Alistair Cooke: A Tocqueville for Our Time?

By Wells, Ronald A. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Alistair Cooke: A Tocqueville for Our Time?


Wells, Ronald A., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


As citizens of this world, especially Europeans, watched the United States grow from a mere British colony to one of the dominant nations in the world, a pattern of conversation developed among them about the meaning of this new colossus of the New World. A question emerges: is America inevitable or inimitable? (Rose 1). The question is easier to ask than to answer. This essay is a partial effort to shape an answer to that question. The means to that end will be a review of some of the European comments on America on the way to placing Alistair Cooke's journalism in the context of that commentary.

Let us be certain, however, before proceeding to the analysis of the question, that we understand the meaning of the question. Bo sides of the question are amply represented in American historiography and in European writing about America. The one stresses the uniqueness of America, that no nation or people on earth can be compared with the unique experience of the Americans. The other stresses that America is the forerunner of what European, even world society will be tomorrow. Can both of these be true at the same time? They are clearly contradictory, but are they mutually exclusive? A contradiction may contain logically exclusive elements but still speak the truth-such is the definition of a paradox. Some observers have suggested this as an interpretive paradigm, that for those who would see America whole they must take it by its parts. Those parts are contradictory and the result of their being held together, if at all, in contrapuntal relation, yields a conclusion that America is a contrapuntal society, inhabited by a people of paradox (Kammen 9). Most Americans, and, indeed, most European observers of the American people seem content to live with that paradox. The differences between them are more of tendency than tenet, of disposition than dogma. For example, even such a passionate observer of America as Simone de Beauvoir believes that, in the end, if you love America you must learn to "love sorrowfully" (248).

At this point one must ask a subsidiary question to the main one under review: given the obvious fact that the history of any nation is unique, how is it that the United States came to be seen as the forerunner of world change, the "sign" society for the world (Neuhaus 72-73, 184). To be seen as the laboratory for humankind's future possibilities is a great burden. As J. Martin Evans notes, no other modern nation has had to bear as great a weight of idealism as this (16).

The one view--America as model for world development--Ss a creation of European wishful thinking. Right from the beginning of the "discoveries" of America, there was the belief that America was not so much a new Garden of Eden as a place of new beginning for Europe to repair the damages of the first "fall" in the original "Garden." As John Locke remarked, "In the beginning, everything was America" (140), In Thomas More's Utopia we see the first mature reflection on the New World in the literature of the Old World. The genius of More's work was that by 116 one need not merely speculate about an imagined Atlantis southwest of Europe. America was there, and could be traveled to, and settled in (Slavin 136-64). Nevertheless, the Utopean account of Raphael Hythloday was theoretical in that the land of the utopians did not in fact exist in "the real" America.

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s he could put theories behind him and offered Europe a real glimpse of a working democracy, arguably the only one in the world at the time. Everything was available for world scrutiny, from government to economics to the attitudes of the people. Americans welcomed this scrutiny because they wanted to show the world that their beloved nation offered a workable model of the thing Europeans wanted--a society equal and free. Tocqueville believed that democracy (in all the affective meanings of the word) was the way of the future, and that the United States was worthy of examination because it was experiencing first what Europe must experience later on. …

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