Monday, January 12, 2015

Book Review: Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis

Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis
by Alice Yaeger Kaplan

For generations young Americans have been traveling to Paris, a city renowned for intellectual rigor and cultural refinement, to study and to become themselves. Kaplan’s Dreaming in French looks at the year abroad, in Paris, of three remarkably different young American women who went on to remarkable public careers, each deeply marked by French culture. With the author we look at the historical record of each of these women’s Paris years and begin to get a sense of their young lives. In addition we examine the way their years abroad affected their accomplishments here in the United States and, interestingly, their effect on France.

Jackie Kennedy was among the first of the postwar young women to travel to a still impoverished Paris. Initially she was cloistered in a residential school with her fellow upper class American college girls. Soon she was living in the apartment of an upper-class French family—connections of the Bouviers. Later, with a friend, she broke free of adult supervision for a train trip to Spain. She was savvy enough to use a hat pin to ward off unwanted caresses. Later she spent time with a handsome young French aristocrat, and his family, where she gained the continental patina which made her a role model for women the world over.

A middle class Jewish girl of remarkable intellectual promise, Susan Sontag made it to Paris by hook and by crook. Of the three, Sontag had the least French but the most hunger to dive into French intellectual life, the centuries-old Paris of the Left Bank, the Sorbonne, the cafes and the walk-up garrote apartments, making her way as a writer. Sontag’s intellectual credibility in France and in America made her one of the few truly international public intellectuals of her time.

Angela Davis had by far the most skill with the language when she arrived in France. These skills would soon give her insights that would have a powerful impact on her public life. Only a few days after she arrived in France she read of the death of her neighbors in the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The coverage of the horrific event in the French press contrasted powerfully with the timid, and sometimes racist, coverage by American newspapers. She gained courage from the knowledge that there is a world of objective opinion beyond the control of local political interests. Her later activism was widely admired in France and French public opinion was often instrumental to the success of her activism. Only a few years ago a French elementary school was named in her honor.

These three American women arrived in Paris only a dozen years or so apart, but those years touched three different eras. Kennedy was there during the post-war recovery, Sontag, the beat years, the years of the French New Wave, and Davis during the early years of Sixties French political activism which would soon overthrow the French government. Each woman was a leader for change in their field: high art, the avant-garde and political activism. Each of these ambitious women would no doubt have made large public contributions had they never made their Parisian pilgrimage, but those years abroad arguably gave us Kennedy’s sophistication, Sontag’s self-assurance and Davis’s acute political insight.

Although Kaplan’s Dreaming in French seems to be a simple book about the years abroad of three young American women, it covers a vast amount of recent American history even as it offers up dozens of small antidotes about everyday life in a beloved city.

Check it out and enjoy.

David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library

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