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Monday, May 31, 2010

Tocqueville’s Discovery of America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), by Leo Damrosch

Book Review

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Dispatched by the French government in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville was on a mission to study American prisons. He inspected Sing Sing as promised, but was more interested in investigating the country as a whole. The backdrop to his often quoted classic, Democracy inAmerica, is the subject of Tocqueville’s Discovery ofAmerica. The readable account by Harvard literature professor Leo Damrosch follows the French savant’s journey across the young republic by examining his letters home and the copious notebooks from which Democracy inAmerica was drawn. Damrosch points out that Tocqueville was sometimes naive, failing to recognize the vast disparity in wealth among white Americans. Yet, he was right more often than not, especially when pondering the business culture and enormous natural resources that would turn America into a world power. Tocqueville admired Native Americans and loathed the barbaric treatment the settlers handed them and the land they inhabited.

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