Democracy in America


Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 22 Summary & Analysis

An American bookstore, Tocqueville begins, is packed with basic textbooks written in Europe, religious works and charitable reports, and finally political pamphlets, which are often preferred to books. He argues that there are a small number of admirable American authors that Europeans should pay attention to. In addition, most important English books are printed in the United States, and Tocqueville recalls having first read Shakespeare’s Henry V in a log-house in the American woods. American writers tend to transport the literary trends and ideas from England into their own writing, rather than representing their land as it actually is (and are therefore not very popular in America).
Tocqueville continues his analysis of the arts in America by discussing its literature. He seems to want to judge literary trends as fairly as possible—hence his acknowledgment that there are indeed a few admirable authors in America—though he makes a slightly different argument than before. Unlike his observations about art, he does not argue that American literature is destined to be mediocre, but rather that its authors prefer to reproduce and imitate European (especially English) trends rather than forging their own style and content.
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Tocqueville concludes that America does not yet have its own literature: the only “American” authors, he argues, are journalists. This is the result of something more specific than democracy, he thinks. He characterizes the literature in an aristocracy as delicate and refined because it comes from the few men who write simply out of a love for art and tradition. In an aristocracy, style is as important as ideas, writers develop a dignified tone and polished language, and they increasingly withdraw from the outside world, writing for their small circle alone. The danger of literature in an aristocracy is thus its total irrelevance and impotence.
As he does elsewhere, Tocqueville strives to distinguish what is a necessary feature of a democracy from what is a characteristic specific to American democracy. In order to do so, he takes a step back, here, and tries to understand the nature of aristocratic literature as a contrast. Tocqueville attempts to be fair and balanced by showing the disadvantages of literary culture in an aristocracy.
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In a democracy of mingled ranks and divided power, those who want to write come from may different backgrounds and educations, leaving them bereft of a common tradition. Rules of convention are thus absent, while familiarity with literary history is lower than in an aristocracy. Democracies will prefer books that are cheap, quickly read, and easy to understand—strong emotions and excitingly painted scenes. Style becomes bold but loose, wit will be preferred to reflection, and short works to lengthy. There may be some exceptions to this rule, but they will be rare.
Now, Tocqueville returns to analyzing literature in a democracy: even though he has claimed that American literary culture is not shaped by democracy alone, here he examines all the intermediary consequences of equality of condition in terms of the kinds of books people will prefer to read and the literary style most amenable to this kind of culture.
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Tocqueville notes that at some moments, like France in the 18th century, aristocratic and democratic literary tendencies vie for success—such eras are brief but always brilliant. He doesn’t want to argue that literature can always be explained by society and politics: there are many kinds of relationships between a society’s condition and its authors’ genius.
Rather than privileging either aristocratic or democratic literary style and culture, Tocqueville concludes by arguing that a mixture is to be preferred, even if it’s near-impossible to create.
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