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Tocqueville as memoirist
« This account will be a mirror in which I shall take pleasure in regarding both my contemporaries and myself, and not at all a painting to be shown to the public »

"Momentarily removed from the theater of activities and incapable even of taking up any sort of prolonged study due to the precarious state of my health, I am reduced, in the midst of my solitude, to consider myself for a moment, or rather to envision around me the current events in which I have played a part or to which I was witness. It seems to me that the best use I can make of my time is to retrace these events, to depict the men who took part in them beneath my gaze, and to lay hold of and thus engrave in my memory, if I can, the confused features that make up the physiognomy of my era." Such were the terms chosen by Tocqueville, at the start of his work, to describe the specific undertaking that the writing of his Souvenirs represented. It is very different from his other works, in both form and content. Its author chose to portray the events of 1848 and of the Second Republic as he had experienced them, and to give his impressions in the form of a lively narrative, intercut with moments of analysis, which allowed him to put himself in the picture while at the same time giving his own interpretations of what happened. His narrative stance in this text does not eclipse Tocqueville's qualities as a political thinker and sociologist, as shown by the firmness of his analyses. Taking advantage of another aspect of his talent, Tocqueville does not hesitate to interrupt his narrative to sketch portraits of the leading figures of the day, with a critical and ironic pen that is sometimes cruel. Louis-Philippe, Napoléon III, Lamartine, Blanqui and his own political allies successively bear the brunt of his accurate outline, sharp gaze, and superb ability to seize upon and reveal in a few lines "the secret motives" that determined their actions. Tocqueville himself did not entirely escape the ironic atmosphere that pervades Souvenirs, as he shares with the reader his clumsiness as an orator, his mistrust with respect to himself, and the errors in judgment that he committed while he was plunged in the midst of the action. He keeps the promise of sincerity that he makes at the beginning of the text, declaring that he has written it for himself; he continually refused to allow it to be published in his lifetime. Nevertheless, he devotes a full paragraph in his will to the future that he imagined for his Souvenirs, whose ultimate publication he did not entirely exclude.   play sound extractlire l'extrait sonore  

« In a word, I would like the expression of my recollections to be sincere, and to this end, it is necessary that they remain entirely secret. »

In his lifetime, he even stated his preference for "posthumous memoirsLetter to Henry Reeve, April 5, 1857: when, having nothing left to hope for or to fear, one can take full pleasure in biting after one's death those who one was obliged to tame while still alive." A happy mission indeed, which the initial publication of his Souvenirs (included in the first edition of his Complete Works, under the direction of his wife and his friend Gustave de Beaumont) fulfilled - and the successive reissues of the book have continued up the present!

Monsieur Croupion, caricature of Louis-Philippe

Monsieur Croupion, caricature of


PPages from the original manuscript of 'Souvenirs'

Pages from the original manuscript of Souvenirs, private collection
© AD Manche/A. Poirier

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