Parrot and Olivier in America

Issue 2

From the moment of its publication, we knew that we would feature Peter Carey’s new novel in one of our early issues. How could we not address the world-renowned author’s grappling with the legacy of the French Revolution? The perspective might be that of a highly fictionalized Alexis de Tocqueville, in the guise of a Restoration Don Quixote (or rather a Bertie Wooster to his English manservant’s Jeeves) whose picaresque travels through America we follow, with forays into French post-revolutionary aristocratic trauma and English working-class ambitions, and a glimpse at Australian convict experience. But it is Carey’s question, mirroring Tocqueville’s, which ought to propel this novel into the classroom: Viewed from 1830, did America rather than France represent the democratic future?

Parrot and Olivier in America

K. Steven Vincent
North Carolina State University

Peter Carey’s recent novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, is a picaresque tale of two men who in the early-1830s travel by ship to America to study and explore the new experiment in democracy.  Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont is a young French aristocrat who proposes to investigate prisons, but comes to devote much of his time to composing a general book about American society, politics, and mores.  Parrot is the son of an itinerant printer who grew up in England, but comes to be engaged by a friend of Olivier’s mother to observe and protect the young French aristocrat.  Carey intends Olivier’s adventures to be roughly parallel with Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1831-1832 tour of America (sans Gustave de Beaumont).  The novel, therefore, allows Carey imaginatively to describe English and French society in the early years of the nineteenth century, and also to explore how a man of Tocqueville’s background and temperament would respond to American society in the Jacksonian era.

Carey portrays Olivier’s family as anxious nobles who, having endured the dislocations of the French Revolution, confront the rumors of the Bourbon Restoration with enthusiasm and trepidation.  Parrot and his father, in the opening pages of the novel, are hired by a revolutionary faction in the English countryside that forges assignats, which leads to a violent encounter and the death of Parrot’s father.  Due to traumatic developments – Parrot spends time in Australia and Paris – and to the serendipitous acquaintance of both families to the one-armed Marquis de Tilbot (“sometimes known as the Hero of the Vendée,” p. 17), Olivier and Parrot are brought together on the Havre during the voyage to America.  In the New World, they torment and assist each other, as they confront the hurly burly world of American culture and commerce.

Olivier is shocked by the frenetic pace of American urban life, enthralled and a bit overwhelmed by the sublime beauty of the landscape, and charmed into an amorous infatuation with a daughter of one of his hosts.  Like Tocqueville, he is ambivalent about the new republic that he confronts:  taken aback by the tight hold of Puritan uprightness; fascinated with the “excitable self-invention” (p. 161) of the American spirit; troubled by the grasping for wealth that abounds at the expense of culture; and, repelled by the tasteless but copious cuisine.  While in New York, Olivier recounts that

I had three rums, awful stuff, stinking of raisins and sweet as baby’s sick.  I paid. I left.  I walked quickly to escape the Hudson’s unrelenting wind, and soon enough I was on Broadway and all was business – barrow boys, bankers, whores in a hurry with something on their mind.  This was not Paris where you might drift uselessly from place to place, affecting to carry your wit and learning in a conch shell up your bottom.  There were no flâneurs on Broadway.  They were 100 percent business and they banged against one another like marbles in a lottery barrel. (p. 288).

As this quotation illustrates, Carey’s exuberant style allows his protagonists to humorously depict both French and American society.  Parrot and Olivier are not as perceptive as Montesquieu’s Persian visitors to Paris, Rica and Usbeck, but there is a similar technique of foreigners commenting on strange customs, an optic that permits Carey to reflect on the diversity of manners and customs, on sexual freedom and restraint, on religion, on wise and unwise government, and on much more.

Historians will appreciate the nods to historical figures like Rousseau, Vigée-Lebrun, Staël, and Stendhal, and to events made famous by recent scholarship.  (There is even passing reference to a cat massacre on rue Saint-Séverin.)  There will also be minor annoyances, however, if one assumes Olivier’s views are to replicate Tocqueville’s.  For example, Olivier is presented as having a violent hatred for Thiers because the latter “blamed the aristocrats for the sins of the Revolution” (p. 71), thus implying that Olivier/Tocqueville did not.  We know, however, that Tocqueville was not generously inclined toward the late-Old Regime nobility, in spite of his personal predilection for noble sociability.  According to Tocqueville, by the late-eighteenth century, nobles no longer performed the significant sociopolitical role they once did because society had become segmented into isolated groups; and, unfortunately, nobles had come to inhabit a gilded ghetto that revolved around honorific privileges no longer connected with socially-useful functions.  Perusing the anti-revolutionary writings of Edmund Burke in the 1850s, Tocqueville wrote in his notes: “You who see a great aristocracy live before your eyes do not perceive that the aristocracy here is not just sick but dead before one touches it!!” [1]  The conundrum that Tocqueville faced was to locate a different group in French society with the “habits of the heart” required to protect liberty in the new age of equality.  What so impressed him about America was that individualism frequently included the practice of association, which therefore united more general interests with particular interests.[2]

But Carey’s novelistic romp is generally perceptive about the agenda of Olivier/Tocqueville.  There are echoes, familiar to all readers of Tocqueville’s classic book on American democracy, of the attempt to read France’s future in America’s present.  As Olivier writes to his mother, “the future of France will be found in their [the Americans’] experiment and when the wave of democracy breaks over our heads, it will be best we know how to bend it to our ends rather than be broken by its weight” (p. 133).  And was not the American democracy preferable?

Was it not better to inhabit the future than the past? . . . In America there was nothing like our schisms, our ancient blood-drenched hatreds.  I could discover no discord here more serious than the manufacturing states bickering with the agrarian about a tariff. (p. 321)

Olivier comes to the conclusion that democracy “will not ripen well” in America (p. 378).  He is no more optimistic about France, where people have become “stuck in the slough between what had been and what might be possible, and whatever avenue we sought was mired with mud and blood and the horrors of misrule.  We fiddled here.  We fiddled there.  And all the while the great lava flow of democracy came inexorably toward us” (pp. 261-62).

Carey’s new novel gives historians a good excuse for an amusing gambol – to fiddle here and there – with an imaginary, yet familiar French traveler.  For the classroom, however, I would favor, if not assigning Tocqueville himself (always the first and best option), sections of George Wilson Pierson’s classic Tocqueville and Beaumont in America,[3] which brings the American context to life without confusing flights of fancy.

1. This is reproduced by Robert T. Gannett, Jr., in Tocqueville Unveiled: The Historian and His Sources for The Old Regime and the Revolution (Chicago: The University Chicago Press, 2003), p. 64.

2. There is an excellent recent analysis of this dimension of Tocqueville’s thought in Lucien Jaume, Tocqueville: les sources aristocratiques de la liberté (Paris: Fayard, 2008), pp. 145-57.

3. George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938); reissued in a paperback edition as Tocqueville in America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America.  New York:  Knopf, 2010, 383 pp.

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