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by Leo Damrosch

Pub Date: April 20th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-374-27817-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The journey and insights of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) in America.

In 1831, Tocqueville and his fellow French aristocrat Gustave de Beaumont traversed a burgeoning, teeming America in the grip of territorial expansion and commercial explosion. They were amazed by the young country's industrious, plainspoken, egalitarian and largely middle-class ways. Tocqueville was privileged to witness, as Damrosch (Literature/Harvard Univ.; Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, 2005, etc.) notes of their visit to the fledging city of Cincinnati, “impressive young professionals who were energetically building a civilization.” The author traces this journey, familiar to readers of Tocqueville but always wonderfully entertaining, while lending his own astute observations. Tocqueville and Beaumont set out on official government business to examine the prison reforms being instigated in America and bring back new ideas to France. Tocqueville admitted later the penitentiary system was a good "pretext" for examining the whole American experiment, from marriage to government to slavery. He and Beaumont kept copious notes, from which Damrosch translates for the first time here. Curiously, the men barely spoke English but gradually learned to appreciate the idiomatic simplicity of American speech. For example, Tocqueville was eager to see forests and Indians, as the Frenchmen were steeped in romantic notions of Chateaubriand's America, and marveled that there was no word for wilderness in French. They visited 17 of the 24 states and the Western territories, of which Ohio was the frontier. They finally found in Boston a polite society much like they had known in Europe, though they made themselves at home everywhere among shopkeepers, farmers or prison guards. Politics in Washington, D.C., disappointed them.

On this vicarious trip, Damrosch effectively demonstrates why Tocqueville proved “a superb interpreter of American culture.”