Informative ... Zunz explains what Tocqueville learned — and what he failed to notice — during his travels throughout the United States ... Zunz's analysis of Democracy in America hews closely to conventional wisdom ... Zunz also provides a splendid account of Tocqueville's career as a practical politician in France ... Zunz also provides a splendid account of Tocqueville's career as a practical politician in France.
Olivier Zunz offers many details...and wastes none of them ... While Zunz clearly admires Tocqueville, he does not shy away from his subject’s impassioned imperialism ... The real scaffolding of the biography, for all its telling vignettes and historical context, is Tocqueville’s thought, above all Democracy in America.
An exhaustively researched and discretely focused biography of the great Frenchman ... Mr. Zunz’s biography situates Tocqueville’s great treatise in its French context ... Mr. Zunz, for reasons that escape me, avoids broader interpretations of Tocqueville’s life and work. Some readers will prefer this narrowly factual approach. I do not ... Mr. Zunz also declines for the most part to engage with Tocqueville’s ideas beyond accurately rendering them and occasionally pointing out oversights. This is a biography, not an argument. But anybody who publishes a full-length treatment of Tocqueville...bears some obligation to connect the man’s ideas to the present ... I may be wrong about the reasons for Mr. Zunz’s reticence, but about this I am pretty sure: The people who would profit most from the man who understood democracy think they already understand it.
... sets an off-puttingly narrow framing for a book billing itself as a full-dress biography ... In his Note on Sources, Zunz cites his own work (this pernicious academic habit is persistently annoying; as schoolchildren are constantly told, you cannot cite yourself as a source). The book has no Bibliography (another widespread plague; if you want to know the works Zunz used, you’ll have to comb through his 60 pages of End Notes and assemble one on your own) ... Likely nobody alive knows the details of Tocqueville’s political thinking better than Zunz does, which probably accounts for how ready the narrative is in these pages to veer from biography to ideological discussion and back. The dates and locations and people of Tocqueville’s life are all here, from weak lungs to fervent love to the man’s persistent ability to make friends and keep them, but the daily life feels distinctly subordinated to the political theorizing. Reading The Man Who Understood Democracy will leave you with a far better sense of what Tocqueville thought than who Tocqueville was. That may be entirely fitting, but readers who come to biography for more flesh and blood should know about it ahead of time either way.