For seventy years after its revolution, since French writers viewed America with hope and English ones with disgruntlement, some of the best observations on America were made by the French and most of the worst by the English. Eighteenth-century French visitors to America saw a self-emancipated people united in the world’s first sizable republic: the forerunner of their own revolution. They noted the humiliation of Albion perfide, their own ancient enemy. What America was, in the eyes of Condorcet, Crèvecoeur, and Volney, France might become: the natural home of democracy, if not of Hesiodic simplicity. France embraced Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington as ideals of Republican Man long before the demolition of the Bastille, and with Chateaubriand’s Voyage en Amérique (1827) the passion for seeking the meanings of democracy on the stage of the New World, within its epic spaces, moved into high rhetorical gear. The climax of French scrutiny was provoked after 1830 by the prospect of another French republic, and became by far the most perceptive book a foreigner ever wrote on American society and politics: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835).
Englishmen, by contrast, either averted their eyes from America or looked at it only to complain about the barbarity of their former colony, its people’s lack of manners and art, their materialism. The ur-work of malice was Captain Basil Hall’s compilation of Tory rant, Travels in North America, 1827–1828. It was followed by Frances Trollope’s bitchy Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832. Ten years later Charles Dickens’s American Notes for General Circulation was also a best seller, being cut from the same cloth of condescension and snobbery. Both the latter, at least, were full of sharp vignettes, but neither showed much grasp of how America actually worked. They served to persuade the reader that America, though lost, had not really been worth keeping.
A century and a half later, what does one find? The reverse: that the French have contributed little to the popular literature of American observation since Tocqueville, and even less since the end of World War II. The Americans themselves, together with some English writers, have done it all. Thus nothing in French about America in the Twenties or Thirties approaches D.H. Lawrence on New Mexico, and there is no French equivalent to the acute, modest-toned, undeceived reportage of Alistair Cooke. No recent French writer has made an effort to get out into the American landscape, deliver its look and feel, meet people, discover how they talk and what they think about, evoke their histories: that is left to English writers like Jonathan Raban taking his skiff down the Mississippi in Old Glory or to V.S. Naipaul among the Good Ol’ Boys in A Turn in the South.
In the Fifties, French intellectuals, taking their cues from Sartre, simply lost interest in getting America right. Their imagination was seized by an altogether more lurid and “interesting” America than the real one: the pow-zap-splat …