Reviewed by Tess Taylor, special to the Tribune
Despite the fact that it's no particular anniversary, there seems to be a passion for revisiting the voyages of Alexis de Tocqueville, the 26-year-old French nobleman who set out to write a report on American prisons and ended up writing the sweeping classic 'Democracy in America'. Two books this season—one a novel and another a biography— re-imagine Toqueville’s 1831 journey through, and inquiry into the rude and upstart republic. The books are different in scope, narrative, and in the Toqueville they present, but each uses foreign eyes to show us anew how strange the place Emerson called “this new yet unapproachable America" really was.
In 'Tocqueville's Discovery of America,' Harvard historian Leo Damrosch follows Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont during their nine-month journey across the new continent. He travels with them on the boat as they struggle to learn American idioms. They find New York City full of pigs, and think it resembles a badly constructed suburb. In Boston, they are highly relieved to find a leisure class, and to re-enter a world of refinement, cultivation, and art.
After some rest, the two head out into the wild woods of Ohio where there is none. The country is in the throes of Jacksonian Democracy — Creek Indians are being removed from their native lands. Though settlers are pushing west, Milwaukee holds a mere 400 people and the lakeside port of Chicago is still a trading post. The two Frenchmen purport to be looking at prisons, but Tocqueville and Beaumont have a Forrest-Gump like knack for meeting up with their era’s icons and asking them big questions. They cross paths with John Quincy Adams, Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, Native Americans being displaced on forced migration, dancing Shakers, lonely homesteaders, and French-Canadians whose lives allow them to romanticize the simplicity of village life in pre-revolutionary France.
In their travels, the pair is tries to figure out what to make of it all. They have a firmly ambivalent perception of America: at times they’re moved and impressed, and at others, highly skeptical. Their ambivalence is rooted in the uneasiness of France’s own unfinished upheaval: Tocqueville is the grandson of nobles who had been beheaded at the guillotine during the French Revolution. He carries understandable doubts about how a country led by the mere mob could fare. Can the middle classes govern? What to make of these nouveau riche? These men on the make are so darn acquisitive! Beaumont and Toqueveille see Americans as ploddingly obsessed with money, dull at dinnertime, and lacking aesthetic refinement. They note that rule often falls to the hands of the best liked rather than the most capable. Toqueville is, to put it plainly, a bit of a snob. Yet in Damrosch’s telling, the young French visitor is also genuinely intrigued by the democratic process—curious, bemused, and fascinated by the nation of self-made people. The potential that makes America great—its possibility of reversals of fortune—also creates unsettling vulgarity. Inequalities seem "constantly shifting, rather than assigned at birth." Toqueville is entranced: the democratic flux both attracts and repulses him.
Carey’s fictional Olivier is a fascinating counterpoint to Damrosch’s researched Toqueville. He’s not a carbon copy of the historical figure, and makes a few significant departures. The real Toqueville traveled with a friend: the two relished American English, and met so many people that Toqueville complained loudly at the celibacy of American women: (Damrosch notes that he bemoaned that the there were no “respectable liasons” to be had.) Carey’s Olivier, by contrast, has lost his friend Blacqueville to a rather stupid sounding duel over honor in France. He sets out for America, not with a fellow noble, but with a servant named Larrit-- a leathery Englishman of unclear background who goes by “Parrot” and a whose job seems to be partly to spy on Olivier and partly to pen Olivier’s letters home.
Together Parrot and Olivier sally forth, and like the original pair, they find America a bit rough around the edges. What they do with this roughness is a different question. Parrot’s presence helps put Olivier’s nobility- and the whole institution of nobility—in sharp relief. Despite Parrot’s name, he’s no mere echo: He offers Carey an excellent occasion to create swaggering 19th century brogue— and a new vantage to explore the transformative power of America. The real Toqueville and the fictional Olivier remain skeptical. Damrosch quotes Toqueville writing: “the majority may be mistaken on some points, but on the whole it is always right, and there is no moral power above it.” Later he adds, "America demonstrates irrefutably one thing I had doubted until now, that the middle classes can govern a state. I don't know whether they could do it credibly in truly difficult political situations, but they’re adequate for the ordinary pace of society. Notwithstanding their petty passions, incomplete education, and the vulgar manners, they do definitely supply practical intelligence, and that turns out to be enough." Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but one which rings true nonetheless.
Both books also capture the sense that even if necessary, and better than monarchy, democracy leads to a certain cultural losses: Like the real de Tocqueville, the Carey’s Olivier bemoans by the "incomplete education" of Americans, by their sense of money rather than beauty. As much as he is preoccupied with the state of democracy in America, Olivier is also haunted by the state of its art. For just as it seems questionable that the rude masses (with their poor schooling and sub-par newspapers) should be equipped to choose leaders, so also it seems worrisome that they should be allowed to dictate taste. After all—reasons Olivier— what do they really know? Should art be subject to their whims? Hadn’t things of quality always relied on a system of patronage? Doesn’t the selection of the good rely on an elite to choose it? Should the mere market be able to determine aesthetic worth?
At the heart of these questions are darker questions that continue to haunt Toqueville and we who trace after him. Do the educations and pleasures of some rely on the suppression of others? What role do caste and class play in the creation of systems of art? Carey, particularly, leaves these problems pungently open, tantalizingly unfinished. Indeed, it is the question of whether a democratic society can really produce art that leaves Olivier most unsettled. It's no surprise that the fictional Olivier is traveling with a servant who also is a craftsman—the kind of skilled guildsman who for most of history would have remained anonymous and would have had no chance to rise. But it’s Parrot – the novel’s anti-hero—the deracinated, ageless man —who seems most primed to make something of this new land of bootstraps and reinvention—this landscape of market-driven vision. Parrot may be, for all his fictional presence, one of the best foils to help us understand not only the real Toqueville—but also ourselves.
Meanwhile, the question of whether we rude masses have produced anything of value is newly asked, newly felt, and richly worth considering. It's not that we haven't-- but that, after reading these two books, the entire project-- national, democratic, aesthetic-- seems more fragile, more unlikely, and more surprising. We feel again the newness and sheer hubris of our ambitious, our sometimes flawed, sometimes imperfectly realized dreams: our attempts to create all people equal.
Tess Taylor is the Amy Clampitt Poetry Fellow. Her collection of poems is called “The Misremembered World,” and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Agni, The Believer, the Hudson Review, Oxford American and other publications.