Literature Study GuidesDemocracy In AmericaVol 2 Part 1 Chapters 11 21 Summary

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 2, Part 1, Chapters 11–21 | Summary



Chapter 11: In What Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Arts

Artisans in democratic countries, claims Alexis de Tocqueville, are necessarily sensitive to commercial considerations. So they produce a larger quantity and a lower quality of works as conditions equalize. He also notes how in recent times, as opposed to the Renaissance, artists studiously imitate the models around them rather than pursuing a lofty ideal through their imaginations.

Chapter 12: Why the Americans at the Same Time Raise Such Little and Such Great Monuments

In democracies, men create a multitude of minute works, but they also raise a small number of great ones. There is nothing between these two extremes. Tocqueville presents what seems (to him) the bizarre example of the Capitol building in Washington, DC, which he calls "a magnificent palace" with a "pompous name."

Chapter 13: The Literary Face of Democratic Centuries

This section opens with an overview of books in America. The influence of England is still pervasive in the United States, and American literature still bears a strongly English cast. In the literature of democratic countries, Tocqueville opines, it is to be expected that form will often be neglected and style will be less than polished.

Chapter 14: On the Literary Industry

Readership in a democracy is far larger than in an aristocratic country. One result of such an imbalance is that authors in a democracy have a greater chance of making a considerable fortune from a mediocre production. In such an "industry of letters," authors need only appeal to their readership's "continual need of the new."

Chapter 15: Why the Study of Greek and Latin Literature Is Particularly Useful in Democratic Societies

Tocqueville opens this chapter with comments about ancient Athens, focusing on the severe restrictions on the city's "democratic" citizenship. Only a small minority of ancient Athenians were eligible to participate in public affairs. Likewise, the spirit of the ancient Romans was essentially aristocratic. In both Greece and Rome, books were rare and expensive, and so literature scarcely amounted to an industry. For these reasons, study of the classics in modern times is to be commended, for Greek and Roman literature serves as a counterweight to the superficiality and shoddiness of most modern literature. On the other hand, Tocqueville admits that, for practical reasons, education in a modern democratic nation needs to be "scientific, commercial, and industrial rather than literary."

Chapter 16: How American Democracy Has Modified the English Language

In this chapter, Tocqueville undertakes to analyze the effects of American democratic institutions and mores on the English language itself. He begins by distinguishing between the written and the spoken language, emphasizing the importance of the latter. Appropriately, he observes that the "perpetual movement that reigns at the heart of a democracy" impels constant changes in language. If there is one fault that Tocqueville discerns in the linguistic usages of democratic nations, it is the preference for abstract, fuzzy generalizations.

Chapter 17: On Some Sources of Poetry in Democratic Nations

In this chapter, Tocqueville speculates on social and political conditions that tend to favor, or disfavor, poets and poetry. Tocqueville believes that poetry is "the search for and depiction of the ideal." He asserts that "Aristocracy naturally leads the human mind to contemplation of the past," while democracy motivates people with an instinctive distaste for the old. Although equality may seem unfavorable to the traditional sources of poetry, it is not valid, in Tocqueville's opinion, to assume that Americans have no poetic ideas. Tocqueville predicts that the poets of a democratic age "will depict passions and ideas rather than persons and deeds." Tocqueville concludes with a tribute to three contemporary writers he singles out as authors of a democratic age: Lord Byron, Chateaubriand, and Lamartine.

Chapter 18: Why American Writers and Orators Are Often Bombastic

In this brief chapter, Tocqueville correlates democratic ways of thinking with excessive, hyperbolic expression: what he identifies as "bombast." He blames this disproportion on the vast difference between the smallness of the individual and the "immense image of society or the still greater figure of the human race."

Chapter 19: Some Observations on the Theater of Democratic Peoples

For Tocqueville, love of the theater is the most natural literary taste for citizens in a democracy. However, the Puritans considered the theater an "abominable diversion," and conditions in Puritan America were not favorable to theatrical performances. Tocqueville comments about the Americans in a dour tone, "People who spend every day of the week making a fortune and Sundays praying to God do not lend themselves to the comic muse."

Chapter 20: On Some Tendencies Particular to Historians in Democratic Countries

As is so often the case in Tocqueville's work, this section consists largely of a comparison and contrast between aristocratic societies and democratic ones. Tocqueville asserts that historians in an aristocratic context tend to make events hinge on the particular will of certain individuals, while historians in a democracy attribute events to general causes. Both tendencies are subject to exaggeration, in Tocqueville's opinion.

Chapter 21: On Parliamentary Eloquence in the United States

Once again, this chapter takes the form of a contrast between aristocracy and democracy. The distinguishing difference is that in an aristocracy, members of a legislative assembly tend to be from the upper class, while this is very seldom the case in a democracy. This discrepancy has a corresponding effect on styles of public speaking in both systems.


To put Tocqueville's comments on Washington, DC, in context (Chapter 12), in 1831, at the time of the author's visit to Washington, renovations of the Capitol building, supervised by the Boston architect Charles Bulfinch (1763–1844), had just been completed. The population of the city at that time was about 19,000.

Apparently, Tocqueville thought of mentioning the literary works of Washington Irving (1783–1859) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) in Chapter 13, but he crossed out references to these authors in his manuscript. It is interesting to speculate on the rise to fame of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49) in this connection. Poe, who first came to prominence in the late 1830s, was especially celebrated in France, largely because of the translation efforts of the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–67).

Tocqueville's terse, epigrammatic style is well exemplified at the conclusion of his discriminating analysis in Chapter 15 of the usefulness of the Greek and Latin classics: "They prop us up on the side where we lean."

One of the connecting, unifying themes in Tocqueville's comments on literature, philosophy, and behavior is the tendency of equality of conditions to eliminate both the lowest nadirs and the highest zeniths of human endeavor.

Tocqueville published his comments on artistic responses to the wilderness in Chapter 17 at the dawn of the American Romantic movement. The cultural picture was soon to undergo great change. Thomas Cole (1801–48) and his followers in the Hudson River school of painting would take the wilderness as one of their major themes, as would the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in such works as Evangeline (1847) and The Song of Hiawatha (1855).
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