In a Time of Limits

When the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville toured the newly founded American republic in the early years of the nineteenth century, he encountered plenty of things that left him scratching his head. The national obsession with making money, the atrocious food, and the weird way that high culture found its way into the most isolated backwoods settings—“There is hardly a pioneer’s hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare,” he wrote; “I remember reading the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin”—all intrigued him, and found their way into the pages of his remarkable book Democracy in America.