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Tocqueville's Discovery of America Hardcover – April 13, 2010

4.6 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for Tocqueville's Discovery of America

“Tocqueville's Discovery of America is lively, always interesting, and oftne touching. It also fills a gap in the literature that was deliberately created by Tocqueville himself.”—Alan Ryan, The New York Review of Books

“[A] scintillating new book . . . Remarkably, given the excitements and reach of Tocqueville’s nine-month American trip, it is seventy years since the last full account of the itinerary. Leo Damrosch is well qualified to do the renovation. A distinguished specialist of eighteenth-century literature at Harvard . . . he is deeply familiar with Tocqueville’s literary and intellectual contexts . . . Damrosch contagiously enjoys himself, and happily enters into the enthusiasms of the two young Frenchmen, as they let the strange, loud, free, placeless society disturb and excite them.” —James Wood, The New Yorker

“Leo Damrosch has provided a perfect accompaniment to [Democracy in America] . . . This lovely book ought to delight those who already love Tocqueville's great work, for showing how it came to be. But it can also serve as a fine introduction for those just coming to Democracy in America.” —Keith Monroe, The Virginian-Pilot

“Damrosch is an acute observer of Tocqueville.” —David S. Reynolds, The New York Times Book Review

“In Tocqueville’s Discovery of America, Leo Damrosch, who teaches literature at Harvard, has seized an opportune moment to scratch the polished surface and explore what lay behind the oracular pronouncements. At a time when generalizations about the American soul seem risky at best, it is somehow reassuring to learn that even the great Tocqueville was often winging it . . . Rather than rely on the book published years after his return to France, as most scholars do, Damrosch draws on the letters Tocqueville wrote home to friends and family, as well as various unpublished notes he took during his trip. The material gives a life and freshness often absent from drier academic tomes.” —François Furstenberg, Slate

“Leo Damrosch narrates [Tocqueville and Beaumont’s] journey through salons and saloons, the beautiful Hudson River Valley and the trackless Wisconsin forest, clouds of merciless mosquitoes and flocks of gorgeous parrots . . . The result is neither another biography of Tocqueville . . .  nor another study of ‘Democracy in America,’ but rather a genial and colorful portrait, on a modest scale, of an astonishing young country and the likeable young man who first interpreted it to Europe.” —George Scialabba, The Boston Globe

“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 . . . The author traces this journey, familiar to readers of Tocqueville but always wonderfully entertaining, while lending his own astute observations . . . Damrosch effectively demonstrates why Tocqueville proved ‘a superb interpreter of American culture.’ ” —Kirkus Reviews

“[Damrosch] presents an insightful update to Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1831 tour of young America . . . Insightful and sometimes witty, [Tocqueville’s Discovery of America] is a useful companion for all who are reading Tocqueville or want to learn more about him.” —Robert Moore, Library Journal

“[Damrosch] constructs a lively narrative of [Tocqueville and Beaumont’s] eye-opening journey. Their arduous travel; their reactions to Americans’ informality; their foiled flirtations with young women—de Tocqueville and de Beaumont entertained their folks in France with these experiences, which Damrosch weaves into a flowing account.” —Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

“This entirely fresh book, about one of the most fateful, significant and profound journeys ever taken in modern times, is lavishly readable and compelling and illuminating.” —Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News

“Helping to humanize as well as historicize the young Tocqueville while he was discovering America is the main achievement of Damrosch’s concise and absorbing new book . . . [It] ought to make a more nuanced appreciation of both the man and his great work accessible to a wide readership . . . The human young Tocqueville is much more impressive than the cold abstraction, and for helping to bring him to life we are in Leo Damrosch’s debt.” —Sean Wilentz, The American Prospect

“Leo Damrosch applies the perspective and strengths of an outstanding literary scholar to narrating Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous visit to the United States—its motives and outcome along with its daily course. Damrosch places Tocqueville’s famous book about America securely in its French context and enriches our understanding with fascinating personal insights. The reader’s pleasure is enhanced by the many charming illustrations.” —Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848

“In this deft and original book, Leo Damrosch helps us rediscover Tocqueville and the nation the Frenchman chronicled so brilliantly and enduringly.  What Tocqueville found in Jacksonian America resonates anew in our own time, and Damrosch’s engaging account of a world at once remote and familiar is invaluable—and entertaining.” —Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion

About the Author

Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University. He is the author of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction and winner of the PEN New England/Winship Award.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (April 13, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374278172
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374278175
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,580,480 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. Grattan VINE VOICE on April 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Why another short biography of Tocqueville after the commendable efforts of Joseph Epstein, author of ALEXIS de TOCQUEVILLE, 2006, not to mention the more comprehensive efforts of Hugh Brogan, 2007? In this case, the biographer emphasizes the itinerary of Tocqueville's and Beaumont's nine-month journey to America in 1831. The hunger that Europeans had for understanding the strange phenomenon of America is evidenced by the huge sales of the first volume of DEMOCRACY in AMERICA, published in 1835, three years after his return, and the celebration and respect afforded Tocqueville.

Tocqueville's investigation of America was wide-ranging, not only geographically, but across the entire culture, involving persons from all walks of life. He was a French aristocrat, but he resisted the temptation to disparage the crudities of American culture as had so many previous elitist visitors. There is no doubt that he identified most strongly with the views of Boston's upper society, yet he came to understand that self-interest, ambition, and commerce were key to American society and actually led to a sort of civic stability and virtue not unlike that esteemed by the old disinterested gentry of America.

It is remarkable that Tocqueville and Beaumont plunged headlong into the perilous wilds of America. The difficulties they endured can hardly be exaggerated: a steamship that nearly sank, extreme cold and snow, iced rivers, nearly impassable roads, broken down stagecoaches, etc. But all of that was put aside in their thirst to experience firsthand America's wilderness, Indians, the Southern peculiar institution, etc.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book can be compared to a documentary on making of Democracy in America. Leo Damrosch retraces the experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville’s nine month journey with his friend Gustave de Beaumont in the newly born United States. 1831 was the year when Charles Darwin concurrently set sail in the Beagle. Damrosch reproduces their trail vividly by scrutinizing every letters, notes, and scribbles, together with writings connected with their journey. Much has changed in America since Tocqueville’s visit. Skyscrapers didn’t exist yet. Big cities had appeared as mere rural sceneries for the European travelers. It comes as a surprise to learn their route and distance when transport facilities were not developed well. Their trouble surpasses our imagination. Damrosch writes most severe winter in fifty years hit them. The railroad was still underway. Their means were limited to steamboats and coaches. The road were detestable and the carriages even worse. Frequently carts broke. It would be miracle they could safely return to France after nine months’ long journey. The episode steamboat captains tended to race a rival vessel and made engines exploded resultantly delivers us the vigor and vulgarness of the era.

Their superior’s decisive step to allow the young investigators to look into penitentially systems in America in the midst of political turmoil is notable even though they had to finance the travel by themselves. What attracts my attention more is the fact, all American people whom they met through travel generously accepted a twenty-five-years apprentice magistrate and his friend and kindly helped to solve their questions, rather than their good fortune they could meet with every important persons to collect necessary information.
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One might understandably question whether observations about our country and its government formed some 180 years ago could possibly be applicable to us today. Yes,that view is respected, however, here is an excellent commentary by Leo Damrosch that bridges the close to two centuries while illuminating for us again those extraordinary experiences shared by Alexis DeTocqueville and his friend Gustav de Beaumont as they toured America in 1831 through the beginning of 1832. While their trip was sponsored by the French government in connection with a study of the emerging American penal system, the everlasting focus became the nature of the emerging democracy in this new land. So, there are two major benefits from Damrosch's work for all of us. The first is DeTocqueville's impressive analysis of the emerging democracy in our land and its future challenges, and the second is the many descriptions of what our country and its people looked like at that time. Take a crack, it's only 225 pages!
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A nice read about Tocqueville"s journey in America. Especially interesting were the observations of a foreigner in a new, developing country. I did find some parts of the book to be a bit tedious but overall it was a useful read.
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I don't usually read the book selections of my spouse's book group. But the Toqueville book intrigued me as a subject, and I found the writing to be clear, enthusiastic reading, with a beautiful description and analysis of our country as it was opening up re land use, city size, race relations, and political implications. I highly recommend this book to any person interested in a non-redundant, easy-to-read history of the U.S. from Toqueville's perspective. Very engaging!

Diane Bright
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