Democracy Growing Up: Authority, Autonomy, and Passion in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

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Bradley Thompson.

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Why Read Tocqueville?

Lebron 4. Rate this book Clear rating 1 of 5 stars 2 of 5 stars 3 of 5 stars 4 of 5 stars 5 of 5 stars. Any one claiming to pass judgment on the distinguishing traits of another country does so out of such an intricate web of predeterminations—some of them environmental, others historical, others still linguistic or broadly structural—that even his most guarded pronouncements are likely to appear odd, funny, or at the very least lopsided to a reasonably level-headed native.

But a reasonably level-headed native, though he may justifiably indulge in the feeling that his is a sounder judgment, will not want to miss a chance of reexamining on that occasion some of his own assumptions. Ideologies are by definition self-confident and self-assertive; not infrequently, they retain their forcefulness even when submitted, as happened in France in the nineteenth century, to major adjustments in the wake of dramatic political changes.

But the United States are hardly less an ideological country, dominated as they still are by an almost religious reverence for their founding myths. They encourage the same bold identification between principle and experience, because both nations like to think of themselves as entrusted with a universal mission.

This is barely conducive to tolerance, and accounts, I believe, for the fact that, culturally as well as politically, France and the United States have often reacted to each other with almost spastic intensity, oscillating from extremes of admiration to extremes of contempt, and drawing on an inexhaustible fund of self-righteousness for a justification of their most excessive appreciations. Gathering the threads of her argument in a concluding chapter which has the ring of a manifesto, Magny bravely psychologized on the plight of the American novelist, and advanced claims for the more recent fiction which in effect catapulted it to the status of classical excellence:.

It would seem that to be a writer in the United States, she wrote, necessarily means to be unhappy, perhaps even desperate, as if American intellectuals formed a caste doomed to be sacrificed, as if it was their destiny to be afflicted with a despondent sort of lucidity, in compensation for, or perhaps in expiation of, a refusal of the rest of the nation to acknowledge the reality of evil It is probably this stance more than anything else which gives an exemplary quality to the American novel, and authorizes us to define the present period as being truly the age of the American novel.

The interest we find in it lies not so much in what we learn through it about technique or thematic concerns as in an ability to throw light on broader forms of experience, which at this juncture characterize literature itself. Magny was only amplifying and formalizing the judgments passed by Sartre and Malraux about Faulkner and Dos Passos, and responding on the high-brow mode to the fascination experienced in those years by Europe for a culture which also comprised jazz music, chewing gum and coca-cola. For one thing, I do not feel that I have the right critical equipment to deal with a rather formidable array of cultural data, ranging all the way from the economics of book-selling to prevailing philosophical systems.

Then, to the extent that, as Magny suggested, American literature today addresses itself to a mode of existence and to a form of civilization which largely exceed the boundaries of the United States, French views are entitled to claim no special originality. In some way, the very size of the cultural phenomenon has made national differences of evaluation fade into relative insignificance. By contrast with this recent period, I believe that France, throughout most of the nineteenth-century and up to at least World War I, presented the rather unique image of an old continental nation with a strong, self-assured cultural tradition, responding now awkwardly, now perceptively, but always with startling eagerness, to the promises and challenges of a literature harking from the New World.

Shortly after the publication of their books in New York or London, French translations would be put on the market and reviewed in such respectable periodicals as Le Globe and La Revue des Deux Mondes. The early part of the work embraces a description of the Oswego, one of the tributary rivers of Lake Ontario, along the shores of which lurk the Iroquois, for the purpose of making the party captive.

Here Cooper is himself again. His description of the forest, the running stream, with its rapids and waterfalls, the artifices of the savages who endeavor to outwit the Great Serpent, Jasper and the Pathfinder, furnishes a succession of admirable pictures which, in this work as well as its antecedents, is inimitable. Here is what is sufficient to dishearten all the romancers who have the ambition to follow in the footsteps of the American author.

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This is the school where all literary landscape painters must study; all the secrets of art are there. That magical prose not only shows to the mind the river and its shores, the forests and their trees; it does so by encompassing both the minutest details and the grandest outline. Perhaps unconsciously, most French readers had come to like in Cooper a writer who, so to speak, met them more than half-way: he fed their romantic longings, gratified their craving for exoticism with minimal adjustment on their part; he spoke to them of thrillingly foreign and primitive landscapes in a language which was itself reassuringly familiar.

Almost overnight, his reputation underwent a sharp decline, prompting several reviewers to announce his literary demise.

French readers simply refused to accept the proposition that an American novelist might want to transfer his plots across the Atlantic and emulate native writers on their own premises. Europeans disapproved of him when he made Europe the subject and the locale of his fiction, but the highest praise they could bestow on him was inspired by an assumed resemblance with Old World virtues. He was invited to show himself boldly original, but Europe insisted on defining the nature and limits of this originality. A great deal of time was to go by before French critics could bring themselves, in dealing with American books, to wish for an unchartered, unplanned brand of novelty, and respond to its upsetting charm.

In both countries, there was a deep, if confused, sense of impending change, and the very uncertainty of the future, its vague promises and looming threats, fostered a normative form of criticism, more interested in general views than in the appreciation of individual works. Its value on the other hand lies in the representative quality with which it credits literature and artistic forms in general: individual authors become the exponents of deep sea-changes, which they contribute in turn to articulate.

Democracy in America - Wikipedia

Where literary creations of the first magnitude are wanting, a discussion of the causes responsible for the situation falls legitimately within the province of literary criticism. The diagnosis may then develop into a prospective reflection, combining social observations with a degree of philosophizing in an effort to work out a new aesthestics for those vistas stretching dimly ahead into the future. Others beside him in France recognized at the time the significance of the American scene, and endeavored to probe the meaning of its distressingly few cultural manifestations.

During the Restoration, he was imprisoned in the Conciergerie in spite of his very young age under a charge of conspiracy. After his release, obtained through the good offices of Chateaubriand, he went abroad, lived in England and in the north of the country for five years, met some of the most illustrious writers of the period, notably Lamb, Scott and Coleridge, and returned to France a staunch and life-long friend of the Anglo-Saxons. Set in that perspective, the United States were viewed quite logically as occupying a crucial position.

As Chasles put it in a book published late in life which summarized his philosophy:. In its growth, that new nation has remained true to its seeds. It was created for freedom, through freedom and with freedom. What it essentially means is a radical break with Europe, a rebellion against the past, disdain, negation It is protestant, critical, puritan, bourgeois, industrial and industrious, born of hard work, owing everything to it and expecting everything from it.

It has inherited the stubborn old sap of teutonism, its energy and will, its activity and ruthless anger. Such is its true constitution. Next, and most importantly, it predicates the existence of a leisurely, tradition-conscious class, for which the pursuits of the mind take precedence over materialistic concerns and define a hierarchy of values incompatible with the levelling instinct of democracy.

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The notion of order is inherent in such a conception, and subsumes the various criteria in terms of which literature must be assessed. Whether in a state of servitude, revolt or emancipation, they are for ever shackled to the former metropolis. By pointing to the hopeless mediocrity of American literature, and inferring from this the decidedly inferior standards of American civilization, those among the French who felt embarrassed and threatened at the stupendous growth of the United States could somehow retrieve their self-esteem: even when confronted with their own weakness and compelled to recognize the fascination exercised by the United States on a growing number of their own compatriots, they could retreat to the inner sanctuary of culture, and survey from this vantage point the sorry state of the world in a bittersweet mood.

Amusingly enough, almost unbounded respect went to the American author who encouraged the most supercilious instincts in his foreign public. Almost against their will, they steered a difficult course between the comforts of orthodoxy and the protests of their own better judgment. A realization of the genuineness of American literature came to them slowly, even reluctantly at times, but to the extent that it was hard won, it pointed, I believe, to some of its more important virtues.

Though they often overlap, I will assume for the sake of convenience that they admit of being isolated, and that each of them focuses on a specific issue. This was by no means an exceptional itinerary among the small phalanx of French critics who alerted themselves to the literary productions reaching them from across the Atlantic Ocean.

Subjugated by the natural authority of the leading British critics, they patterned their tastes on the diffuse sense of propriety which guided their judgments, and accepted their urbane sense of values more or less as a matter of course. By and large, they did little more than reaffirm, with an added touch of timidity, the principles which had been active in promoting Irving and Cooper to the forefront of literature.

The freshness and the depth of the impressions registered in these books were astonishing to me; they seemed to come from a writer less expert at entertaining us with a dream, or at playing with a cloud, than obsessed and almost plagued by overwhelming memories. A perfect type of the Anglo-Saxon character, living through and for the act of feeling, curious like a child, brazen like a savage, throwing himself headlong into incredible undertakings and carrying them out with relentless heroism, I thought Mr. Herman Melville had depicted himself very well, very faithfully there.

Under their principled scorn for a culture which had been branded, right from the beginning, as derivative and vulgar, they harbor a curiosity for its expressions which can exceed a mere willingness to be entertained. Others I view as strangers; they are to the Americans what the imitators of the Greeks and Romans were to us at the revival of learning,—an object of curiosity, not of general sympathy. They amuse the mind, but they do not act upon the manners of the people.

With his usual knack for associating prophecy with the solidity of particulars he even describes the new canon, or absence thereof, which they will enact:. Taken as a whole, literature in democratic ages can never present, as it does in the periods of aristocracy, an aspect of order, regularity, science and art; its form will on the contrary be slighted, sometimes despised.