15 October 2008

Creative Anachronism

Alexis de Tocqueville was sent to the United States by the French government in 1831 and spent nine months traveling through the young nation. Upon his return to France, he offered his observations in De la démocratie en Amerique (Democracy in America) published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. It is a rare American historian that never finds reason to quote from this seminal work. His observations and insights regarding Jacksonian America often seem to transcend time. His quest for irony led to such passages as the observation that vis-à-vis Europe women in America experience both more and less liberty.
In America the independence of woman is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony. If an unmarried woman is less constrained there than elsewhere, a wife is subjected to stricter obligations. The former makes her father's house an abode of freedom and of pleasure; the latter lives in the home of her husband as if it were a cloister.
Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, 212.*
If mid-twentieth century readers found insight in his observations on equality of the sexes, perhaps also his discussion of the arts in a democracy offers enduring insights. Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen think so.

Defining “Americanness”

Near the beginning of “Colonial Adolescence, 1707-63,” the second chapter of A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004), Schweikart and Allen offer this synopsis.
The “intermingling of classes and constant rising and sinking” of individuals in an egalitarian society, Tocqueville wrote, had a detrimental effect on the arts: painting, literature, music, theater, and education. In place of high or refined mores, Tocqueville concluded, Americans had built a democratic culture that was highly accessible but ultimately lacking in the brilliance that characterized European art forms.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 39.
This anachronistic introduction of Tocqueville into the future United States a full century before his historic visit provides a segue to discussion of the tendency of American colonials to imitate Europeans in the arts, as well as eighteenth century American colleges, colonial drama and music, and some of the achievements of Benjamin Franklin.

“In What Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Arts”

In the second volume, eleventh chapter, Tocqueville observes that in a democracy people “will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful be useful” (50). Where “men are forever rising or sinking on the social scale,” Tocqueville suggests, “desires grow much faster than their fortunes” and short cuts are sought (51). Those whose “wants are above their means” accept “imperfect satisfaction; the resulting market forces induce artisans “to produce with great rapidity many imperfect commodities” produced by craftsmen “in a state of accomplished mediocrity” (52). Not only does the quality of work suffer due to efforts to put products in the hands of the many, but exertions are made to make these works appear better than they are. Tocqueville used the term “hypocrisy of luxury” to refer to facile qualities and fakes, citing the easy manufacture of fake diamonds. Some classic architecture in New York provided this memorable experience.
When I arrived for the first time at New York, by that part of the Atlantic Ocean which is called the East River, I was surprised to perceive along the shore, at some distance from the city, a number of little palaces of white marble, several of which were of classic architecture. When I went the next day to inspect more closely one which had particularly attracted my notice, I found that its walls were of whitewashed brick, and its columns of painted wood. All the edifices that I had admired the night before were of the same kind.
Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, 54.
It takes very little imagination for cynics to apply phrases like “accomplished mediocrity” to the work of well-trained authors from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop when the writing of one is indistinguishable from another, or to the latest run of Hollywood films and the American lust for pyrotechnics and other special effects, or to our everyday cuisine—there is certainly plenty of hypocrisy in the “photos” of fast food burgers that hang in American “restaurants” all over the world.

In Tocqueville’s analysis this mediocrity is tied to social democracy—people rising and sinking in status. Were these conditions present before the American Revolution?

*Edition cited:
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 volumes, edited by Phillips Bradley (New York: Vintage Books, 1945).

The entire text of Democracy in America is available by link from, a site put up by C-SPAN, to the University of Virginia’s Crossroads Project. The C-SPAN site has useful supplemental information. It is also available at Project Gutenberg—Volume 1 and Volume 2.

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