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When Judith G. Coffin discovered a virtually unexplored treasure trove of letters to Simone de Beauvoir from her international readers, it inspired her to explore the intimate bond between the famed author and her reading public. This correspondence, at the heart of Sex, Love, and Letters, immerses us in the tumultuous decades from the late 1940s to the 1970s— from the painful aftermath of World War Two to the horror and shame of French colonial brutality in Algeria through the dilemmas and exhilarations of the early gay liberation and feminist movements. It also provides a glimpse into the power of reading and the power of readers to seduce the authors of their favorite books.
The relationship between Beauvoir and her audience proved especially long, intimate, and vexed. Coffin traces this relationship, from the publication of Beauvoir's acclaimed The Second Sex to the release of the last volume of her memoirs, offering an unfamiliar perspective on one of the most magnetic and polarizing philosophers of the twentieth century. Along the way, we meet many of the greatest writers of her generation—Hannah Arendt; Dominique Aury, author of The Story of O; François Mauriac, winner of the Nobel Prize and nemesis of Camus; Betty Friedan; and, of course, Sartre—bringing the electrically charged salon experience to life.
Sex, Love, and Letters lays bare the private lives and political emotions of the letter writers and of Beauvoir herself. Her readers did not simply pen fan letters but, as Coffin shows, engaged in a dialogue that revealed intellectual and literary life to be a joint and collaborative production. "This must happen to you often, doesn't it?" wrote one. "That people write to you and tell you about their lives?"
"Coffin's book is a signal achievement in the history of reading and literary history writ large. Her sensitive and astute use of the unexplored letters written to Simone de Beauvoir gives us a truer sense than we've ever had of this writer's central role in postwar culture."—Alice Kaplan, author of Looking for The Stranger
"Beauvoir has often been either unduly attacked or zealously defended by biographers and critics. Coffin gets beyond this impasse, neither apologizing for her subject's limitations, nor reproducing the biased standards by which contemporaries and historians often judge women. Those who read bestsellers by Tony Judt or Rebecca Traister will enjoy Sex, Love, and Letters."—Sharon Marcus, author of The Drama of Celebrity