A new edition of Letters from America by Alexis de Tocqueville has arrived at the library and what a find it is for me! Chatty, opinionated and full of history from the perspective of a Frenchman in America, these letters were written in 1831 and many of the trends and characteristics that struck Tocqueville are still evident even today. I can't resist commenting below.
His main opinion about the American character is that Americans have an "immoderate appetite for wealth, and a desire to get rich quickly."
Did this play out in the financial melt down of recent years?
He also characterizes Americans as living "in perpetual fickleness, a continual need for change, the total absence of old traditions, ancient mores, a commercial and mercantile spirit applied to the most incongruous things."
Perhaps this seeking spirit is why we are such an inventive, creative and industrious people today.
He and his companion and fellow lawyer, Gustave de Beaumont came to America to study the American prison system. They wrote that in the prisons of New York absolute silence was required of all inmates and harsh punishment for violations was rigorously applied. Tocqueville goes on to say, "Strength lies not in numbers but in association, and thirty individuals united by constant communication, ideas, common projects, schemes, have more effective power than nine hundred people whose isolation is their fatal flaw."
Does our strength lie in always being in touch through Facebook, Twitter and texting?
Tocqueville was concerned for his family left in France during much political turmoil. He writes, "While the political world engenders revolutions in Europe, here physical nature is prey to frightful convulsions. All the talk is about enormous hurricanes and appalling devastations; New Orleans, the Antilles, have been the theater of these calamities."
I couldn't help, but think about the recent devastation in New Orleans and Haiti.
De Tocqueville and Beaumont, visit the virgin forests of the Detroit area. I was surprised when he wrote, "some of the forest dwellers use the bears as guard dogs; I saw a few tethered near doorways."
I was also surprised to learn that "The custom among women of the forests (Chactas Indian) is to have their feet pointing inward...It is achieved by binding the feet of female infants. By age twenty, a woman walks pigeon-toed, and the more pigeon-toed her walk the more fashionable she is thought to be."
I admire Tocqueville's endearing honesty: "In short, there is no one in the world I know less well than myself; I am a permanently insoluble problem. I have a very cool head and a reasoning--even calculating--mind; at the same time, ardent passions carry me off without convincing me, subdue my will without compromising my reason. I see the good very clearly, and spit it every day."
Tocqueville is clearly thinking of writing a book about his experiences and ideas about America when he writes, "I shall write what I think or write nothing at all, while bearing in mind that wisdom does not want every truth aired." This book would be his famous Democracy in America published in 1835.
My friend told me about a 2006 book by the Frenchman Barnard Henri Levy called American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. He apparently traveled in America recently. Shall I make this my next read? What new surprises will I find?