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So You’re Going To America
A letter to a French friend
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
There are differences, of course, basic differences between the most tragic American group experiences and the horrors of 1940-4i.One reason why you may feel at home in the South is that the South had its occupation, its defeat, its intolerable sense of deception. But remember, even in the South, there was no shame like that of 1940, no scalawags like Pierre Lavai.
… The American experience has been a much happier one (even in the South, even for the Negroes, in modern times) than the French (or German or Polish) experience. You are going to a country which has never known a famine, which has never known successful invasion from a totally foreign army, which has never really had to speculate on its survival. You are going to a country where it is necessary to add to the general sense of frustration that we have as humans to be adequately sad. Let American women tell you about American men and vice versa!
But you are in a country where friendliness, trust, a general social ease are in the air. It may not go very deep. Perhaps you can have very deep friendships only in a country where friendship is not lavished on everybody, where total strangers don’t greet you with a cheerful but meaningless “hello.” But people will be kind, open-handed, even, up to a point, open-hearted, to a degree that may fill you with suspicion. Put it aside for a moment; you will go far less wrong by taking this friendship at its face value than by assessing it.
You must remember that you are going to a country where the family, in the old, strong, if now declining French sense, does not exist, where nomadism is in the national blood, where traditions are adopted and discarded like the latest inspirations of the haute couture , where a great many serious things are discussed in what is a seriously shallow way, where people think that all problems have answers. (We, alasl know better. We are wiser, but also we ignore some solutions.)
You are going to a country where the relations between the sexes are complicated by the fiction that the American woman is boss of her docile man, who, in fact, is often only giving her a part of his mind; “too much poor quality attention.” As a visitor you will be dealing with women in a society that promises them more than it gives (the opposite of the English case, where so much more is given than promised). You are going to a country which tries everything once, where the most pompous businessman may have his “violin d’Ingres.” (It may be the violin, the clarinet, painting, linguistics; you won’t know at first and may never learn.) You are going to a country which does care a lot about children, which pampers them, which produces them on a scale beyond all Indian nightmares, which accepts an early exploitation of sexuality in a way that would shock a Paris industrial suburb (where is the Puritanism?), which believes in marriage, even repeated marriage, more than in love. You are going to a country where, suddenly, you can buy paper-back editions of everything, from Einstein to the Marquis de Sade, where more money is spent on music than on baseball and too much money, time, and energy are spent on golf, as the court of Louis XIV spent too much time, money, energy on hunting.
You are going to a country that has never known feudalism, has had no basic church and state quarrel, whose history is not cut in two by blood and massacre and treason. You are going to a country where fraternity is a permanent and often successfully attained social ideal, where liberty is never quite down and out, where equality is more of a reality than it is either in France or in England. (In all states outside the South and in some states inside the South, the son of a Negro worker or farmer has a better chance of obtaining a higher education than the son of a French worker has.)
You are going—but your attention has wandered. No matter, when you come back, you can talk to me of what you have seen, heard, read. You may still detest America; tout comprendre est tout pardonner is a silly saying, anyway. But just as a man deeply in love will prefer to have his bien aimée abused than ignored, I shall listen even to your abuse with interest, even with profit, if you have acted on my premise, if you have gone to America ready to accept the possibility that a new world has developed a new society, if you have imitated Polybius and not M. Jean-Paul Sartre.