The Visitor

By Wallace-Wells, David | Newsweek, April 26, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Visitor


Wallace-Wells, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Wallace-Wells

More than 200 European writers toured the United States in the decades after the Napoleonic Wars, publishing mostly contemptuous accounts of the makeshift nation for the delight of their own provincial readers back home. Perhaps none was so ill equipped as the ambivalent aristocrat manque Alexis de Tocqueville, and perhaps no work so unlikely to endure as his kitchen-sink portrait Democracy in America. Tocqueville was just 25 when he began his journey in 1831, the year of Darwin's voyage, a capable but undistinguished student who had become a provincial administrator, a well-born bureaucrat who doubted the legitimacy of the "bourgeois monarch" he served. He lacked the literary stature of Charles Dickens or Frances Trollope, whose caustic American "itineraries" skewered Yankee customs, or his cousin Chateaubriand, whose reveries for the majestic American landscape largely invented the Romantic tradition in France. Tocqueville's purpose was somewhat narrower. He had come to prepare an administrative report on American prisons; he paid his own way.

It was not his book on prisons that has mesmerized American audiences, however. Edward Banfield called Democracy in America "certainly the greatest book ever written by anyone about America"--to which Gordon Wood has added, "not only on America but also on democracy itself." George Wilson Pierson, the Depression-era historian responsible for a midcentury revival, praised Tocqueville's "essentially 'binocular'?" vision, and presented the man who possessed it, a royalist scion, as a prophet of the democratic era--a judgment Leo Damrosch, in his new piggyback picaresque through antebellum America, endorses. (Scrupulous Tocqueville biographer Hugh Brogan, too.) Democracy, which declared the triumph of self-government a "providential fact" but warned against the dangers of democracy unchecked, has been called "frighteningly prescient," and Tocqueville has been cited so often and so variously that the critic Caleb Crain has called him, cheekily, "the Nostradamus of democracy." Others have not been so cheeky. "He is the least insistent, but the most seductive, of the 19th-century prophetic writers," Mill scholar Alan Ryan has argued, championing Tocqueville over Goethe, Marx, Nietzsche, and Weber. The Frenchman's foresight is "uncanny," marvels Harvey Mansfield in an effusive forthcoming meditation--even disconcerting. "It is as if anyone who predicts so well must be a seer."

"Naif" is a better term. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville seems nothing more than an impressionable amanuensis--and perhaps a too-willing mouthpiece for the moneyed classes of New York and Boston, who, Damrosch shows in Discovery of America, celebrated Tocqueville's unpropitious landfall with predictable provincial pomp. (That reception is recounted, too, in Peter Carey's ventriloquistic new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America.) Tocqueville took the word of one prominent New Yorker who told him, at the peak of the bank war and two years after the inauguration of Andrew Jackson, that no partisan rancor roiled the United States, and trusted another who assured him, within a year of the nullification crisis and Nat Turner's rebellion, that the American commercial spirit would never permit damage to the Union. Not a decade after the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine, he felt assured the United States had "no foreign interests to discuss." He imbibed the Federalist critique of Andrew Jackson during a brief conversation with a Boston Brahmin but declined to engage the president himself when he had the opportunity of a private audience. Tocqueville praised New England town meetings but never bothered to observe one. Nor any revival camp meetings. He didn't visit a single American college. It took the Frenchman just one Sunday in New York to conclude he had arrived in a religious nation, and when a friendly priest dismissed the many unorthodox Protestant sects emerging on the American frontier--in the greatest flowering of religious sentiment for a nation marked deeply and weirdly by religious expression--Tocqueville agreed that the country was headed for Catholicism.

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