Sunday, May 06, 2007

Book Review: "Alexis de Tocqueville"

Hugh Brogan's masterful new biography Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life (Yale University Press, 2007) earned many plaudits across the Pond last year, and after completing my read of it I can only conclude that they were justified indeed. Brogan's research was exhaustive, and his richly detailed account of Tocqueville's life, works and thoughts proves it.

Many of us in America know Tocqueville - if at all - as the chronicler of 'our' culture in Democracy in America. But that book, researched when the author was just 26 and written just a few years thereafter, formed only a small portion of Tocqueville's intellectual life (though I suspect the observations he made in America stuck with him for the duration). Tocqueville's life in France, during one of the most turbulent and unsettled periods in that nation's long history, must of necessity claim pride of place in any complete biography (of course whole books have been written just about Tocqueville's trip to America).

I learned much from Brogan about AT's role in the various French governments up to the establishment of the Second Empire, and even more about the troubled family dynamics and near-constant health problems which clearly had a tremendous impact on the man's works throughout his career (the ultimate chapters covering his final illness and death, it must be said, are grippingly vivid). Here was a man who truly didn't know what place he was to hold in a society which seemed to be changing around him with shocking frequency - it's a great wonder that he ever got any work done at all.

Brogan's book is a hefty volume, and its 644 pages of narrative are densely packed (the notes are excellent too, but then I'm a sucker for those). This is not a book to read over a weekend (even a long weekend), but one which I enjoyed in short bursts of about one chapter at a time. If you read it, take your time with it as well; like Tocqueville's own writings, I think this book rewards the careful reader. It's no breezy biography - it's more, and it's better for being so.