Travels with Tocqueville

In the second volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, there is a chapter devoted to “How Democracy Modifies the Relations of Servant and Master”. In aristocracies such as France, Tocqueville tells us, the master views his servant as “inferior and as a secondary part of himself”. In democratic America, however, no such relationship exists. There, the equality of conditions is such that the servant could aspire to become the master. Masters expected neither respect nor love nor devotion, only the honest execution of a contract. Servants saw nothing degrading about their condition as it was freely chosen and created no permanent inequality of status. Tensions arose, however, at the point when society vacillated between the aristocratic notion of subjugation and the democratic notion of obedience. Then the servant saw his master only as an unjust usurper. 

Peter Carey’s new novel is located at this precise moment in time. Somewhat improbably, the story he tells is an imaginative reconstruction of Tocqueville’s voyage to America in the early 1830s. In real life, Tocqueville was accompanied by his close friend and fellow aristocrat, Gustave de Beaumont, but in Carey’s tale, his companion is his servant John Larrit, son of a journeyman printer from Devon and known by the nickname of Parrot. As for Tocqueville himself, he is reconfigured as the pompous and snobbish Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, scion of a family that narrowly avoided the guillotine during the 1789 Revolution and somewhat at a loss as to what to do in the France of the July Monarchy. Through two parallel but interwoven narratives, Carey not only recounts how these two unlikely travelling companions confront each other but also how they respond to their many adventurous and romantic experiences in the New World. In the course of their journey their relationship changes, each man coming to have a grudging respect for the other. 

There are some brilliant touches to Carey’s story. Anyone who has tried to read Tocqueville’s manuscripts knows that his handwriting was appalling. One of Parrot’s jobs is to take dictation. Tocqueville always had a lively interest in women and he was especially fascinated by their place in American society. Olivier falls in love with the emancipated Amelia Godefroy from Connecticut. Tocqueville was deeply attached to his private tutor, the Jansenist Abbé Lesueur. Olivier is similarly in thrall to his beloved Bébé, the devout and royalist Abbé de la Londe. Above all, both Tocqueville and his fictional counterpart set out for America not knowing what they will find and are transformed in the process. From the moment they set off from Le Havre they discover democracy.

But what of Parrot? He is an entirely improbable character with an improbable history. We first meet him as a boy working with his father for a printer engaged in the production of counterfeit currency. When this is discovered by the authorities and the print shop goes up in flames, he escapes with the sinister Marquis de Talbot and eventually reaches Australia. Years later, now married and an aspiring engraver, he is found again by the Marquis and returns to Paris. There he falls in love with the painter Mathilde Christian and it is with her and her mother that he departs to America acting as both Olivier’s servant and the Marquis’s spy. It is in Parrot’s numerous exploits and scrapes that the humour in Carey’s tale is to be found and it is Parrot who serves to expose the emotional and intellectual limitations of his master. But it is also Parrot, and not Olivier, who first comes to appreciate the possibilities of America. For it is there that Parrot again meets the disfigured Algernon Watkins, horribly burned in the print shop fire, and there that the two of them (like John James Audubon) embark upon producing a series of prints of American birds.

It is this endeavour to celebrate the natural beauty of America that allows Carey to address the issue of the possibility of art in a democratic society. Ultimately, a disillusioned Olivier concludes that in a classless and egalitarian society it is only money that is valued and that all matters of taste will be subject to an ignorant tyranny of the majority. Democracy, he concludes, is a tender fruit but it will not ripen well. In real life, of course, this was far from being Tocqueville’s opinion. While he saw the dangers that could arise from the restless individualism and acquisitiveness of the Americans, he also saw that it was through her institutions and mores that America tempered any possible tyranny of the majority and that these same mechanisms generated the astonishing vitality of American society. It is therefore left to Parrot to celebrate America. His master’s fears, he asserts, are phantoms. There is no tyranny in America nor could there ever be. The bleak certainty that there can be no art in a democracy is not true. And the proof of this lies in Parrot’s own “jumbled life”. The servant and employee has become a friend and progenitor. Parrot, the footman and rogue, has made Olivier what he now is.

Peter Carey has lived in America for the past 20 years and he is not the first to try to express the ambivalence of this experience in literary form. Many might judge Parrot and Olivier in America to be one of his least successful novels. The two love stories never entirely convince nor, for that matter, does the friendship between the two men. But the subject matter of Carey’s story never fails to fascinate. Tocqueville said that he wrote his own account of the irresistible democratic revolution in a kind of religious terror. With Carey the mood is rather one of fascination and distaste but, for good or ill, he too has been marked by the prejudices, passions and personality of the New World. 

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