Scholarly article on topic 'Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir, 1949–1963'

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Academic research paper on topic "Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir, 1949–1963"

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Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir, 1949-1963


What I love is this counterpoint that runs through your whole book—this saraband of desires that are never satisfied.

The Second Sex (1949) is a big book, but it was a small part of Simone de Beauvoir's h

intellectual production. Beauvoir wrote essays and fiction; she kept notebooks and /

diaries that she revised (significantly) for volumes of memoirs; she sent thousands |

of letters to her friends, lovers, and fellow intellectuals.1 She wrote to place her life ff

in history and, in classic existentialist fashion, to find meaning in her everyday en- jj

counters and relationships. She wrote tirelessly—creating, presenting, and rework- |

ing her self.2 It was a high-profile act, and, her critics notwithstanding, an enormously .

The time to write this article came from a fellowship in 2008-2009 at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced S

Study, and I owe many thanks to Judy Vichniac and my fellow fellows there. Support for research came 1

from the Humanities Center at the University of Texas at Austin and a UT Faculty Research Award. 0'

Thanks to colleagues at Trinity College in Hartford, Yale University, the Center for European Studies i

at Harvard, and the University of Florida for inviting me to speak and asking excellent questions; to |

Mauricette Berne and Anne Mary at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris for smoothing the way in the L

archive; to Rachel Ollivier for her help with tricky translations; and to Dr. Cecile Goldet, who worked |

with the Movement for Family Planning in the 1950s, for her expertise. Alexis Harasemovitch Truax and i

Katie Anania came through at key moments with impressive competence and calm. I am especially grateful to Sheryl Kroen, Leora Auslander, Vicki Caron, Nancy Cott, Susan Faludi, Ellen Fitzpatrick, Elizabeth Garver, Helen Horowitz, Lisa Leff, Dan Sherman, and the anonymous readers for the AHR for their very constructive suggestions. Warmest thanks to my friends in France for their hospitality, which makes every research visit a pleasure, and to Willy Forbath for his unfailingly generous editing and everything else.

1 See her letters to Jean-Paul Sartre in Simone de Beauvoir, Lettres a Sartre, vol. 1:1930-1939; vol. 2:1940-1963 (Paris, 1990); to Jacques-Laurent Bost, Sartre's student and her lover, in Simone de Beauvoir, Correspondance croisée, 1937-1940 (Paris, 2004); and to Nelson Algren in Simone de Beauvoir, A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren (New York, 1998).

2 One historian of memoir calls Beauvoir's exceptional autobiographical output "averitable course in writing about oneself." Jean-Louis Jeannelle, Ecrire ses memoires au XXe siecle: Declin et renouveau (Paris, 2008), 171. In the vast literature on Beauvoir, the following studies are the most historical: Sylvie Chaperon, Les annees Beauvoir, 1945-1970 (Paris, 2000); Christine Delphy and Sylvie Chaperon, eds., Cinquantenaire du deuxieme sexe: Colloque international Simone de Beauvoir (Paris, 2001); Edward Full-brook, Sex and Philosophy: Rethinking de Beauvoir and Sartre (London, 2008); Ingrid Galster, Beauvoir dans tous ses etats (Paris, 2008); Galster, ed., Le deuxieme sexe de Simone de Beauvoir (Paris, 2004), a collection of French reviews of The Second Sex ; Galster, ed., Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxieme sexe: Le livre fondateur du feminisme moderne en situation (Paris, 2004), with a historical essay on each chapter of The Second Sex ; Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (Oxford, 1994); Joan Wallach Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge, Mass., 1996), chap. 6; Margaret A. Simons, Beauvoir and "The Second Sex": Feminism, Race, and the Origins

popular one. Beauvoir received thousands of letters from her readers, now gathered in a rich but virtually unexplored collection at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris.3 The archive takes us well beyond Beauvoir, to the public, to ordinary lives in the 1950s, and to the history of the relationship between author and audience. The letters suggest how Beauvoir was understood, but more important, they testify to how readers read, to readers' preoccupations and purposes, and to their own efforts to explain and present themselves, which sometimes mirrored Beauvoir's. This group of letters may be too personal and idiosyncratic to provide a platform for broad-gauged social history. That very singularity, however, opens onto what French historian Judith Lyon-Caen calls a history "attentive to individuals and to ways in which the self is constructed."4

The letters to Beauvoir offer rare close-up views of women and men in the 1950s struggling to write about a range of difficult subjects: work, the travails of a writer, marriages gone bad, unwanted pregnancies and unwanted children, frustrated or confusing desires and feelings, including homosexuality, childhood experiences, and so on. The letter writers' ability to broach these topics was often limited by ignorance or isolation, by their having no language that seemed appropriate, and indeed by a t

sense of themselves as ordinary.5 What unlocked their inhibitions and prompted /

them to write to a philosopher? The answer involves several elements. Beauvoir !

raised topics made timely by France's economic and cultural postwar transforma- 0

tion.6 More important, she invited readers to identify with her and engage her di- jj

rectly, through her memoirs and, though less directly, in The Second Sex—in a lan- |

guage that was at once shocking or disconcerting and also resonant. At the same 0

time, highbrow intellectual production in postwar France became enmeshed in a /

rapidly growing mass culture, from radio and television to the mass-circulation U

weekly and monthly magazines. This media culture was not merely French: publi- I ■

cations such as Paris Match, L'Express, and Elle circulated well beyond the hexagon; 0

Canadian radio featured interviews with Beauvoir and other existentialists; so did -

Time magazine and German and Colombian newspapers.7 Beauvoir's own writing WW

combined with her construction as a media celebrity to make her, as one letter writer b

put it, "approachable."8 Such familiarity could breed contempt, especially when, as e

of Existentialism (Lanham, Md., 1999); Simons's introduction to Simone de Beauvoir, Wartime Diary (Urbana, 111., 2008); and Susan Rubin Suleiman, Crises of Memory and the Second World War (Cambridge, Mass., 2006).

3 Simone de Beauvoir, lettres reçues, Manuscrits, Occident, Bibliotheque nationale de France. Mauricette Berne, "Elles ecrivent," in Delphy and Chaperon, Cinquantenaire du deuxième sexe, 392-394; Anne-Claire Rebreyend, "Sur les traces des pratiques sexuelles des individus 'ordinaires': France, 19201970," Le mouvement social 207 (2004): 57-74; and Rebreyend, Intimites amoureuses: France, 1920-1975 (Toulouse, 2008).

4 Judith Lyon-Caen, La lecture et la vie: Les usages du roman au temps de Balzac (Paris, 2006). On French social history, the self, and the senses, see also Alain Corbin, Time, Desire, and Horror: Toward a History of the Senses, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge, 1995); and Corbin, Historien du sensible: Entretiens avec Gilles Heure (Paris, 2000).

5 Rebreyend, "Sur les traces," 61.

6 The classic account is Jean Fourastié, Les trente glorieuses, ou la revolution invisible de 1946 a 1975 (Paris, 1979); and the most recent, which covers Europe in general as well as France, is Tony Judt's brilliant Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York, 2006).

7 Beauvoir, lettres recues, November 23, 1959, May 7, 1960. The archive requires that the letter writers remain anonymous.

8 Ibid., July 7, 1957.

Figure 1: Elliott Erwitt, Simone de Beauvoir (1949). Reproduced by permission of Magnum Photos.

in this case, the author's work included detailed treatments of female sexual experience. It is well known that The Second Sex ran into a thicket of critical disdain and misogyny, exemplified by the French conservative critic Francois Mauriac's remark to one of Beauvoir's colleagues at Les temps modernes that he "had learned everything about the vagina and clitoris of your boss."9 The archive of readers' letters, however, shows another side of the story: sympathetic readers appreciated the very aspects of Beauvoir's work that repelled Mauriac, and they welcomed the forms of intimacy and self-disclosure that they believed her to be not only offering to but also eliciting from them. They did so in a moment, the 1950s, when the same mass culture that produced Beauvoir's celebrity also offered a steady stream of feature stories about the lives and loves of ordinary people, letters to advice columns, opinion polls, questionnaires about personality, and so on. The popular psychology of the press offered some readers a primer for the more challenging forms of self-scrutiny and self-knowledge that Beauvoir called for, and for her sharper language of the frustration and fulfillment of desire. Mass culture, in other words, encouraged some of these letter writers to embark on their particular forms of active engagement with mandarin culture. t

The most interesting letters in the archive are from the first decade and a half, /

the time before "the condition of women," "feminism," and "sexuality" congealed .

into set topics on which one adopted familiar positions, and about which it was ap- O

propriate to write to Simone de Beauvoir.10 From the mid-1960s on, letters poured O

in from activists organizing meetings and from journalists and scholars writing ar- f

ticles or asking Beauvoir to speak at conferences about women; a movement was in O

the process of making her its icon. In the earlier period, however, her correspondents /

were more varied, and they engaged her in interestingly unpredictable ways. The U

letters from that time are fresher and less formulaic, wrestling with topics that were § ■

not only taboo but also ill-defined. Whether or not they point toward the feminist O

horizon of the later 1960s and 1970s is an important question, but one not easily -

answered. The passage from the personal to the political, in the famous shorthand WW

of second wave feminism, was far from self-evident.11 Moreover, Beauvoir's work, r

with its emphasis on individual ethics, did not necessarily light the way. Her am- J

bivalence about women's movements and The Second Sex's stance on feminism as, §

alternately, a movement whose time had passed ("perhaps we should say no more ff

about it") and an impossibility ("women do not say we") remain part of her para- §§

doxical legacy.12 The diversity of the readers who wrote to Beauvoir testifies to a wide 1

9 See Galster, Le deuxieme sexe de Simone de Beauvoir, 22, 294-296.

10 The archive holds around 2,500 letters for 1942-1975 and roughly 250-300 for the years considered here. "The condition of women" had emerged as a topic by the 1950s, but one framed in terms of the modernization of French women and what could be done about their alleged political isolation and economic marginality, not what women might do by and for themselves. Chaperon, Les annees Beauvoir, provides a good survey of the development of a range of women's and feminist issues in the 1950s and 1960s.

11 The letters as I read them confirm Joan Scott's characteristically clear and forceful argument against equating the personal and the political or seeing the "lived experience of women . . . directly leading to resistance to oppression, that is, to feminism." Joan W. Scott, "The Evidence of Experience," Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (Summer 1991): 786-787.

12 Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxieme sexe, 2 vols. (1949; repr., Paris, 1976), 1: 13, 21. The first English-language version of The Second Sex was translated and edited by H. M. Parshley for Alfred A. Knopf (1952; repr., New York, 1993). The recent translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chev-

interest in the topics she raised, but that same diversity cautions against mustering the letter writers into the ranks of proto-second wave feminists. The letters do show women and men in the 1950s and early 1960s finding the wherewithal to face both internal and external obstacles in ways that prefigured feminist politics in the years that followed. A few mark different routes to what is plainly feminist consciousness. The issues these readers raised—as well as those they avoided—underscore some of the complexities of second wave feminism, which historians continue to explore in different national contexts.13 Above all, the letters constitute a remarkable archive of interior lives during the 1950s, testifying to the persistence of a nineteenth-century regime of pain, confusion, and ignorance in the sexual lives of many, to the fresh blasts of air of a changing cultural climate, and to the efforts—some stammering, some clear and unabashed—to speak about sexual feeling—or in more modern terms, to acknowledge desire.

allier (London, 2009) has raised a commotion. Toril Moi, the leading critic of Parshley's translation, has also pummeled the new one. See Moi, "While We Wait: The English Translation of The Second Sex," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 27, no. 4 (2002): 1005-1035; Moi, "The Adulteress Wife," London Review of Books 32, no. 3 (2010): 3-6; and Carlin Romano, "The Second 'Second Sex,' " Chronicle of Higher Education, June 20, 2010. Why the translation should be so difficult is an interesting question. Beauvoir's philosophical terms were indeed multivalent and difficult, as Judith Butler shows in her brilliant parsing of "become" in "Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex," Yale Journal of French Studies 72 (1986): 35-49. In certain places, Parshley completely obscured Beauvoir's philosophical premises; for instance, he translated the phenomenological "experience vecu" ("lived experience") as "woman's life today." Yet Parshley's interest in and support for Beauvoir's philosophy and | her feminism comes through clearly in his correspondence with his impatient and skeptical editor at . Knopf. See Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., Records, Series III, Blanche W. Knopf, 1918-1966, bulk 1940-66, g folder 689.13, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. The ongoing disputes about the a translation have everything to do with the dilemmas of feminist politics and paradoxes of feminist dis- U course, for they bring to the surface both symptomatic problems with "woman" or "women" and dis- 5. agreements about the importance of culture, psyche, embodiment, and so on in the formation of gen- o der—a term that, to make things more difficult, Beauvoir did not use. See among others Denise Riley, o "Am I That Name?" Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History (London, 1988); and Joan W. Scott, a "Unanswered Questions," American Historical Review 113, no. 5 (December 2008): 1422-1429. Fortu- a nately, the vast majority of letter writers considered in this essay read Beauvoir in French. i

13 Dagmar Herzog's reviews of the recent literature on sexuality and its politics are also an excellent b guide to feminism across Europe and the United States. See Herzog, "Sexuality in the Postwar West," Journal of Modern History 78 (March 2006): 144-171; Herzog, "Syncopated Sex: Transforming European Sexual Cultures," American Historical Review 114, no. 5 (December 2009): 1287-1308, as well as her Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton, N.J., 2005). On France, the most directly relevant studies include Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer ; Julian Bourg, From Revolution to Ethics: May 1968 and Contemporary French Thought (Montreal, 2007); Christine Bard, Les filles de Marianne: Histoire des feminismes, 1914-1940 (Paris, 1995); Sylvie Chaperon, "La radicalisation des mouvements féminins francais de 1960 à 1970," Vingtieme siecle: Revue d'histoire 48 (October-December 1995): 61-74; Chaperon, Les annees Beauvoir ; Anne-Marie Sohn, Chrysalides: Femmes dans la vie privee (XIXe-XXe siecles) (Paris, 1996); Michelle Zancarini-Fournel et al., eds., Les annees 68: Le temps de la contestation (Paris, 2000); Julian Jackson, Living in Arcadia: Homosexuality, Politics, and Morality in France from the Liberation to AIDS (Chicago, 2009); and the literature on Beauvoir cited above. The literature on the United States is enormous; see among others Beth Bailey, Sex in the Heartland (Cambridge, Mass., 1999); Mary Jo Buhle, Feminism and Its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis (Cambridge, Mass., 1998); Susan Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (New York, 1995); Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York, 1979); Jane Gerhard, Desiring Revolution: Second-Wave Feminism and the Rewriting of American Sexual Thought, 1920 to 1982 (New York, 2001); Joanne Mey-erowitz, Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia, 1994); Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (New York, 2001); Christine Stansell, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (New York, 2001); and Stansell, The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present (New York, 2010).

The archive presents the kinds of interpretive problems and riches encountered by any historian who works with letters. It is incomplete. Beauvoir's heirs removed letters from well-known friends; Beauvoir herself threw away letters and haphazardly stashed those she saved in bags and boxes. She discarded the envelopes, complicating the process of dating and cataloguing that continues at the Bibliotheque nationale. In her memoirs, Beauvoir reported that The Second Sex elicited a spate of ugly and insulting letters. Only a few such letters are in the archive.14 The Second Sex did indeed create a scandal, but scandal is not the story to emerge from this collection. The letter-writing readers are not necessarily representative of the reading public, or even of Beauvoir's followers. They are, however, a varied and intriguing group: writers and aspiring writers, teachers, clerical workers, women at home, schoolgirls, university students, factory workers, doctors, psychologists and psychoanalysts, and childhood friends. They are male (about one-third) as well as female, for Beauvoir's subjects mattered to both men and women. The letters testify to the wide reach of postwar French culture; they are datelined Tunis, Rio, Jerusalem, Lausanne, Warsaw, New York, Mexico City, Bogota, and Zagreb as well as provincial France. Their materiality captures very different moments and feelings, educations and social standings. Readers sent postcards, holiday greetings, professional business cards, clippings of reviews, and pictures (a few of which are in the archive). Most wrote by hand, which was considered more formal and polite than typing. Some did so fluidly and at great length, others with obvious difficulty, crossing out words and phrases. One letter makes it easy to envision how it—and others—had actually lain on Beau- 3

voir's desk. On the back someone wrote a shopping list for a gathering, apparently r

hosted by Beauvoir, for eight friends: "1 bottle vodka, 3 bottles whiskey, 1 foie gras t

for 8, 3 bottles of champagne; 1 bottle of Bourgogne (Bost), caviar, and petits n

pains."15 f

Did Beauvoir answer the letters? She marked a few "Replied." Many of the writ- o

ers thanked her for responding to them. In a handful of cases, such as that of a young l

man who was starting his military service in 1957 and asked her to be his "war god- I

mother," they corresponded for many years.16 She declined to answer love letters and r

marriage proposals, but seems to have treated many of her correspondents with -I

respect.17 But more significant, many of the people who wrote to Beauvoir were not J

content to remain simply readers, hanging on her every word. Some cast themselves I

as critics in their own right, and as a group they may have pushed her toward a more 2

feminist reading of her own work than she first conceived. 5

The letters, of course, show these readers at their best: demonstrating their at-tentiveness and intelligence, eager to explain that they had read her exactly as she

14 See, for instance, letters of July 21, 1949, and January 19, 1950. On the immediate reception, see Beauvoir's own account in La force des choses, 2 vols. (Paris, 1963), 1: 257-268; Chaperon, Les années Beauvoir, chap. 9; Galster, Beauvoir dans tous ses etats; and Judith G. Coffin, "Historicizing The Second Sex," French Politics, Culture and Society 25, no. 3 (2007): 123-148.

15 Beauvoir, lettres recues, October 19, 1950. "Bost" is Jacques-Laurent Bost; see fn. 1.

16 Ibid., July 7, 1957. War godmothers supported soldiers by writing letters. The practice began during World War I. See also January 30, 1959. The archive does not hold copies of any of her answers, nor have Beauvoir's correspondents contributed their letters from her.

17 She wrote to Algren about letters she received from readers. Beauvoir, A Transatlantic Love Affair, 289, 296, 305. See also Beauvoir, lettres recues, September 13, 1958.

^J. r ■ • __» : : : !

Figure 2: Beauvoir's signature. Many readers thanked her for replying to them.

would have wanted them to, or modeling themselves on her characters.18 As Lyon-

Caen says in her excellent study of letters from readers to Honore de Balzac and

Eugène Sue, "Readers' letters never tell the real experiences of reading."19 Nor did

the writers recount their "real" life stories.20 Bound up in an intense and vividly

imagined relationship with the author, they sought to distinguish themselves from o

other readers and to tell their stories in eye-catching ways. In the process they may |

have disguised as much as they revealed. Author, reader, and their relationship are |

all idealized or stylized, though they are no less significant for that. §

This archive marks a mid-twentieth-century moment in a long tradition of cor- I

respondence with authors, a tradition of applauding, arguing, and explaining how the J

author's work has helped decipher an "opaque" society, recognize a "problematic |

sexuality," or retrieve an important memory—an epistolary tradition central to the X

history of social and self-knowledge.21 The letters offer a case study in reading, writ- |

ing, and the relationship of both to self-reflection. They capture a turning point in §

the history of sexual discourse and feeling. Above all, they sketch a partial but un- | usually intimate portrait of the 1950s.

"Madame de Beauvoir, I have the pleasure of being among the most ardent ad- o

mirers of your work and personality!!"22 So wrote a reader in 1958, capturing Beau- -

voir's literary stardom and the way in which celebrity fused her writing to her per- WW

sona. Like the other celebrity existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, b

Beauvoir presented her ideas in challenging forms, notably The Second Sex (1949), y

and more accessible ones, such as America Day by Day (1948), which offered an easy |

read on a popular postwar topic. The Mandarins (1954) won many readers and ff

brought a blizzard of publicity even before it was tapped for the Goncourt Prize in I

18 See, for instance, Beauvoir, lettres recues, November 12, 1954, March 6, 1956. 5

19 Lyon-Caen, La lecture et la vie, 120 and chaps. 2 and 4 for historical approaches to letters. See also Judith Lyon-Caen and Dinah Ribard, L'historien et la litterature (Paris, 2010); Roger Chartier, "Lecteurs dans la longe duree: Du codex a l'écran," Revue des sciences morale et politiques 2 (1993): 295-309; Chartier, ed., Pratiques de la lecture (Paris, 1985), including a bibliographic guide, 295-308; Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1985); Rebecca Earle, ed., Epistolary Selves: Letters and Letter-Writers, 1600-1945 (Ashgate, 1999); Gérard Mauger, Claude F. Poliak, and Bernard Pudal, eds., Histoires de lecteurs (Paris, 1999); and Anne-Marie Sohn, "Pour une histoire de la société au regard des médias," Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine 44, no. 2 (1997): 287-306.

20 See Scott, "The Evidence of Experience," on how "experience" is articulated and produced, as well as Philippe Lejeune's work on self-construction: Le pacte autobiographique (Paris, 1975), 326, and "L'autobiographie et l'aveu sexuel," Revue de litterature comparee 325, no. 1 (2008): 37-51.

21 Lyon-Caen, La lecture et la vie, 192; Harry Oosterhuis, Stepchildren of Nature: Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identity (Chicago, 2000).

22 Beauvoir, lettres recues, September 13, 1958.

1954.23 That success paved the way for the even more popular Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée, 1958), The Prime of Life (La force de l'age, 1960), and The Force of Circumstance (La force des choses, 1963). "I have just finished your book Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, and I want to tell you how it swept me off my feet," wrote a reader in 1958 who, like many others, had gone on to "devour" all of Beauvoir's work, including The Second Sex.24 Readers spelled out the connections they saw between the different works, calling The Mandarins "a victory of your ideas" and "a delightful and warm complement to the sweeping objective and scientific overview of the woman in the Second Sex."25 Beauvoir's life, enthusiastic readers believed, buttressed her arguments: "It is good that this book was written by you, a person who embodies the very qualities one refuses to ascribe to a woman."26

Readers skipped from one of Beauvoir's books to another; they read articles in W

Elle magazine, excerpts and reviews in Le Figaro, France Soir, and L'Express ; they |

saw her profiled in Match, interviewed in L'Humanite, and photographed in Jours de I

France. Some were appalled by the press's fascination with her. One woman angrily o

asked why Elle had published a story about such an "egotistical and cerebral mon- t

ster." She was grateful that the magazine had countered its report on Beauvoir's view /

of marriage as an "alienation of liberty" with a feature story on the opposite page .

about two happy girls and their mother.27 In this case and others, reading meant O

reading about—and even that needs to be understood jj

Elle subscriber had reconstructed a debate from the pages of the magazine, another f

letter writer cheerfully acknowledged that she had studied only Beauvoir's horo- O

scope.28 /

The distinctive literary culture of postwar France burnished intellectual prestige U

with a combination of moral seriousness and glamour, investing literature and phi- § ■

losophy with what were surely outsized hopes for restoring the nation's status in the O

world.29 Intellectuals such as Beauvoir and Sartre peopled the pages of glossy post- -

war weeklies featuring personalities, fashion, world events, sports, and splashy vi- WW

suals. The republic of letters found new outlets in magazines and journals, radio b

programming, and, to a lesser extent, television. Writers' images and arguments were y

refracted through the kaleidoscope of this new medium, with its faster pace, greater §

commercial pressures, and larger and more demanding audiences.30 Beauvoir's ff

23 Björn Larsson, La reception des Mandarins: Le roman de Simone de Beauvoir face à la critique 0 litteraire en France (Lund, 1998). On celebrity, see Lenard Berlanstein, "Historicizing and Gendering 5 Celebrity Culture: Famous Women in Nineteenth-Century France," Journal of Women's History 16, no.

4 (2004): 65-91; Edgar Morin, Les stars, 3rd ed. (Paris, 1972); Vanessa R. Schwartz, It's So French! Hollywood, Paris, and the Making of Cosmopolitan Film Culture (Chicago, 2007); Tamara Chaplin, Turning On the Mind: French Philosophers on Television (Chicago, 2007); George Cotkin, Existential America (Baltimore, 2003). By 1959, Beauvoir was theorizing stardom as well as enacting it. Simone de Beauvoir, "Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome," Esquire, August 1959, 2-38.

24 Beauvoir, lettres recues, October 29, 1958.

25 Ibid., December 8, 1954; ibid., September 21, 1956.

26 Ibid., January 13, 1960.

27 She sent a copy of the letter to Elle. Ibid., September 24, 1960. Elle was covering The Prime of Life. See another reader's response to the Elle feature, dated September 26, 1960.

28 Ibid., n.d., in dossier January-June 1957.

29 On these hopes as well as these intellectuals' political, ethical, and philosophical failures, see Tony Judt, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 (Berkeley, Calif., 1992).

30 On the press and the public, see the works in fn. 23 and Edgar Morin, L'esprit du temps: Essai

agents pleaded for pictures and quotes that they might provide to reporters. Nescafé asked Beauvoir, as a celebrated café-goer, to endorse their coffee.31 Letter writers requested autographs and photographs, the better to visualize her life and person. "I have often seen your name, and I see excerpts and photos of you in the papers. That is why, I think, that I am writing to you," wrote one for whom names, books, and photos apparently did not suffice: "There aren't any records with your voice, are there?"32 For some—usually men—her reputation made her familiar and more approachable: "In a recent photo you seemed less distant, and I dared to write to you," wrote one.33 "A one martini girl!" joked another, alluding to Time magazine's coverage of Beauvoir's memoir. "I do not hold the cafés against you, you know," he added. "This is why one can write to you easily, as one would to an ordinary person."34 "Simone de Beauvoir, you belong to all of us; that is why I do not call you Madame": the phrase captured the new expectations of a more democratic mass о

culture.35 o

Most correspondents, though, did not believe that Beauvoir was "just anyone." I

To the contrary, they were acutely self-conscious about their distance from her.36 o

They apologized for their inability to write, for being "lyrical" or "childish" (puer- t

ile)—in other words, seeking advice and intimacy from a powerful person as if she /

were a parent, and unable to recognize, as an adult surely would, the gulf that sep- .

arated them from a philosopher-writer.37 A woman who loved Memoirs of a Dutiful f

Daughter said that she could not "resist the slightly childish desire to respond to j

you"—as if Beauvoir had written to her first.38 Another correspondent captured the |

difficulty of striking the right tone and noted the self-expressive traps into which 5Г

could easily tumble. She had started her letter to Beauvoir three times: "To reduce /

the distance between the 'woman of letters'—the famous writer whom I imagined— U

and the anonymous student, all too aware of my limits and my unpromising future, I ■

I put on the grand style and rhetoric—so much so that my starchy prose kept me from o

getting to the point for several pages."39 Her evocation of the distance between the -

woman of letters and the anonymous reader highlights the challenge of this kind of ОО

letter. r

The intensity of feeling and self-dramatization in these letters is striking. A great e

sur la culture de masse (Paris, 1962); Menie Grégoire, "La presse feminine, la femme et l'amour," Esprit, July-August 1959,17-34; Marc Martin, Medias et journalistes de la republique (Paris, 1997); Alice Kaplan, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach (Chicago, 2000); and Claude Bellanger, ed., Histoire generale de la presse francaise, 5 vols. (Paris, 1976), 5: 423-426.

31 Beauvoir, lettres recues, January 14, 1955. The documents in folder 1954 offer a glimpse of the campaign for the Goncourt Prize, including the publisher's efforts to solicit reader responses, which many readers answered. See October 22, 1954, November 12, 1954, and November 15, 1954, and many readers' letters in 1955.

32 Ibid., February 14, 1960.

33 Ibid., July 7, 1957.

34 Ibid., March 16, 1960. This letter is filed in the dossier January-June 1957.

35 Ibid., December 26, 1958.

36 See Lyon-Caen's discussion of Balzac's readers in La lecture et la vie, 247.

37 Beauvoir, lettres recues, January 27, 1961.

38 Ibid., February 13, 1959. See also May 11, 1957.

39 Ibid., Paris, February 11,1961. Beauvoir herself used "starchy" in Memoires d'une jeune fille rangee (Paris, 1958), 302. On self-expressive traps, see also Beauvoir, lettres recues, June 12, 1960, September 8, 1960, and May 26, 1961.

American Historical Review

October 2G1G

many readers opened their letters by saying that they had not wanted to write, or that they had resisted the impulse to do so but had been unable to help themselves. That opening gesture partly paid tribute to the author, whose work had touched them powerfully enough to sweep away their hesitation and, in the process, to make them characters she might admire: willing to rise above their insignificance, take risks, or put "honesty ahead of pride."40 Through this gesture, the letter writers thus also paid tribute to themselves. Their phrases echoed Beauvoir's own tropes; The Second Sex opened with "I have long hesitated to write a book on women," and she prefaced The Prime of Life with remarks on the "imprudent adventure" of writing about oneself. In addition, the people who wrote were not sure that they understood their contradictory feelings or that the subjects they wanted to raise were appropriate. Whatever the different motives and meanings, the effect is one of inner turmoil, or an excess of feeling that needs to be released. (The word epancher, "to pour out," recurs throughout the letters.) And this rhetorical effect calls forth another, of intimacy and trust.

The surprisingly intimate tone of the letters was also a response to Beauvoir's self-presentation. Beauvoir was never far from the center of her work. The Second t

Sex began as an experiment in existentialist autobiography and emphasized "lived /

experience." She denied that the Parisian intellectuals in The Mandarins were ac- .

tually her circle of friends, but this only encouraged readers to try to identify the o

characters, especially Beauvoir herself. "I feel as if I've known you for two years, and O

all thanks to a book. Could you tell me how much of yourself you have put in The |

Mandarins?"41 "I think you must resemble Anne: How I would like to meet you!!"42 O

They described the act of reading in intimate terms: "I have just spent two days in /

bed with, as a wonderful companion, your latest book."43 "I want to thank you for U

this passion that I could feel while reading this book [The Mandarins]. For an entire I ■

night, I lived among the Dubreuilh."44 Readers wrote that they now knew Beauvoir; O

she was down to earth, with a "wide angle of vision," and able to understand ev- -

erything.45 "Your intelligence intimidates me but at the same time it inspires trust, WW

because you are very understanding."46 They wanted to move from text to author, b

as one revealingly put it, "to know the real face of the person toward whom I have projected myself so entirely in the imagination, and to listen to her voice."47

Projection, identification, and longing for attachment escalated sharply after 1958 with the publication of Beauvoir's memoirs. "I didn't have to read your memoirs to admire you, but they permitted me to love you."48 Professions of recognition and self-recognition poured into her mailbox. Letter writers explained that they had been born in the same year as Beauvoir or into the same kind of household, that, like her, they had broken with the Catholic Church, that they wanted to write, or that they were "free." Some wrote that they had been stunned to find on her pages exactly what

40 Ibid., January 27, 1961. See also October 27, 1954, and November 30, 1954.

41 Ibid., 1957, n.d. Larsson, La reception des Mandarins, 30.

42 Beauvoir, lettres recues, 1957, n.d.

43 Ibid., January 14, 1959. See also November 30, 1954.

44 Ibid., May 11, 1957. See also postcard, March 4, 1955.

45 Ibid., December 28, 1957.

46 Ibid., January 1, 1955.

47 Ibid., February 11, 1961.

48 Ibid., February 25, 1959. See also December 13, 1958.

they had written in their own diaries.49 As several correspondents remarked, Beauvoir offered them a flattering mirror. If so many rushed to recognize themselves in her, it was with a swell of pride, or because she offered them a better version of themselves: "Everything you say in your memoirs I have felt; I would have liked to be able to say it, but I explain myself very poorly."50 "I was a girl like you, a young woman like you! This is what thousands of women surely think—with pride—when they read you."51

The Beauvoir letters aptly illustrate literary scholar Nancy K. Miller's point that reading memoir is a process of "interactive remembering." As Miller puts it, "You follow the threads that take you back, even if then there was no story, just the loose threads you see now woven into a readable fabric, material for another story: your own."52 The letters make vivid the forms that "interactive remembering" could take: painful, nostalgic, passive, energetic, and defiant. A young woman in Germany who o

had never read a word of Beauvoir but had learned about Memoirs of a Dutiful o

Daughter in a Catholic newspaper asked, "Would you like to write the history of MY d

life?"53 This was perhaps the most lopsided engagement with the book, but a re- o

vealing extreme: the reader-author bond ranged from recognition (I know you!) to t

affinity and shared experiences (I am like you!) to something more passive and trust- /

ing (Tell my story!). Most of the letter writers believed Beauvoir to be uniquely .

well-qualified to interpret their feelings, understand their families, bring them out O

of their isolation, and give public significance to their lives. The young German jj

woman simply turned over her biography; others used Beauvoir's "understanding" §

to reconsider and to rewrite their own. .

Projection, identification, and imagined intimacy, however, ran both ways. Beau- /

voir actively elicited her readers' responses. In an eye-catching passage from The U

Prime of Life that set out her goal as a writer, she imagined her voice reaching readers I ■

almost unmediated, entering their hearts, and in the process attaining literary (and O

not only literary) immortality. -

What I wanted was to penetrate so deeply into the lives of others that when they heard my r

voice they would have the impression they were speaking to themselves. If my voice were a

multiplied through thousands of human hearts, it seemed to me that my existence, reshaped O

and transfigured, would still, in a manner of speaking, be saved.54 J

This was strong stuff, melding religious and psychological imagery. Beauvoir's

of the word "penetrate" (penetrer) bespeaks a willful entry into intimate connection. 5

49 Ibid., November 17, 1958. See also September 23, 1952, February 13, 1959, May 9, 1960, May 15, 1960, and November 26,1960. One asked whether Beauvoir would read one or two volumes of her diaries. Ibid., June 19, 1960.

50 Ibid., May 3, 1959.

51 Ibid., January 27, 1961.

52 Nancy K. Miller, "But enough about me, what do you think of my memoir?" Yale Journal of Criticism 13, no. 2 (2000): 421-436. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter brought in scores of letters on childhood; The Prime of Life and then The Force of Circumstance brought in many on World War II and its aftermath, about which memories were even more painful and complex. For example, November 15, 1960, December 15, 1960, December 27, 1960, January 21, 1964, and January 30, 1964. These letters are beyond the scope of this article but figure in my work in progress.

53 Beauvoir, lettres recues, 1958, n.d.

54 Beauvoir, La force de l'age (Paris, 1960), 644; my translation. La force des choses made even more dramatic gestures toward readers, to which many responded; see the letters from 1964.

It is not surprising to find that many readers cited the phrase to her—or that the desired response got out of hand. One of several readers wrote that her feelings were running amok and the author was to blame:

I would like to retreat behind a dignified reserve . . . But I do not know how to wait: I never knew how ... I have participated in so many moments of your life, this book [The Prime of Life] has clarified so many things that have been blurry to me, that I am even more disappointed to be without news from you.

You speak of "penetrating into the lives of others." You have reached this goal, and it gives you responsibilities, and speaking for myself, I can no longer consider you a stranger.

To such an extent that when I read your name in magazines about things of which I'm unaware, I'm so angry not to be up to date—it's as though I had rights over you.

There: reactions like these are probably unpleasant, and you had not envisioned them. But I do not feel responsible.55

This epistolary relationship recalls the relationship between Jean-Jacques Rous- |

seau and his readers, memorably analyzed by Robert Darnton.56 Beauvoir's readers, g

like Rousseau's, were drawn into felt intimacy and the effusion of emotion, including °

love and jealousy. The requests for photographs, for more "news," and for more p

intimate details, however, arise from distinctively twentieth-century forms of culture |

and celebrity. The author-reader relationship in the 1950s was built not only on texts, o

but also on news coverage, profiles, candid photos, and interviews on radio and tele- |

vision. It was enmeshed in the web of "mediations, communications, and contacts" g

that the brilliant French sociologist Edgar Morin considered constitutive of mass S

culture in his time.57 Some of the letters to Beauvoir plainly resemble letters to movie g

stars, with their over-identification and "fetishistic" search for information. "Every g

news item whispers a little secret, one that allows the reader to possess a little in- i

timacy with a star," Morin wrote.58 Not all of the correspondents were starstruck; °

many read carefully and critically, and none necessarily lacked resources, ideas, or |

ambition. Even so, the broader cultural production of intimacy with celebrities seems g

to have eased the letter writers' way. Moreover, there is a striking affinity between l

the way mass culture in the 1950s proffered doses of intimacy with famous persons g

(interviews that focused on their personal lives, reports about their everyday rou- o

tines, and furtively snapped photographs) and Beauvoir's insistently intimate self- U

presentation and her expectation that readers would hear her "voice" as their own. 9

The female press, in particular, fetishized—to use Morin's term—not only intimacy 0

with celebrities, but also intimacies among readers themselves, nurturing a sense of 5 belonging, and of sharing concerns, experiences, and outlooks in a way that rendered seemingly mundane matters relevant and meaningful. Beauvoir complained that the culture of "publicity" in 1950s France "disfigured" intellectual work.59 What Lauren Berlant has influentially called the "intimate public" of mass culture, however, may well have helped Beauvoir's words "penetrate the lives of others."60

55 Beauvoir, lettres recues, November 30, 1960. See also April 19, 1960.

56 Darnton, "Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensitivity," in Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre, 215-255.

57 Morin, L'esprit du temps, 136.

58 Morin, Les stars, 83.

59 Cited in Chaplin, Turning On the Mind, 38.

60 Lauren Gail Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American

Sexuality was not the only or even the primary concern of Beauvoir's different correspondents, but it occasioned some of the most unexpected and interesting letters, largely because the language in which to discuss it was not ready to hand.61 Letters that broached sexuality provide an excellent example of how Beauvoir's work "landed," and how readers might respond to topics that she raised while ignoring or misunderstanding her arguments. They dramatize some of the changes (discursive, political, and social) under way in the 1950s. They illustrate, too, the unevenness of those changes, for the letter writers testify to a strikingly diverse set of experiences of and perspectives on sexuality. They raised issues that ranged from contraception, which was relatively straightforward, to sexual pleasure, desire, and pain, which were confusing and pushed many to the limits of their ability to express themselves.

One of the earliest letters came in 1950 from a woman pharmacist, whose profession put her on the front line of private struggles over sexuality, reproduction, and | health. Beauvoir had observed that women had two confessors, the priest and the o doctor. But in women's everyday lives, the letter writer added, neighborhood phar- | macists mattered even more; they were trained in medicine and more accessible than o doctors, for their counsel was free and readily available in the course of women's t daily errands. As a pharmacist, she was besieged by women's "confessions" and re- / quests for information and help.62 Women asked her general questions about their . own and their families' health, and more specific ones about sexuality, frigidity (her 0 term), unwanted pregnancies, and abortion. The pharmacist had observed firsthand o how often women induced early abortions with quinine or uterine injections that | escaped detection by doctors or hospitals—and criminal inquiries from the state. 0 Beauvoir's discussion of abortion had become one of the most incendiary parts of / The Second Sex. The pharmacist contended that the abortion rate was even higher U than Beauvoir had suggested, and the crisis even graver. Laws banning contracep- ° ■ tion, in place since 1920, in her view had led to catastrophic consequences: they made 0 sexual pleasure impossible, ruined marriages, and turned French women old before -their time.63 The pharmacist cited a conversation with one of her customers, a twen- |

Culture (Durham, N.C., 2008); Niklas Luhmann, Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy (Cambridge, Mass., 1986); and Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies (Stanford, Calif., 1992).

61 Correspondents wrote about work, domestic and international politics, and, frequently, their own struggles with writing. Authorship was a point of identification, a shared passion, a source of prestige in postwar France, and so a way for readers to project themselves into what, as we have seen, appeared to be a charmed circle of public intellectuals. On writing, see Berne, "Elles écrivent."

62 Beauvoir, lettres recues, March 20, 1950. This letter is marked "repondu."

63 The law criminalized contraception and all "anti-conceptional propaganda," which meant describing or offering to divulge "procedures that would prevent pregnancy or facilitating the use of these procedures." In the early 1950s, France was on the cusp of changes that would roll back these restrictions. By the early 1960s, the Movement for Family Planning was trying not only to revise the law but also to circumvent it, with centers that provided contraceptive information to members and by working with gynecologists to win acceptance for the birth control pill. Contraception was legalized in 1967, and abortion in 1975. Marie-Francoise Lévy, "Le mouvement francais pour le planning familial et les jeunes," Vingtieme siecle: Revue d'histoire, July-September 2002, 75-84; Melanie Latham, Regulating Reproduction: A Century of Conflict in Britain and France (Manchester, 2002); Le planning familial: Histoire et memoire, 1956-2006 (Rennes, 2006); and Janine Mossuz-Lavau, Les lois de l'amour: Les politiques de la sexualite en France de 1950 a nos jours (Paris, 1991). The most comprehensive social histories of sexuality, including contraception, are Sohn, Chrysalides, which is abridged as Anne-Marie Sohn, Du premier baiser a l'alcôve: La sexualite des francais au quotidien, 1850-1950 (Paris, 1996); and Martine

ty-nine-year-old woman who reportedly had had four children, ten miscarriages, and "no pleasure, ever." Her husband's days off were "torture," the woman had said. "I know that I must do my duty and besides, my husband is young, but I am afraid." As the pharmacist grimly observed, the husband was young at age twenty-nine—his wife was not.

The pharmacist wrote to report, not to speak of herself. She likened her customers, alone with her at the pharmacy counter, to "beasts caught in a trap." "They do not dare demand in public what they weep for in private," she wrote, not very sympathetically. "Is there a minority that dares? I would like to know." She argued that fatalism, passivity, and notions of virtuous maternal suffering muffled protest. To those who touted the heroism of French motherhood, she retorted harshly, with tellingly postwar language: "Just because one gets through the ordeal of childbirth 'honorably' does not mean that one can claim to be some kind of heroine. When one has given birth, one may have learned to suffer, but the Inquisition, or the Gestapo ... that is another thing, and very different."64 The pharmacist's impatience with the rhetoric of maternalism was shared by many French journalists, writers, and intellectuals during the 1950s. Traditional ideologies had been discredited by Vichy and t by a humiliating occupation; France had to be able to stand up to a changed world, / and resignation and passivity—easily associated, wrongly or not, with women's tra- . ditionalism and Catholic positions on maternal virtue and sexuality—sapped the O nation's ability to do so. For those reasons, education, knowledge, and self-mastery jj

(in sexual matters, among others) belonged to the project of modernizing postwar §

France.65 .

Women and medical experts were not the only ones who wrote to Beauvoir about /

contraception. One extraordinary letter came in 1957 from a man, married for six U

years, already the father of three (with a fourth on the way), and intent on learning I ■

what Beauvoir knew about birth control. The letter is detailed, matter-of-fact, at 1

once well-informed and revealing about the human costs of ordinary ignorance. The -

author, too, is an interesting character: while he adopts a peremptory tone vis-a-vis 0

Beauvoir, he sympathizes with his wife's confusion and, as he says, her sense of being b

dominated by bewildering biological facts: J

Madame, what I want to ask you is very simple: you speak on several occasions of a "blocked

woman" or a plug that seems to protect the woman.66 Here is my question: where can I obtain ,

such protection? 0

Perhaps I should explain myself. Married in [19]51, I'm expecting my fourth child next 5

January. The first one was from our marriage, the second was from carelessness, but the third

Sevegrand, Les enfants du bon Dieu: Les catholiques français et la procréation au XX siècle (Paris, 1995). Beauvoir estimated between 500,000 to 1 million abortions annually. Le deuxieme sexe, 2: chap. 6, 330. Sohn considers 200,000 a more plausible figure, but agrees that abortion rates rose dramatically in both the inter- and postwar periods. Sohn, Chrysalides, 2: 905-907.

64 Beauvoir, lettres reçues, March 20, 1950.

65 For instance, Geneviève Gennari, Simone de Beauvoir (Paris, 1959); Francoise Giroud, Leçons particulieres (Paris, 1990); Grégoire, "La presse feminine, la femme et l'amour." On sex education and its larger meanings, see Tamara Chaplin, "Emile perverti? Ou 'Comment se font les enfants': Deux siecles d'education sexuelle en France," in Regis Revenin et al., Les jeunes et la sexualite: Initiations, interdits, identites (XIXe-XXIe siecle) (Paris, 2010), 22-36.

66 The author refers to a diaphragm, which was available only in England, Switzerland, and the U.S.

one was conceived two days after the end of [my wife's] period, and the fourth when the flow had not yet ended. As you can imagine, my wife is now more afraid than ever of this biological fact that she does not entirely understand but the effects of which she has to suffer.

If we want to continue to have some natural relations, my only option is to find an unfailing form of protection; the Ogino method certainly does not offer that.

I would like you to give me the address where I could obtain such an instrument if, of course, my request does not seem rude or tiresome.

p.s. And if possible, give me the exact name of this device.

He enclosed a picture of his children.67

It is a remarkable document, and not what one expects in a letter to Simone de Beauvoir! In 1957, when it was written, public discussion of abortion and contraception had picked up in France, sparked in part by a high-profile investigative study of underground abortions by the journalist Jacques Derogy (whose real name was Jacques Weitzmann). Titled Des enfants malgre nous? (1956), Derogy's book was prefaced by Dr. Weill-Hallé, head of the newly founded Maternité heureuse, which would become Le mouvement pour le planning familial in 1960. Derogy offered the shocking statistic that in any given year, French women had as many abortions as live births. The well-known editor of L'Express, Francoise Giroud, reviewed the book and took to the television as well, denouncing the "conspiracy of silence and denial" that surrounded abortion, which also enabled lawmakers to persist in maintaining a regime that criminalized contraception.68 Very few readers' letters in the 1950s |

referred to these debates. The subject was still "obscene," and, more important, Beauvoir did not at that point particularly affiliate herself with the cause. Yet the letters from this man and from the pharmacist are a window onto sexual life in a i

world where contraception was illegal and reliable information about it was a rare f

and valuable commodity, one traded quickly through semi-clandestine networks of o

knowledge.69 It is revealing of the atmosphere of the time that when Beauvoir began l

to publish on sexuality, men and women furtively visited her apartment and the o

67 Beauvoir, lettres recues, November 30, 1957. This letter was from Thiers, France. See also April 7, 1955. Ogino-Knaus calendars, which explained how to calculate the safe periods in a woman's menstrual cycle, were developed by a Japanese doctor and an Austrian sexologist. Jacques Derogy, Des enfants malgre nous? (Paris, 1956), 197-198. Kate Fisher, " 'She Was Quite Satisfied with the Arrangements I Made': Gender and Birth Control in Britain, 1920-1950," Past and Present, no. 169 (November 2000): 161-193, which insists that men played important roles in making decisions about contraception, is a provocative challenge to received wisdom on the subject. Quite apart from the different national cultures of Britain and France, my evidence here is too singular to confirm or refute her arguments. But this man's letter does illustrate men's interest in birth control, which, Fisher aptly points out, concerned everyday sexual activity as much as it limited the number of children in a family. Ibid., 169. While he is concerned with his wife, he is also speaking about his own sexual desires.

68 Derogy, Des enfants malgre nous? 17. Derogy's articles, under the title "Are Women Guilty?" were first published in Liberation in October and November 1955; the Francoise Giroud book review, "Les malades de samedi," was in L'Express, February 15, 1956.

69 The Institut national d'études demographiques (National Institute for Demographic Studies) summarized the state of knowledge (or ignorance) about contraception in France in "Une enquête sur l'opinion publique a l'egard de la limitation des naissances," Population 11, no. 3 (July-September 1956): 481-506. It did not capture exactly how unevenly knowledge was distributed. See also Hélène Bergues et al., La prevention des naissances dans la famille: Ses origines dans les temps modernes (Paris, 1960); and Henri Leridon et al., La seconde revolution contraceptive: La regulation des naissances en France de 1950 à 1985 (Paris, 1987), both published by the Institute.

editorial offices of Les temps modernes to ask for addresses of abortion providers.70 That a "family" man, a father of four, would write to a well-known woman writer about birth control testifies not only to a widespread hunger for knowledge, but also to an emerging sense that such knowledge was legitimate, that it should no longer be confined to the worlds of midwives, brothels, and erotic books, traditionally the realms of France's reputed sexual "knowingness." The topic of contraception was not new, but the circles in which it might be broached, which had expanded during the 1930s and had then been shut down during World War II, were widening again, in a new atmosphere of economic optimism, political renewal, and generational change.71

Since we do not usually imagine Simone de Beauvoir dispensing advice to ordinary people, it is striking to see how many letters "importuned" her for help.72 Even before the memoirs invited the kinds of intimacy considered above, The Second Sex, The Mandarins, and Beauvoir's public persona persuaded many that she was "understanding" both about women of "all conditions" and about the "paradoxes of modern society."73 Readers asked her to help them find work and apartments. They wrote of conjugal unhappiness—of a husband's jealousy or abusiveness; of boredom; t

of meeting a new partner; of marrying young in order to escape their parents' home, /

only to find themselves trapped in marriage; of class differences that created marital .

tensions; of divorce and the courage it would take to initiate one.74 O

Many letter writers described their disillusionment with myths of romantic love, OO

marriage, and motherhood, echoing themes in Beauvoir's work. "Since your first §

books, then The Second Sex, then the memoirs, I have wanted to 'talk' to you," wrote O

a weary and discouraged thirty-nine-year-old divorced mother of three. "I admire /

how you have escaped the big traps of life: having children, being jealous, leaving U

work, breaking up ... In reading your books I have the sense of having wasted my I ■

life."75Another woman offered a particularly painful (though terse) account of how O

love and family had gone wrong in her life. -

Let me explain the problem about which I would like your advice. After certain "unhappy r

experiences" from which I did not know how to learn a lesson, I got married; I had decided r

to take the risks, without knowing exactly what they were, and to trust in love one more time. °

The successive births of my two children absorbed all my physical and mental energy: the u

second birth was a "semi-catastrophe": the child was afflicted with a congenital deformity of 9

70 Beauvoir, A Transatlantic Love Affair, 263,289-290. She seems to have known several doctors who 5 performed abortions. Ibid., 298.

71 On the twilight between outlawed and acceptable, see Anna Clark, "Twilight Moments," Journal of the History of Sexuality 14, no. 1/2 (2005): 139-160; Sally Alexander, "The Mysteries and Secrets of Women's Bodies," in Mica Nava and Alan O'Shea, eds., Modern Times: Reflections on a Century of English Modernity (London, 1995), 161-175; and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 2002). On sexual knowledge in different national cultures, see Herzog, "Syncopated Sex."

72 Other figures received letters about sexual matters, often a good deal more explicit. But they presented themselves as practical experts and advice givers. Ruth Hall, ed., Dear Dr. Stopes: Sex in the 1920s (London, 1978); Ellen F. Fitzpatrick, ed., Katharine Bement Davis, Early Twentieth-Century American Women, and the Study of Sex Behavior (New York, 1987); Martine Sevegrand, ed., L'amour en toutes lettres: Questions a l'abbe Viollet sur la sexualite, 1924-1943 (Paris, 1996).

73 Beauvoir, lettres recues, October 31, 1957, August 29, 1957.

74 Ibid., August 29, 1957, November 30, 1957, May 1, 1958, October 18, 1961.

75 Ibid., December, 1960.

the face: although she was operated on at the age of one and developed normally, she remains very marked. I was profoundly troubled by this event: I have not yet managed to come to terms with the complexity of my feelings toward my daughter.

. . . reading two of your books has plunged me, again, into reflection, into a vertigo of illumination and solitude.76

Having an ill or handicapped child was a relatively common experience. It was rarer to acknowledge a tangle of love and repugnance toward the afflicted child—or to confess to feeling not only inadequate as a mother, but resentful about motherhood. It is as if Beauvoir's blunt analysis of the physical and psychological perils of motherhood and her irreverence about maternal virtue enabled this reader to describe her own experience as nearly "catastrophic."

Others who wrote were even more overwhelmed by their emotions and memo- o

ries—so much so that their letters recall nineteenth-century tropes of women who g

had "fallen," or been led astray by their "passions." The language, though, is less that |

of moral failure, and more that of psychological despair, of love, sex, and marriage f

being sabotaged: "youth, which people find so wonderful, was for me a dreadful §

period when the passions drag you into a ghastly abyss from which there is no es- p

cape."77 Another letter, very moving, said: h

Many of the letters in the archive were penned in anguish. Lonely, isolated, and trusting Beauvoir's intelligence and humanity, the writers rushed to confide in her. "Please excuse me; I did not want to write my confession or trouble you, but you seem to understand the unhappiness of women of all conditions. Tell me honestly."79 To discuss contraception was risky; to recount betrayed promises of love, marriage, and motherhood was painful. Sexual feeling was even more difficult. By the 1950s, strong currents of medical and journalistic opinion (from L'Express to Elle and Marie Claire) were deploring French girls' ignorance about sexuality and arguing that French mothers, presumed to preside over such things, needed to be less reticent, more knowledgeable, and, in a word, more modern. Commentators sounded the same unsympathetic notes as the pharmacist who spoke of her customers as "beasts caught in a trap." Adolescents and their mothers were less clueless than experts and the press in the 1950s suggested. Still, the letters in this archive testify to a widespread pudeur (modesty, or restraint) and to real discomfort concerning sexual feeling.

A middle school teacher from Belgium began her letter as follows, an excellent

76 Ibid., December 2, 1958.

77 Ibid., October 13, 1958.

78 Ibid., 1961, n.d.

79 Ibid., August 29, 1957.

I still know nothing—a milieu like ours destroys love. I go out on Sunday. I go to the Saturday dance like everyone—it's so depressing and I flirt—but never would I let myself be seduced.

I am twenty years old, and I keep this thing in me pure—maybe sometimes I have the desire 3

to—but I am a bourgeoise ... 0

I would like so very much for you to understand me. If I could only have you before me, </

I know you would find the words to make me speak, but on this poor piece of paper ... ^

You could never understand me, you with your wonderful and free life—ah! Everything | ■

seems so easy when I read you, and yet I can't express to you everything that I feel.78 I

illustration of how one would struggle to ask a question about sexuality—in this case arousal and orgasm—without using any of those terms:

I have redone this letter so many times that I must make up my mind to send it as it is. I wanted it to be short so as not to bother you, and I did not want to give in to a need to pour out my heart. On the other hand, when I explain myself you will be able to judge how much I need your help.

The wisdom of your observations, the courage and the generosity of your intellectual position show that you clearly can recognize the importance of the subject of my letter (I cannot yet make up my mind to just set it out) . . .

I hope that you will not consider it inappropriate if I turn to you for information on hygiene.80

Only on the second page did this letter writer reach the subject: she had never felt either "love or voluptuous excitement," and no one had ever made her "quiver with desire." A combination of reticence and confusion made it impossible for her to say more than that on paper; she asked Beauvoir to meet with her in person. A remarkable number of correspondents from the 1950s did the same. Beauvoir could write about the specifics of "women's eroticism," masturbation, and vaginal pleasure, using terms quite acceptable in scientific and medical discourse, but hardly any of these readers could bring themselves to use remotely the same language.81

Finally, several readers found themselves almost unable to write. They were torn between their inability to name their problems and the need to break out of their a

isolation and silence, and they trusted Beauvoir to understand what they were talking r

about. a

December 28, 1957 5 ■

Please excuse me for the liberty I take in writing you. I have read your excellent book The 0

Second Sex, and I think that you are the only person who can give me advice. §

I am facing a difficult problem, one that is conjugal and familial. I sometimes feel quite a

alone and very discouraged. I cannot bring myself to write to some Courrier du Cœur [a r

women's advice column, lit. "letters from the heart"]. I think that you can give me advice that would be useful and wise, because you have a very general, very understanding view on all these problems. If it would not be too much trouble, would you be able to meet with me?82

April 19, 1957

Dear Comrade and, if I may, friend,

I found your book The Second Sex fascinating. I have read and reread it several times, I have given it to several people, and will give it again without growing tired of it. I've also lent The Mandarins, and I'll lend that again. I am a factory worker without a high school diploma . . .

I have behind me a wretched past, a childhood without a father, and some abominable adventures [aventure means "adventure," but also "love affair"], which I find difficult to write about or describe.

What I would like is your personal address, to be able to confide in you, to talk about things that one usually reserves for friends.

80 Ibid., December 3, 1952. "Conjugal hygiene" was a common nineteenth-century term.

81 Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe, 2: 146-147. See also letters from November 26,1954, January 1,1955, May 16, 1961 (in English), and n.d., 1961, cited above.

82 Beauvoir, lettres recues, December 28, 1957.

I would like your photograph, with your signature. That is very important to me.

If one day I come to Paris, where I think you live, I will come to see you.83

1961, undated

Maybe my nightmare is just something ordinary, but I hate my father, he is . . . oh, you can imagine. Prostitution is nothing . . . Saint Mary Magdalene, I was 12, that's really nothing. But that . . . I want to die.84

To read these letters is to see, up close, the isolation and ignorance that could compound sexual unhappiness, the humiliations and torments of abusive families, and the vulnerabilities of young women who needed to be protected by—or from— their fathers. It is also to see the resonance of Beauvoir's analysis of women's sexuality as a bundle of fears, repulsions, and impossible, or at least systematically frustrated, desires. For Beauvoir, sexual initiation was something like a formative failure: ° an experience suffered rather than initiated, often violent, which sealed a young °

woman's alienation from her body and her personhood. Sexuality was a "terrain of d

truth" for women, and it was rough territory.85 All these readers refer to The Second 0

Sex, and one would not have had to read the whole book to get the picture: skimming t

a few pages in a bookstore or reading excerpts in a magazine would suffice, for /

memorably graphic passages on sexual violence, psychological trauma, and erotic pp

frustration jump off virtually every page of the chapters on sexuality in the second |

volume.86 Those chapters evoked a firestorm of critical outrage, but they encouraged o

some readers to articulate what was almost unspeakable at that time. a

By the mid-twentieth century, as French historians have shown, much in Beau- 0 voir's rendering of female sexuality was out of date. The Second Sex drew heavily on

nineteenth-century sources such as the diaries of Marie Bashkirtseff (1860-1884) n

and Countess Sophia Tolstoy (1844-1919) and on Honore de Balzac's Physiologie du o■

mariage (published in 1829), perhaps a particularly poor guide to women's sexual 0

feeling in the 1940s.87 Anne-Marie Sohn, one of the leading historians of private life -

in France, has made this point forcefully. By the time The Second Sex was published, |

Sohn shows, honeymoon nights on which a young virgin found herself handed over b

to a man she had not chosen (Beauvoir's phrase) were rare, even in the French J

countryside.88 The Catholic Church's teaching and parental controls had lost force §

in the late nineteenth century, and the two world wars had weakened them further. |

Arranged marriage was a relic of the past. Women as well as men put more emphasis 2

on choosing their partners and invested more time in the courting that choice en- 55 tailed. In the countryside, mobility and sociability had increased; towns and cities offered the erotic tutelage of movies (un baiser américain meant a kiss on the lips) as well as dance halls and parties. Everywhere, magazines and advertising aimed at women invited more spending on hygiene, cosmetics, clothing—in a word, on the

83 Ibid., April 19, 1957.

84 Ibid., n.d., 1961; ellipsis points in original.

85 Beauvoir, Le deuxieme sexe, 2: 147. On nineteenth-century eroticism, see also Alain Corbin, L'harmonie des plaisirs: Les manieres de jouir du siecle des Lumieres à l'avenement de la sexologie (Paris, 2008), 438.

86 Annick Houël and Anne-Marie Sohn, "L'initiation sexuelle," in Galster, Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxieme sexe, 307.

87 Beauvoir, Le deuxieme sexe, 2: 235-236. Beauvoir also drew on Stendhal, Proust, and Colette.

88 Anne-Marie Sohn, "La vie en societé," in Galster, Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxieme sexe, 367-368.

female body—and that attention, in turn, encouraged more sexual activity.89 The Second Sex, then, does not provide a social history of mid-century sexuality. On the other hand, letters in the Bibliothèque nationale archive show that Beauvoir's analysis of sexual unhappiness struck a chord. So did her language of female desire. That language was not particularly poetic or creative—there is a lot of "shuddering" and "ardor" in addition to her famous description of female arousal as "the soft throbbing of a mollusk" (la molle palpitation d'un coquillage).90 Still, to discuss sexual feeling outside the context of erotic or libertine literature was to reach a broader public with a different language.91 To associate sexual feeling with women's aspirations to existential fulfillment, as Beauvoir did, resonated for many. One reader put it beautifully in responding to The Mandarins : "What I love is this counterpoint that runs through your whole book—this saraband of desires that are never satis-fied."92 0

The letters in the archive, however, also caution us against making sweeping o

conclusions about the practices, knowledge, or language of ordinary people. Even d

a small sample reveals the effects of very different levels of education or even per- o

sonal resourcefulness. They illustrate very different stances toward sexuality: im- t

patient and determined (the husband seeking reliable birth control); overwhelmed /

(his wife); reflective about conflicting feelings and what they might suggest (the .

woman who wrote of the "saraband of desires"); and conflicted and desperate ("You 0

will never understand, your life has turned out so differently"). Experience and 0

knowledge were particularly dependent on some combination of family, milieu, class, |

gender, age, and religion and religiosity.93 0

Homosexuality, to which there are only a few fascinating references, provides a /

case in point. A young man wrote from Mexico City to thank Beauvoir for taking U

bold stands. "The world is so oppressive and indifferent. Your tolerance toward I ■

homosexuals in particular is valuable. I wish you would write about them."94 Young, 0

cosmopolitan, and self-confident, he was able to wield a modern vocabulary of sex- -

89 The new sexual regime of early-twentieth-century France brought new vulnerabilities. While tra- b ditional conceptions of morality and "sin" may have faded, Anne-Marie Sohn argues, social reputation still mattered enormously. To be considered "legere" (light, or loose) was to court opprobrium. If a young woman was in a relationship, she tried to negotiate that relationship without getting pregnant. In the twentieth century, as in the nineteenth, pregnancy meant procuring an abortion, getting married, or turning to one's family, and these were all common options. In 1911, 60 percent of marriages reportedly came after pregnancy. An enduring double standard created contradictory expectations: on the one hand, extramarital sex was increasingly tolerated and expected; on the other, a woman's virginity still had value, considered a gift, or a form of dowry for girls or women with few material resources. How to act in the face of such contradictions remained confusing; in a 1964 study, 72 percent of those interviewed were in favor of virginity at marriage, but 50 percent of them had had premarital sex. In other words, whatever they had done themselves, they believed it had not worked. Cited in Sohn, Du premier baiser à l'alcôve, 227, 237-238. Letters to Menie Grégoire in the 1960s offer abundant firsthand accounts of dealing with contraception, pregnancy, reputation, and family. Archives departementales d'Indre-et-Loire, Archives contemporaines, J 66, 230-231.

90 Beauvoir, Le deuxieme sexe, 2: 165. See 151-154 on the myth that men "awaken" women, young women's search for pleasure, and the "uncertain and burning call of her flesh."

91 On sexual pleasure a decade later, see Rebreyend, "Sur les traces," 69-70. Sohn, Chrysalides, 2: 256-257.

92 Beauvoir, lettres recues, November 12, 1954. A saraband is a slow and particularly sensual dance.

93 Here "experience" refers both to accumulated wisdom and to the feelings said to flow from a given event or encounter. Scott, "The Evidence of Experience," 781, citing Raymond Williams.

94 Beauvoir, lettres recues, March 16, 1960.

uality without being overwhelmed by fear and confusion. An older woman in the outskirts of Paris wrote very differently:

I am so cold among males and females. I am looking for a rare bird who, before feeling male or female, is conscious of being human. It seems that this rare bird is found often enough among men, but to approach it one has to be of the same sex. Finding such a bird among women would only be possible for persons of the opposite sex. If this is the case, what can be done? I know that you are one. Could I talk to you?95

Beauvoir must have answered the letter, for the woman wrote again, explaining in a less confusing or oblique way: "While I am absolutely normal, I do not fit into any category."96 Yet the contrast between the tone and the images of sexual feeling and identity in the two letters remains striking: the man from Mexico City is able to write "homosexuality," while the older woman struggles with more formal "allusion and o

metaphor."97 As Michel Foucault pointed out long ago, the issue is not silence, but 0

"the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who |

cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which 0

form of discretion is required in either case."98 3

Simone de Beauvoir was not discreet. That a woman would write about sex as a /

woman, with an emphasis on "lived experience," proved one of the most discon- r

certing features of her work, and pushed at the limits of propriety. Highbrow critics f

such as Francois Mauriac disdained her self-revelatory tone as well as her subjects.99 j

Hannah Arendt, invited to review the English-language manuscript of The Second |

Sex for Knopf, lamented Beauvoir's "preference for a very dubious kind of confession .

literature [that] lower[s] the level of discussion."100 Reviewers deemed The Man- /

darins "embarrassing," or "unrestrained, in the style of most women writers."101 s

These critics, however, were neither simply obtuse nor blindly misreading; readers v

who loved Beauvoir's work read it much the same way. Her subject and her emphasis I

on experience (often her own) invited letters that were self-revealing. a

The French historian Mona Ozouf has described The Second Sex as "an immense a

courrier du cœur."102 One could find the analogy preposterous. Beauvoir confronted i

subjects well beyond the pale of "Miss Lonelyhearts" columns. Her themes were not r

women's romantic disappointments, but their self-deceptions, traps, and failures. !

95 Ibid., April 3, 1956. §f

96 Ibid., November 21, 1956. For another example, see Rebreyend, "Sur les traces," 66. ,

97 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: An Introduction (New York, 1990), 17. 0

98 Ibid., 27. 5

99 On Mauriac, see Galster, Le deuxieme sexe de Simone de Beauvoir, 22, 294-296. On the tangle of sexuality, shame, and secrets in postwar France, see Coffin, "Historicizing The Second Sex." Mauriac complained that the erotic scenes in The Mandarins made him want to "vomit." L'Express, November 13,1954,16. In a letter to Beauvoir (in English), an enthusiastic reader wrote: "All the warmth contained in the sexual act is brilliantly expressed in many pages of your novel, and one never doubts that the author has had a fulfilled sexual life." Beauvoir, lettres recues, March 27, 1955.

100 Letter from Hannah Arendt to Alfred A. Knopf, December 16, 1952, Knopf Records, Series III, folder 1177.21.

101 L'Express, January 15, 1955, 3. Reviewers and readers compared The Second Sex and The Mandarins to tabloids such as Confidences, Sexual Digest, and Amour Digest. Galster, Le deuxieme sexe de Simone de Beauvoir, 126-130, 197, 237; Beauvoir, lettres recues, May 27, 1955; Larsson, La reception des Mandarins, 128, on women writers' lack of "restraint." On Beauvoir as a writer for women, see Moi, Simone de Beauvoir; and Elizabeth Fallaize, "Narrative Stategies and Sexual Politics," in Fallaize, ed., Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Reader (London, 1998), 199-200.

102 Mona Ozouf, Les mots des femmes (Fayard, 1995), 295.

Her work presented sexuality as an existential minefield or high-stakes adventure; the French women's press, by contrast, long tiptoed around the subject. Love, a sentiment that cultivated virtue, selflessness, and happiness in the everyday, inundated the postwar French women's press. Sexuality—which in that press evoked "egotistical pleasure"—was edgier. Until the early 1960s, even progressive publications that were suffused with eroticism, such as Elle, felt the need to shroud sex with romance and love. Homosexuality, abortion, and sexual violence, which Beauvoir confronted without flinching, were off limits.103

On the other hand, sharing confidences, breaking out of one's isolation, believing that confusions, wounds, anxieties, and what some would consider errant sexual desires were not singular—these were features of columns such as "Letters from the Heart" and of the "intimate public" that was assuming new prominence in the landscape of 1950s culture. Readers with no "head for metaphysics" trusted that Beauvoir would take their confidences seriously: "reading you, I felt the warmth of a friend's voice."104 The letter writer cited above underscored that she could not pose her question to "some Courrier du Cœur." Another actually apologized for addressing Beauvoir as if the philosopher "were a columnist with a courrier du cœur!"105 The t

"advice column" provided an important point of reference, a map of the new com- /

municative terrain of mass culture, a guide that helped letter writers with fewer .

resources participate in the more "elevated" discourse about private feelings. More- 0

over, many of the letters were peppered with tropes and language of the kind of jj

sentimental fiction that often ran alongside the courrier du cœur: references to | "dreadful adventures," "frightful abyss," "whirlwind," or, for instance, "

ment that I write this, I hear the stationmaster announcing the arrival of the train /

for Paris—what torture."106 Sentimental fiction, like the advice column, offered a U

ready-to-hand source of tropes and metaphors with which to take on the difficult I ■

subjects that Beauvoir's work raised. 0

Confidences, then, may have instilled confidence. Did identifying with Beauvoir become a way to forge a new female, and eventually feminist, identity? There are

103 Jacques Remy and Robert Woog, eds., La française et l'amour: Une enquete de l'Institut français d'opinion publique (Paris, 1960), a quasi-statistical study that became a mass market paperback, exemplified this approach to sexuality. La française et l'amour bowdlerized both The Second Sex and Alfred Kinsey's reports on American sexual behavior. See Judith G. Coffin, "Between Opinion and Desire: Elle Magazine's Survey Research in 1950s France," in Kerstin Brückweh, ed., The Voice of the Citizen Consumer: A History of Market Research, Consumer Movements, and the Political Public Sphere (New York, forthcoming); Grégoire, "La presse feminine, la femme et l'amour"; Marcelle Ségal and Hélène Gordon-Lazareff, Mon metier: Le courrier du cœur (Paris, 1952) (Segal wrote the "Courrier du Cœur" column at Elle for forty years); Evelyne Sullerot, La presse feminine (Paris, 1963); Morin, L'esprit du temps; Christian Delporte, "Au miroir des medias," in Jean-Pierre Rioux and Jean-Francois Sirinelli, eds., La culture de masse en France de la Belle Epoque a aujourd'hui (Paris, 2002), 305-351. On Germany, see Stefanie Duttweiler and Peter-Paul Baenziger, " 'Chere Marta, j'ai un problème': La mise en mots du malaise sexuel dans le courrier du cœur," Revue des sciences sociales 36 (2006): 108-115; Peter-Paul Banziger et al., eds., Fragen Sie Dr. Sex! Ratgeberkommunikation und die mediale Konstruktion des Sexuellen (Berlin, 2010).

104 Beauvoir, lettres recues, January 19, 1958.

105 Ibid., June 18, 1964, cited in Rebreyend, "Sur les traces," 60.

106 Beauvoir, lettres recues, June 14, 1958. This one was written on paper torn from a notebook. On existentialism as melodrama, see Moi, Simone de Beauvoir, 98-104.

Figure 3: Masthead of the "Courrier du Cœur" column in Elle. © ELLE/SCOOP. Reprinted by permission of Elle magazine, Hachette Filipacchi Media.

good reasons to look before making this leap, first among them Beauvoir's mixed feelings about feminism. The Second Sex maintained that unlike civil rights or anticolonial struggles, feminism could not be a real movement. Women do not say "we," as Beauvoir put it. Until the 1970s, she considered the subjugation of women too deeply embedded in other structures to make feminism viable as its own political force.107 The letters themselves advise some interpretive caution. Readers took away from Beauvoir's work a classically existentialist call to shoulder individual responsibility. They felt asked to be mature, or courageous.108 "You're right... I need to leave my adolescence behind, not burrow into it."109 Without The Second Sex, one reader might never have taken on "the trial of the real."110 Beauvoir's words sustained some during crises: "I read your book in a borderline moment, when I was at the end of my rope."111

A few readers expressed explicitly feminist politics or purposes. The pharmacist hoped for a "liberating storm" to sweep away bans on contraception; a journalist believed that The Second Sex might "open eyes."112 One thirty-two-year-old working woman penned this classic tribute: "Thank you. Thank you for your books, for The Ethics of Ambiguity, and then—above all—thank you for The Second Sex, which I read a few years ago ... It's something else—it is an enormous rock in a frog pond ... it is a clap of thunder in a deceivingly serene sky—it is the slave who looks at his chains. I am not exaggerating."113

For every letter that envisioned some kind of feminism, however, another explicitly ruled it out of court. One reader chastised Beauvoir for her politics, saying she should have championed collective action rather than individual ethics, but even that reader could not conceive of a women's movement. "Of course I don't think you should have called on women, as the oppressed, to create a revolutionary party!!"114 Another rued that women would never emancipate themselves: "The proletariat will

107 Beauvoir's own account of her relationship to feminism is in La force de ¡'age, 654, and La force des choses, 1: 258-268; see also Gennari, Simone de Beauvoir, 68; Moi, Simone de Beauvoir, 210.

108 Beauvoir, lettres recues, November 26, 1954.

109 Ibid., June 9, 1958. See also December 31, 1961.

110 Ibid., October 13, 1958.

111 Ibid., date illegible, 1956. See also October 14, 1960.

112 Ibid., January 12, 1958.

113 Ibid., June 18, 1957.

114 Ibid., March 10, 1950.

fight for itself; so will black people; but this 'negre' [sic] will not change UNTIL MEN WANT HER TO CHANGE."115 Beauvoir's analogy between the subordination of women and class, colonial, or racial domination was at once fundamental to the structure of The Second Sex and also hesitantly drawn. It is not surprising, then, that the book's highbrow reviewers almost completely ignored that provocative argument, and so did almost all of the letter writers.116

The most revealing exception to this silence is a remarkable document that demonstrates exactly how that analogy might be received. One young woman wrote in an effusive and slightly scattershot way about her children, existentialism, communism, and Sartre, enthusing that Beauvoir's fictional characters "continued to live" with her "to the point where they become tiresome!" She had discussed The Second Sex with a friend, a woman doctor whom she greatly admired. The doctor had followed up on their discussion with a letter, which the young woman enclosed along o with her own. The doctor was "eager to clarify [her] ideas on .. . this rich and new o book." "It expressed, and so beautifully, what I could only think." She objected to I the psychoanalysis in The Second Sex, but praised the sections on "lived experience." 0 "As for your objections," the doctor explained to her friend (we do not know what t those objections were), they would apply to all struggles for liberation. "Of course / none of this happens without drawbacks or dangers (look, for instance, at the de- . colonization that is under way). But this certainly should not prevent or slow down 0 the business of liberation, and the weight of the mistakes that may be committed falls 0 on the oppressors, not on the oppressed—the apprenticeship of liberty happens sur- f prisingly fast, as history shows."117 The doctor wrote in February 1958, as French 0 public opinion was turning against the French colonial war in Algeria, indeed three / months before the crisis sparked by the war would bring Charles de Gaulle to power. U She used the events unfolding in Algeria to make Beauvoir's arguments concrete, § ■ to evoke the tumult and upheaval that might result from women undertaking to 0 dismantle their own subordination, and to reassure her friend about the quickening -pace of historical change. It is a striking glimpse of politicization, how self-under- WO standing, along with affinities and felt "experiences," can be rendered differently and b transformed, the power of thinking by analogy, and the capacity of events to alter J the horizons of the possible. § In most of the letters, the politics are more introspective and the voice is from ff the interior.118 "Your close and faithful personal analysis is valuable for all women. §§ No one has done this before. (And I say that as a Freudian.)"119 Your voice reaches 1

"deep inside me."120 Readers felt that Beauvoir summoned them to feeling fully and mastering those feelings: "to understand the feelings that trouble me, which I didn't see clearly, and which I had a tendency to repress."121 They used her characters to think about themselves. "I never get tired of imagining these characters and hearing

115 Ibid., March 17, 1960; emphasis in original. See also September 12, 1961.

116 See Simons, Beauvoir and "The Second Sex"; Moi, Simone de Beauvoir; and Simone de Beauvoir and Gisele Halimi, eds., Djamila Boupacha (Paris, 1962).

117 Beauvoir, lettres recues, February 4, 1958.

118 On Beauvoir and the body, see Sara Heinamaa, Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference (Oxford, 2003).

119 Beauvoir, lettres recues, January 27, 1961.

120 Ibid., January 27, 1961.

121 Ibid., March 10, 1950.

their intelligent and eye-opening conversation. Rarely has a novel made me reflect as much as yours."122 They felt called upon to write about themselves, as an "affirmation," "deliverance," or way to bring order to themselves.123 One, in fact, refused that summons. She would be willing to talk about her childhood but had "no desire to speak of it in writing [sic], and no impression that doing so would either 'do me good' or help me to see clearly."124

That readers often cited the passage from The Mandarins in which Beauvoir hoped that "when they [readers] hear my voice they would have the impression they were speaking to themselves" suggests not only what they took away from reading Beauvoir but also how they took it, as a form of inner dialogue. On this, one last example: an American woman who had an extended correspondence with Beauvoir. An unabashed fan, she was articulate and fluent in French. Like many letter writers, she wanted to meet Beauvoir in person—and unusually, it seems, she did. She wrote o

after that meeting, plainly inspired. Her first priority was to excavate her own past: o

"Thank you so much for meeting with me. Now I am sure I will do psychoanalysis!" I

She understood that rigorous self-reflection would lead outward as well as inward, 0

that both her own self-understanding and women's sexuality more broadly were t

bound up in social and cultural taboos, prohibitions, and myth—and that they might /

involve political action. "For the moment, I have many concerns with feminism. But .

that is still abstract, on the level of discourse. Two of my student friends ... have 0

decided to tackle The Second Sex as soon as the fall semester begins. I am very jj

pleased."125 f

The politics of these letters, then, take multiple forms. There is an emancipatory 0

politics of struggling to find a voice and in these readers' moving efforts to break out /

of their loneliness, to glean more information, and to bridge the distance between U

themselves and the kinds of freedom that Beauvoir represented. There is a similar § ■

politics to the way in which Beauvoir provided resources, discursive and other, to 0

those who were hemmed in by isolation, by ignorance, and by a sense of themselves -

as unexceptional or unworthy of interest.126 There is a politics to the author-reader WO

relationship, which in this case could be (or seem) intimate without being egalitarian. b

These readers may have trusted Beauvoir, but many cast her alternately as a ce- J

lebrity, a model, an advice columnist, and an oracle. There is a politics to the silence §

on race and colonialism. The politics of these letters point in different and sometimes ff

contradictory directions. Still, the issues they highlight would remain central to fem- §§

inism's twentieth-century history, and to the movement's strengths and weaknesses. 55 The personal transformations that accompanied recognizing desire, or how it was thwarted—what John Gagnon calls "bringing the sexual in from the cold"—were powerfully radicalizing for many individuals and would bring many into politics.127 Feminism's shared struggles with civil rights and anticolonial movements would swell

122 Ibid., n.d., 1958.

123 Ibid., n.d., between July and December 1958. See also January 30, 1959.

124 Ibid., November 8, 1958.

125 Ibid., December 31, 1961.

126 Rebreyend, "Sur les traces"; Horowitz, Rereading Sex.

127 "For when the sexual was brought in from the cold, it was more than an intellectual act; it had the deepest emotional resonance and for many people it necessitated integrating the new fact of the sexual into the entire fabric of their lives." John H. Gagnon, An Interpretation of Desire: Essays in the Study of Sexuality (Chicago, 2004), 32.

its ranks—and its misrecognitions and blind spots on questions of race would make it seem narrow and exclusive.

A philosopher who also wrote best-selling literature; an author who received effusive letters from readers; a thinker who insisted on fundamentally reexamining human nature and whose subject was the relationship of self to other and to the social; a literary celebrity whose work would become essential to a generation of revolutionaries—Simone de Beauvoir cannot but bring to mind Jean-Jacques Rousseau.128 Between the two stood a century and a half of rethinking the self—most obviously the female self. Any of Rousseau's women characters—Julie, the virtuous mother-martyr in Julie; or, The New Heloise (1761), or Sophie, cast as Emile's helpmate in Emile; or, On Education (1762)—could exemplify the target of Beauvoir's | critique: woman as the inessential Other around whom the myths, culture, and psycho-social formations of modern western culture had taken shape. Beauvoir proposed a version of the female self who could speak—and to whom she spoke— frankly, with the lines of communication cleared of self-annihilating sentiment. Her mode of connecting with her readers was not the Rousseauian communion of hearts, but existential argument and psychological introspection. Her currency was emphatically neither confession, paying tribute to a higher authority, nor sentiment. She called on women to "lay claim to a consciousness" and "win possession of themselves," and to do so on the intimate terrain where gender relations were negoti- 3 ated—a call every bit as revolutionary as Rousseau's to renegotiate the social con- Г tract.129 Many of these letter writers took the gamble. If some of their ways of doing t so seem oblique—asking for information about a diaphragm or an abortion, writing n about having mixed feelings as a mother or feeling hatred for a father, declaring that 0 love had been sabotaged—Beauvoir's existentialism, with its insistence on the mean- ww ingfulness of the everyday, helped to draw them out in this mode. l "Feeling," too, had been revised. For Rousseau and the eighteenth-century cult I of sensibility in general, feelings needed to be extracted from encrustations of society r and civilization but were not themselves problematic. Social manners might be ar- I tificial; feelings were genuine and ennobling. As Charles Taylor and others have J shown, first the nineteenth-century Realist critique of Romantic illusions and the I banality of sentiment, and then the late-nineteenth-century reconceptualization of 2 nature as a "great reservoir of amoral force" combined to deepen the image of hu- 5 man interiority.130 "Feelings" in a Freudian world (to use a shorthand) were tangles of raw, inadmissible, or unarticulated desires, not concealed but distorted by re-pression—by society and class, by familial or patriarchal structures. plumbing one's

128 Several readers made the connection; see, for instance, August 24, 1960. Carla Hesse reinterprets Rousseau's revolutionary readers in "Reading in Extremis: Revolutionaries Respond to Rousseau," in Charles Walton, ed., Into Print: Essays in Honor of Robert Darnton (forthcoming, 2010).

129 Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 715. Philippe Lejeune helpfully distinguishes between a confession, in which the confessor acknowledges having made a mistake, and an aveu (admission), which is more defiant. As Lejeune also argues, an aveu does not mark a "liberation" from the rule or expectation defied, for the rule still stands, and is relevant. Lejeune, "L'autobiographie et l'aveu sexuel," 43.

130 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass., 1989), 445 and the discussion of changing conceptions of inwardness in chaps. 21-24.

feelings could not be a matter of simply opening one's heart; "the requirements of modernity [had] escalated."131 One way to capture the historical transformation, at least as it registers in Beauvoir's readers' letters, would be to say that these individuals spoke less of "feeling" and more of "desire," and that the latter was experienced as harder to master, less coherent or rational, and often, though not exclusively, in more bodily ways, as sexuality.

The cultural position of autobiography had also shifted. Rousseau cast himself as a pioneer in the realm of self-disclosure: "I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator."132 By the twentieth century, autobiography had become a more popular "structure for enunciating the self and also a mode of cognition," in Carolyn Steedman's words, and was no longer confined to writers or the well-known.133 Beauvoir's readers' struggles to write about themselves, about which many were so articulate, show the force field of this W

larger cultural change—an "incitement" to autobiography—as well as Beauvoir's |

particular existentialist summons to take themselves in hand and to make their life I

stories meaningful—to ask whether they were "wasting their lives." o

The route from Beauvoir to feminism was no more straightforward than the route t

from Rousseau to revolution. In fact, Beauvoir's own route to feminism was circu- 1

itous, and her correspondence with readers such as these may well have pressed her .

toward a different politics and self-conception as a writer. She certainly suggested 0

as much in her memoirs. In 1963 she mused that before the war, as a young writer jj

she would have been "surprised and even irritated to hear that [she] would be con- §

cerned with the problems of women, and that [her] most serious readers would be 0

<¡1 t

131 Ibid., 397. Lionel Trilling contrasts Rousseauian sincerity, "the congruence between avowal and ^ feeling," with twentieth-century "authenticity," a term that "suggests a more strenuous moral experience 5. ... a more exigent conception of the self and of what being true to it consists in." Trilling, Sincerity and o Authenticity (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), 11. See Lyon-Caen, La lecture et la vie, 90-100, for an excellent « discussion of the "Rousseau phenomenon" and Romantic letter-writing in general; Claude Labrosse, a Lire au XVIIIe siecle: La Nouvelle Heloise et ses lecteurs (Lyon, 1985); James L. O'Rourke, Sex, Lies, and a Autobiography: The Ethics of Confession (Charlottesville, Va., 2006); and Dennis Porter, Rousseau's i Legacy: Emergence and Eclipse of the Writer in France (New York, 1995). On the emotional economy of b sentiment and sensibility, see William M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History ¡3 of Emotions (Cambridge, 2001). On thinking through different aspects of the self, bodily, relational, and 0 reflective, see Jerrold Seigel, The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the J Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, 2005). §

132 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau,

(1782; repr., London, 1953), pt. 1, book 1, 17. 0

133 Carolyn Steedman, "State Sponsored Autobiography," in Becky Conekin, Frank Mort, and Chris 5 Waters, eds., Moments of Modernity: Reconstructing Britain, 1945-1964 (London, 1995), 55. See also Steedman, Dust (Manchester, 2001); Jeannelle, Ecrire ses memoires au XXe siecle; and Peter Gay, The

Bourgeois Experience from Victoria to Freud, vol. 4: The Naked Heart (New York, 1995), 103-149. On the French history of autobiography or life writing, see Lejeune, Le pacte autobiographique; Philippe Le-jeune, Je est un autre: L'autobiographie de la litterature aux medias (Paris, 1980); Philippe Lejeune and Catherine Bogaert, eds., Le journal intime: Histoire et anthologie (Paris, 2006); and Francoise Simonet-Tenant, Le journal intime: Genre litteraire et ecriture ordinaire (Paris, 2004). In late-nineteenth-century France, life writing was popularized in the form of keeping a journal, but the journal was handed in to the teacher to be corrected and handed back. Girls in particular were admonished to be humble and self-effacing. Lejeune and Bogaert, Le journal intime, 91. Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton, N.J., 2007), 33-38, offers some ways to distinguish the forms of nineteenth-century "life writing" from autobiography and the modernist memoir, as do the essays in Jane Gary Harris, ed., Autobiographical Statements in Twentieth-Century Russian Literature (Princeton, N.J., 1990). On feminism and autobiography, see Kate Millett, Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir, ed. Elaine Marks (Boston, Mass., 1987), 200.

women." She did not regret that development. If The Second Sex had been valuable for readers, readers had been no less important to her work; "they had reciprocally conferred on it its truth."134 To summarize, in this author-reader relationship po-liticization, like projection and the search for intimacy, was very much a two-way street. If some of the letter-writing readers were simply enthralled with Beauvoir's fame, others cast themselves as critics in their own right. Criticism was usually a province restricted to "fine minds" (les meilleurs esprits), wrote one reader; now this reader wanted to "participate out loud."135 Fans, critics, and interlocutors; unusual, quirky, and thoughtful: the readers who wrote to Simone de Beauvoir caught her attention, and they amply repay ours.

134 Beauvoir, La force des choses, 1: 267, 268.

135 Beauvoir, lettres recues, March 8, 1950.

Judith G. Coffin is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at e

Austin. She has written The Politics of Women's Work: The Paris Garment Trades r

(Princeton, N.J., 1996) and articles on gender, labor, consumerism, advertising, 3

sexuality, and social science, most recently "Beauvoir, Kinsey, and Mid-Century p

Sex," Simone de Beauvoir: Engagements, Contexts, Reconsiderations, Special Is- a

sue, French Politics, Culture, and Society 28, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 18-37; and 0

"Between Opinion and Desire: Elle Magazine's Survey Research in 1950s 0

France," in Kerstin Briickweh, ed., The Voice of the Citizen Consumer: A History j

of Market Research, Consumer Movements, and the Political Public Sphere (Ox- |

ford University Press, forthcoming). She co-authored with Robert Stacey three el

editions of W. W. Norton's Western Civilizations (New York, 2002, 2005, and o

2008). The present essay is part of a project on "Simone de Beauvoir and Mid- a

Century Sex." She is also writing "The Interior Fortresses of France," about U

letters to the journalist and radio personality Menie Gregoire in the 1960s. 3