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The gendered user and the generic city: Simone de Beauvoir’s America Day by Day

Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1952 (First published as L’Amérique au jour le jour, Paris, Morihien, 1948, trans. by Carol Cosman)
Mary Pepchinski

Texte intégral

  • 1 Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir. The Making of an Intellectual Woman, Oxford; Cambridge: Blackwell, (...)

1Life in France at the mid-twentieth century was extremely patriarchal and oppressive towards women.1 It is against this context that Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) viewed cities as the sites of great personal liberation, where she had the potential to move freely and make unencumbered decisions about her life. Written during the gestation of The Second Sex, her book, America Day by Day [L’Amerique au jour le jour], a fictionalized account of two journeys taken through the United States in 1947 and published in various forms beginning in 1948, should be seen as integral to de Beauvoir’s project to reimagine women’s role in the contemporary world. Not only did it identify the single, transient woman as a legitimate user of urban space, it can also be viewed as a study of the modern city, which presents her encounter with accessibility, marginalization and racial separation in the American metropolis.

  • 2 For the situation in West Germany and Berlin: Kirsten Plötz, Als fehle die bessere Hälfte. ΄Allein (...)
  • 3 France and Italy granted women suffrage in 1945, Belgium in 1948, Greece in 1952, San Marion in 19 (...)
  • 4 For the situation in East and West Germany: Christiane Droste and Sandra Huning, “Ms. Woman Archit (...)
  • 5 Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir, op. cit. (note 1), p. 208-209.
  • 6 See the essays in Mary Pepchinski and Mariann Simon (eds.), Ideological Equals. Women Architects i (...)

2When America Day by Day was published, the Second World War had just come to a close. Many European cities lay in ruin, and their populations were poorly nourished and lacked basic needs. Western governments directed women to return home to care for their families, yet two world wars had engendered both a sizeable surplus of single women in addition to untold number husbands, sons and brothers left incapacitated by armed conflict.2 For many women, traditional ideals proved illusory. Meanwhile, women’s suffrage was not universal in Western Europe,3 women lacked basic legal protections and the right to birth control,4 and no organized women’s movement existed.5 As the West clung to tradition, the new Socialist states in the Soviet Bloc embraced innovation, anchoring gender equality in their constitutions, propagating for women’s work and building infrastructure to alleviate housekeeping and child care tasks.6 When The Second Sex was published in 1949, it took aim at both tradition and radical modernization, and called for all to reimagine their role in the world. Politicians on the right and left denounced de Beauvoir’s criticism of the nuclear family and frank discussion of female sexuality, and the Vatican placed it on its Index of heretical literature.

  • 7 Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir, op. cit. (note 1), p. 186-187.
  • 8 Michael Johns, Moment of Grace. The American City in the 1950s, Berkeley, CA: University of Califo (...)
  • 9 For example, she made a point of visiting Taut and Wagner’s Waldsiedlung (also known an Unkel Toms (...)
  • 10 Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir, op. cit. (note 1), , p. 190-191.
  • 11 Paul Morand, New York, Paris: Flammarion, 1930; Le Corbusier, Quand les cathédrales étaient blanch (...)
  • 12 Simone de Beauvoir, A Transatlantic Love Affair. Letters to Nelson Algren, New York, NY: The New P (...)

3In 1947, Simone de Beauvoir interrupted her research for The Second Sex to travel twice to the United States for a total of roughly five months.7 Although she did not identify urbanism as a central theme of America Day by Day, it is not surprising that her experiences in the gridded, generic cities of North America at mid-century, which sported rich urban culture yet were marked by profound social and racial divisions8, figure prominently in this book. On the one hand, she understood architecture and urbanism as being integral to modernism, which she viewed as having the potential for radical aesthetic innovation and great personal liberation, and made a point of visiting new urban projects and keeping abreast of urban social theory.9 On the other, being keenly aware that the act of writing about urbanism was masculine territory, de Beauvoir most likely did not want to declare this as her focus to avoid direct competition with her male counterparts.10 Nonetheless, she intended America Day by Day to be distinct from other texts about the United States which had appeared in France, from Le Corbusier’s and Paul Morand’s travelogues of the 1930s to more recent essays by Jacques-Laurent Bost and Jean-Paul Sartre, her collaborators on Les Temps modernes,11 and she expressly wanted her book to reveal how she felt while exploring this nation.12 Once in the United States, the writers Nelson Algren in Chicago and Richard Wright in New York introduced her to a range of social conditions, including urban poverty and the complexity of race relations, respectively, thus insuring her account would go beyond insightful descriptions of places to consider the more visceral and politicized aspects of urban life.

  • 13 On the importance of walking for Simone de Beauvoir: Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir, op. cit. (note (...)

4When moving through the cities and landscapes of the United States, Beauvoir employed various modes of transportation—buses, trains and automobiles. Yet it was through the simple act of walking,13 and then reflecting on her sojourns, that allowed her test her access to metropolitan space and gain knowledge about American society.

  • 14 Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day, op. cit. (note 9), p, 12-13, 73.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 89.
  • 16 Ibid., p. 84-85.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 110.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 185-187.

5When roaming through cities in the northeast, for example, she was often drawn to natural features, like embankments along rivers. Yet at times infrastructure, such as the elevated highways and banks of train tracks hugging the Manhattan and Bronx shorelines14 or the warehouses clustered along Buffalo’s harbor,15 blocked her access. In other places, walking was either unpleasant or impossible : industrial centers like Rochester were too small and desolate to sustain her interest16 and Los Angeles’ vast thoroughfares felt alien and were devoid of people.17 But not all venues were wanting : she determined that Santa Fe’s small scale was ideal for pedestrian jaunts18, and almost all her sojourns are punctuated with impromptu stops at drug store lunch counters or the ubiquitous “movie houses”, where an individual can briefly partake in a collective space.

  • 19 Ibid., p. 36.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 235-236.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 226-227.

6Implicitly, Beauvoir—a single, foreign, transient, and middle-aged white woman—could readily explore the above-mentioned places. But she also desired to test the extent of her freedom to comprehend the mechanisms of racial separation. When in New York, for example, she desired to visit Harlem, the sprawling neighborhood at center of Manhattan where, as opposed to most other areas of New York City, black people were able to live, engage in commerce and create culture. Her white acquaintances attempt to dissuade her by articulating their fears, but she ignores them. Arriving in Harlem, she walks about and observes street life. Although her presence is tolerated, she is overwhelmed by shame.19 In the South, she encounters a more hostile reception when she ventures into black neighborhoods, usually located on the outskirts of a city. Walking about the periphery of Savannah with a young French woman, N. [Nathalie Sorokine], the two white figures invite contempt as they cross spatial boundaries : a woman spits twice to acknowledge their presence and a child screams out at them that they are enemies,20 while in New Orleans, men jeer at them when they attempt to drink at a bar and cab drivers refuse to pick them up.21

  • 22 Ibid., p. 37, 352.

7Moving through New York with Richard Wright and his wife Ellen Poplar Wright, who was white, presents her with another aspect of racism, namely discrimination by association. Describing an evening with Richard Wright and a racially mixed group, she notes they go out of their way to dine at a Chinese restaurant in Midtown Manhattan because the Chinese will serve black customers. Wright also explains to her that when his wife pushes their mixed-race child in a stroller through their Greenwich Village neighborhood, a bohemian district in lower Manhattan, she is verbally accosted by her fellow pedestrians.22

  • 23 Ibid., p. 97, 99-100.
  • 24 Ibid., p. 111-112.

8Perhaps it was her close acquaintanceship with Richard and Ellen Wright that permit de Beauvoirs’ descriptions of her encounters with racial separation to come across as heartfelt and thoughtful. In contrast, her ruminations on poverty or other marginalized groups seem detached, even superficial. While in Chicago, N. A. [Nelson Algren] takes her on a nighttime crawl through the city’s skid row. Although appalled by the filth and poverty she witnesses, she draws upon cliché, namely that such indigence could not happen in Europe, to explain her reaction to these conditions.23When describing her stay in Los Angeles, she notes that Mexicans are the dominant minority and goes for a stroll and dinner with friends at an inner-city Mexican neighborhood. The colorful shops and restaurants reminds her of the souks she has visited in Morocco, of and she revels in the lively atmosphere.24 But in contrast to the unease she felt in Harlem, she does not reflect upon why her presence did not feel like an intrusion, or why the inhabitants ostensibly did not perceive her as a threat.

  • 25 Ibid., p. 36-38, 272-276.
  • 26 Ibid., p. 96-100, 357-381.
  • 27 Ibid., p. 329-334.

9Although she explored American cities when she was alone and also when accompanied by both men and women, it was Richard Wright and Nelson Algren, who accompanied her to places that she could not easily access alone. With Wright she visited a Sunday church service and the legendary Savoy Ballroom in Harlem25, while Algren took her to Chicago’s working-class neighborhoods and the stockyards.26 As if to answer why women did not act as guides too, towards the end of America Day by Day, Beauvoir turns her attention to the situation of women in the United States. She struggles to comprehend the lack of independence and the feeling of insecurity she observes in American women, as well as their exclusion from the public world of men and their activities.27 We might understand these musings as her acknowledgment that her wanderings through American cities were an anomaly and could only have taken place by an alien who was not bound by local convention.

  • 28 Margaret A. Simons, “Introduction,” in Simone de Beauvoir, Wartime Diary, edited by Margaret A. Si (...)

10The strengths and failings of America Day by Day notwithstanding, Beauvoir implicitly declared that women had a right to inhabit the shared, public venues of the city. Nonetheless, America Day by Day’s discussions about anti-black racism reminds her readers that uninhibited access to metropolitan space for all citizens remains an illusion.28 Indeed, this books’ message of was also one of deep pessimism, as the American city Beauvoir presents was a contested terrain, and no one person, no matter how privileged, enjoyed unimpeded access to it.

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Notes

1 Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir. The Making of an Intellectual Woman, Oxford; Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994, p. 186-187.

2 For the situation in West Germany and Berlin: Kirsten Plötz, Als fehle die bessere Hälfte. ΄Alleinstehende’ Frauen in der frühen BRD 1949-1969, Königstein; Taunus: Ulrike Helmer Verlag, 2005; Sybille Meyer and Eva Schulze, Wie wir das alles geschafft haben, Alleinstehende Frauen berichten über ihr Leben nach 1945, Berlin: C. H. Beck, 1984; for France: Siân Reynold, France between the Wars. Gender and politics, London; New York, NY: Routledge, 1996, p. 18-37.

3 France and Italy granted women suffrage in 1945, Belgium in 1948, Greece in 1952, San Marion in 1959, Cyprus in 1960, Monaco in 1962, Switzerland in 1971, Portugal in 1976 and Lichtenstein in 1984.

4 For the situation in East and West Germany: Christiane Droste and Sandra Huning, “Ms. Woman Architect and Ms. Architect. Social Framework for the Careers of Women Architects in East and West Germany,” in Mary Pepchinski, Christina Budde, Wolfgang Voigt and Peter Cachola Schmal (eds.), Frau Architekt. Seit mehr als 100 Jahren: Frauen im Architektenberuf/Over 100 Years of Women as Professional Architects, Frankfurt am Main: Deutsches Architekturmuseum; Tübingen; Berlin: Wasmuth, 2017, p. 59-67. For France: Judith Thurman, “Introduction,” in Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex [First published as Le Deuxième Sexe, Paris: Gallimard, 1949, trans. by Constance Borde and Shelia Malovany-Chevallier], New York, NY: Knopf, 2010, p. ix.

5 Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir, op. cit. (note 1), p. 208-209.

6 See the essays in Mary Pepchinski and Mariann Simon (eds.), Ideological Equals. Women Architects in Socialist Europe 1949-1989, London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2016 (Architectural history).

7 Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir, op. cit. (note 1), p. 186-187.

8 Michael Johns, Moment of Grace. The American City in the 1950s, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004, passim.

9 For example, she made a point of visiting Taut and Wagner’s Waldsiedlung (also known an Unkel Toms Hütte) when she visited Sartre in Berlin in the 1930s. (Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life 1929-1944 (First published in 1960, trans. by Peter Green), New York, NY: Paragon House, 1992, p. 67, 146). In the 1950s, among others, she read David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, New Haven, CT: Yale University,1950 (Studies in national policy, 3), William H. Whyte, The Organizational Man, New York, NY: Simon and Schuster,1956 and A. C. Spectorsky, The Exurbanites, New York, NY: Lippincott Company, 1955. She also visited Brasilia during and extended tour of South America and new architecture in Moscow under Khruschchev (Simone de Beauvoir, Hard Times. Force of Circumstance [First published as La force des choses, Paris: Gallimard, 1963, trans. by Peter Green), New York, NY: Paragon, 1992 (Autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir], vol. 2, p. 94-95, 273-277; 353-354.; Compare: Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day [First published as L’Amérique au jour le jour, Paris: Gallimard, 1954, trans. by Carol Cosman], Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999, p. 297.

10 Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir, op. cit. (note 1), , p. 190-191.

11 Paul Morand, New York, Paris: Flammarion, 1930; Le Corbusier, Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches. Voyage au Pays des Timides, Paris: Librairie Plon, 1937. Essays by Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques-Laurent Bost about the United States and urbanism there were published in Combat and Les Temps modernes in 1945.

12 Simone de Beauvoir, A Transatlantic Love Affair. Letters to Nelson Algren, New York, NY: The New Press, 1997, p. 31, 35.

13 On the importance of walking for Simone de Beauvoir: Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir, op. cit. (note 1), p. 226-227; Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day, op. cit. (note 9), p. 21.

14 Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day, op. cit. (note 9), p, 12-13, 73.

15 Ibid., p. 89.

16 Ibid., p. 84-85.

17 Ibid., p. 110.

18 Ibid., p. 185-187.

19 Ibid., p. 36.

20 Ibid., p. 235-236.

21 Ibid., p. 226-227.

22 Ibid., p. 37, 352.

23 Ibid., p. 97, 99-100.

24 Ibid., p. 111-112.

25 Ibid., p. 36-38, 272-276.

26 Ibid., p. 96-100, 357-381.

27 Ibid., p. 329-334.

28 Margaret A. Simons, “Introduction,” in Simone de Beauvoir, Wartime Diary, edited by Margaret A. Simons and Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir [First published as Journal de guerre: septembre 1939-janvier 1941, Paris: Gallimard, 1990, trans. by Anne Deing Cordero], Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009, p. 21.

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Mary Pepchinski, « The gendered user and the generic city: Simone de Beauvoir’s America Day by Day », ABE Journal [En ligne], 16 | 2019, mis en ligne le 25 mars 2020, consulté le 15 juillet 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/abe/6956

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Mary Pepchinski

Professor, Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft, Dresden, Germany

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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