Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tocqueville: Americans are too moral to write novels

More literary criticism from Tocqueville. Part II, Third Book, Chap 11.

The chapter is actually about the relationship between equality and morals. Tocqueville focuses particularly on the ability of American women to make marriages based on choice, rather than compulsion. This leads to a peculiar footnote, hard to quote, with this argument:

French novelists write - rely on - stories about married women having affairs. The reader is sympathetic to the women's behavior, because the wives are all in compulsory, loveless marriages. Americans cannot tell the same sorts of stories, because American women are in marriages of choice, so the reader has no sympathy for the bad behavior of the wives. "This is one of the causes to which must be attributed the small number of novels published in the United States."

The first thing to note is that this is not true. The example of the English novel of Tocqueville's time is a sufficient counterexample - English novelists had no trouble finding subjects. But early American literature was highly imitative. Bryant was a Wordsworthian Romantic, Cooper blatantly imitated Scott, and Irving modelled himself after older writers like Addison and Steele. And these are the early Americans we consider original!

For Americans, models mattered, and the French model was probably useless. So maybe this really did impose a limit on American literary creativity, or at least hackery. Is it a coincidence that the first major American adultery novel was The Scarlet Letter, a highly non-French treatment of the subject?

This is so common with Tocqueville. Real insights are embedded in even his worst ideas.


  1. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

    We write original novels: people don't get it; manuscript returned.

    We copy some other successful writer's style: people get it; maybe manuscript is published if stars are aligned correctly or something.

    Colouring outside the lines gets us nowhere.

    Colouring with no lines gets us the stink-eye.

    Colouring inside the lines with brighter colours plus neon sizzling waterfalls and such, although no guarantee of acceptance, doesn't better us much at either end. (Writer or reader.)

  2. I'm pretty sure I don't agree. Writers model themselves after other writers to one degree or another. That's a good thing.

    It's also why knowing about literary history is so enriching.

    I'm going to write about this soon in the context of Scott. His example led to an explosion of writing, but the bursts took a lot of different forms.

  3. I have been planning to read de Tocqueville for years and I should really get to it sooner than later.

    Am enjoying your posts!

  4. Thanks. Joseph Epstein's recent (very) short biography of Tocqueville is a good place to start.

  5. What about "bein' you?"