Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”
Genre: Non-fiction, travel, essays.
This is a long book of essays, first published in 1922, mostly about America and English-American relations in the wake of World War I. They were written during and after a lecture tour in the United States. Chesterton includes a few funny anecdotes from his travel but otherwise avoids any details concerning his trip—that is to say, this is by no means a travelogue; it is a book of essays reflecting on his time in America.
To cover this rather lengthy book, I will have to divide the themes into headings. There are four topics in What I Saw in America: 1) American culture; 2) understanding foreign cultures in general (and what is today known as “culture shock”); 3) American politics; and 4) international unity efforts (then called “internationalism”)
Chesterton on American Culture
The first chapter (“What Is America?”) sets the tone for the whole book and is probably its most important chapter. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t enjoy the rest of the book. In its title, Chesterton hearkens back to Crevecoeur’s famous Letters from an American Farmer, published in 1782, in which he asks the question, “What Is an American?” Crevecoeur’s conclusion:
The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence.—This is an American.
Chesterton’s conclusion in this chapter is not far off:
America invites all men to become citizens. (p. 8) . . . [America] is making a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles. (p. 14)
Chesterton continues along this line in two important later chapters, “The Spirit of America” and “The Future of Democracy.”
He makes many other general statements about American culture and work ethic. Here is another (from “The Spirit of England”):
The Englishman is moody. . . . In America there are no moods, or there is only one mood. It is the same whether it is called hustle or uplift. American sociability is . . . like Niagara. It never stops, under the silent stars or the rolling storms. (p. 288-289)
And there are, in the book, many, many other amusing notes about the differences between the Englishman and the American.
Chesterton on Culture Shock
Chesterton has a refreshing way of discussing culture shock in this book. He points out the discomfort that is inevitable in travelling.
A foreigner is a man who laughs at everything except jokes. (p. 163)
He also argues that as long as we think we understand a people or nation, we will be unable to learn anything new about them. He illustrates this by a strange anecdote in the chapter “The Extraordinary American,” which is about an inexplicable meeting in Oklahoma. His apt summary:
We have never even begun to understand a people until we have found something that we do not understand. (p. 182, emphasis mine)
Chesterton on American Politics
The modern Briton sees American politics from afar as a circus. Chesterton calls it—along with his own nation—a plutocracy (rule by the rich), a term which has only grown in relevance.
Vulgar plutocracy is almost omnipotent in both countries; but I think there is now more kick of reaction against it in America than in England. (p. 264-265)
Political representation in democracy, for Chesterton, is a sleight-of-hand trick: we go to pains to elect whomever we want, and then spend their term criticizing them. He writes that the King of England is a popular figure, and that “pure democracy” leads inevitably to tyranny. (He first said this, I believe, in his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill.) This agrees somewhat with statements made by James Madison in Federalist Paper no. 10, written in 1787.
Along with many British believers or young American Christians, Chesterton would be considered conservative on moral issues but liberal on social issues. Firstly, he sees the American republic as having a theological foundation:
America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. (p. 7, emphasis mine)
This rings true, of course, with most conservative Christians; but his other opinions may raise some feathers—especially his view of economics, which is definitely not capitalist, but not exactly socialist either.
A wise man’s attitude towards industrial capitalism will be very like Lincoln’s attitude towards slavery. That is, he will manage to endure capitalism; but he will not endure a defence of capitalism. (p. 226)
Politically moderate Christians, who are today called “politically homeless,” will definitely be interested in Chesterton’s views.
Chesterton on Internationalism
The League of Nations, which was later replaced by the United Nations, was the first worldwide intergovernmental organization, founded in 1920. Although we may have forgotten it after the disillusionment of World War II, the original goal was to maintain world peace and international unity. Novelist H. G. Wells had written that if we could not maintain such a peace, then only war is possible.
This kind of thinking Chesterton consistently and utterly rejects. In numerous places in his writings, he shows outrage at the idea of a neutral assimilation along any lines, whether moral, political, denominational, linguistic, or cultural. He says twice that this is the main contention of the entire book:
I would insist everywhere in this book . . . that the remedy is to be found in disentangling the two and not in entangling them further. (p. 233)
The safest path for Anglo-American relations, he says, is for the English to be more English, not more American; and for the English to learn to appreciate America as American, and the American to appreciate England as English. In this way, he makes a great argument for diversity (as elsewhere). One of the characters in his early novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill makes a similar argument:
Do you really mean to say that at the moment when the Esquimaux has learnt to vote for a County Council, you will have learnt to spear a walrus? (Napoleon of Notting Hill, p. 41)
Chesterton’s objection to “internationalism” is summarized thus:
The objection to spreading anything all over the world is that, among other things, you have to spread it very thin. (p. 244)
Other Themes in What I Saw in America
As in any book of essays, numerous themes are discussed and couldn’t possibly fit into a review. Some other themes addressed prominently in this book are given here:
- American humor
- American journalism
- American politics
- American individualism
- Political representation
- Capitalism and work ethic
- Egalitarianism vs. capitalism
- The moral influence of new technologies
- The fruitlessness of the Prohibition (1920-1933)
“The devil can quote Scripture for his purpose; and the text of Scripture which he now most commonly quotes is, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” That text has served to identify self-satisfaction with “the peace that passes all understanding.” And the text to be quoted in answer to it is that which declares that no man can receive the kingdom except as a little child. What we are to have inside is the childlike spirit; but the childlike spirit is not entirely concerned about what is inside. It is the first mark of possessing it that one is interested in what is outside. The most childlike thing about a child is his curiosity and his appetite and his power of wonder at the world. We might almost say that the whole advantage of having the kingdom within is that we look for it somewhere else.” (p. 279)
“The first thing to be said about it is that it does not exist. . . . Prohibition never prohibits. It never has in history; not even in Moslem history; and it never will.” (p. 145)
“Americans are very unpunctual.” (p. 113)
“Individualism is the death of individuality.” (p. 169)