Since 1971, I’ve experienced many long distance road trips across and into the three countries of North America. Does it take special stamina to travel on the the vast road and rail networks of Canada, Mexico and the United States of America? After reading American Day by Day, it sounds like travel by train or bus in the U.S. is more difficult now. Passenger rail systems in the U.S. and Mexico have been gutted.
A few dozen months ago, in a New York Times interview, Paul Theroux mentioned several celebrity authors who cruised the blue highways of the U.S.A. — Steinbeck, Nabokov, Scott and Zelda — but overlooked the North American travels of French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.
The European feminist landed at LaGuardia Airport in January, 1947 and during four months, criss-crossed the USA by train, car and bus. Her goal was to meet American students, especially women.
America Day by Day is her fascinating account of meetings with students at elite US colleges. She was keen to sit down with young women at Vassar, Radcliffe, Berkeley, and the other top universities. Photos of the sleek de Beauvoir in conversation with college gals swathed in rumpled ankle-length flared skirts and thickly rolled white socks offers a superficial window to the sartorial differences of the French grande dame and care-free students.
There were other gaps. She thought American college students were uninformed, quite innocent of global politics, the impact of WWII, or the realities of life. The students she met were intellectually and politically tame, but they had similar taste in music and entertainment. For diversion, with students and literary friends, she would hunt for city jazz clubs and bars where she could talk to African-Americans.
Simone de Beauvoir
University of California Press, 2000. 408 pages.