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Tocqueville Skewered His Contemporaries With a Sharp Pen

Published January 5, 2017 in News

By: Matt Kelly | University Communications

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer, political theorist and politician, has helped Americans see themselves since 1835.

Tocqueville, most famous in the United States for his two-volume tome, “Democracy in America,” had an extensive career in France – one that is coming more to light in the United States through a new translation of “Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and its Aftermath,” published this fall by the University of Virginia Press. The work was translated by Arthur Goldhammer and edited by UVA Commonwealth Professor of History Olivier Zunz, who also wrote the introduction.

“Recollections” is a personal reflection Tocqueville, who died in 1859, did not intend for publication in his lifetime. An expurgated version was published in 1893, and it was only in 1942 that a complete text was made available. It contained “uncompromising judgments” and “unforgettable portraits,” in the words of its editor. “In ‘Recollections’ everybody, regardless of political persuasion, is named and undressed at every turn,” Zunz wrote in the introduction.

Tocqueville, who saw socialism as an obstacle to individual liberty, has enjoyed sustained popularity in the U.S. He came to the United States in 1831 with Gustave de Beaumont to investigate prison reform, and he and Beaumont talked with more than 200 people on politics, law and social practices in America. They traveled extensively around the country for nine months as Tocqueville gathered material, eventually leading to “Democracy in America.”

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