The primary myth of self-identification that we Americans have created is one of independence. Despite the fact that our nation and its culture are drawn from nations and cultures around the world we like to see ourselves as self reliant, the shining city on an isolated hill, a group of hard-up settlers who transformed the wilderness in paradise with nothing but our own hands. While most of us can probably agree that this myth holds little truth it can be disturbingly easy to lose ourselves in this myth. If Alice Kaplan’s new book achieves only one thing it is that this book reminds us that our intellectual and cultural leaders do not exist in an America-only vacuum. The book is divided into three biographies that explore the relationship between their subjects and France, specifically focusing on the year or two that each spent in La Belle France.
The American notion of France is divided. We have, among others, the glittering lives of the 18th century nobles (and their subsequent bloody end); the easily dismissed effeminate French with their black and white striped shirts and the men sporting ridiculously thin mustaches; the Paris with panache; the France of Jean-Paul Sartre and the France of Julia Child. Of course these attempts of reducing a nation, a people, to such simple strokes is obviously absurd. France, like America, like Guinea, like every nation in the world, is a complex mixture of culture and history that can only be fully described in a 2,000 page tome*. Ms. Kaplan’s choice of subjects helps to show the diversity of the French identity. Yes, Ms. Sontag and Ms. Davis both are notable social commentators (although this is only one part of each of their identities) but Ms. Kennedy? (One can almost hear, “One of these things is not like the other,” playing in the background.)
The France that Ms. Kennedy arrives in is rebuilding after the horrific Nazi occupation. Not only is the nation rebuilding itself structurally and economically but also socially as it tries to figure out what sort of nation it now is. Ms. Sontag’s Paris is the Paris of the great American expatriates who spoke English in their tiny flats and over cheap croissants. Her Paris is not the more chic Paris that Ms. Kennedy experienced but it is the physical location of an American counter-culture. It is the France of Ms. Davis that I found most fascinating as it is the farthest from the France that I’m familiar with. When she first arrives she enters into the world of existential philosophers but soon she is caught up in the French-Algerian dynamics that would influence her revolutionary ideals. Ms. Kaplan deftly shows how Ms. Davis’ experiences with the race relations of a foreign culture would become useful not only in forming her ideas on society but also useful in her activism.
Readers who pick up this book looking for standard biographies of these three remarkable women will not find what they went looking for. Rather they will find Ms. Kaplan putting forth (and persuasively arguing) a thesis on how Paris helped to shape the lifestyles and politics that Ms. Kennedy, Sontag and Davis would become known for. If I was forced to pick a fault with this book, to lay out a major critique, it might be that Ms. Kaplan’s thesis is grander than the argument she puts forward. Except, except that might be the exact reason why this book is important. In our hero worship of our American Greats we dismiss the possibility that they relied on others (particularly foreign others) to help them form their identities. We need to be reminded that even our 20th century cultural and intellectual leaders did not spring fully formed from their mothers’ wombs.
Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis; Alice Kaplan; The University of Chicago Press, copyright 2012
*I believe you can see the hyperbole in this statement. It doesn’t necessarily need to be 2,000 pages or even a written tome but I think you get the idea. Nations aren’t simple, folks.