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Tocqueville's Discovery of America Hardcover – Bargain Price, April 13, 2010
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“[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as most scholars do, Damrosch draws on the letters Tocqueville wrote home to friends and family, as well as various unpublished notes he took during his trip.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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As Damrosch demonstrates in his penultimate chapter, “Building a Masterpiece,” Tocqueville’s method was to ceaselessly amass all the powerful, vivid impressions he could find, then distill them into trenchant, abstract analysis. “My ideas [while composing the book] keep getting bigger and more general,” he told the companion of his American trip, Gustave de Beaumont, adding “Is this good or bad?” He said he felt like a traveler who was climbing a hill overlooking a great city. First, the people themselves faded from view, then as he moved higher, the buildings, public squares, and streets became indistinct. The potential benefit of such an ascent was that while “ [t]he details of this immense tableau” grow increasingly “shadowy,” “ [my] gaze takes in the ensemble, and I conceive a clear idea of the whole.” Now, thanks to Damrosch’s book, we can savor both facets of Tocqueville’s mind––the brilliant abstract analysis and the myriad contributory images gathered during treks from New York to Detroit to Boston to Philadelphia to Memphis to New Orleans and back to New York.
This double perspective enables us to see how first impressions (and not always entirely accurate ones) would, upon critical reflection, grow into seminal ideas. For instance, when Tocqueville and Beaumont attended a Fourth of July parade in Albany, Beaumont noted that “[a]ll the industrial and commercial professions, represented by their delegates, have banners on which their trades are inscribed. Nothing would be easier than to ridicule these banners that say ‘Association of Butchers,’ ‘Association of Apprentices,’ and so on.” What will become the principal theme of Tocqueville’s entire work (the enormous importance of voluntary associations in organizing and preserving political freedom in the United States) was, at the point when it first entered his consciousness, on the verge of being treated as a joke. In like manner, Tocqueville was disgusted by his first exposure to Native Americans, whom he described as ugly, strange, and brutal, evincing “something of the wild beast.” These initial unfiltered images were a long way from his mature appreciation expressed in sentences such as these: “In the depths of his poverty in the forest, the Indian cherishes the same ideas and opinions as a medieval nobleman in his castle....The most celebrated republics of antiquity never had occasion to admire firmer courage, prouder souls, or more uncompromising love of independence than lay concealed in the wild forests of the New World.”
Damrosch uses his prodigious familiarity with a host of American, French, and English writers to enrich our understanding of what the two young Frenchmen were seeing and experiencing as they traveled through the eastern United States of 1831-1832. The reader first hears what Tocqueville or Beaumont thought of a particular physical or psychological event, then learns what Harriet Martineau, Henry Thoreau, Blaise Pascal, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, or Adam Smith said about a similar or identical incident or situation. For instance, after learning that the two Frenchmen stopped outside Albany to tour a Shaker meetinghouse, we are told that Martineau, after a similar visit, compared the dancing Shakers to “so many galvanized corpses.”
The book is full of fascinating information. We learn:
how very near the world came to not having Tocqueville’s masterpiece or any young Tocqueville at all. If Robespierre’s Reign of Terror had lasted another three days, Tocqueville’s parents would have been guillotined––fifteen years before he was conceived.
that although Tocqueville hated legal study, finding the entire subject “arid and tedious,” he found actual legal practice strangely “stimulating.” He was amazed to discover “that immersion in complex details could be intellectually absorbing,” even going so far as to say that while concentrating his mind on a legal dilemma, he often felt “the same bien-etre I’ve experienced in my heart when I was in love.”
that in 1831, it was possible to buy commercial mosquito repellent in the nascent city of Detroit––a very good thing because the surrounding Michigan woods were full of the noxious little beasts.
This is a book that will teach American readers a great deal about their native country and the manner in which a genius works to transform raw facts into a literary classic. Its erudition and fascinating insights are presented in a writing style that is easy, energetic, and precise––a great read by a superbly talented, exceptionally knowledgeable author.
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. The young Frenchmen would be a perfect team, as Damrosch says. Beaumont was said to be a cheerful extrovert, able to charm any group of strangers, while Tocqueville was reported as easily exited by ideas that interested him and a compelling conversationalist with intelligent companions of any social class. Francis Lippitt, whom Tocqueville took as an assistant later in Paris, asserted he was the most reticent man and was unaware of his being the author of Democracy in America.
This book also tells us about circumstances and thinkings of American people at 55 years after from the independence. Tocqueville saw and critiqued social behaviors and mores dominated in America at that time. He understood why the new nation needed to think itself in those ways. He saw frontier spirits and industriousness of new world with his own eyes. He witnessed slavery and impressed by Indians. He believed what he saw in America, democracy especially, could influences political thought and action in France. Tocqueville predicted quest for material well-being was unappeasable, and stated it was always difficult for a democratic people to begin a war and to end it. Much has changed in our community from Tocqueville’s era, but much has not. We are still facing with various conflicts among us. We have not established an ideal society for our happiness yet. Tocqueville’s issues are seemed to remain unsolved. This book will become a good opportunity to think about a desirable world for our own.