Travel in America is a journey crowded with literary acquaintances. For centuries visitors have striven to make sense of the United States, drawn by its energy, admiring or disturbed by its civic culture. Charles Dickens visited twice, in 1841 and 1867, capturing his observations in American Notes (1842). His experience of American democracy confirmed him a political radical. Novelist Frances Trollope, on the other hand, travelled to America a liberal and returned a Tory. America has always confronted visitors with the possibilities of freedom but also the consequences of a market society, private wealth alongside public squalor.

One stranger in this strange land set the tone for many who followed. Alexis de Tocqueville arrived from France to study American jails, but wrote more broadly in the first volume of De la démocratie en Amérique, published in 1835 and still the single most influential rumination on the United States. How, wondered, Tocqueville, did the New World sustain a vibrant and practical democracy? Americans, he observed, had developed a distinct character through access to vast new territories, the absence of a strong central state, and values stressing self-reliance and hard work. The resulting tensions kept their society vigorous: a love of individual liberty but attachment to community; a suspicion of government yet celebration of nation; a land of unrestrained capitalism where access to riches ensured a rough equality of outlook.

In American Journeys, his account of travel in the continental United States, historian Don Watson mentions his distinguished predecessors only occasionally. Yet they sit, quietly, in the design. While Tocqueville was explicit about his aims, Watson is cautious about enunciating any wider purpose. Yet both are fascinated by the Americans, and make uncommon effort to see beyond the obvious. They share a preference for close observation, and a startling capacity to draw broader patterns from the small and familiar. Where Tocqueville studied the endless small local newspapers, Watson ponders the content of talk-back radio. Tocqueville reflected on civic culture as unifying forces in the American outlook, while Watson notes the pervasive influence of religion. American Journeys, in part, is a conversation across nearly two hundred years.


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    Travel in America is a journey crowded with literary acquaintances. For centuries visitors have striven to make sense of the United States, drawn by its energy, admiring or disturbed by its civic culture. Charles Dickens visited twice, in 1841 and 1867, capturing his observations in American Notes (1842) ...

  • Book Title American Journeys
  • Book Author Don Watson
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Knopf, $49.95 hb, 352 pp, 9781740513166
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What is it about Paul Keating that so fascinated his retainers? Six years ago, John Edwards wrote a massive biography-cum-memoir taking Keating’s story to 1993. Now Don Watson has produced an even heftier tome. Narrower in chronological span – 1992 to 1996 – Watson is broader in his interests, more personal, more passionate. While not the masterpiece it might have been, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart remains the most compelling contemporary portrait of an Australian prime minister. Paul Keating has found his Boswell.

Recollections is really three books in one: a subtle and sympathetic analysis of the many facets of the twenty-fourth prime minister; a narrative of high – and low – politics in the Keating years; and a compendium of the political wit and wisdom of Don Watson.

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  • Custom Article Title Neal Blewett reviews 'Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A portrait of Paul Keating PM' by Don Watson
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    What is it about Paul Keating that so fascinated his retainers? Six years ago, John Edwards wrote a massive biography-cum-memoir taking Keating’s story to 1993. Now Don Watson has produced an even heftier tome. Narrower in chronological span – 1992 to 1996 – Watson is broader in his interests, more personal, more passionate ...

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In The Bush (2014), Don Watson explored notions of what that most variegated of terms, ‘the bush’, meant to earlier generations, including his own family. In A Single Tree, he presents extracts from writings of all kinds for what he calls ‘a fragmentary history of humans in the Australian bush’. He takes as given the diverse applications of the word ‘bush’ over time and chooses pieces that give expression to a multiplicity of feelings, words, and thoughts around aspects of Australian place.

The urge to assign meaning to the natural world beneath our feet or in the distance is abiding and universal, and the work has been pursued on Terra Australis as elsewhere on the planet. For Australia’s British conquerors in the nineteenth century, the job was never going to be easy. Before any possibility of harnessing the continent to their various needs, a first difficulty lay in simply comprehending what it was they were seeing, so different was the scene to back home.

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  • Custom Article Title Angelo Loukakis reviews 'A Single Tree: Voices from the bush' compiled by Don Watson
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    In The Bush (2014), Don Watson explored notions of what that most variegated of terms, ‘the bush’, meant to earlier generations, including his own family. In ...

  • Book Title A Single Tree
  • Book Author Don Watson
  • Book Subtitle Voices from the bush
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  • Biblio Hamish Hamilton, $45 hb, 416 pp, 9781926428819
Monday, 30 November 2015 12:52

Open Page with Don Watson

WHY DO YOU WRITE?

Maybe because I can't dance. Maybe because writing involves the Puritan's requisites of pain, frustration, self-loathing, and (guilty) satisfaction.

ARE YOU A VIVID DREAMER?

For sure, my dreams seem to be much more vivid than I am – as far as I can recall.

WHERE ARE YOU HAPPIEST?

In a library; in a book; on a train; at a (horse) race-track.

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