- Historic Sites
So You’re Going To America
A letter to a French friend
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
I will not pretend—you would not believe me if I did—that I get anything like the same pleasure at seeing a silo arise over the horizon of the great fertile plain of Iowa that I get from seeing Chartres arising over the great fertile plain of the Beauce. With all due respect to Mr. Edmund Wilson, you can exaggerate the merits of plumbing, even of American plumbing. For one thing, it tends to lack variety. But the equivalent of Chartres is not the silo or the American county seat, provided, in most cases known to me, with the most outrageously ugly ecclesiastical buildings built by man’s hands. It is the great bridges, dams, roadways and skyways; even, in a few cases, airports and railroad stations. You must, that is to say, go prepared to appreciate the equivalents of the Pont-du-Gard, not of the Parthenon. Maybe you are not prepared to do this. Maybe you are not prepared to give to New York the kind of admiration that Rome, Alexandria, Persepolis, possibly Carthage, got and deserved in the ancient world, that Haussmann’s Paris got from Mark Twain, that great modern French achievements like the dams at Donzère-Mondragon or the Port of Dakar deserve and get from intelligent Americans. If nothing but the Parthenon or the Sainte-Chapelle will do, you will miss that kind of esthetic experience in America.
You will be worse off, not better off, if you come to America informed only by the current American authors most admired by the mandarins of French taste. At one time in Paris, in the past few months, the French theatre-goer could see Requiem for a Nun, God’s Little Acre, Tea and Sympathy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Crucible . A wide but still not representative range of the American theatre and American lifel Literature is only to a limited degree a trustworthy picture of a country, and the literature of one country, as assessed and utilized in another, is a very treacherous guide indeed. The mistakes are inevitable; there are an inside and an outside view of a culture and to base one’s view on those elements in a foreign literature that appeal most easily to foreign taste is dangerous indeed. Clochemerle, Bonjour Tristesse, Les Mandarins —are these American favorites an adequate sample of French literature today or an adequate guide to French life? In the French choice of the American authors to be admired and used as clues is not there some parti pris ? Is there not some desire to be told that American life is deeply unhappy in an especially American way, that the boosting of the “American way of life” is a kind of whistling in the dark? And the American way of life seen in French fiction, in La P. … Respectueuse , in Les Mandarins ? M. Sartre and Madame de Beauvoir are brilliant people. They can study, report on, assess remote, strange, rapidly changing, semi-secret societies with a confidence and speed that astonish me. Perhaps every Frenchman or Frenchwoman (especially if he or she is a philosopher), is what actors call a “quick study.” I can only say that I, who have spent so much more time in the United States (and France) than either of them has in the U.S.A. or U.S.S.R., know what I know about those countries so much less clearly, decisively, and confidently than they know Russia, China, the United States, that I am full of admiration, in all senses of the term. Of course, one wonders what demon drove M. Sartre to censure his own vision in Les Mains Sales —and so to diminish the weight of his protest against the murder of freedom and truth in Hungary. One wonders (it is a less serious matter, but one wonders all the same) how much one can trust Madame de Beauvoir’s vision of America when one notices that the Finno-American hero of Les Mandarins is given the very un-Finnish name of Brogan.
I suggest then that it would be a good idea for you to read little or no French stuff on America, or to accept the possibility that it may not be quite right, to accept the possibility that more happens in the Deep South than Mr. Faulkner reports, as more happens in Bordeaux than M. Mauriac reports. No country investigates, reports, dissects itself with the candour and thoroughness of America. You need never go short of sound and illuminating reading matter! …
But Polybius or even Stendhal were not concerned merely to call the attention of their superior and snobbish countrymen to sights; they were concerned with social and political achievements, with what is called “a way of life.” This phrase has been so much battered by vulgar propaganda, so much identified by silly Americans—and silly Europeans- with refrigeration, modern plumbing, Coca-Cola, the comics, highly unintellectual religion, a naïve optimism, that one is ashamed to use it. But it has to be used. After all, Pericles in the most famous speech of Greek antiquity was describing the Athenian way of life, in a speech that might have been used by the “Voice of Athens” had it been in existence. Virgil, underlining the arts in which the Roman should excel, was doing the same job as Pericles—and as Lincoln at Gettysburg, in the only funeral oration fit to be compared with that spoken by Pericles over the Athenian dead. “The American way of life” is not a simple matter of democracy or of gadgets and gimmicks, any more than the Athenian way of life was a simple matter of “freedom” or the Roman of law. And you will miss a great deal if you start out convinced that you know what it is and do not take trouble enough to modify—or perhaps reconstruct—your view of it.