"Democracy in America", but for other countries?
October 15, 2021 9:16 AM   Subscribe

I've always loved de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and a large part of the appeal (to me) is his perspective as a non-American and his attempt to be detached & non-judgmental. Can you recommend equivalents for other countries? 19th or 20th century books where someone visited from a third country and wrote about the politics and national character in a respectful/non-colonizing manner?

There's a lot of stuff out there, but weeding through it is a chore. Much of this genre has aged badly or was written in a blatantly colonizing manner - especially the "Englishman abroad" type. I'm interested in books that have held up OK, and particularly those that were influential or well-regarded in the "subject" country in the way that de Tocqueville's writing was in the US.

(I'm also aware that de Tocqueville has a ton of his own problems, particularly when it comes to gender and race. But compared to some of his contemporaries, he's both progressive and respectful of the country he's visiting.)
posted by ZaphodB to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: American Notes for General Circulation by Charles Dickens. He's an Englishman abroad, but quite critical of various aspects of American society including slavery, violence, distrustful individualism, commercialism, and public health standards. Slavery is gone, but its legacy remains. Violence, still here. Distrustful individualism, yes indeed. Commercialism, absolutely. Public health standards: we've got an anti-vaxx cult going on.
posted by beagle at 10:04 AM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell's account of fighting in the Spanish Civil War comes to mind, if not a perfect analogue.
posted by General Malaise at 10:24 AM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Henry James's English Hours and Italian Hours have a stronger emphasis on high culture than de Tocqueville does, but EH in particular might fit your bill.
posted by praemunire at 10:26 AM on October 15, 2021


Best answer: George Mikes on England. How to be an Alien {1946], [PDF] bundled later into How to be a Brit. A Hungarian view of his adopted country "Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot-water bottles". He did later books on other countries which I haven't read.
posted by BobTheScientist at 10:40 AM on October 15, 2021 [2 favorites]


Best answer: Norman Davies' works on Poland might count - he's Welsh, but he ended up in Poland for his PhD and his books on Polish history have fascinating insights. God's Playground is the classic big history of Poland, Heart of Europe is shorter, then there's Microcosm (about Wroclaw, and all its complicated citizenship issues as it kept changing hands) and Rising '44 about the Warsaw Uprising. He's got a couple newer ones too, I really should check out the one about Poland through postal histories.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:27 PM on October 15, 2021


Best answer: I don’t know if this quite fits what you’re looking for, but I’ve long been fascinated by An African in Greenland — though I haven’t actually read it yet.
posted by neroli at 1:08 PM on October 15, 2021


Response by poster: The hive mind never fails. I've marked everyone as a best answer because these are all terrific suggestions - lots of works I've never encountered. Please feel free to share more!
posted by ZaphodB at 8:00 PM on October 15, 2021


Shirer's Berlin Diary ("The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941") might actually be a little too interesting for a lot of Americans right now, and the Wikipedia article mentions a fascinating aspect of the book I had no previous awareness of, to the effect that for publication, Shirer edited the earlier entries in the actual diary the book is based on to change his initial favorable impressions of Hitler.
posted by jamjam at 1:22 AM on October 16, 2021


G.K. Chesterton wrote one. It's unfortunately not aged well re. racism and sexism, but it has interesting moments, and he thinks well of America overall. I remember particularly an essay about American hotels.

I'm sure you could find modern day books by immigrants and tourists, too. There're the Bill Bryson ones, off the top of my head - I don't trust his science writing but his travel writing can be fun sometimes. And there are youtube videos about culture shock that can be illuminating.

Edit: I can't recall the Chesterton book's title, but Project Gutenberg has it.
posted by Zephyr at 5:59 AM on October 16, 2021


Nagai Kafu's American Stories is a mix of his own accounts of traveling through the early 20th century US and fictionalized vignettes inspired by people and places he saw. It's a short read, and while not entirely unproblematic in how certain groups are discussed, I don't recall it being disrespectful per se.
posted by wakannai at 7:11 AM on October 16, 2021


Edit: I can't recall the Chesterton book's title, but Project Gutenberg has it.

What I Saw in America
posted by zamboni at 8:43 PM on October 16, 2021


Adelbert J. Doisy de Villargennes, Reminiscences of Army Life under Napoleon Bonaparte. Available. French Lieutenant Doisy was a POW in early 19thC Selkirk, Scotland. Similar: Anglo-French Encounters: The Integration of French Prisoners of War and Émigrés into British Society 1789-1815
posted by BobTheScientist at 8:44 AM on October 17, 2021


Rebecca West, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”
Geert Mak books*
Anne Garrels, “Putin Country”*

*some written in 21st century
**21st century, but fascinating
posted by SomethinsWrong at 3:15 PM on October 18, 2021


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