8) Alexis de Tocqueville, Letters from America, edited by Frederick Brown.
You know how it is here at pomocon—we can never get enough Tocqueville—, but with the more general reader in mind, I can say that his letters are on the more inherently engaging side of the correspondence spectrum, really by quite a lot. Roger Boesche’s little collection remains the first one to go to for political scientists, but by focusing on the American journey and giving us more of his correspondents’ responses, Brown has given us a fine little book.
7) Charles Portis, Escape Velocity: A Miscellany
I count Portis as a major American author, and I owe no small thanks to the Coen Brothers’ great 2010 version of True Grit for knowing that, and for having had the pleasure of reading his wonderful novels Gringos, Masters of Atlantis, Dog of the South, True Grit, and my very favorite, Norwood. I classified Escape Velocity among the “non-top-flight” books because his artistry and wisdom really unfurls in the novel form, and this is non-novelist work: short stories, travel writings, journalism, and even a play. So far I’ve read everything here but a couple of the short stories, and it’s all been consistently enjoyable, and undoubtedly would be more so if I knew more about proper automobile maintenance, which emerges again and again as a favorite Portis side-light and test of character.
The play here, Delray’s New Moon, is sort of a mock-Waiting-for-Godot, with the waiters being several old-folks dreading the arrival of a van to take them to a gargantuan rest-home facility called “Avalon.” Unlike Beckett’s stuff, it’s quite down to earth, and worthy of widespread performance in my (no-theater-background) opinion. Rural regional theater directors might find it useful audience-pleaser in any case.
Among the journalism tidbits, the most significant piece is an extensive story he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post on Nashville and its Country and Western music business, circa 1966 when its ongoing popularity and significance was first becoming noted by more mainstream Americans. A year or so before the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo really got the rock folks interested again. Portis clearly knew his stuff:
This is the milieu of commercial country music, the Southern honky-tonk. Sometimes its called “hillbilly music,” which is only half accurate, because the southern lowlanders have contributed just as much as the hill folks, perhaps more; and sometimes “country and western,” which is misleading because such of it as reflects the culture west of Abilene, Tex., tends to be pretty thin stuff. “Southern white working-class music” would never do as a tag, but that’s what it is.
So that essay alone makes the book worth your purchase. Here’s a more extensive discussion of its content.
6) Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia
TNR has a decent-enough review that will give you some idea of the content. The basic idea is to compare and contrast the path-breaking responses of three Asian intellectuals Jamal Al Din Al-Afghani (1838-1897), Liang Qichao (1873-1929), and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), to European (and sometimes U.S.) imperialist advance into their respective cultures and nations. Interesting parallels and exchanges between the Egyptian, Turkish, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian perspectives emerge, with a number of lesser Asian intellectuals integrated into the discussion as well. One benefit among many is that the intellectual backgrounds and choices of Mahatma Gandhi, Sayyid Qutb, and Mao Zedong all become much clearer.
My Indian economist friend hipped me to Mishra, who penned a devastating take-down of Niall Ferguson last year in the New York Review of books. Some of his opinions are blinkered in the familiar manner of smug anti-neo-con-ism or academic “post-colonialism,” but unlike folks like Edward Said, Mishra’s work is not grounded upon the morass of deconstructionist philosophy; it is more characterized by its attunement to the best the world history movement has to offer in its non-reductive (i.e., non-Jared-Diamond-like) moments, and to the actual feelings on the ground, then and now, in India, China, etc.
As the TNR reviewer notes, it is a fascinating and important book but one with plenty of flaws, especially in its concluding chapter, usually consisting of over-generalizations, or judgments in other ways insufficiently phrased or just slightly off. A few of the statements about Islamist terrorists, and especially about Mao’s murderous communism, verge upon and even fall into shameful excuse-making.
The three intellectuals in question have engaging stories, and set up various useful counter-positions, especially against their many modernize-at-all-costs intellectual compatriots, but they ultimately do not seem as profound as Mishra suggests. Indeed, Mishra at certain points reveals that he is not as familiar with European theory as he should be: he seems unaware, for example, that thinkers from its tradition (Pascal, Swift, Blake, Burke, etc.) had articulated critiques of modern scientism early on. He is too adverse to explore the broader dynamic illustrated by the fact that even a thinker as seemingly original and/or uniquely Asian like Gandhi proves on closer analysis to be heavily influenced by Tolstoy. More particular to his book, Al-Afghani and Qichao had far too much of their mental horizons set by social Darwinist thought, the sort that spurred the Japanese to out-do the Westerners in militaristic imperialism. Theoretically, his three intellectuals just aren’t in the league of Locke, Montesquieu, Publius, Guizot, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Oakeshott, Strauss, Manent, or the ancient political philosophers. Indeed, they don’t even seem to be in the league of thinkers like Bancroft, Croly, Hobson, Dewey, Hayek, Harrington, or WFB, Jr.. Had Mishra provided more extensive quotations and excerpts, one could better judge, but that’s the impression this political philosophy scholar takes from what he does give us.
Still, in terms of impact on human history over the next century or so, these intellectuals could prove more important. For example, the parallels Mishra draws between Qichao’s prescriptions for China and the actual policy the party has adopted since Deng Xiaoping, are telling ones. And again, to really understand present-day Islamism, engagement with the strange life-journey and intellectual/religious fluctuations of Al-Afghani seems necessary.
And of course, the book opens one’s eyes, yet again, to the sheer rapacity and heartlessness of so much European imperialism during its heyday. But it does so perhaps more vividly for readers of this blog given the way it allows us to look at events through the eyes of (non-Western) philosophy-informed patriotism.
My intention is to eventually compare and contrast this book with one (2004) by the Amercian Founding expert Ralph Ketchum, The Idea of Democracy in the Modern Era. Like Mishra, but from an American and more theory-informed perspective, Ketchum senses that the future of modern democracy depends a great deal on what occurs in Korea, Japan, India, and China, and that some of the keys to the developments there are to be found in how intellectuals like Tagore and Qichao, versed in their nations’ rich theologico-political inheritances, dealt with the imposition of European power in their time. Ketchum’s book has chapter titles—“Second Modernity Thought in Japan and China” and “An Asian Third Modernity”—that indicate how important these sorts of inheritances and intellectuals are to his assessment of the overall story about democracy and modernity. Some of this can be traced to a certain political-philosophy-informed hostility towards Christianity evident in his writing, some of this to a stint he had teaching in Japan, but my sense is that he is onto something regardless. More on my sense of that in a later post…
Addendum: given Ken Masugi’s note in the post above, about a late 2012 book featuring essays Tom West, Michael Zuckert, Paul Rahe, Eldon Eisenach, Ronald Pestritto, and James Ceaser, among others, it’s clear that it, Natural Rights Individualism and Progressivism in American Political Philosophy, should be on the list also.