Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis
(University of Chicago Press)
US: Apr 2012
In Dreaming in French, Alice Kaplan takes on la grande tâche of creating a cohesive book about the influence a year abroad had on Jacqueline Bouvier, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. Meticulously-researched and with an eye for detail, the book sings with anecdotes and interviews from a time that was under-documented. However, Kaplan is strongest when she lets the details speak for themselves and doesn’t try too hard to draw wide conclusions about the three women and their time in France. The book also could have used more editing, considering several typos and a misuse of the phrase “begs the question” chip away at the satisfaction it provides.
Writing a book about three different people, especially three such accomplished and famous individuals, is a tricky task because the reader is automatically put in the position to judge which character emerges as the most interesting. Surprisingly, Bouvier comes off as the flattest, perhaps because of the lack of controversy in her life. She didn’t leave her husband and young child to go to France and be with a woman, as Sontag did, and she didn’t seek haven from American racism there, as Davis did. Bouvier’s dirtiest secret was, in fact, that her family was not really French, as she liked to pretend.
By the time Bouvier coud live out her dream of feigning French while in France (she pronounced her name Jack-leen and had an invented story of a French heritage), her more interesting years as a pre-First Lady seem behind her. It comes across as far more interesting to read how, as a high school senior, she contributed columns and cartoons (about a woman called “Frenzied Frieda”) to her high school newspaper. In France, though, Bouvier was a model student. As First Lady, her French was spoken “in a slow, singsong whisper, plaintively—a schoolgirl French, with each syllable carefully chosen.” Her letters home during her year abroad were rich with immaculate detail and lovely prose, but they reveal little about her internal landscape at the time.
Kaplan’s chapter about Bouvier’s return to France as a Kennedy is interesting information, but most of the information is content that readers could obtain from any number of sources. (This is especially true, of course, for readers who are old enough to have lived through the Kennedy administration.) Yes, Kennedy was criticized for her lavish wardrobe, for making the White House menu “too French”. Kaplan glosses over some of the more interesting details in the second chapter devoted to Kennedy, such as her miscarriage or her feeling at odds with her new in-laws.
Kaplan handles the transition between the Kennedy chapters and the Sontag chapters gracefully, especially considering the vast differences between the two women: “If Jacqueline Bouveier’s France is outside her, a kingdom of forms, an aesthetic longing, Susan Sontag’s is all interiors, an exploration of self, a zone of intense sexual freedom and discovery.” While both women were Francophiliac intellectuals, Sontag was, of course, less in the public eye and more absorbed in the literary and film culture of the time. Additionally, her diaries have been published by her son, so there is simply more material available about her than about Bouvier/Kennedy.
The two chapters devoted to Sontag prove illuminating and blend literary criticism with biography well. Kaplan tells the little-known story of Harriet Sohmers, Sontag’s French lover who introduced her to beatnik culture. In fact, Kaplan gives more ink to Sohmers than she does to Sontag’s husband, which seems appropriate given that the former seems to have had a larger influence on Sontag’s life. “Stop reserving this journal so much for the chronology of my affair with Harriet,” Sontag admonished herself in a diary entry. Kaplan could have said more about the Algerian War of 1957-58 and how it affected Sontag’s time in Paris. Indeed, the focus on this chapter is definitely internal.
The second chapter on Sontag is one of the highlights of the book. By then, Sontag was more comfortable with her homosexuality: “My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as weapon to match the weapon that society has against me.” This is also the chapter in which Sontag has a change of heart against the so-called “New Novelists” she once emulated, saying that the theory produced by the writers was more interesting than th novels themselves. In 2000, she announced in an interview with Les Inrocktuptibles that she had attempted the New Novel because she thought she was supposed to like it, and her actual distaste for it had led her to writing more traditional fiction. Kaplan pithily summarizes the geographic uncertainty which plagued Sontag’s writing career: “The American literary establishment called attention to her by finding her literature impossibly French; the French literary establishment insisted she wrote like an American in spite of herself.”
One of the most moving aspects of this chapter is the revelation of Sontag’s “overwhelming desire to please, to appease, to see oneself through other people’s reactions, to spare other people’s feelings, to care what they think,” a problem that dogged Sontag so much she referred to it simply as “X”. Later, she claimed to have overcome X, and Kaplan chalks up Sontag’s relative indifference to the Algerian War as the byproduct of a young woman invested in her quest to define her sexuality. In one of the few intersections of the book’s subjects, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis requested a blurb from Sontag for a book of fashion photographs she was editing.
While there are those points of intersection between Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Sontag, Angela Davis’s story is, by far, the one that departs the most from the other women’s, simply because of her race and the time in which she grew up. Born in Birmingham, Alabama during the days of the Jim Crow South, Davis was the product of intellectual and activist parents, a good student, and took up French easily. These details are interesting enough, but a large portion of this chapter is devoted to describing what American Southern racism was like at the time, a topic that has been covered at length and in more appropriate books by other writers. One anecdote stands out, that of Davis and her sister speaking French in an expensive shoe store where the clerk fawned all over them, suspecting them to be tourists from Martinique. Speaking French gave Davis a pass into a world she might have otherwise been denied.
While Davis’s actual time in France is discussed less than that of the other two women, Kaplan makes it clear that France appealed to the young intellectual because she could be taken seriously there and be treated as an equal, if not even fetishized as the expatriate black scholar. It was perhaps this time in France that gave Davis some of the mettle she would need to withstand her infamous murder trial, to which Kaplan devotes most of the second Davis chapter. Again, the story of Davis’s trial is one that is well-known enough to permeate literature about her, and, while it was definitely a formative experience (to say the least), it would have been nice to see Kaplan devote more time to other aspects of Davis’s life. That said, Kaplan illuminates some of the more unusual aspects of the trial, such as the fact that the defense had to use literary criticism as part of their strategy: “They needed to prove, in general, that the language used in letters represented something very different from the literal meanings implied by the prosecution.” After Davis’s exoneration, prison studies worked itself into her realm of academic interests for obvious reasons.
Kaplan’s conclusion is one of several places in which she tries to hard to justify the importance of her claims, claims which largely stand for themselves when she lets the stories tell themselves. After all, the lives of three such extraordinary women hardly need authorial vamping to make them more interesting.