- Historic Sites
So You’re Going To America
A letter to a French friend
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
My Dear X,
I am delighted that you have made the plunge and decided to go to America. … But feeling, like all good Europeans, that the Americans owe us a living, as medieval monks and renaissance scholars felt that robber barons and condottieri owed them a living, I yet hope that you can get more out of this trip than a holiday, a few gadgets like electric razors and can openers, and the chance to see some of the French pictures that the Americans, in the past generation, have stolen with their ill-gotten dollars.
It is a conviction of mine (rare among European intellectuals) that there is more to be got from an American visit than that; that all of us, French, British, Italians, Germans, have something to learn, if only about ourselves, from a visit to the country that, like it or not, influences us, if only by breeding a crippling nausea and hatred, to a degree inconceivable as late as 1914. It is easy enough to insist on one thing you can do in going to America. No matter how much you hate and despise the country, no matter how much you resent its invasion of the old and civilized world, you owe it to your own intellectual dignity to try to understand how, when, why its shadow fell over us, its shadow, not that of the U.S.S.R., nor of the Third Reich, nor of the Rome-Berlin-Tokio axis. We may proudly boast that we are the architects of our own ruin, that by our own folly we precipitated the disaster of 1914–45; we may display the pride of the boy cycling up to and over the edge of a precipice, proudly announcing “Look! No hands”; but we have still to explain to ourselves why it was the Americans who picked us up and set us on our wobbly feet again. It is hard for all of us, or nearly all of us, to do this. It is especially hard for Frenchmen. Often enough and rightly, the French have cast themselves as the Greeks (more accurately, as the Athenians) of the modern world, and the Athenians found it hard to take their Roman masters seriously. Read (this is a counsel I give my own snooty countrymen), read the first chapter of Polybius and see that sagacious Greek (but not Athenian) trying to persuade his fellow Hellenes that the fortune of the Roman state was a subject worthy of serious attention, not of snobbish peevishness or of irony and the Athenian equivalent of the wisecrack. Consider the Romans, ponderous, slow-witted, semi-savage (look at their games), ugly (look at their portrait busts), touching nothing that they did not deform (look at Venus as a version of Aphrodite), building, when they began to build, for size, like the Colosseum (the very name gives the thing away), or dull copies of the works of their betters, like the Maison Carrée. Why, generations of Greeks asked themselves, why should we do anything but mock them, flatter them, fleece them? Of course, they were right. The Romans had nothing to offer but riches, power, order, knowhow, good drains (how Athens must have stunk!), and subsidies for deserving sophists.
It is hard, then, for a European intellectual, especially for a French intellectual, to approach the United States with any degree of objectivity. It is big, remote, mighty, probably boring. It will certainly be found boring if the visitor comes to it looking only for what will remind him of home. If anything does, it will make him either homesick or scornful. I can well understand a Frenchman feeling that the great French pictures in the American art galleries are sorrowful exiles. They—and he—ought to be elsewhere, in Provence or the Ile-de-France. They are as out of place as the Elgin marbles in the British Museum, in the gray air of London, the Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities in the Louvre, in the nearly as gray air of Paris. Avoid the American who wants you to admire something in America because it will remind you of something in Europe. “Boston is so like London” (it isn’t)—“New Orleans is so like Marseille” (it isn’t). Avert your eyes from the bogus Italian gardens and fountains you can find in Washington, from the châteaux of the Loire that you can find on the Illinois prairie or the “ cité ” of Carcassonne you can find in Maine. Avoid them as you would the Duomo of Milan or the Madeleine, or take them as seriously as they deserve, as monuments of bad or of irrelevant good taste.
What you must want to see are the American things. I won’t waste time in recommending to you the unique natural sights—Niagara, the Grand Canyon, the Golden Gate. You can admire these safely; the Americans own them but didn’t make them, possibly don’t deserve them, any more than the Swiss deserve the Jungfrau. But what is harder to do is to accept the fact that there are novel American sights that the Americans have largely made and which you must, to some degree, understand and appreciate if you are not to be constantly bored or irritated. It will be difficult to do this if you arrive looking for European equivalents. You will be as deceived as the complacent French tourists in Italy whom Stendhal continually sneered at. You must be ready to admire the American achievement where it is admirable—and it will be most strange where it is most admirable.