Letters from America
Alexis de Tocqueville
Yale University Press, 2010
304 pp., 40.00
Daniel E. Ritchie
Tocqueville's "Letters from America"
This letter demonstrates the habit of comparative analysis that he would later use to such brilliant effect. He's beginning to see that, unlike the French, Americans are developing a "social state" where material well-being is more important than politics, and where individuals seek distinction largely outside the political sphere. Only after years of reflection (and more conversations with American friends) would Tocqueville be able to explain how these characteristics grew out of Americans' dual commitments to equality and liberty.
The long selections by Beaumont establish beyond doubt that the pair were an "intellectual team," as Tocqueville scholar James Schleifer calls them. Beaumont's criticism of the treatment of the Indians anticipates Tocqueville's view, as does his (happily mistaken) Jeffersonian prophecy that most educated Protestants would turn Unitarian. But beyond their value in understanding Democracy in America, the letters are often simply delightful. To stay with Beaumont a bit longer, the comments on American fine arts are rife with comic snobbery: American theater is "frightful," its actors "detestable," its music "simply barbaric." Then there's our clothing: "of various colors, all loud." And to think we hadn't yet created the Hawaiian shirt.
Before my students go abroad I like for them to have studied their own country, preferably by reading Democracy in America. But in fact, many students don't begin thinking seriously about America until after they've been abroad. If travel has that effect on students, I can't complain. They're repeating Tocqueville's experience, after all.
Daniel E. Ritchie, director of the Humanities Program at Bethel University, is the author most recently of The Fullness of Knowing: Modernity and Postmodernity from Defoe to Gadamer (Baylor Univ. Press).
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