left Chicago The next day, as the train sped away out of the city and towards Los Angeles, she read his book, "The Neon Wilderness". She wrote to him:
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 10:57
I really liked the book very much. And I thought I liked you very much, too. I think you felt it that we spoke so little. I'm not going to say thank you anymore, because it does not mean much. But you have to know I was happy being with you.
Charlotte Moberley 11:19
From Chicago, she travelled across the country to California, and then on to Nevada and New Mexico. She continued her journey across the south by Greyhound bus. And if racism in New York had been shocking to her, what she saw here shocked her even more.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 11:37
The great tragedy of the South pursues us like an obsession. Even the traveller, confined to a bus and waiting rooms cannot escape it. From the time we enter Texas. Everywhere we go, there's the smell of hatred in the air.
Charlotte Moberley 11:55
She travelled on through the Deep South and back towards Virginia. When she finally returned to the east coast, she'd been on the road for over two months. keen to see her Algren joined her in New York. This time it was Beauvoir who was the tour guide, now comfortable and familiar with New York. She shows him her favourite places in the city.
Beauvoir told Algren about the things she encountered in my travels and the differences she had seen between American and French women. She was planning to write a long essay about women she told him but all granding Harish had to extend the project. She should make it into a book. And she did. Eventually it became the second sex. So true, it was coming to an end, Beauvoir decided to make a brief visit to Chicago. She was keen see more of the city before she left. With Algren she listened to jazz in a black club. They watched a thrice weekly police identity parade and went past the bar deserted because the pianist had just been shot. Over the course of their short time together. The pair had become close. And Beauvoir had fallen in love with Algren. But soon she had to return to Paris. It was not easy to say goodbye. As a parting gift. Algren gave her a copy of his book, Never Come Mourning with this inscription
Reading: Nelson Algren 13:28
A Simone. I send this book to you, that it may pass where you shall pass down the murmurous Evening light of storied streets in your own France. Simone, I send this poem there to a part of me may go with you.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 13:53
I just sat in the aeroplane and began to read the book. And then I wish to see your handwriting and I came to the first page regretting not to have asked you to write anything on it. And there it was the tender, loving the lovely lines you had written for me. So I put my forehead against the window and I cried with the beautiful blue see below me and crying was sweet because it was love, your love and my love our love.
Charlotte Moberley 14:27
When Beauvoir returned to Paris, she wrote to ogron lamenting their separation and describing how strange it was to be home.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 14:35
Paris seems dull, dark and dead. Maybe it is my heart that is dead to Paris. My heart is yet in New York, at the corner of Broadway, where we said goodbye.
Charlotte Moberley 14:50
The pair continued their relationship through letters and travelling together. ogron later proposed marriage but Beauvoir was unwilling to leave Satre and her work in Paris, while Algren wanted to send Chicago. But despite the distance, they continue to have an important influence on each other's lives for many years to come. In 1954, Algren and even featured in her acclaimed novel "The Mandarins", as the character Lewis Brogan, set in Paris in Chicago, the novel explore the changing place of intellectuals after World War Two. The narrator often thought to be Beauvoir described meeting him.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 15:33
At first I found it amusing meeting in the flesh that classic American species, self made leftist writer. Now I began taking an interest in Brogan. Through his story is you got the feeling that he claimed no rights to life, and that Nevertheless, he had always a passionate desire to live. I liked that mixture of modesty and eagerness.
Charlotte Moberley 15:59
Back in Paris and writing to ogryn frequently, the states was still very much on Beauvoir's mind. Having kept notes and written letters throughout her time there, she began to edit these for eventual publication under the title America Day by day.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 16:15
In the past few days, several people have asked me, Do you like America? And I've gotten into the habit of answering half and half or 50:50. This mathematical evaluation doesn't mean much. It only reflects my hesitations. tardily it is past that I haven't been dazzled by America. Hardly a day that I haven't been disappointed. I don't know if I could be happy living here. I am sure I will miss it passionately.
Charlotte Moberley 16:46
For Beauvoir then, as for so many others, visiting America was a conflicting experience, and one that would affect her for the rest of her life. Her first impressions stayed with her.
Reading: Simone de Beauvoir 17:00
It seems to be the realm of transcendence, compressed in time, magnificently expanded through space. Its history is the creation of a world.
Charlotte Moberley 17:12
After her visit, Beauvoir continued to make her mark on America. Her work inspired many American feminists including Betty Friedan and Kate Millet. She visited the States for the final time in 1983. to record a discussion with maillet for a televised version of the second sex 36 years after her first visit, her work was still intertwined with the changing America, shaping it and having been shaped by it. America was vibrant, full of energy and dizzyingly attracted to her and inspired her and furthered her career. But it also had a darker side. And she had seen both, just as she had hoped on the plane to New York, something of the real America had been revealed to her -- and it had left her transformed.