Man is crystallized in the peculiar system of the book.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Letters from America

Alexis de Tocqueville. Letters from America. Translated, and with an introduction by Frederick Brown. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2010. (forthcoming: November 1, 2010)

Excerpted in The Hudson Review, Vol. LXII, No. 3. pp. 357-397.

[Note: Because so much wonderful writing appears in journals, some of which have limited general readership, it seems a good idea occasionally to feature interesting journal pieces here to encourage readers to seek them out, to subscribe to them, to buy them off the shelf. They are definitely worth your time.]

Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831 at age 25, five years younger and eleven years earlier than Dickens, whose first U.S. trip would become the source material for his American Notes: a Journey. A mere four years after his American excursion, the thirty-year old Tocqueville would publish Democracy in America. His letters from that trip, at least those included in The Hudson Review, are wonderful. And, perhaps because they are letters—moreover, letters to his family—they are honest, open, and fresh in a way that more formal prose often is not. Dickens' travel notes are great reading, Tocqueville’s letters are marvelous literature.

Scheduled to be released on November first, it can be pre-ordered from Yale or your local bookstore. My order is in.

Many of the letters go far to enlarge Tocqueville’s humanity; he writes freely and easily, reminding us of the mostly lost art of letter writing. After reading them, you long to call him Alexis. Through these letters he lives. Three short selections follow. The first is from his initial Atlantic crossing, the second describes what he terms “the social consequences of slavery,” and the last is an observation on American eating habits.
One moonless night... water began to sparkle like an electrifying machine. It was pitch black outside, and the ship’s prow slicing through the sea spewed fiery foam twenty feet in either direction. To get a better view, I shimmied onto the bowsprit. From that vantage point, the prow looked as if it were leaping at me with a forward wall of glittering waves; it was sublime and admirable beyond my ability to evoke it.
The right [north] bank of the Ohio is a scene of animation and industry; work is honored, no one owns slaves. But cross the river and you suddenly find yourself in another universe. Gone is the spirit of enterprise. Work is considered not only onerous but shameful: whoever engages in it degrades himself. The White Man is meant to ride horseback, to hunt, to smoke all day long; using one’s hands is what a slave does. South of the Ohio, Whites form a veritable aristocracy which, like every other, marries low prejudices to lofty instincts.
At first we found the absence of wine from meals a serious deprivation, and we are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets. Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack. So far this is the only respect in which I do not challenge their superiority…
There is much, much more. After tearing through the forty pages in The Hudson Review, I can’t help feeling that November is a very long way off.

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