American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville was not the first French writer to tour the United States and then commit his impressions to print. His illustrious uncle René de Chateaubriand preceded him by forty years. Michel Butor, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-François Lyotard came later, clogging American highways with European strangers bearing passports and publishing contracts. But Democracy in America, whose two volumes were published in 1835 and 1840, respectively, is the classic of the genre, canonized in the United States on the syllabi of political science and American history courses. Tocqueville’s own compatriots remain indifferent to him, mirroring the process by which Jerry Lewis is disregarded here but venerated in Paris. However, more than the plays of Jean Racine or the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, Tocqueville’s prescient survey is the one work of French literature that American college students are likely to encounter. At least it is more nourishing than freedom fries.
Bernard-Henri Lévy comes late to the enterprise of retracing Tocqueville’s journey. Among others, Eugene McCarthy, in 1978, and Richard Reeves, in 1982, already revisited the French aristocrat’s famous visit. But what makes Lévy’s revision of Democracy in America of particular interest is that he, too, arrives from France; a Jew born in Algeria, he is the most prominent and prolific public intellectual in contemporary Paris. In American Vertigo, he offers an uncommonly perceptive outsider’s perspective on the vastness and fastness of Fortress America, that of an anti-anti-American determined to see beyond the negative stereotypes through which fellow European leftists view the United States.
Commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly to repeat Tocqueville’s performance 173 years later, Lévy begins, as his predecessor did, in Newport, Rhode Island. The United States was still manifesting its continental destiny when Tocqueville, accompanied by Gustave de Beaumont (who would later publish an account of what he observed in Ireland), toured the United States in 1831. Michigan was his Western limit. But, while skipping Alaska and Hawaii, Lévy touches every corner of the lower forty-eight—Cape Cod, Miami, Seattle, and San Diego—as well as much that lies between. He even takes in Texas—including Dealey Plaza, a gun show in Fort Worth, and an honors class at UT Austin, where students surprise him by preferring John Kerry to George W. Bush. In about nine months, the same time Tocqueville took, Lévy covers 15,000 miles and 17 states, though instead of horse and boat, his principal mode of transportation is automobile. Because he cannot handle a car himself, the Atlantic provides Lévy with a driver. He surveys the California-Mexico border as well as the Grand Canyon from a helicopter.
Tocqueville’s ostensible purpose for visiting the United States during the era of its seventh president, Andrew Jackson, was to study prisons in the young democracy. (At least one important book besides Democracy in America can trace its origins to research of American penal institutions; Alan Paton, the principal of a reformatory in the Transvaal, wrote much of Cry, the Beloved Country during a tour of prisons in the United States.) At a time when more than a million Americans reside behind bars, it is appropriate that Lévy, too, puts in time at New York’s Rikers Island, the Southern Nevada Women’s Correctional Center, Louisiana’s Angola, and Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. He is dismayed by the fact that 38 states still exact the death penalty, and he is appalled by the American practice of privatizing incarceration; “with the very existence of prisons subject only to the logic of money,” he says, “we have taken one more decisive step on the path to civilized barbarism.” Finally and fittingly, Lévy spends three days at Guantánamo, the Caribbean detention center that he finds “a miniature, a condensation, of the entire American prison system” and that offends him by its indifference to human rights and the rule of law.
But, like Democracy in America, American Vertigo is not exactly a treatise on penology. A self-confessed metrophiliac, the urbane Lévy is in love with the culture of cities. He concludes his visit just as Hurricane Katrina strikes, and, though shocked by the brutality of nature in America, he is not especially interested in wilderness and has nothing to say about environmental protection. However, he mourns the loss of New Orleans, and visits to Buffalo, Detroit, and other moribund industrial cities unnerve him. “That a city could die,” Lévy observes, “for a European, that is unthinkable.” Europeans might think about Pompeii, Sparta, Nineveh, and Carthage, as well as the grand metropolises of the Inca and Maya. Lévy finds Sun City, Arizona “a gilded apartheid for the old” and observes that “Del Webb, the inventor of this frozen miracle, this paradise laden with all the attractions of purgatory, this kindergarten for senior citizens where life seems to have morphed into a pathology, learned his profession by building casinos, military installations, and internment camps for the Japanese.” Lévy falls in love with the beauty, vibrancy, and civic pride of Seattle, Chicago, Savannah, and Boston and has a hard time deciding which he would call home were he an American.
American Vertigo offers vivid evocations of distinctive American places—the Chicken Ranch, Mayo Clinic, Mall of America, Air Force Academy, Clinton Library, San Simeon, Lower Brule Indian Reservation, and an L.A. weight-loss business, among others. Though the itinerary does not include a factory, grade school, television studio, courthouse, slaughterhouse, or cemetery, it provides a wide sampling of American experience. At Mt. Rushmore, appropriated from sacred Indian lands and named by a gold prospector, Lévy reflects on how John Gutzon Borglum, architect of the massive monument to presidential grandeur, remained a white supremacist even after ending his membership in the Ku Klux Klan. At Cooperstown’s huge shrine to a national pastime (Lévy seems to think the United States still worships baseball more fervently than football or auto racing), he muses on Americans’ unillusioned embrace of the patent myth that Abner Doubleday invented the sport. In South Barrington, Illinois, he joins 17,500 worshippers at the Willow Creek Community Church, whose theatrical services inspire thoughts on how the distant, mysterious divinity of European theologies has been replaced by “a good-guy God, almost a human being, a good American, someone who loves you one by one, listens to you if you talk to him, answers if you ask him to—God, the friend who has your best interests at heart.”
American Vertigo is also rich in portraiture. A visit to Native American activist Russell Means on the Pine Ridge Reservation reveals a self-righteous opportunist and anti-Semite. Instead of the sophisticated intellectual he expects, Lévy finds Bill Kristol a showman, courtier, and “Platonist bereft of the ideals.” In Barry Diller, he sees “a mixture of gratuitous talent, potlatch, glorious eccentricity, and…a brash insolence, a mutely enraged violence, an amorality that’s too flaunted to be completely sincere and not betray some kind of hidden wound.” Lévy marvels at the euphoric sight of Woody Allen playing clarinet at the Hotel Carlyle, a musician trapped in the life of a filmmaker. As his American heroes, the French observer nominates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Morris Dees, Jim Harrison, and Norman Mailer.
A visit to Mailer, at eighty-two “his eyes fixed on eternity,” in Provincetown concludes the main section of the book. And it is Mailer’s participatory journalism more than Tocqueville’s reasoned ruminations that American Vertigo resembles. Like The Armies of the Night, Lévy’s book often delights in brazen aperçus, as when, despite all its public piety, he describes the United States as “one of the most authentic atheist nations in modern times.” To reflexive praise of “our troops” as all consummate heroes, he counters that the U.S. Army is “mediocre, unprofessional, under-equipped, and poorly trained.” Like Mailer’s book, Lévy’s closes with a section of airy generalizations about American power. He sees four sensibilities—Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, and Wilsonian—as contending to shape the nation’s global stance. Though “equality of condition” is what, in his opening sentence and throughout Democracy in America, Tocqueville posits as the distinguishing feature of the United States, Lévy has little to say about the current nation’s vast and widening gap between rich and poor. He does expound at length on the current crisis of national identity he calls “American vertigo.”
Aimed at anxious Americans by a sympathetic foreign critic, American Vertigo is written in impressively fluent English. If the book is ever translated into Lévy’s native French, Le Vertige américain will have to furnish footnotes for such local phenomena as Bobby Seale, Michael McClure, John Berendt, and Charlie Rose. Though impatient with fellow Europeans who demonize this country, he scolds us for a wretched health-care system, the fragmentation of social and political space, and the degradation of public debate. Yet Lévy writes as a disappointed lover, one still enamored of “this magnificent, mad country, laboratory of the best and the worst, greedy and modest, at home in the world and self-obsessed, puritan and outrageous, facing toward the future and yet obsessed with its memories.” These days American vertigo makes the whole world dizzy. Before treating the condition, we do well to consult an outside opinion.
Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the author, most recently, of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.