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Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville

A-AmericanVertigoThe renowned French aristocrat, reformer, and theorist Alexis de Tocqueville’s visit to America in the 1830s produced the beloved two-volume Democracy in America. In 2004, an election year, the Atlantic Monthly sent the celebrated French thinker, Bernard-Henri Lévy, to follow in Tocqueville’s footsteps. Similarly reflecting on politics, religion, and society, Lévy found urban ghettos and prisons, gated communities and the Mall of America, an Amish enclave and a lap-dancing club, powerful churches—and invariable contrasts with Europe’s enlightenment ideals. Lévy’s journey, while evaluating America’s democratic experiment and reaffirming Tocqueville’s claims about "mild despotism," also records his optimism about a nation confident of its vision.
Random House. 320 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1400064341

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Lévy’s criticism of an excess of consumerism, of the neurosis concerning security, and of President George W. Bush’s leadership (‘a child that never grew up’ and later ‘a small-minded redneck’) is counterbalanced by a vigorous critique of those who regard the ‘American empire’ as a corrupt polity comparable with the Roman empire on the cusp of collapse. … Lapses are inevitable in accounts of this sort, but they are few and far between." Michael Kammen

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, Mr. Levy, who is most passionate about American foreign policy, pays little attention to the issue Tocqueville was most intent on: how closely even a thriving democracy like America borders on tyranny. … Entertaining as Mr. Levy’s book is, Democracy in America—170 years old, and notoriously difficult to distill—still provides far greater insight into contemporary American democracy." Adam Cohen

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"His exploration of America’s penal system—the original purpose of Tocqueville’s visit—is provocative and worth reading, progressing from the brutal conditions of Rikers Island to the ultimate separation of Alcatraz to the trend of privatizing corrections, and ending, inevitably, at Guantanamo Bay. … The precision with which Lévy frequently hits the mark makes all the more frustrating those instances where he misses it." Michael O’Donnell

Wall Street Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The reader of American Vertigo gets a chance to see how the U.S. looks to a European who speaks with the verve of a journalist and the confidence of a philosopher. … [It] is filled with insights and goodwill, but it would have been even richer had Mr. Lévy shown more appreciation for democracy in America, or Democracy in America." Harvey Mansfield

Houston Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"The opportunity to see ourselves as others see us is always welcome, but the premise of updating Tocqueville is tired, and it presents Lévy with too large a task, as he admits when he describes America as ‘mind-boggling’ and ‘multifarious.’ The tour of the country is like a slide show that needed a good edit—sometimes revealing, sometimes entertaining, sometimes banal." Charles Matthews

Los Angeles Times 0.5 of 5 Stars
"Other than the fact that both De Tocqueville and Lévy are French, they have almost nothing in common. … . Whereas peppering a magazine article with famous names makes for a quick and jazzy read, American Vertigo begins to sound less like Democracy in America or On the Road and more like Celebrity in America or On the Make." Marianne Wiggins

NY Times Book Review 0.5 of 5 Stars
"There’s no reason for [this book] to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title. … For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?" Garrison Keillor

Critical Summary

Critics describe Bernard-Henry Lévy as erudite, entertaining, charming, and more than a little smug when it comes to examining a country not his own. The author of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? ( 3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2003), Lévy describes himself as an anti-anti-American, which leads to interesting support for Warren Beatty as a politician, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Norman Mailer, among others. Though its advocates call American Vertigo a "sequel" to Democracy in America, most critics view this tract as a superficial catalogue of America’s contradictions (its "vertigo"). The book even largely fails to consider the implications of Tocqueville’s concerns about democracy. Instead, it latches on to peculiarities that readers may never have considered (such as our collective flag fetish). In sum, though Lévy’s book is provocative in places, read the original De Tocqueville.