nightmarish American Babel?


In 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre visited the US at the invitation of the American Office of War Information. He was following in the footsteps not only of that most famous of transatlantic literary voyagers, Alexis de Tocqueville, but also those of Chateaubriand and Céline. Sartre’s visit attracted the attention of Time magazine, which reported that during his stay, the “short, square-shouldered” “philosopher-playwright” had developed a taste for corned beef hash and chocolate ice cream, not to mention an “awed liking” for “squalor-spotted, ill-mannered New York City.”

The pieces Sartre filed home for Le Figaro and Combat had a rather different flavour. Manhattan, he wrote, was a vast “rock desert” in which thousands of houses built of brick, wood or reinforced concrete appeared to be “on the point of flying away.” Indeed, all the American cities Sartre visited seemed to him touched by a sense of impermanence or lightness. The prefabs he saw in Fontana, Tennessee, on a tour of the Tennessee Valley Authority, were American dwellings par excellence, fragile and provisional; and even in New York, he was struck by the “flimsiness of the building materials used.”

more from Prospect Magazine here.