Many books have been labelled the essential American road trip companion. Hundreds of lists cite On the Road, Mason & Dixon, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Travels with Charley and the drug-fuelled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as mandatory insights into American life. Unsurprisingly, the genre has been largely dominated by white men, although Eddy L. Harris’s Mississippi Solo provides an insightful view into life and racial problems on the Mississippi River. Joan Didion, without journaling the endless highways in front of her, paints one of the best portraits of California in American fiction or non-fiction with Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Yet Simone de Beauvoir predates most of these writers by some distance with her travel memoir America Day by Day, a book full of searing insights into the lifestyle, culture and politics of post-war USA. On its publication in Britain, the book received poor reviews and even poorer sales, but as time has moved on, many have realised the modern prescience of Beauvoir’s observations.
Writing in 1947 as an independent female traveller, she provides a portrait of a nation; one full of hubris and the kind of optimism that warps your world view. Having seen real tragedy in war-torn Paris, Beauvoir seeks to look beyond the shining underbelly to America’s often tragic reality. She finds murderers, gangsters and thieves as easily as she does cocktail party companions, and embraces writing about both provincialism and racism in the north and south.
Over a decade before the Beat Generation adopts ‘Howl’ as their anthem and hippies gather on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, Beauvoir is railing against the myopia of suburban life, seemingly distinct to America. “I dearly hope I’m never fated to live in Rochester,” she sasses. And although the concept of free love has many different permutations history, it is here we witness its most successful form. Beauvoir unashamedly takes advantage of her open relationship with Sartre.
Beauvoir left France with a note from her soulmate, Jean-Paul Sartre, but it was in America where she would meet Nelson Algren, the man whom she would later refer to in letters as “my beloved husband.” At the time of writing America Day by Day, Beauvoir hadn’t yet fully cultivated her image as a feminist trailblazer; she was more known for her participation in Paris’ café society culture, and her intellectual relationship with Sartre (in which, as we would expect of the time, she was always in second place to him). In America, she meets a number of men along the road; Beauvoir enjoys her sexual liberation by engaging in a number of affairs for which she offers no apology. There is a considerable amount of alcohol consumption too, common of the time, but in Beauvoir’s memoir, the single woman drinking alone is unusually visible.
The visibly solitary woman still causes consternation in Western culture, and we are subject to thousands of think pieces on spending time alone. A man can sit alone at a pub, but a woman doing the same will draw a few bemused looks. Shirking convention is therefore a brave and necessary step for us to take. It seems ridiculous, but whether we’re travellers, cinema-goers, concert-goers, ravers, or (God forbid), diners, we could learn a thing or two from Beauvoir’s willingness to embrace her own company:
“Breakfast in the corner drugstore is a celebration. Orange juice, toast, café au lait―an unadulterated pleasure. Sitting on my revolving stool, I participate in a moment of American life. My solitude does not separate me from my neighbors, who are also eating alone. Rather, it’s the pleasure I feel that isolates me from them. They are simply eating; they’re not on vacation.”
Shirking almost every chaperone she is provided in New York, she makes her own rules, taking daily walks and going wherever she pleases. When she is told, “you can go through Harlem by car but you must never go on foot,” to stick to the large avenues and “avoid all side streets,” she remarks: “I’ve already come across too many places where right-thinking people declare you could not go that I’m not too impressed. I deliberately walk toward Harlem.” There, alone, she finds the ghettoised life an African-American community, isolated but otherwise no more hostile to her than any other street in New York.
Yet perhaps the most surprising observation in the book is how Americans reacted to the atrocities of the Second World War. Beauvoir detested being condescended to about the state of post-war France and loathed the sense of paternalism that underpinned this condescension:
“The American benevolence attracts me and irritates me at the same time…benevolence is carried so far here that they refuse to believe, for example, in the German atrocities. It’s true that the clumsy propaganda of 1914-18…has inclined Americans to be sceptical,” and yet “They’ll believe anything of the Japanese.”
Already in 1947, with America feeling as blusteringly confident as ever, we see the seeds of near conspiratorial scepticism, with a belief that no-one white could possibly carry out atrocities on this level. We see the seeds of alternative facts. It has been said by several commentators that Trump is the most recent figurehead in a long tradition of populist leaders with white supremacist tendencies. What a modern reading of Beauvoir brings home is that this goes beyond Nixon and Reagan. When America is already ‘great’, at the top of the world, in fact, it is still ignorant, full of wide chasms of misunderstanding and the denial of history.
And all this from a woman alone, travelling for four months across America, falling in love, eating and drinking until she is content. America Day by Day teaches us to be curious, brave, witty and socially conscious. We should not be afraid of spending time with ourselves, of going where others tell us not to go, and questioning the norms that hold women back.
Written by Ellen Macpherson