Kathleen Burk at The Times Literary Supplement:
In 1947, Simone de Beauvoir suggested that America was an empire of a new kind, driven less by the love of power than by “the love of imposing on others that which is good”. On the evidence in this book, that was about the nicest thing she said about the US. She was an exemplar of those Europeans who felt contempt for America because it was too cheerful, too self-confident, too non-European. She embarked on a road trip of her own, and her conclusion was that the problem with Americans and America was that they had no comprehension of evil. She tried to find “squalor, weariness, hatred, cruelty and revolt” in a journey through the Southern states, but it was not until she arrived in Chicago that she was pleased, or perhaps relieved, to experience the city’s sombre air (Conrad comments that this had more to do with soot than with philosophical gloom). In the Chicago stockyards, she discovered “dark and murky deeds”, where cowboys on horseback ushered their herds into what she called “the concentration camp”. It was only here, Conrad points out, that she finally saw a moral equivalence between the continents.
European visitors have long been driven to find the worst that they could. Those who came in the 1820s, 30s and 40s, particularly from Britain, found what they looked for. Frances Trollope found bad manners and equality, which she hated; Charles Dickens found that Americans were pushily obtrusive, and their institutions, in particular their prisons, were worse than he had thought; almost all visitors hated slavery. Jean-Paul Sartre looked even more assiduously than Beauvoir for appalling discoveries and found them in Americans themselves, whom he called “phenomenally stupid”, cowed by superstition, and in awe of machines. America was a monster. Worse, Americans were irrepressibly cheerful, which Cyril Connolly ascribed to an overdose of vitamins and calories.