Simone de Beauvoir’s America Day by Day: Being faithful to concrete experience

Gallery Note: The following text is a written version of the introductory prompt, issued by St. John’s College Tutor Samuel Webb, for a Mitchell Gallery Book Club discussion on November 29, 2022.

What is Beauvoir up to in America Day by Day? Her preface gives a seemingly simple answer: the book is a “faithful account” (témoignage fidèle) of her travels, rather than a “study” (étude) of America, by which she means something like a full picture or portrait (grand tableau) of the country. Her account is the “story of what happened” to her during the days she crisscrossed the U.S. in 1947, lecturing at colleges and meeting people. Or even more pithily: “what I saw, and how I saw it.” But what does Beauvoir’s account of her “concrete experience” of America offer that a more objective or impersonal study of the country would not?

We need to consider the phenomenological dimension of Beauvoir’s enterprise to begin to answer that question. Phenomenology is the philosophical movement that attempts to “get back to things themselves” by focusing on how they appear in experience. For Beauvoir, that means describing an individual’s lived experience of the world, or, in this case, “recount[ing], day by day, how America revealed itself (s’est dévoilée) to one consciousness—mine.” The French reflexive verb se dévoiler implies a kind of self-unveiling or disclosing, a making manifest. Beauvoir’s particular consciousness, rather than being a limitation or an obstacle to getting at America itself, is the way some aspect of America is experienced at all, at particulars moments, in particular circumstances. This is what Beauvoir calls “concrete experience,” which “involves both subject and object,” and so requires that the subject be part of the narrative.

It’s tempting to see this entanglement of subject and object as simply a stylistic choice. But there’s reason to believe it’s actually the point of the book. After her return to Paris, Beauvoir wrote in a letter to Nelson Algren (whom she met in Chicago):

I should not like this travel to be lost; I must keep something of it, with words if nothing else is possible. I shall speak of America, but about myself too; I should like to describe the whole experience of ‘myself-in-America’ altogether; what means arrival and departure and passing by, and the attempt to look at things, to get something of them and so on. And at the same time, I’ll get the things themselves. Do you see what I mean?

(Letter to Nelson Algren, June 7, 1947, my emphasis, Beauvoir’s Francophone English)

The book, then, is the fruit of a desire to preserve and describe a whole experience, rather than a whole country. This experience involves a particular way of being herself in new places (myself-in-America is an allusion to Heidegger’s notion of being-in-the-world, our status as beings who relate to the world as a meaningful environment). I’d like to emphasize how this experience presents looking at things as something that requires time and effort and can fail. Beauvoir isn’t just writing about America, she’s trying to look at it in a particular way, from the inside, even as she remains an outsider. Her subject includes trying to grasp things or get something from them, not just what she ultimately gets.

Reading America Day by Day alongside Berenice Abbott’s photographs is particularly illuminating here. Both the photographer and the writer are presenting us with what they’ve seen in their travels at particular moments from specific standpoints. According to Abbott, “to see things as they are” is the primary challenge of her photography. The photographic eye, then, is in the service of revealing the things that are there to be seen but nevertheless escape us somehow. This difficulty is central in Beauvoir’s writing as well, though she seems to tackle the problem from the opposite end. Of her experience at a party with the English-speaking intelligentsia of New York, she writes “Again I feel like a ghost, a ghost who slips through walls and watches the human world without taking part in it. It’s magical, but deceptive, for can you see anything if you understand nothing?” (Feb. 1). The challenge for Beauvoir is to describe what she sees in a world that eludes her and resists her understanding. Without being part of it, she cannot really say what she sees; she first has to struggle to establish her being in that world. By contrast, Abbott’s photos invite us to adopt her perspective on things, while remaining exterior to them. We see the world as she has framed it, even if we do not understand it. Abbott’s presence, and so the nature of her experience, remains implicit, invisible behind the lens.

What does this difference amount to? Abbott’s photographs lead our eyes to a certain moment in the everyday lives of the towns she visits, but we’re left to work out her place in those moments on our own. That’s part of the distinctive experience of a photograph. In Beauvoir’s account, we see that effort put into words, with its characteristic obstacles and tensions. Sometimes these reveal an essential element of the situation, as when Beauvoir experiences segregation in the South: “and it was our own skin that became heavy and stifling, its color making us burn” (Mar. 25). At others, it’s because being-in-America leads her to use certain new words and labels for herself and others, such as “European.” Describing how she sees the new world she’s traveling through always means grappling with her shifting place in it and her evolving understanding of it.

There are pitfalls to this approach. As Beauvoir notes early on, French people she meets are happy to explain America to her, but always according to their own usually biased experience. On the other hand, one professor confidently informs her: “America is so vast that nothing anyone can say about it is true,” (Jan. 28) meaning that an incomplete or biased portrait of America would be a false portrait. Beauvoir’s book is an answer to these difficulties. But what does Beauvoir’s experience—her presence as a particular traveling subject—bring to her account? And what kind of truth or insight does it achieve?

One thing at stake in this question is how Beauvoir’s perspective relates to other people’s experiences of America. Here are two passages on that theme that seem worth discussing. The first deals with certain Europeans living in the U.S. Before her departure from New York, she remarks:

“Too accustomed to America to feel it day by day, [these Europeans living in New York] weren’t sufficiently rooted here to love it or hate it intelligently. Nearly all of them denigrated it too systematically to help me get to know it. The people I want to see again when I return are those free-thinking Americans who participate in the life of this great continent without being lost in it.” (Feb. 13).

The second passage may be an example of the kind of person Beauvoir is referring to: a waitress in a Las Vegas dance hall who fully participates in everyday life without becoming so accustomed to it (or lost in it) as to no longer see its specificity. The waitress recognizes Beauvoir and her companions and questions them:

In an abrupt tone she says, “I’d like to know what you’re talking about.” Looking at N. and me, she adds, “Because I’ve seen you in the paper, so I’m interested.” It was a very small photograph with a short paragraph in a Los Angeles newspaper from a week or so ago. To have noticed it, she must scrupulously and passionately inform herself about everything that’s going on in the world. And if she remembers this image, it must have seemed to her the sign of a success whose secret she would like to know. She examines us now with avid and suspicious curiosity. All these mass-manufactured fates are haunted by a thousand dreams of escape, and this woman is probably groping beyond her daily routines (routines quotidiennes), for the keys to the world and to life. The people of America do ask themselves questions after all. (Mar. 10, p. 160–161).

Beauvoir’s assumptions about this woman may or may not be true. But they suggest a link between the book’s “faithful account” and the questions we too might ask ourselves about our own experiences in America, day by day.

For further reading on the book’s philosophical content and background, Mr. Webb recommends:

Alexander Ruch’s “Beauvoir-in-America: Understanding, Concrete Experience, and Beauvoir’s Appropriation of Heidegger in ‘America Day by Day’” Hypatia, 2009, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 104–129.

About the Tutor

Samuel Webb is an American philosopher working in both English and French. His research focuses on self-knowledge, what it is, how it can be achieved, and why it matters. He joined the faculty of St. John’s College in Fall 2022 after receiving his PhD at Sorbonne Université in Paris.