More on Tocqueville, Pushkin and images of America

Alexandr Dolinin on perceptions of early America in old Russia, in his review — mostly scathing — of Alexandr Etkind’s Interpretation of Travels:

In Chapter VII of Part 2 (“De l’omnipotence de la majorité aux Etats-Unis et de ses effets”) Tocqueville writes perspicaciously on a democratic “tyranny of the majority” enslaving not the body but the soul of man, limiting freedom of opinion and precluding the emergence of a “genius of letters” and other outstanding individuals in the culture. It is this reverse side of egalitarianism — in his words, an “intolerable tyranny” of the average-educated rabble over [high] culture — that must have frightened Pushkin, while America’s political system left him completely indifferent… As the American literary scholar [J.] Thomas Shaw has brilliantly demonstrated in his fundamental article on John Tanner , […] for every formulation in Pushkin’s philippic there is an analogue in Toqueville but Pushkin emotionally amplifies the original, turning neutral fact-finding into invective. This reading is not distorting but passionately one-sided: an interpretation coming not only from an aristocrat and a political conservative but from a “genius of letters” — impossible in a democratic society — who does not want to put up with a future where he and his like will be doomed to extermination or silence.

Dolinin points out a “stable negative prototype of America as Russia’s complete antipode” that existed in Russian culture in the first half of the 19th century. But:

From the very start, there was a competing concept — the similarity between Russia and America as two young nations occupying huge areas and contrasted with senile and cramped Europe — the concept that, as Etkind correctly points out, was reflected in Tocqueville’s prophecy of a great future for the two “young giants” — which […] can be traced back to the ideas of Abbot Raynald, a French enlightener, and a book by his follower, [Jean] Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters of an American Farmer (cf. a similar comparison of America and Russia in Baron von Grimm’s letter to Catherine II […]). These images of America within Russian culture interacted in a complex way with the universal American myth, which endowed the New World with qualities of a promised land — a kind of another world where a person can find a different identity and make real his dreams of freedom. Accordingly, a journey to America was often understood symbolically: positively, as blessed death and new birth (in Without a Language, a story by [Vladimir] Korolenko, a peasant called Matvey, having come to New York, hears a voice in a dream: “The Matvey that was has died, and Dyma has died, and your faith that was has died, and your heart will be not as before, and another soul…”), and negatively, as eternal ruin and descent to hell (Dostoevsky’s Svidrigailov, heading to his banya with spiders, says he is leaving for America).

John Tanner was an American boy abducted and raised by Native Americans who later published a memoir of his life, which Pushkin read and reviewed in the literary journal he had founded, Sovremennik.


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