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Alexis de Tocqueville was among the first foreigners to recognize and trumpet the grandness of the American project. His two-volume classic, Democracy in America, published in 1835, not only offered a vivid account of what was then a new nation but famously predicted what that nation would become. His startling prescience, as well as the endurance of his political ideas, has firmly established Tocqueville's place in American history; his chronicle of our infancy is a fixture on every American history syllabus. Nearly all of his clairvoyant predictions about American political life, from the influence of Evangelical Christianity to the advent of our "consumer society," have come true—and on the schedule he set.
Yet in his own time, Tocqueville had little evidence for the truth of his ideas. Introspective, sickly, prone to self-doubt, he was an unlikely visionary. Joseph Epstein, America's most versatile essayist, proves an ideal guide to his predecessor. In wry, elegant prose, he engages Tocqueville's intellectual contributions, illuminates the development of his thought, and provides a referendum on his various prophecies. (His record was far from perfect—he thought the federal government would wither away as the states rose in power.) Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide is an altogether human portrait of the Frenchman who would become an American icon.
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 1859), whose Democracy in America is more quoted than read, is the subject of the latest installment in the excellent Eminent Lives series. Tocqueville is fortunate enough to have Epstein (Snobbery: The American Version), another man of letters lighting the way. Epstein provides a penetrating examination of the man, his works, his influence, his times and what we can learn from Democracy in America. Epstein performs sterling service in marshaling the vast amount of material available on this enigmatic 19th-century Frenchman, and gives readers a clear understanding of the immense complexities involved: Tocqueville is much more than a source of useful epigrams and half-remembered misquotes. Was he a conservative, a liberal, a Christian, an agnostic, a historian, a sociologist, a reactionary aristocrat or a radical bourgeois? The answer, Epstein concludes, was that he was all and none; each era has its own understanding of the man, refracted through the particular concerns of the time, lending Tocqueville an aura of timelessness. His exquisite literary sensibility also helps to keep him fresh for each new generation. As an introduction to the man and a primer for his works, Epstein's book is admirable.