Harry Liebersohn is not the first to stress affinities between what one critic dubbed "noble lords and noble savages" by de-emphasising the so-called savagery of the indigenous and noting similarities between the warrior lifestyles of their chieftains and European aristocrats' obsessions with the chase, honour and war. Indeed, his study includes extended treatment of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835-40), which probably provided the initial formulation of such an idea with reference to Native Americans. But no one has better unravelled the intricate emergence of an "aristocratic discourse" on American Indians - how and why it took the shape it did between the French revolution and the revolutions of 1848.
Liebersohn builds his argument from a sampling of travel literature. There are perceptive discussions of travellers' tales by missionary Jean-Francois Lafitou, naval captain Pierre de Pagès, philosophe La Rochefoucault-Liancourt and, inevitably, "American farmer" Michel Guillaume St Jean de Crevecoeur, to name just some of the featured French figures. The parallel German authors treated are equally varied; they include Gottfried Duden, investigator of conditions for German immigrants, poet Nicholas Lenau, diplomat Count Albert Pourtales (who travelled with writer Washington Irving) and soldier-naturalist Paul Wilhelm of Wurttemberg. But the bulk of the evidence is taken from three texts, each of which demands a chapter of its own, that could be categorised differently: the fiction of Chateaubriand's 1801 novel Atala , which established several of the tropes Liebersohn elucidates, the sociology of Tocqueville's Democracy and the predominantly ethnographic Travels of Prince Maximilian of Wied , first published in 1839-41, with beautiful illustrations by Karl Bodmer. What I am getting at is that Liebersohn's expansion of the already baggy genre of travel writing is ultimately justified: it enables the reader to witness the unfurling and interleaving of ideas that branch into many areas of thought,observation and patterns of expression. Taken together, these do form a discourse - the subject of an interdisciplinary study that is also "primarily a book of European cultural and intellectual history".
To those who have noted how travel writing has become ever more theorised of late, it will be no surprise that Liebersohn's travellers - all of them heirs, however variously, to aristocratic fears of the French revolution - saw what they wanted to see and wrote what suited their own needs. When they value Plains Indian warrior culture in its tragic struggle with the dominant Euro-Americans (seen as levelling, intolerant and, of course, expropriative), they express their own alienation as members of a thoughtful, well-mannered elite threatened by the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie. In representing the Other, they actually define themselves.
All of this is well taken, and Liebersohn also adds to existing knowledge in more straightforwardly historical ways. For example, he not only makes available recent French-language scholarship on such matters as Tocqueville's indebtedness to Chateaubriand but provides a detailed new interpretation of Tocqueville's "Fourteen Days in the Wilderness" (1831), showing that the western journey and consequent journal were not vacation-like diversions from the primary preoccupation of Democracy but important determinants of it. Again, the nuanced thoroughness of Aristocratic Encounters illuminates even Maximilian's much-studied ethnography.
Given this originality, it is surprising that Liebersohn does not make explicit an underlying paradox about the Plains chiefs his travellers encountered: they may indeed have been "noble" in a moral sense, they may have inherited memberships in soldier and other societies and rituals, but they largely became leaders not by hereditary caste, which is the case for European aristocrats, but by acclamation of their prowess as warriors, spiritual guides and orators. That is, they were actually more like leaders of democratic nations than aristocrats.
Mick Gidley is professor of American literature, University of Leeds.
Aristocratic Encounters: European Travellers and North American Indians
Author - Harry Liebersohn
ISBN - 0 521 64090 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 179