Open Every Door: Mary Mottley-Mme. Marie de Tocqueville, by Sheila Le Sueur, translated by Claudine Martin-Yurth (Mesa, AZ: Dandelion Books, 340 pp., $26.95). Alexis de Tocqueville’s wife was Mary Mottley, an Englishwoman. His biographers have never written more than a couple of sentences about her. This is regrettable because Mary was an extraordinary woman, because the marriage was an extraordinarily good one, and because their correspondence is worth reading. Extraordinary, too, was this aristocrat’s choice of a middle-class English governess for his wife. They were married in 1835, when the first volume of Democracy in America was published and before he started writing the second. Now we have Open Every Door, a substantial account of Mary and her English family. Sheila Le Sueur has devoted decades of her life to her research of Mary’s ancestry and of her youth. Le Sueur is a nurse, not a professional historian. Her book includes matters that are not too important—but she has made an invaluable contribution to every future (and present) student of Tocqueville.
Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception, by Paul R. Pillar (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 211 pp., $29.95). Paul Pillar argues that the United States is indeed the exceptional nation, but not in the sense in which the term is usually understood: In Pillar’s view, exceptional means “a narrow and one-sided version of what makes the United States unique” that is “politically tendentious [while whitewashing] negative aspects of U.S. behavior . . . a type of triumphalism based on the notion that Americans are not just different from but better than anyone else.” Rather, Pillar argues, America’s geographical isolation (noted by Tocqueville as a major influence on the formation of the national character) between two protective oceans has preserved the country and its people from historical experiences with which every other nation in the history of the world has been familiar, including the transfer of portions of its territory to other countries, shifting boundaries, and changing dynasties. Geographical isolation has not only protected America from invasion but guaranteed that Americans have remained so much alike that they can imagine only with difficulty people who differ from themselves in thought and behavior and find it easy to view less historically fortunate countries in more complicated political circumstances and with less peaceful histories as inferior to themselves, and therefore in need of reformation in the American image. (It has also disinclined Americans, relative to Europeans and other peoples, to travel abroad and especially to learn foreign languages and further encouraged their provinciality.) The American leadership naturally shares the historical myths and assumptions of the popular classes and hence their misperceptions of their country and of the world, often with unfortunate and occasionally catastrophic results. Pillar’s is one of the best books on this important subject I have ever read.
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.
Paris at War: 1939-1944, by David Drake (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 545 pp., $35.00). This stunning book, a work of so-called social history that transcends categorical boundaries, invites comparison with Angus Calder’s The People’s War: Britain, 1939-1945 (1969), despite the fact that, as Professor Drake notes, the difference between how World War II was experienced by the French and the British peoples was vast. In respect of the second, one thinks of the London Blitz and Hitler’s firebombing of Canterbury. But Paris was also bombed, mostly by the British and the Americans—besides, of course, being invaded and occupied by the Germans and oppressed and humiliated by the collaborationist Vichy government, which, though located in the Unoccupied Zone, passed laws to which inhabitants in the Occupied Zone (mainly Paris) were also subject.
Drake spent nearly a decade writing this book, for which he drew upon—among other sources—memoirs and diaries of citizens resident in Paris during the war from across a wide social spectrum, newspapers, police reports, accounts by German soldiers, and reports of the French plainclothes political police (Renseignements généraux) who roamed Paris gathering firsthand impressions of the mood of the citizens, summarizing articles in the collaborationist press, eavesdropping on political meetings sanctioned by the occupation government, and so forth. Drake presents this vast body of material as a chronological narrative: fascinating, gripping, fashioned with great artistry, and—always—beautifully written. From Chapter One (“The Phoney War”), with its masterly evocation of the chaotic unpreparedness of the French government (as well as that of the French army) for the German onslaught, to the stirring depiction of the Liberation, the story never flags, nor even trips over a dull sentence or mishandled paragraph.
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.
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