Thursday November 5th, 2009

Letters from America

I’m always looking for good collections of letters, and it sounds like another is on the horizon:

Most of Tocqueville’s letters from America, which were written between the spring of 1831 and February 1832, when he sailed for home, have never been published in English, but Frederick Brown, a biographer of Flaubert and Zola, has collected and translated them for a volume that Yale University Press is to release next year. A sample of the letters, roughly 20 percent of the whole, appears in the current issue of The Hudson Review, and they reveal a Tocqueville different from the one we know, or think we know, from Democracy in America.

The difference is, in part, “a boyish ebullience” that stems from the fact that Tocqueville was only 25 when he wrote the letters:

“The letters are written with a kind of concision you don’t find in Democracy in America,” [Brown] said. “The vocabulary is relatively small, and not romantic. Chateaubriand was one of Tocqueville’s relatives, and there was plenty of romanticism in Tocqueville’s soul, but not here.”

Yet if the letters aren’t romantic, they’re often exuberant, and this quality, Mr. Brown guessed, came both from Tocqueville’s youthfulness and from his feeling of liberation.