Tag Archives: English authors

Review: What I Saw in America

Rating: ★★★★

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.

Overview:

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)

Quotes:

“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)

Prohibition:

“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)

American Culture:

“Americans are very unpunctual.” (p. 113)

“Individualism is the death of individuality.” (p. 169)

Read for Free: LibriVox (audiobook), Internet Archive (pdf), Project Gutenberg (epub & rtf), Kindle Store (mobi),

 

Review: The Man Who Was Thursday (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★★★

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: Surrealism, crime, suspense.

Overview:

The Man Who Was Thursday is probably Chesterton’s most intriguing work of fiction. It reads exactly like a modern action movie, skipping from place to place, and you are not quite sure, until the end, who is on which side of the conflict.

The story centers around the work of the “philosophical police,” especially one man named Syme. Syme, along with others, has been given the assignment of rooting out anarchism in England, and he begins by getting acquainted with Gregory, a friend of a friend, who appears to dabble in anti-establishment talk around parlors and dinner tables. Syme believes that Gregory may be involved in some deeper plot with an underground anarchist organization; Syme has no idea, though, how deep the rabbit hole will go.

As the plot thickens, it carries with it all the intrigue of The Matrix or an M. Night Shyamalan film, as readers are trying to figure out what is real and what is fantasy. Chesterton despises tidily framed opinions and political correctness, and this book makes some brow-furrowing philosophical statements both through the characters’ voices and through the paradoxes engendered throughout the plot.

Meat:

My favorite part of this book was not any of the aphorisms peppered throughout—which are inevitable in any Chesterton book. My favorite part was the irony that grows larger and larger throughout the book, until it becomes so ludicrous that you see why the book’s subtitle is A Nightmare. The story couldn’t be real just as he describes the story; it is real all around us and is renewed every day.

Chesterton proves to cross genres just as adeptly as Lewis or MacDonald. Nothing is lost in reading his non-fiction, poetry, or novels.

Bones:

My biggest bone with this book is the presentation—as usually printed, it looks like a piece of crime fiction, and it could easily be confused as one of the “Father Brown” stories. This story is very different from those, and, as I mentioned, the subtitle—which is left out on many editions—should suggest as much.

Although on the whole the book is full of suspense, parts of the plot do seem predictable, but the narrative is told in such a clever way that it did not bother me in the least, or detract from the constant wonder of reading the novel.

Quotes:

“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front . . . “

I can forgive God His anger, though it destroyed nations; but I cannot forgive Him His peace.”

Read: LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (epub & rtf), The Internet Archive (pdf)



An old review reads:

A WILD, MAD, HILARIOUS AND PROFOUNDLY MOVING TALE

It is very difficult to classify THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY. It is possible to say that it is a gripping adventure story of murderous criminals and brilliant policemen; but it was to be expected that the author of the Father Brown stories should tell a detective story like no-one else. On this level, therefore, THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY succeeds superbly; if nothing else, it is a magnificent tour-de-force of suspense-writing.

However, the reader will soon discover that it is much more than that. Carried along on the boisterous rush of the narrative by Chesterton’s wonderful high-spirited style, he will soon see that he is being carried into much deeper waters than he had planned on; and the totally unforeseeable denouement will prove for the modern reader, as it has for thousands of others since 1908 when the book was first published, an inevitable and moving experience, as the investigators finally discover who Sunday is.

Review: A Short History of England (GKC)

Rating: ★★★

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.”

Overview:

This book is difficult to summarize except to say that it is not at all what you expect based on its title; but it is 100% what you expect based on its author. Where others would see cause and effect, Chesterton sees principles and personalities. He is not aptly suited to introduce the layman to English history; but he is aptly suited to make comments to someone who knows English history well.

I would commend this book to readers who enjoy Chesterton’s works of criticism, such as Heretics.

Meat:

In my opinion, there is not much remarkable about this book except that Chesterton wrote it, (which makes it almost impossible to give it less than three stars, because of the wit and interest that pervades everything his pen touches). Much of this book was inscrutable for an American such as myself, who is not already versed in English history before beginning the book.

At the time Chesterton wrote this, it had become popular to try to focus more on daily life through history rather than just reciting and dates and battles as so many others had done. Chesterton, however, seems to do neither—rather, he tries to trace changes in English thought.

Bones:

As someone very poorly versed in European history as a whole, I had thought how pleasant it would be to be introduced to it through the pen of Chesterton; but I believe now that Chesterton did not write this to introduce anyone. Rather, he wrote it to respond to what others British authors had said in their own histories of England. After all, books of English history were quite in vogue in the Victorian period.

Chesterton was a journalist, not a historian; and the book, if not for John Richard Green, could have been titled therefore, A Short Commentary on a Short History of England. It simply does not read as a history book.

Despite all my caviling and criticisms, as I implied above, it is a remarkable thing that Chesterton wrote it. He is still his snarky, pithy, paradoxical self, as my quick collection of quotes will prove.

Quotes:

“It is an excellent habit to read history backwards.” (ch. 7, loc. 708)

“All government is an ugly necessity.” (ch. 8, loc. 856)

“The scientific age comes first and the mythological age after it.” (ch. 3, loc. 198)

“All men bear the image of the King of Kings.” (ch. 15, loc. 2031)

“It is sometimes valuable to have enough imagination to unlearn as well as to learn.” (ch. 5, loc. 425)

“The visionaries are the only practical men.” (ch. 4, loc. 367)

“Slavery was for the Church not a difficulty of doctrine, but a strain on the imagination.” (ch. 2, loc. 136.)

“The very work ‘monk’ is a revolution, for it means solitude and came to mean community—one might call it sociability.” (ch. 4, loc. 377)

“I would maintain that thanks are [is?] the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” (ch. 6, loc. 582)

Chesterton is critical of John Calvin’s ideas, which he summarizes: “that men must be created to be lost and saved.” (ch. 13, loc. 1671)

His conclusion is reminiscent of his poem, The Ballad of the White Horse:

“At least, if there be anything valid in my own vision of these things, we have returned to an origin and we are back in the war with the barbarians.” (ch. 18, loc. 2414)

Read: This book is free on Kindle and free as an audiobook on LibriVox (which I recommend).

For more free books by G. K. Chesterton, follow this link to get links to just about all of them and in any format imaginable.