In 1831-1832, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, toured the United States to report on its prison system. Out of this sojourn was born Democracy in America (1835-1840), Tocqueville’s classic two-volume study on American manners, morals, and politics, which is still required reading in many college classes. In 2004 and 2005, on a commission from The Atlantic Monthly, Bernard-Henri Lévy, a prominent French culture critic, made a similar journey through the United States and recorded his impressions in American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville.
Notwithstanding the title, Lévy attempts to discourage readers from comparing his book with Tocqueville’s, which he admits he barely knew before his journey to America. It is impossible to avoid the comparison, however, given the subtitle and the assignment to retrace Tocqueville’s footsteps. Still, there are marked differences. Tocqueville’s book investigates a form of government that was innovative in his time, the American democracy, and the citizens who lived under this system. Lévy engages in episodic meandering and produces a travelogue whose form owes as much to Beat author Jack Kerouac as to Tocqueville, though in the end Lévy does deliver some forceful analysis of what he has observed.
There are marked similarities between the two books as well. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America offered high praise for the democratic experiment, along with earnest warnings about the tyranny of the majority. In the same vein, Lévy’s American Vertigo energetically defends the United States against “this sinister and French and largely European passion that is known as anti-Americanism,” though he himself deplores those Americans whom he views as obsessed with consumerism and “drugged on patriotism” and despises the country’s leader, President George W. BushLévy calls him “something of a child.”
Thanks to Lévy’s international celebrity status (Vanity Fair called him “Superman and prophet”) and the prestige of The Atlantic, he had entrée to prominent Americans in many fields: luminaries of the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions of 2004; Hollywood figures such as Warren Beatty, Sharon Stone, and Woody Allen; and world-class authors Norman Mailer and James Ellroy. Lévy also talked with many ordinary people, including sex workers and lap dancers, college students, and Pentecostal Christians. Like Tocqueville, Lévy visited several U.S. prisons and made his own trenchant assessment. Indeed, the commentary on the American penal system is among the strongest points of Lévy’s otherwise uneven literary performance.
American Vertigo comprises two parts. The first two-thirds (titled “Le Voyage en Amérique”) is devoted to the author’s 15,000-mile journey through the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the South, and New England. This section, though rich in detail, reads less like a polished narrative than like a set of travel notes. On one hand, it contains not a few overblown descriptions, with some sentences running an entire page long. On the other hand, this section contains many incomplete sentences“Baffling story. Singular situation. Nothing in common, in fact, with the fundamentalists. . . . Yearning for secession”giving his delivery a staccato feel. Because of these stylistic traits, something about the sights and sounds he is observing becomes lost in translation.
Similarly, several of the interviews with prominent people can be frustratingly sketchy, although Lévy is seldom shy about disclosing his opinion of his interviewees. Richard Perle, the neoconservative philosopher and former government official, surprises Lévy with a strong critique of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq. For a while it looks as though Perle and Lévywho openly detests neoconservatism, Bush, and the Iraq Warmight find some common ground. In the end, Lévy remarks to the reader, “I tell myself that this man [Perle] and I surely don’t belong to the same family. This is where I stand.”
Lévy is an incorrigible name-dropper, flaunting his connections to famous people across the political, ideological, intellectual, and artistic spectra. Reporting on his conversations with Americans, he even works in their probable affinities with long-dead European philosophers: neoconservative William Kristol is a “Platonist bereft of the ideals”; philosopher Francis Fukuyama is “a Hegelian”; Morris Dees has a “nightly Pascalian revelation in an American airport.” In his most incongruous and obscure reference of this type, Lévy calls the United States itself “a country where Hollywood has supplanted Hegel.”
Another oddity in this section of the book is that, after extremely brief encounters with American citizens, Lévy sometimes boasts implausible flashes of insight. Outside Montgomery, Alabama, for example, he...
(The entire section is 2042 words.)