Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Book Review: "Tocqueville's Discovery of America"

Leo Damrosch's new book Tocqueville's Discovery of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) draws on previously-unpublished sources and the last several decades of historical scholarship to illuminate the nine-month journey that ultimately resulted in the publication of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. In doing so he effectively both updates and abridges George Wilson Pierson's Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (first published by Oxford University Press in 1938 and reissued as Tocqueville in America by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1996).

While Pierson's 850-page behemoth remains the most detailed reconstruction of Tocqueville and Beaumont's trip across America, Damrosch's much more compact book will certainly prove more accessible to the general reader, and his analysis of what Tocqueville got right (and wrong) in his treatment of American society and politics is both interesting and instructive.

The trip itself cannot fail to impress - Tocqueville and Beaumont experienced much of America during their visit, even if some (mostly in the South) was seen mostly through stagecoach windows (Tocqueville long lamented not having spent enough time in that region to gain a real sense of it). From Boston to Niagara Falls to the Michigan wilderness, New Orleans, and the capital at Washington, America was observed, even if it was not entirely understood.

Damrosch's comparison of Tocqueville's reactions to things American with those of other European travelers (Marryat, Dickens, Trollope) was very useful, and throughout he keeps a good narrative pace and style. An enjoyable read.