Parrot and Olivier in America
by Peter Carey
Knopf, 383 pp., $26.95
“I admit that I saw in America more than America,” Tocqueville wrote: “J’avoue que dans l’Amérique j’ai vu plus que l’Amérique.” He saw less than America too, in certain ways. He saw the image of a survivable democracy and a lesson for the rumbling, leveling future of Europe. But he also thought that democracy and America were different things, and objected to those who “confuse what is democratic with what is only American.” The cultural darkness of 1830s America as he viewed it (“the Americans have not yet, properly speaking, got any literature,” he wrote, and he didn’t think things looked good for the sciences or the fine arts either) was part of a particular history, not a measure of possibility; a fact about a democracy, not about democracy. There is a discreet touch of Anglophobia here since Tocqueville regards “the people of the United States” as “that portion of the English people whose fate it is to explore the forests of the New World…. I do not think the intervening ocean really separates America from Europe.” Certainly not as much as the Channel, otherwise known as La Manche, separates England from France.
Tocqueville gives a graphic account, in a letter, of all the things he believes America hasn’t got:
They have neither wars, nor plagues, nor literature, nor eloquence, nor revolutions, nor fine arts, nor many great crimes—nothing of what excites attention in Europe.
This sounds like a mixed bag of things to do without, and we hear the flickering irony in the list’s discrepancies. Indeed, we almost hear an anticipation of Henry James’s ironic tabulation of American lacks in his 1879 book on Hawthorne:
No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot!
James is writing of “American life…forty years ago”—this would take us back to 1839, some eight years after Tocqueville’s journey, and four years after the publication of the first part of Democracy in America. We spot the mischief in James’s parade—with a tiny handful of exceptions, every absence begins to look either desirable (no sovereign) or trivial (no thatch)—and this picture of desolation might be taken as a backhanded compliment. This is just where James is going, in the slyest possible way. “The natural remark,” he continues,
in the almost lurid light of such an indictment, would …