I have been spending nearly all my reading and writing time in the archives, and I plan to do so for quite a while, which explains why EphEff has been so quiet. I'm looking forward to there being a tangible result of all that research down the road, but in the meantime in this space I expect that mostly what I'll have to offer, along with a few Firmaments to keep the title of the blog from being a complete fraud, is gems I've come across in my reading, ephemeral or otherwise.
My first such is from a book that used to be called, when it was first published in 1936, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America, by a Yale professor named George Wilson Pierson. Somehow I've made it through my education without ever reading Democracy in America, but I'm not sure I could find it as charming or worthwhile as what I've found dipping into this book about the making of that book. It's a sort of documentary account of Tocqueville's nine months in the young republic (and Canada) with his colleague Gustave de Beaumont, with whom he produced the report on American prisons that was the official purpose of their visit. (Afterwards, Tocqueville turned to writing Democracy, while Beaumont penned a novel about racial prejudice called Marie, or Slavery in the United States that I'm very surprised, from the little I've learned about it, wasn't a staple Americanist text when I was in grad school in the '90s.)
Both Tocqueville and Beaumont took extensive notes about their travels and wrote many letters back to France, which provide the bulk of Pierson's book, and in both this documentary form and the way that Pierson's appealing and good-naturedly insightful style matches that of his subjects, it reminds me of one of my favorite books, Francis Steegmuller's Flaubert and Madame Bovary. In the little bits of the book I've read both travelers have their moments as correspondents, but the favorite one I've found so far comes from Beaumont, in a letter written to his family in France during his stay in upstate New York at the home of John Canfield Spencer, the man who would eventually edit the English version of Democracy in America:
Now you must know why we have stopped here on our way. There is at Cananda[i]gua a Mr. Spencer, member of the New York legislature, who wanted us to come spend some days with him and to whose wishes we have yielded. He is the most distinguished man whom I have yet met in America. He is well versed in all the political questions which interest his country and possesses the most precise understanding of the judiciary institutions of the United States. He is one of the three commissioners to whom the New York legislature has confided the trust of revising the laws of the state.
We spend all our time with him in conversations from which we have everything to gain; as soon as we are alone we write down what he has said. I have not yet seen a single person from whom we have drawn as much as from him. There are at his house two charming women, his daughters Mary and Catherine, who would give us terrible distractions if once and for all we hadn't made up our minds to have none. Mary is the prettier of the two; she has that white and rose complexion, occasionally to be found with Englishwomen but almost unknown in France. I have not yet seen in the United States such pretty eyes as hers, they have a velvet softness it is impossible to describe. But why talk so long about her? Were I to continue you would think me in love, and the truth is that I am not. A long sojourn with her might be unhealthy, but in three or four days I shall quit Cananda[i]gua never to come back. After all, a woman, perfectly beautiful and possessing that bonté which is almost banal with American women, is a thing so rare that it is altogether natural to speak of it.
I love the picture of these two young Frenchman joining the legislator's menage and adoringly recording the remarks of the father at the same time that they are no doubt charming his charming daughters, if Beaumont's letter, which is so French you can almost hear it spoken by Pepe le Pew, is any measure.
I just have a couple of side remarks to make, both about books I've read even less of than this one. The first is that I fully expect that if I read Democracy in America as well as Tocqueville and Beaumont I would find the more famous book the lesser one. Of course Pierson's book depends on the significance of Tocqueville's for much of its power and drama, but from what I can tell it contains Tocqueville's ideas but embedded in the compelling--and yes, charming--stories of these young men and the people they met (neither Spencer nor his daughters, for example, are anywhere to be found in the index for Democracy in America). Perhaps it says more about me than the books themselves that it's the kind of book I'd much rather read.
And the other is to lament the way Beaumont seems to have been written out of history. As I alluded to above, the title of Pierson's book has changed: in the Johns Hopkins University Press reprint, it's now just Tocqueville in America. It appears to be the same book inside, but poor Beaumont, despite providing much of its contents, has apparently become just an encumbrance to the marketing of their story. Which also brings to mind a recent retelling of Tocqueville's story with a similar name, Peter Carey's novel Parrot and Olivier in America. Carey likely was drawn to the story by some of the same qualities that make Pierson's book so appealing, and no doubt has his own reasons for how he has changed their story, but on the face of it at least he too appears to have removed Beaumont. His Olivier is a stand-in for Tocqueville, but his Parrot, Olivier's traveling companion, is a foil in temperament and class, a "the motherless son of an itinerant English engraver," unlike Beaumont, who was a French aristocrat like his friend Tocqueville. Perhaps Carey couldn't resist the dramatic and theoretical tension of that clash of classes (played out in the class-confounding territory of America); perhaps he just couldn't help but think in the more standard buddy-picture conventions that define so many American tales of the road. But it's a shame to see charming young Beaumont erased once again.