Tocqueville's New Democracy

in French Politics, Culture & Society
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  • 1 University of Pittsburgh
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At the beginning of the twenty-first century Democracy in America (1835-1840) reverberates through US political culture with more vibrancy than at any time since its original appearance.1 Newspapers and news magazines have abundantly applied Tocqueville’s observations to our latest election crisis. As soon as it was published this new volume’s editor was immediately rewarded with an appearance on National Public Radio. Beyond its additional testimony to a culture hero’s iconic status, what does the prodigious effort involved in producing a new translation add to the fund of Tocqueville scholarship? This is the first version to appear in thirty-five years and the third since 1945.2 The editors’ aim was to make theirs the most literal of all renderings. Only in deference to 165 years of tradition did they exclude the French particle from their title (i.e. On, or Concerning, Democracy in America). The translators are implacably true to their word. This version even replicates the original French word order as closely as possible. A more quotable Tocqueville is consciously sacrificed in the name of accuracy, but the reader can be assured that this is as close to the original as we are likely to get. Very rarely, such devotion to fidelity produces jarring history. We learn, for example, that Virginia’s success as a settlement was assured by the timely arrival of “farmers and industrialists”; industriels is more aptly translated as mechanics or artisans (31).

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