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The Philosopher at Fontana

TVA is so obviously a regional and national treasure that we often forget its global impact. But in 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the world’s greatest thinkers, came to America for the first time, and he proceeded directly to the study of TVA.

By Jack Neely

Those who think of TVA as a regional power company may not remember that at its founding it was an international sensation, drawing prominent visitors from around the world. Architects, engineers and heads of state visited the TVA region just to see this remarkable coordination of water and power, effort and energy.

Indeed, international visitors still come to study the TVA model. But of all those who have arrived over the years, perhaps the most surprising visitor was neither an architect nor an engineer.

He was a French existentialist.

Jean-Paul Sartre was the shortest man in the party of eight that disembarked from an American B-29 bomber at an airport near Knoxville, Tenn., one winter afternoon 55 years ago. If children stared at him, it was not because he was famous, but because behind his round glasses he was severely walleyed, his nearly blind right eye wandering far away from the other.

In early 1945 few Americans had heard of Sartre, although he had already written most of the books that would make him one of the preeminent philosophers of his century: the novel “Nausea,” the play “No Exit,” and the philosophical manifesto “Being and Nothingness.”

Sartre came to the TVA region not as an existentialist but as a journalist. A correspondent for French magazines like Le Figaro and for Albert Camus’s underground journal, Combat, he was in Knoxville for one reason: to see the great American experiment that had been famous in France since its founding 12 years earlier, the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Sartre and the seven other reporters with him were guests of the U.S. War Department. The tour had been organized to show America’s war effort, to which TVA was making crucial contributions. TVA hydroelectricity powered the manufacture of aluminum to build warplanes. And though at this time neither the French visitors nor the general public knew it, TVA was also providing electricity for the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The morning after the journalists’ arrival, guides whisked them to one of TVA’s newest hydroelectric dam projects: Fontana, deep in the Great Smoky Mountains.

photo of sign at fontana

Sartre’s comprehensive description of TVA for the magazine Combat isn’t readily available in English, but excerpts make it sound like a glowing review. TVA was “a democratic effort,” he wrote, “a vast cooperative.”

For the mainstream magazine Le Figaro, however, Sartre wrote an essay called “American Cities,” in which he described the transitory, distinctly un-European quality of New World communities. In his fertile mind, the prefabricated village TVA had built to house the workers at Fontana became the symbolic American city.

photo of prefab village“The striking thing,” he wrote in Le Figaro, “is the lightness, the fragility of these buildings. The village has no weight, it seems barely to rest upon the soil; it has not managed to leave a human imprint on the reddish earth and the dark forest; it is a temporary thing.

“In America, just as any citizen can theoretically become President, so each Fontana can become Detroit or Minneapolis; all that is needed is a bit of luck. . . . Detroit and Minneapolis, Knoxville and Memphis, were born temporary and have stayed that way.”

Then one last metaphysical flourish: “They have never reached an internal temperature of solidification.”

Sartre’s itinerary, preserved in the National Archives, records that he and his colleagues went on to Norris Dam after visiting Fontana and then flew to Muscle Shoals, Ala., to tour the wartime facility where TVA produced nitrates for use in explosives.

Sartre remained in this country four months before returning to enjoy the next 35 years as an intellectual celebrity in the cafes of Paris. He never forgot his brief tour of the remarkable place called Fontana, and even late in life recalled it as a symbol of the footloose American culture that both fascinated and appalled him.

In 1974, when he reminisced about his American trip in the famous published conversations with his lifelong companion, author Simone de Beauvoir, he was quick to cite “Roosevelt’s TVA” as one of the high points.

—Jack Neely is a Knoxville-based writer and historian. He is the author of three books: “Knoxville’s Secret History,” “Secret History II,” and “The Marble City.” His column, Secret History, appears weekly in Metro Pulse, Knoxville’s alternative newspaper.


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