Letters from America


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Alexis de Tocqueville; Edited, Translated, and with an Introduction by Frederick Brown

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A remarkable collection of charming and eloquent letters that contain the seeds of Tocqueville’s later masterful account of American democracy

Young Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the United States for the first time in May 1831, commissioned by the French government to study the American prison system. For the next nine months he and his companion, Gustave de Beaumont, traveled and observed not only prisons but also the political, economic, and social systems of the early republic. Along the way, they frequently reported back to friends and family members in France. This book presents the first translation of the complete letters Tocqueville wrote during that seminal journey, accompanied by excerpts from Beaumont’s correspondence that provide details or different perspectives on the places, people, and American life and attitudes the travelers encountered.

These delightful letters provide an intimate portrait of the complicated, talented Tocqueville, who opened himself without prejudice to the world of Jacksonian America. Moreover, they contain many of the impressions and ideas that served as preliminary sketches for Democracy in America, his classic account of the American democratic system that remains an important reference work to this day. Accessible, witty, and charming, the letters Tocqueville penned while in America are of major interest to general readers, scholars, and students alike.

Frederick Brown is professor emeritus, State University of New York at Stony Brook. His previous books include Zola: A Life; Flaubert: A Biography; and The Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus. He lives in New York City.

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"It's no surprise that the letters are jam-packed with insightful observations. What is surprising is how alive they are even today. This is living history, not embalmed. A collection that combines both charm and historical relevance."—Library Journal (starred review)

“Curiously, this is the first publication en bloc, in either French or English, of Alexis de Tocqueville’s delightful letters from America in 1831-2. All of them have previously been printed, but only here and there. Frederick Brown is to be congratulated on bringing them all together, and for publishing, with them, the American letters of Gustave de Beaumont.”—Hugh Brogan, Times Literary Supplement

"Ably translated. . . . Illumines the great work Democracy in America."—Daniel J. Mahoney, The New Criterion

"How welcome!  How charming! Tocqueville’s letters from the U.S. and Canada are now presented in workmanlike American English for the first time. Everyone can enjoy them and learn from them. I do."—Hugh Brogan, author of Alexis de Tocqueville

"These magnificent letters, splendidly edited and audaciously translated, not only convey Tocqueville's immediate impressions and reflective wisdom about 'the happiest people' and their materialist mode, about Indians and slaves, but beautifully express the beguiling character of the young writer. A treasure."—Fritz Stern, author of Five Germanys I Have Known

"These candid letters illuminate the purposes and perceptions of America's most famous foreign interpreter.  Reading them, Tocqueville becomes an engaging personality, not simply the name of a revered text."—Daniel Walker Howe, author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

"The comments on American fine arts are rife with comic snobbery: American theater is 'frightful,' its actors 'detestable,' its music 'simply barbaric.' Then there's our clothing: 'of various colors, all loud.' And to think we hadn't yet created the Hawaiian shirt."-- Daniel E. Ritchie, Books & Culture

“[A] delightful selection of letters….Translated for the first time, these letters not only provide a vivid picture of Tocqueville’s daily experiences, but also show how he began to comprehend the singular country he was exploring.”—Jeremy Jennings, Standpoint

Winner of the 2011 Translation Prize given by the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation
ISBN: 9780300181838
Publication Date: April 17, 2012
304 pages, 5 x 8 1/4
2 b/w illus.