My latest review, of Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, is up at The Daily Beast:
Dreaming in French is, above all, an attempt to validate an undervalued aspect of American culture: the study abroad narrative. The stories of girls overseas have not often been part of the canon of American expatriate writing, Kaplan points out. We have a wealth of material from Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, et al, from their own days on the GI Bill, their Guggenheims, or their Fulbrights. Young American men in Paris were intent on “embrac[ing] irresponsibility,” as James Baldwin put it, producing work that is “gritty, irreverent, macho, [and] frequently alcoholic.” Their female peers, on the other hand, were determined “to embrace a new language and master a highly coded way of life.” Kaplan, a deft historian, avails herself of a range of sources in order to reconstruct their experiences, talking to their classmates and the families who housed them, reading their letters home, looking at the photos they and their friends took, watching the available footage of them speaking French, and reading the newspapers they would have read.
I was once a student at Columbia’s Reid Hall in Paris and a professor at New York University’s Paris campus—I can confirm that the experience of studying abroad marks you for life, forcing you to interrogate your identity as you reconstitute it in a foreign setting. You are not simply “translating” yourself into that language; you are building your identity within it. “True philosophy,” Kaplan quotes Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “means learning to see the world anew.” In their time in the City of Lights, Kennedy, Sontag and Davis didn’t just get an education. They acquired a worldview, and one that would leave an inarguable imprint on history.
In his review for the New York Times Book Review, Dwight Garner wrote that “Alice Kaplan’s ‘Dreaming in French’ is an easy book to admire but a hard one to muster much enthusiasm for.” I couldn’t disagree more– I haven’t felt so enthusiastic about a book in quite some time.
“The obstacle that Ms. Kaplan confronts,” he says, “is that these women did not leave a great deal behind in terms of written accounts of their Paris years. What little there is can seem larval. (…) [Kaplan] dilates on the books these women read, the plays they saw, the shifting French intellectual climate. She is forced to utter broad generalizations, like, ‘France gave each of these women a deep and lasting confidence, confirmed their spirit of adventure and guaranteed their freedom from home constraints.’ That’s a pleasant enough sentence, but it could be written about a summer spent with Outward Bound.”
Garner’s clearly never been a twenty year-old American woman discovering Paris for the first time. In fact, Kaplan’s book is a serious contribution to feminist historiography, unearthing– through material that is thin for obvious reasons– a parallel female experience abroad during a period which we have understood largely through male expatriate accounts.
I love this anecdote, about the way in which adopting a French identity allowed Davis to circumvent the “violent dialectic of inheritance and disinheritance” in which she grew up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama. When Davis and her sister were teenagers, Kaplan recounts, they proved this by going into a shoe shop in Birmingham and pretending to be from Martinique, speaking only French and broken English. The shoe salesmen treated them with deference and catered to them in the front of the store, whereas American blacks would have been escorted to the back. After keeping the ruse up for awhile, they finally burst out laughing and told the staff in flawless English: “‘All Black people have to do is pretend they come from another country and you treat us like dignitaries’” (150).