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Tocqueville is famous in this country for a book he wrote for French readers: Democracy in America was intended to show the laborious path to democracy in France, so Tocqueville went into painstaking detail about the civil, political, and religious institutions of America. His eye for detail is much in evidence in this selection of his letters, which is good news for those interested in Tocqueville as an observer of 19th-century America, France, and Britain. Stuck in Memphis in the winter during his American trip, Tocqueville describes the tumult as a Mississippi steamboat makes its appearance, ""spouting like a whale."" ""The entire population of our universe made its way to the riverside. . . The whole city of Memphis was in a flutter; no bells were rung because there are not bells, but people cried out hurrah!"" (It's not entirely beside the point--Tocqueville's point--that there were no bells in Memphis in 1831.) Tocqueville's letters point up some of the main observations of his great book: the solidity and stolidity of American mores; the all-encompassing obsession with riches; the centrality of private interest; the unheroic nature of democracy. This last point is reflected in many ways here, and makes inescapable the awareness that this aristocrat found democracy inevitable, beneficial, and boring. A letter to John Stuart Mill extolling the martial virtues and hopeful that France would find a war to save its virtue led to a cooling in their relationship (which had previously been one of mutual admiration). Letters from the period 1839-1847 show Tocqueville, a member of the Chamber of Deputies under the July Monarchy, trying to organize a liberal opposition but also chagrined at the pettiness of French politics. The 1848 revolution--of which Tocqueville is one of the great chroniclers--finds him writing under the noise of canons; but his heroic impulses leave him as he roots for the forces of order against the specter of ""the reddest Republic"" during the fateful June Days when the workers' revolts were suppressed. ""It is not a political form that is at issue here; it is property, family, and civilization, everything in a word that attaches us to life."" Tocqueville's politics could be ambivalent; he knew too much to be certain all the time. Some may be put off by a traveler who throws three books at random into his luggage and winds up with Machiavelli, Plato, and Boussuet; but others might read these letters just for that reason. If only scholars are apt to read them all, no one with an interest in 19th-century history or political and social thought will want to pass them up.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1985
Publisher: Univ. of California Press