Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tocqueville and Beaumont's Roadtrip

Randall Stephens

The June 2011 issue of Historically Speaking will include an interview with Leo Damrosch on his book Tocqueville's Discovery of America (FSG, 2010). It's an insightful, lively work of literary history. It will be out in paperback this summer. I paste here part of my extended review of Tocqueville's Discovery, which appears in the April 18th issue of Christian Century.

To European visitors in the first half of the 19th century, Americans were like their newfangled steamboats: noisy, combustible, always on the move—and dirty. "I hardly know any annoyance so deeply repugnant to English feelings as the incessant, remorseless spitting of Americans," Frances Trollope reported. Riding aboard one of the garish, belching behemoths on the Mississippi, Trollope observed that when Americans were not spitting, they were eating their food too quickly. And after that they picked their teeth with a pocketknife.

Charles Dickens also seemed to hold his nose as he passed through America. "In all modes of travelling, the American customs, with reference to the means of personal cleanliness and wholesome ablution, are extremely negligent and filthy," scowled the English novelist. The Americans he encountered aboard a crowded steamboat were tedious: "There is no diversity of character. They travel about on the same errands, say and do the same things in exactly the same manner, and follow in the same dull cheerless round." . . .

Damrosch is a gifted writer with a flair for vivid, eloquent descriptions. Over a long career in literary studies, he has written on David Hume, Samuel John­son, Alexander Pope and William Blake. His Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Rest­less Genius was a National Book Award finalist. Tocqueville's Discovery of Amer­ica takes him into deeper historical waters. Skillfully weaving in original sources and the words of Americans and of European observers, Damrosch follows Tocqueville and Beaumont from New York to Detroit, from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., asking the reader to share in Tocqueville's discovery of a turbulent, changing society. "What Tocque­­ville eventually created was not an ac­count of 'Americans' as a unique type," writes Damrosch, "but a structural explanation of some profound reasons why democracy, by its very nature, tends to produce certain characteristics in its citizens.">>>

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