Glimpsing the human side of major historical figures is endlessly fascinating. As Melville noted, Shakespeare in his own day wasn’t Shakespeare. He was Master William Shakespeare, the harried writer — mocked as an “upstart crow” by a critic — who churned out plays for the proprietors of the Globe Theater. Humanizing Alexis de Tocqueville poses special challenges. His magnum opus, “Democracy in America,” has gained prophetic stature since its publication in two volumes (1835 and 1840). Its grand pronouncements about America roll before us in chapter after sweeping chapter, each ringing with authority. Tocqueville covered many topics — government, commerce, law, literature, religion, newspapers, customs — in elegant prose that captured the essence of democracy. His insights, while sometimes debatable, are often eerily prescient. In “Tocqueville’s Discovery of America,” Leo Damrosch, the Ernest Bernbaum professor of literature at Harvard, reveals the man behind the sage. Damrosch shows us that “Democracy in America” was the outcome of a nine-month tour of the United States that Tocqueville, a temperamental, randy 25-year-old French apprentice magistrate of aristocratic background, took in 1831-32 with his friend Gustave de Beaumont.
more from David S. Reynolds at the NYT here.