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Tocqueville's Letters Home

A scholar got the clever idea of collecting Alexis de Tocqueville's letters home from his nine-month stay in the U.S. Here's a sample that will make you want the whole volume.

I'd like to see someone turn Democracy in America into an opera. And evidently Tocqueville was quite a dancer, too. (No, I don't think the late Michael Jackson would have made the best Tocqueville.) But shouldn't this description of his shipboard amusement, from the new collection, be put into song?

One moonless night, for example, 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 solitude that reigns in the middle of the ocean is something formidable.

And like foreign visitors today, Tocqueville marveled at the huge amount of food Americans consume and complained about the lack of wine at meals. Toward the end of his journey he writes to his future wife: "If ever I become Christian, I believe that it will be through you. What I write here, Marie, is not an improvisation; these are thoughts long harbored…" Did this English woman read Jane Austen?

Concluding his love letter, the Frenchman presents himself as more a man of Mars and thus a better man of Venus:

I don't know why, Marie, men are fashioned after such different models. Some foresee only pleasures in life, others only pain. There are those who see the world as a ballroom. I, on the other hand, am always disposed to view it as a battlefield on which each of us in turn presents himself for combat—to receive wounds and die. This somber imagination of mine is home to violent passions that often knock me about. It has sowed unhappiness, in myself no less than in others. But I truly believe that it gives me more energy for love than other men possess.

Discussions - 2 Comments

I think it would do much to improve the "pursuit of happiness" in this country (to say nothing of domestic tranquility) if all young men, at some point in their careers, were required to read a book of such letters . . .

That is some gorgeous writing.

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