What must it be like to travel as a well-known stranger in a foreign land, particularly if you happen to be the celebrated author of “The Stranger?” Albert Camus’ “Travels in the Americas: Notes and Impressions of a New World,” published by the University of Chicago Press, will give you the impression that it’s bound to make you sick. Camus made two trips to the Americas in the 1940s. The first was to the United States and Canada in 1946, the second to Brazil and other parts of South America in 1949. In both cases, he traveled as a cultural emissary for France, a country anxious to regain its global footing following the ignominy of German defeat and occupation. Despite what the “New World” of the book’s title suggests, what one gains from reading Camus’ musings and observations is less a fresh, outsider perspective on mid-century America and more an appreciation for how exhausting life could be for a mid-century, French intellectual still finding his voice and his public.
Thirty-two years old in 1946, Camus was making an international name for himself as a writer and intellectual. Sartre’s visit to the United States in 1945 had heightened interest in French philosophy, and with Camus’ visit scheduled to coincide with the English translation of “The Stranger,” he stared down an ambitious itinerary. On the trip from France to New York City, he spent some nine days at sea aboard the cargo ship Oregon, sharing a four-person cabin with four other men. He was working on “The Plague,” but his journal entries, mostly brief, reveal only fragments of his philosophical and political thinking. Among his initial impressions of the United States: “[N]o one ever has any change in this country” and “[E]veryone looks as if they’ve just stepped off a low budget film set.” His appearance in New York merited a brief item in the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section and an interview in the New York Post (which was a very different newspaper then), both of which are included in the book’s appendices. The United States seems to have bored him; at one point he comments that “my curiosity about this country has ended.” American commercialism and complacency were a stark contrast to Europe, which was beginning to claw its way out of the horror and ruin of war. Camus was sometimes homesick, occasionally morose, often ill, and usually exhausted. He notes the many lectures he gives, but he says almost nothing about the topics upon which he spoke. Helpful annotations by Alice Kaplan, the book’s editor, and translator Ryan Bloom provide notes on these and other points.
Things were different by the time he traveled to South America in 1949. “The Plague” had been published two years earlier, and Camus was now an established intellectual. This time on the boat over he had a single room. During his two-month stay he spent most of his time in Brazil, with brief sojourns to Uruguay (he found Montevideo charming), Buenos Aires (not so charming) and Chile. Throughout he lectured and met with all manner of writers, artists, diplomats, students, intellectuals and expats. As with his trip to North America, he also spent considerable time ill. His short entry for August 31, his last day in South America, begins with this sentence: “Sick.” Perhaps not surprisingly for someone with an interest in the absurd, he seems to have been drawn to rituals both sacred and profane. In New York City it was the Bowery Follies. In Brazil it was a Macumba ritual, a description of which forms one of his more extended entries.
Travel diaries are risky propositions. The writer must sort through buckets of sensory data in deciding what to record and remember and what to abandon and forget, all the while finding both the time and energy to write. If Camus’ diary is more muted than we would perhaps expect an absurdist’s diary to be, it is no doubt because he was giving his intellectual energy to a public that demanded it. But despite all of the people and places he encountered on terra firma, it was the sea that held him. There he found “a horizon equal to human breath, a space as great as its audacity.” The sea’s silence, he wrote, “at last delivers me from everything.” This poetic bit of roaming was written on the ship returning him to France from New York. He returned to France from Brazil on an airplane, or in his words, “a metal coffin.”
“Travels in the Americas: Notes and Impressions of a New World”
By Albert Camus
University of Chicago Press, 152 pages