G. K. Chesterton visited the United States twice, in 1921 and 1930, and his impressions of America, gleaned from these visits, formed the basis of two books, What I Saw in America (1922) and Sidelights on New London and Newer York (1932). These books are in fact some of the most muddled, confused, and confusing, of Chesterton’s works, consisting of fleeting impressions without the rooted reason that characterizes so much of his other work. It’s almost as though the great Chesterton, who had destroyed the arguments of many of his progressive, socialist, and materialist contemporaries in pyrotechnic displays of brilliance, was frankly bemused by the United States. Even so, he does succeed in providing some interesting insights, worthy of our attention. Commenting on American idealism, he connects it with the danger of idolatry:
Americans… are the most idealistic people in the whole world. Their only danger is that the idealist can easily become the idolator. And the American has become so idealistic that he even idealises money.
This is all very well, and doubtless all very true, but it seems to omit the other danger in which the equally credulous idealism of Europe had led to the equally pernicious idolatry of ideology, most notably the idolatrous ideology of socialism, in its national and international guises, the former of which spawned the holocaust and the latter the Gulag Archipelago. Chesterton may indeed be correct to warn us that the idealization of money leads to the materialism of Mammon but we must always remember that the idealization of liberté, egalité et fraternité leads to the materialism of Marx.
In an interview with the New York Times Magazine in February 1923, Chesterton stressed the agrarian roots of the United States as a cultural, economic and political strength that had become sadly lacking in Europe:
In England we are apt to forget that a vast portion of the United States is agricultural. We think of it as industrial because we hear so much of certain big cities on the coast. The heart of America is one vast prairie dotted with small farms, the owners of which are not at all unlike the medieval peasantry.
For Chesterton, as for his friend Belloc, the greatest guarantor of political and economic liberty was the possession of productive property, most importantly the ownership of land. Chesterton, in The Outline of Sanity and What’s Wrong with the World, and Belloc, in The Servile State and An Essay on the Restoration of Property, stressed the loss of liberty of the English peasantry caused by the enclosure of the common land, the poverty that ensued, and the consequent transformation of England from a land of agrarian smallholders to a land in which the wage slavery of the urban proletariat sowed the seeds of social division. It is little wonder, therefore, that Chesterton saw the widespread ownership of agricultural land in the United States as something that reminded him of mediaeval Europe and something that showed the superiority of the agrarianism of the United States over the industrialism and urbanism of England. Needless to say, Chesterton would have been horrified by the so-called “economies of scale” that have forced most American farmers to abandon the land to the forces of agri-business.
During Chesterton’s second visit to the United States, he gave a lecture at Albany in New York about “the worship of activity for its own sake”, which had “grown to be almost a religion with the people here”. This “false religion” of busy-ness was as bad as the laziness of England’s wealthy classes. On a similar note, Chesterton wrote an essay entitled “Some Heresies of Our Mass Production”, in which, taking the example of mass produced walking sticks, he waxed lyrical on the absurdities of modern economic practices:
Then the same demoniac logic begins to extend itself in every direction. As there is a machine for making the stick, there must also be a machine for making the machine. As the machine as well as the stick must be sold as often as possible, it must be broken as often as possible. And the inverted and insane progress, which began with a perfect wheel turning out an imperfect stick, may even end in the turning out of a more and more imperfect wheel. To this there is added salesmanship, which means inducing people to buy imperfect wheels as if they were perfect wheels; and mergers, which means making sure there shall be only one imperfect sort of wheel; and publicity, which means proclaiming this preposterous state of things through ten thousand trumpets of brass, as if it were the age of gold.
One of Chesterton’s most penetrating insights into America concerned what he called “the great American experiment” of multi-racialism, “the experiment of a democracy of diverse races which has been compared to a melting-pot”. Chesterton asserted that the experiment required a strong sense of national identity, which was the unifying force that allowed the many races to meld into the one nation. The metaphor of the melting pot “implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance; a pretty solid substance. The melting-pot must not melt.” The paradox, therefore, is that the very diversity necessitates unity. The pot must be solid enough and strong enough to withstand the heat caused by the multi-racial experiment. If the pot melts, America, as we know it, will cease to exist. And yet the pot must not become so strong that it appears to be made of totalitarium, that most terrible of modern metals. If the melting-pot is reforged in this particularly mean and Machiavellian metal it will cease to be a land of the free and will become a home of the slave.
Chesterton understood the dangers of totalitarianism and always argued that big problems are not best solved by big government. Indeed, he argued on many occasions that most of the big problems are caused by big government. His first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, was a parable whose very purpose was to serve as a cautionary tale warning against the dangers and encroachments of big government and the imperialism to which it leads. For this reason, it is no surprise that Chesterton supported the strengthening of states’ rights as the best defence against the usurpation of power by the Federal government. He complained that the “supremacy of the Middle West in politics is inflicting upon other localities exactly the sort of local injustice that turns provinces into nations struggling to be free”. Although he believed that “the American system [was] a good one as government’s go”, he also insisted that “it is too large, and the world will not be improved by making it larger”.
The tension between the emergent giantism in America’s cities and the enduring agrarianism of its countryside and small towns was encapsulated by Chesterton in the conclusion of his essay on “Skyscrapers”:
It is a slander on America to call it a land of skyscrapers. It is a gross injustice to Americans to suppose that most of them live in large hotels. An enormous number of them live in little wooden houses, looking rather like dolls’-houses, each with a porch in front: and they are immeasurably happier and better than anybody in the very biggest hotel; and perhaps happiest of all in the fact that nobody has ever heard of them.
As an admirer of The Lord of the Rings, I find it impossible to read this passage without picturing the American heartland as one never ending Shire, from sea to shining sea, populated by happy and amiable hobbits who are only dimly aware of the Dark Towers of New York or Los Angeles in which real-life Saurons and Sarumans are served by rootless proletarian orcs.
Let’s conclude the discussion of Chesterton’s perceptions with his salute to the American flag, a salute that signifies his hope that America might become a beacon of crusading Christianity for the rest of the world. Having declared that the “creed” that unites America “must become more rather than less Christian”, and having lamented that “the English have often forgotten the cross on their flag”, he hoped that “the crossless flag” of the United States “may yet become a symbol of something; by whose stars we are illumined, and by whose stripes we are healed”. As an Englishman who shares Chesterton’s Christian creed as well as his English nationality, I can offer my own resounding “amen” to such a prayer that America might become Europe’s deliverance.
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1. G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1955, p. 164
2. New York Times Magazine, February 11, 1923
3. Michael Ffinch, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, London: HarperCollins, 1988, p. 324
4. Chestertonia, a souvenir brochure produced for Chesterton’s visit to Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts on 12 December, 1930; quoted in Joseph Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, p. 399
5. G. K. Chesterton, Collected Works, Volume XXI, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 42
6. Ibid., p. 221
7. Ibid., p. 571
8. Ibid., p. 591