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So You’re Going To America

July 2024
13min read

A letter to a French friend

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.

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.

Thus it may seem a platitude to repeat that the United States is very large and very varied, but it is a platitude so much and so easily forgoten that there can be no great sin in repeating it. The visitor to America, even if he is no novice in American matters, is always astonished, trapped, by the mere size of the United States. It seems to him extraordinary that so vast, so varied an area should be one country, one nation, one culture. It is, of course, better to be astonished than to fail to notice this highly relevant fact; it is better still to have some idea of the causes and the consequences of the apparent unity, and it is better still to note the limitations of the unity, the survival of the differences.

It is strange that so vast an area should be so unified that the superficial observer, especially if he travels by air, has so few of the normal ways of determining where he is. One city is very like another. … This uniformity that may well seem a deformity is yet a necessity and a political triumph. The uniformity and banality of much of American life, the pressure for conformity that has been feared and lamented since the time of Tocqueville is, as M. Raymond Aron has recently pointed out, the price of a unity maintained without the governmental coercion that holds the centrifugal forces of the Soviet Union in submission to the central power. There is probably no way in which this unity can be preserved without some degree of physical or moral coercion. Every political good has its price and we, in Europe, have certainly paid highly (and made the rest of the world pay highly) for our ferocious pursuit of national differentiation. The Americans have paid the same price—once; and the memory of their civil war, so living just below the surface, accounts for that dislike of the doctrinal position pushed to its logical conclusion, to the complete autonomy of the individual or the region, which makes American politics so unsymmetrical and so irritating to Frenchmen, ready as they have been, and are, to sacrifice so much (of themselves and others) to the one, true, worthy, historically justified doctrine. The Americans tend to think that no political view of life is as certain, as important, as rightly demanding of sacrifice as all that. They are truer disciples of Montaigne than the countrymen of Montaigne.

The American Constitution is brief, elegant, ambiguous, in many ways mysterious. It is very unlike the Constitution that its framers planned; it is highly unlikely that the dominant interpretation of that Constitution, fifty years hence, will be that held by any American political school today. American unity is not a simple, coherent, easily defined, and limited idea; the Constitution is not a simple means of living happily ever after. Institutions of that simple kind are left to the more old-fashioned and romantic novelists. For them marriage is as definable a means to happiness as a political doctrine is to a Frenchman. For the Frenchman who would not, for a moment, think of taking seriously so simple a view of life in a novel will often accept it in a political programme. And the American who may be ready to read a nice, simple story, a “western” if he is a man, a “love story” if the American is a woman, rarely expects these elegant and happy solutions in political life. That things are not what they seem, that persons and problems change, while preserving the same names, that we create the work! of illusions in which we live and love, these are truths about the human situation that the political American does not need to be told. He feels them. The Constitution has undergone as many changes—if you like, as many degradations—as a character in Proust. It is to themes like these that the American devotes his mind and his passions, and one possible price is an obvious simplicity in literature and philosophy. …

You will meet a good many “mandarins” or eggheads, and they will want to weep on your shoulder, lament the barrenness of American culture, the poorness of the bookshops, the horrors of soap opera. Don’t take them too literally. They want sympathy, admiration, the assurance that they are defending the last citadels of culture. Some of the air-conditioned ivory towers you will visit are inhabited by people with persecution mania; some have suffered as much as if they had been French academics telling the truth about Algeria. Others have to have a bad-luck story, like a slightly passée woman lamenting her safely dead loves. Some have been really roughly treated. Some have to live in uncongenial surroundings, to meet on equal terms the professor of Butchering Practice, are forced to coax a board of business-minded trustees to buy a collection of Rimbaud letters or subsidize an avant-garde magazine. But don’t spend too many tears on them. They will all turn up in Paris anyway.

Then reflect that many of the sorest eggheads you meet are lamenting a not very remote past when the professors had a lot of power (more than they have ever had in France). Many of them had what we call in England “a good war.” They regret it, as so many of their French opposite numbers regret the Resistance and the first heady years of the Liberation. “The contagion of the world’s slow stain” is visible in Chicago and in Paris, the nostalgia for the “kingdom, the power and the glory.”

But the average American has no such nostalgia, any more than the average Frenchman has. This is a lot better than the war years, than the Occupation or Iwo Jima.

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.

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