Thursday, November 18, 2010

What We're Reading

Tocqueville’s Discovery of America by Leo Damrosch

Alexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who toured the young American republic in 1831-1832. Upon his return to France, he wrote one of the great books of political theory produced in the 19th century, Democracy in America. It was widely read and appreciated during his time, and has become a classic study of the nature of democratic forms of government. In Democracy in America Tocqueville noted certain contemporary American mythologies that are still important to us today, and he proved to be extraordinarily prescient about how democracy in America would develop and the problems that it might face. His masterpiece has perhaps suffered the fate Mark Twain ascribed to a classic in his famous definition (“a book that everyone praises, but nobody reads.”). But if you ever plan to give it a go, read Damrosch’s book first.

Tocqueville’s Discovery of America isn’t a biography, or even a travelogue, although the author roughly traces Tocqueville’s nine month journey through America. It would help to think of it as an exceptionally long and astute preface to Tocqueville’s masterpiece. Perhaps such a “preface” is a necessity for readers approaching the work at this distance in time, but Damrosch has not simply rehashed previous work. He has produced a book that is fresh and original, one that is a delightful and important addition to the scholarship on Democracy in America in its own right.
Using archives of manuscripts and letters that contain materials that have never before been translated into English, Tocqueville’s Discovery of America is a work of scholarship that will enhance the reader’s appreciation and understanding of Tocqueville’s text. The narrative is engaging and informative, and Damrosch, being a literary scholar rather than an historian, seems to have a particularly keen eye for choosing the letters and passages that are rich, nuanced, and especially illuminating. Not the least of the interesting achievements of this book is that we come to understand how Tocqueville’s idea for his book came about, how he decided to frame what he would write and what he hoped to achieve by his study. The reader is left with the impression that Damrosch’s knowledge of Tocqueville and Jacksonian America is broad and that a much longer book might have been written, but that he has sifted through the material and chosen wisely, producing a book that is both a compact and useful introduction to Tocqueville, his ideas, and his unique and original contribution to our understanding of democracy in America.

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