Thus the greatest British wit of the 20th century—his friend George Bernard Shaw not excepted—lets the reader know in the opening sentence that this is not going to be a conventional travel book.
“Travel ought to combine amusement with instruction; but most travelers are so much amused that they refuse to be instructed,” Chesterton writes. “I do not blame them for being amused; it is perfectly natural to be amused at a Dutchman for being Dutch or a Chinaman for being Chinese. Where they are wrong is that they take their own amusement seriously… It is said that the Englishman takes his pleasures sadly; and the pleasures of despising foreigners is one that he takes most sadly of all. Hence in international relations there is far too much laughing and far too much sneering. But I believe that there is a better way which largely consists of laughter; a former friendship between nations which is actually founded on differences to hint at some such better way is the only excuse of this book.”
In 1921, when Chesterton “went wandering about the States disguised as a lecturer,” his name was already familiar to educated Americans through his fiction, poetry, literary criticism, and political commentary, much of which was published in American newspapers and magazines. Indeed, as Chesterton had long maintained, Americans were as familiar with popular British writers like Dickens, Kipling, and H.G. Wells as the British were with Emerson, Hawthorne, and Mark Twain. (“Few Americans,” he noted, “realize how much English children have been educated on American literature”—boys “entangled in the forests of Huckleberry Finn” and girls “having passed a happy childhood with the Little Women of Miss Alcott.”)
Chesterton’s articles and reviews were gravid with pithy assessments:
“Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.”
On patriotism: “‘My country, right or wrong’ is a thing that no true patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”
On comparative religion: “Students of popular science… are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.”
“Science is a splendid thing; if you tell it where to go.”
On revolution: “The next one is always perfect.”
“There is no sense in reasoning with the man who denies any validity to reason.”
Charles Dickens: “[He] did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted.”
“Even if art and poetry have no use, it does not follow that they have no value.”
Reason “is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”
Chesterton’s observations on America do not disappoint. Though he maintained that Americans were “by far the politest people in the world,” he was chagrined by the questions submitted to him by the passport office, particularly “Are you in favor of subverting the government of the United States by force?” His answer, of course, was no, but he was tempted to write, “I’d prefer to answer that question at the end of my tour and not the beginning.”
An avid partaker of beer and burgundy, he had the misfortune to visit the U.S. after the passage of the Volstead Act. He was not sympathetic with its aims. “I went to America,” he confessed, “with some notion of not discussing Prohibition. But I soon found that well-to-do were only too delighted to discuss it over the nuts and wine. They were even willing, if necessary, to dispense with the nuts.”
He quickly discovered that the first thing to be said about Prohibition “is that it does not exist. It is to some extent enforced among the poor; at any rate, it was intended to be enforced among the poor; though even among them I fancy it is much evaded. It is certainly not enforced among the rich; and I doubt whether it was intended to be.”
In short, “it has long been recognized that America was an asylum. It is only since Prohibition that it has looked a little like a lunatic asylum.”
Putting that matter aside, he believed “there are some things a man ought to know about America before he sees it,” most especially that “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.” But, “the democratic ideal of countries like America, while it is still generally sincere… is at issue with another tendency, an industrial progress which is of all things on earth the most undemocratic.”
“England and Germany are industrial; but England and Germany are not really democratic. France has a democratic ideal, but France is not industrial. Industrial capitalism and ideal democracy are everywhere in controversy; but perhaps only here [in the U.S.] are they in conflict.” Simply put, “Equality is still the ideal though no longer the reality of America.”
Chesterton very much enjoyed his stay in New York: “a cosmopolitan city, but not a city of cosmopolitans.” He much amused his American friends with his reaction to Broadway at night with its “long kaleidoscope of colored lights arranged in large letters and sprawling trademarks, advertising everything, from pork to pianos.”
“What a glorious garden of wonders this would be,” he told his companion, “to anyone who was lucky enough to be unable to read.”
In the chapter “A Meditation in a New York Hotel,” he reflected that American hotels bore little resemblance to their counterparts in England—inns: “Broadly speaking there is only one hotel in America. The pattern of it, which is a very rational pattern, is repeated in cities as remote from each other as the capitals of European empires. You may find that hotel rising among the red blooms of the warm spring woods of Nebraska, or whitened with Canadian snows near the eternal noise of Niagara.” He admired the symmetrical hallways and saw that in each hallway there was “the same table, green vase, and stuffed flamingo.”
He came to “an unrestrained admirations for American bathrooms,” and while in Dayton, Ohio, was delighted to see “a Laundry Convention going on in the same hotel, in a room very patriotically and properly festooned with the Stars and Stripes, and doubtless full of promise for the future of laundering.”
There are inevitably many points of comparison between What I Saw in America and Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 Democracy in America. The Englishman, of course, had advantages not available to the Frenchman 90 years earlier. De Tocqueville saw only a few northeastern cities, and to him Americans meant the descendants of a few western European nations. Thanks to the railway, Chesterton traveled as far west as Oklahoma, and though he never made it to the Southern Black Belt, he did see St. Louis and Nashville.
He found Chicago to be “certainly something more than the mere pork-packing yard that English tradition suggests; and it has been building a boulevard not unworthy of its splendid position on its splendid lake.” Boston, he thought, “is much more beautiful than its name,” with neighborhoods even more steeped in tradition than what he saw in the South.
His favorite city may have been Washington, “a beautiful city; and really retains something of that classical serenity of the eighteenth century in which the Fathers of the Republic moved. With all respect to the colonial place of that name, I do not suppose that Wellington [New Zealand] is particularly like Wellington. But Washington really is like Washington.” Washington had not yet been “defiled and even diseased” with what he regarded as the bane of the modern world, “industrialism.”
He respected the state of Maryland as “the first experiment in religious freedom in human history,” a “long march ahead of William Penn and his Quakers.” On arriving in Baltimore, there were two priests waiting to greet him, and he was “moved in a new fashion, for I felt that I touched the end of a living chain.” (Nine years after his visit to America Chesterton converted to Catholicism,)
He spent much of his trip studying Americans. “We have never even begun to understand a people until we have found something that we do not understand.” And what he could not understand was how people could live without a sense of tradition.
“What many, quite incorrectly, imagine about all America is really true of Oklahoma. It is proud of having no history. It is glowing with the sense of having a great future—and nothing else.” While feeling “a perfectly genuine and generous exhilaration of freedom and fresh enterprise in places like Oklahoma,” he found no culture. Which is to say, no local culture. Just about the only vestige of culture in Oklahoma is “the cinema. And the objection to the cinema is not so much that it goes to Oklahoma as that it does not come from Oklahoma.”
He felt the culture of rural Americans came along the railroads from the industrial cities “and brings with it a blast of death and a reek of rotting things [from the industrial cities]… It is that influence”—of the industrial cities—“that alone prevents the Middle West from progressing towards the Middle Ages.”
Unlike Chesterton, de Tocqueville was suspicious of democracy, particularly of one that could elect as president a man as uncouth as Andrew Jackson. Chesterton understood that the popular presidents, Jackson and Lincoln and Roosevelt—the names, he noted, “have become curiously interchanged”—were closer in spirit to medieval kings than the modern constitutional monarchs of Europe that Tocqueville knew.
Certainly de Tocqueville would never have earned the compliment paid to Chesterton by an American lady interviewer who told a friend that Chesterton was “a regular guy.”
“This puzzled me a little at the time… ‘Her description is no doubt correct,’ I said, but I confess that it would never have struck me as especially complimentary.” But he came to understand that being a regular guy “is one of the most graceful of compliments, in the original American.”
Beware of hard copies from independent publishers; the one I bought had print so tiny I needed a magnifying glass. The Carousel Books edition is fine.