Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), a French magistrate who visited the United States in 1831 to report on our prison system, was propelled to fame as a writer and thinker upon the publication of his De la démocratie en Amérique in 1835. Joseph Epstein, a former editor of the American Scholar who is widely known for his essays on American life and letters, has contributed a volume on Tocqueville for the Eminent Lives series from HarperCollins. Epstein's purpose was to "get at the quality of the extraordinary mind that wrote Democracy in America… [and to] understand better why Alexis de Tocqueville is one of the most engaging figures in intellectual history." The result is a finely drawn portrait of Tocqueville's mind, with the events of his life as a backdrop. Epstein concludes that "no one has yet gone beyond [Tocqueville's] portrayal of the weaknesses and strengths of democracy; no one has had a surer sense of what a democratic government is likely and unlikely to accomplish. He understood, as we put it today, the trade-off of what was gained and what was lost with the advent of equality in modern life; and it is doubtful if anyone since has understood it more deeply."
After Tocqueville's death, his ideas fell out of fashion and his works out of print until a revival was sparked upon the centennial of Democracy in America. By the 1950s, Tocqueville was (according to one scholar) "mother's milk in academe," and by the late 1980s, the use of Tocqueville by politicians and journalists to lend an air of legitimacy to their speeches, arguments, and observations was so ubiquitous that the editor of The New Republic banned the inclusion of quotations or epigrams from Tocqueville in all submissions.
Enthusiasm for Tocque-ville has not waned. In June, Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, hosted a summer institute on "The Continuing Significance of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America," funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Cambridge University Press published The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville in 2006, which will certainly be used (or at least photocopied) by scores of graduate students in the years to come. In an example of mimicry being the sincerest form of flattery, in 2004 the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy was commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly to travel in the footsteps of Tocqueville and write a series of articles about the United States. Random House collected and published the essays as American Vertigo in 2006. Generally panned by the critics (one of whom called Lévy a "posturing lightweight"), its existence nonetheless says something about our continued need to understand what Tocqueville saw in American democracy and what clues to the future the past might hold.
At least a half-dozen other books have also appeared in English in the last year. In addition to Epstein's short account of Tocqueville's life and ideas, Hugh Brogan, a British historian whose works include the definitive biography of Arthur Ransome and two general histories of the United States, has brought out a full-dress biography. Brogan's first biography of Alexis de Tocqueville, published in 1973 in a little ninety-three-page paperback, attempted to be (as he described it) "brief, lucid, accurate, and uncontroversial." It was a "valuable rehearsal" for the present book. More than three decades later, despite his modesty in claiming that a "definitive biography is impossible," Brogan offers us a life of Tocqueville as definitive as any reader has a right to expect.
Those interested in book history will appreciate Brogan's account of the publication and reception of Democracy in America. The buzz began at the printing press as the book was being set in type. Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville's friend and fellow traveler to America, commented that "All, from the foremen and the proofreaders down to the typesetters, took unusual care with their work, and seemed passionate for the success of a book in which each, according to his contribution, felt honored to have a concern." According to Brogan, "the great and immediate success of the Démocratie, like that of so many books, owed more to word of mouth than to reviews, which appeared only gradually and may almost be said to have responded to public opinion than to have formed it." Every salon in Paris wanted the young writer, and since Paris was the intellectual capital of Europe, "the word soon spread to other cities and countries."
The impact of Tocque-ville's most famous book is at the center of this biography, but the scope of the work does not suffer for it. Brogan presents us with the full panorama of Tocqueville's life, in a balanced and almost conversational style.