More Substance

Okay, yes, that last post was a little fluffy, even if the quote is from a weighty personage, so here’s a bit more substance. In the book’s introduction, I make an extended comparison of the  images of the U.S. and the Russian Empire at about the time that Alexis de Tocqueville made the following memorable statement in his Democracy in America: “There are now two great nations of the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans.”

The extended comparison is intended to answer the question, Why might Tocqueville and his contemporaries have seen the two countries as following a similar path? There were of course basic differences, especially in terms of their nineteenth-century governmental forms. Some of these Tocqueville notes, and I point out others that seem to me more important for the project of the book. But the similarities are at least as striking (there are many and they’re in the book), and today I remembered another.

That is the Marquis de Custine’s long (very long) treatment of Russia from 1839, Empire of the Czar. Tocqueville’s book came out in two parts, one in 1835, the other in 1840, straddling in effect the Marquis’s, which was also the result of an extended stay, also something of a travel account, long, analytic, philosophical, and reflective of an entire political philosophy. The good Marquis’s treatment is of course not so laudatory towards his subject as Tocqueville’s. In fact, his treatment is as full of Old World snobbery and French aristocratic chauvinism towards backwards Russia as Tocqueville’s is filled with democratic hopes for and admiration of the new American republic. But both big long French travel accounts set a tone–or maybe two tones–for  intellectuals and cultural figures of the day.

Their size and weight also makes them quite useful at the ends of the books that line my shelves.

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