As Chesterton sailed for the first time into New York harbor in 1921, journalists boarded the ship and began interviewing him before it had even docked. He noted that back at Fleet Street, no one would have thought him worth interviewing. Or at least if someone from one paper did, the others would have considered further notice bad form or plagiarism. In America, though, “the fact of my landing and lecturing was evidently regarded in the same light as a murder or a great fire or any other terrible but incurable catastrophe, a matter of interest to all pressmen concerned with practical events.”
The press accounts, however, were not always so serious as that. One journalist set eyes on Chesterton’s bulk and quipped that Chesterton was a “fellow of infinite vest.” Another thought he had “eyes that seem frequently to be taking up infinity in a serious way,” but this problem owes more to the journalist’s expectations than to Chesterton’s behavior. Even more suspicious is this vignette concerning Frances Chesterton: “He was accompanied by his wife, who looked very small besides him. She attended to the baggage examination, opening trunks and bags, while her husband delivered a short essay on the equality of men and women in England since the War.”
From what we know about Chesterton’s views of the relationship between the sexes, we may well believe that he allowed his wife to attend to the practical matters (about which he knew he had no competence). But it is very unlikely that he ever delivered a lecture about the equality of men and women in England since the war, the very concept of which would have been foreign to him. More believable, however, is the story of how a newspaper photographer tried to get Mr. and Mrs. Chesterton into the same photograph on the docks in New York. Although several of the newspaper reporters remarked that Chesterton was thinner than they expected (presumably his Johnsonian, larger-than-life reputation was supposed to be reflected in his body), it was necessary nonetheless for Chesterton to sit in a big armchair while his wife stood beside him. When they were settled in the required pose, he exclaimed: “I say I don’t like this, people will think I am a German.”
Frances herself reacted to all this hullabaloo. She was constantly being bothered by interviewers who wanted to get her “angle” on the visit of this great man, her husband, to America. At one point she erupted in some irritation, “I didn’t know I was the wife of a great man until I came to America. It never bothered me before.” Other inconveniences soon occurred. Chesterton was driven to a lecture, but on arrival found he was unable to get out of the car. A woman involved with the event counseled him to turn sideways. He replied, “I have no sideways.”
As he travelled around the country, Chesterton’s thinking about America crystallized around several key concepts. The phrase “hotels are not inns,” from What I Saw in America, captures one of these central concepts in Chesterton’s thinking about America, and Chesterton’s thinking in general. For him, the great divide between ancient and modern, that is, between what he loved and what he hated, is most concretely reflected in the passing from a life lived mostly within the old human and broadly Christian continuities of places like inns, to a life lived in the rationalized, efficient, but impoverished modern improvisations like hotels.
It is important to be clear about what Chesterton objected to in America. It was not that England had inns, while America did not. As anyone who has read The Flying Inn will recall, Chesterton thought the remaining inns in England threatened by non-Christian movements like vegetarianism, as well as by industrial bosses who wanted to make workers more productive by depriving them of alcohol. All of this, he thought, was leading England closer to the Servile State. England had resisted these currents somewhat because enough national feeling existed to make the closing of the inns seem like throwing Chaucer out of the Tabard or Shakespeare out of the Mermaid.
By contrast, America, Chesterton thought, had never even developed inns. Saloons were not the same as inns in that they seemed to promote drinking as a drug rather than as a part of the easy-going fellowship of the inn. Chesterton saw this excess as a kind of extreme reaction to puritanism rather than the healthy human balance of the inn.
Hotels, of course, were even further from the inn than were the saloons. Chesterton admits that, as a tourist, he spent an inordinate amount of time in hotels and that his generalizations might be out of proportion, as might be a circus elephant’s idea of how common lions and leopards are in various countries. But the two traits he disliked immediately about hotels were their size and their sameness. In America, he said, “there are hotels toppling to the stars, hotels covering the acreage of villages, hotels in multitudinous number like a mob of Babylonian or Abyssinian monuments.”
In all of this gargantuan size, however, there was little variety: “Broadly speaking, there is only one hotel in America, whether you find it rising among the red blooms of the warm spring woods of Nebraska, or whitened with Canadian snows near the eternal noise of Niagara.” This strangeness struck him as “psychologically eerie” and like a “huge hive with its innumerable and identical cells.” While he liked the efficiency of hotels—a journalist covering a plumbing-supply convention in Ohio got him to say how much more he admired the bathtub of Dayton over the tub of Diogenes—he saw all of this as “symbolic of that society in this among other things; that it does tend too much to uniformity.” Chesterton saw the American hotel as an expression of modern plutocracy that he hoped might someday “wither and decay until it is worthy at least to be a tavern.”
Paradoxically, somewhere deep in the American psyche, something like Chesterton’s insight persists. Why else would so many of our national chains of modest motels call themselves inns? (In fact, if Chesterton were to come back to America in the 1980s and saw our Red Roof, Ramada, Quality, Holiday, and other sorts of inns he would probably revise his earlier remarks to read “In America, even an Inn is not an Inn.”) When hotels throughout the country hope to capitalize on the surviving romance of the names of inns, to say nothing of the “lodges” and “chalets”—without the reality—we are forced to admit that Chesterton had recognized some emptiness in the American soul. And he didn’t live long enough to see our hotel “chains,” a word that he would no doubt have pointed out carried a secondary meaning of a loss of liberty.
Soul of the Nation
Chesterton thought there were two factors that had contributed to making an American-style hotel possible: one historical and one spiritual.
At the beginning of What I Saw in America, Chesterton’s book about his 1921 trip to the United States, Chesterton was momentarily amused when a customs official asked him to fill out a form with questions such as, “Are you an anarchist?” or “Are you in favor of subverting the government of the United States by force?” Then he realized that questions like these, which any real anarchist or revolutionary could easily lie about, were meant to elicit assent to basic American principles. This was important in America in a way it was not in Britain, he thought, because “Americans have nationalities at the end of the street which for us are at the end of the earth.”
For Chesterton, America was “a nation with the soul of a church” because it made citizens accept a creed. England did not have a creed “because we have got a character. In any of the old nations the national unity is presented by the national type. Because we have a type we do not need to have a test.”
Though arguable in many ways, these insights are brilliant. In certain restricted areas of the country at certain times there may have been one or more American “types.” But Chesterton correctly saw that the nation as a whole has never been easy to type. In part, this is due to different waves of immigration bringing native cultures with them. If you were in a middle-priced American hotel bar today, the person sitting next to you might just as easily be Salvadoran or Afghan as a descendant of European immigrants. Under the circumstances, the kind of inn reflecting national characteristics that Chesterton saw as an ideal, was and continues to be virtually impossible to realize in America.
Puritanism apart, this historical fact is a cause for American pride, not shame. All of us are descendants of immigrants, and while there are probably limits to how easily representatives of wildly different cultures may coexist in civic peace, it is one of America’s boasts to have been the refuge of “huddled masses” that others considered their “wretched refuse.” Incidentally, if Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, is reliable, even in England today there is what he calls a Tropical London coexisting with Proper London. These minglings of ancient civilizations may take centuries to complete properly; they may even lead us into periods of disorder and barbarity we would rather not face, but they are indisputably part of our future, and they stem from hospitableness.
In light of developments like these in America, perhaps it is only to be expected that some of our public life—like our hotels—will be less recognizably “national” in character than we might wish. We are, after all, a melting pot, with this caution by Chesterton: “The melting pot must not melt. The original shape can be traced on the lines of Jeffersonian democracy; and it will remain in that shape until it becomes shapeless. America invites all men to become citizens; but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship.”
While most of Chesterton’s observations on the growing defects of American citizenship are correct, he did not fully appreciate the peculiar type of citizenship America calls for. American citizenship, like American jazz, allows for a great deal of lush individual liberty within the bounds of established law. If someone had only gotten Chesterton to New Orleans to listen to jazz in its native habitat rather than in the artificial atmosphere of the Jazz Age and the Bright Young Things, he probably would have understood something about America that was closely akin to his own love of everything exuberant. American jazz, like American citizenship, seems to be able to accommodate Latin rhythms, Slavic melodies, and African percussion, in ways that, at moments, sound as if they are working at cross purposes, but ultimately arrive at harmony. The parallel with how American citizens relate may be somewhat forced, but it is not entirely a bad image of us. Furthermore, it suggests how much civic virtuosity America demands of her citizens.
If we turn now to that portentous topic, the spiritual reasons why America has no inns, we might do best to look at that region of these states that Chesterton thought best represented the American spirit’s virtues and defects: the Midwest.
Chesterton travelled quite a bit through this region, from Nashville and Tulsa, through Saint Louis and Detroit, to Chicago and Milwaukee. On his first trip, he went only as far west as Chicago because, he said, “having seen both Jerusalem and Chicago, I think I shall have touched on the extremes of civilization.” In spite of that remark, he called Chicago a great city on a great boulevard along a great lake. (On his next trip he would go all the way to San Francisco, which was not yet the extreme of civilization, if that is the right way to put it, we know today.)
Chesterton particularly liked the University of Notre Dame. He gave two series of lectures there in the fall of 1930 and winter of 1931: one on the Victorian Age in Literature; the other on English History. He had written books, of course, on each of these subjects 15 years earlier and continued commentary on both throughout the intervening years. One account contends that Chesterton “never used a paper, a note, or a reference of any kind. He would quote extremely long passages of poetry or prose with utmost ease.” At his first lecture, he is said to have walked out and begun: “Until quite recently, I was not at all certain that I would be able to be here tonight. Had I not come, you would now be gazing upon a great yawning void instead of myself.” The university gave him the somewhat incongruous degree of Doctor of Law honoris causa on November 5,1930.
For football fans, it is doubly amusing to imagine Chesterton watching, as he did, the Notre Dame-Navy game in 1930, at which he was “much impressed by the popularity that your game of football enjoys.” Later in Washington, D.C., he remarked of the university:
I think the faculty and “students awfully jolly people and the campus itself a bit of medievalism with its constant stream of youths in bright colors pouring in and out of old stone buildings with gilded domes. As long as I live I will never forget their way of letting off fireworks before a big game and generally playing the goat in a cheery way.
In Sidelights of New London and Newer York Chesterton makes an obscure reference to “an American university,” (probably Notre Dame), “where practically every one of the professors brews his own beer; some of them experimenting in two or three different kinds.” Clearly, this was one type of professor to whom Chesterton was willing to pay some attention. He looked forward to a university at which “the professor of the higher metaphysics will be proud of his strong ale; the professor of the lower mathematics (otherwise known as high finance) will allege something more subtle in his milder ale; the professor of moral theology (whose ale I am sure is the strongest of all) will offer to drink all the other dons under the table without any ill effect on the health.” He thought England, too, could do with a few such dons.
Chesterton’s stay in South Bend prompted him to say, “If I ever meet anybody who suggests there’s something Calvinistic or Puritanical in Catholicism, I shall ask: Have you ever heard of the University of Notre Dame?”
The rest of the Midwest was not so congenial. Confronted with the fact of Prohibition on both trips to America, Chesterton saw, or thought he did, deep traces of Calvinism and Puritanism in the population. A historical scholar might dispute Chesterton’s quick assumption of the continuity of Puritanism in America, but Chesterton’s observations are astute even if the historical causes for the phenomena he notices are more complicated than he thought.
In his essay “The Case For Main Street” Chesterton confesses:
If I were absolutely forced to choose between being a Methodist real estate agent in Gopher Prairie or being an artist, anarchist, and atheist in Greenwich Village, I should (in the stern spirit of one bracing himself to terrible renunciations and the facing of a dreadful doom) decide to be a real estate agent.
Some fates are even worse than Gopher Prairie. Chesterton agreed with Sinclair Lewis that “village morality,” as both the village and the morality exist in the United States, are far from ideal. In fact, the problem is that they represent a false ideal. That ideal, he thought, consisted of scattered fragments of a fuller Christianity that England has shipped to the new world, where they continued to flourish under the names Calvinism and Puritanism. Chesterton thought it good that we had declared ourselves independent of the corruptions of the English government; he only lamented that we had not been independent enough to free ourselves also from the corruptions of the English sects.
To Chesterton, the sight of a largely agricultural population like the Midwest lacking the Christian and pagan joy of life seemed incongruous. He admired much in the simple and unconscious virtues he found in midwesterners. But he had never seen anything quite like a midwestern town in England. “There is no such thing in England, let alone, Europe, as a Puritan village. There is such a thing as a Pagan village.”
The Puritans “substituted a God that wished to damn people for a God who wished to save them” and therefore indulged themselves in misdirected moral anger against human pleasures. Chesterton associated American Puritanism with British Nonconformism in several ways. He thought that Puritanism ran so deeply in American society that even anti-Puritans such as Sinclair Lewis, Walter Lippmann, H.L. Mencken, and James Huneker were affected by it:
Some of them deliriously reject Christianity and therefore (almost reluctantly) deliriously accept wine or whiskey or games of chance. But they all seem incurably convinced that things like that are the main concern of religion…. The very fact that they think they can defy religion by drinking and smoking shows precisely what is the only religion they have ever found to deny.
Puritanism was originally a thing of the towns, Chesterton thought, but in America it had invaded even the country. The result was that people did not live tranquilly on the land like a European peasantry but regarded their farms with the same commercial mentality as any entrepreneur:
The obvious and outstanding American feature is that even the ruralism is not rural. Something may be due to the omnipresence of machinery; much to the omnipresence of newspapers with their note of town life; more to the habit of treating a farm not as a farm to feed people, but as a shop from which to sell food.
Commercialism, not in the sense of the necessary exchange of goods and services, but as a frenetic pursuit of trade for no rational reason irritated Chesterton wherever he found it, but particularly in America. He thought it obscured the true American virtues as it had obscured England’s when “England also had the misfortune to be the commercial leader of the world.” American commercialism was driven not so much by outright greed (Chesterton thought greed less common here than in Europe) as by some peculiarly American feeling of the need for boosterism, hustling, and silly optimism. As he put it:
Americans are born drunk; and really require a little wine or beer to sober them… Americans do not need drink to inspire them to do anything; though they do sometimes, I think, need a little for the deeper and more delicate purpose of teaching them how to do nothing.
Chesterton confused some of his contemporaries because he would not take up what he called the “journalistic stunt” of being either A.A. (Against America) or F.A. (For America). His praise and criticism, he hoped, derived from universal principles rather than national prejudices. Nevertheless, Americans who love Chesterton may feel they have had experiences as Americans that he, being an Englishman, could not.
To begin with, there is something wrong with his insistence on a peasantry living on the land without machinery. Ask any American farmer to give up his tractor and combine for a heavy plow pulled by oxen and you will instantly see why. A Chestertonian argument in favor of farm machinery could be made against Chesterton’s own view, and it would go something like this. We disagree with a Quaker who thinks it evil to use zippers, but not buttons, because one is as much a human invention as another. Chesterton always thought of such persons (Protestants, say, who accepted the fragment of the Catholic tradition called the Bible, but not the Catholic tradition), as suffering from a prejudice. But it is not clear that he’s not suffering from one himself in rejecting agricultural machinery.
The heavy plow that the medieval peasant used was once an innovation. The advantages it gave him probably contributed to the coming of what we call the High Middle Ages. Why we should not move beyond that technology is, to say the least, not obvious. American farmers not only feed America, but large portions of the rest of the world. Chesterton would never have regarded it good to let others starve so that our peasantry will not differ from that of twelfth-century France.
Agricultural mechanization has led to fewer people living on the land and the growth of cities. This is regrettable, but not an unmitigated evil. Chesterton’s preferred age, the High Middle Ages, is unintelligible without taking into account the rise of Paris, Bologna, and Salamanca, to say nothing of Oxford, Florence, and Naples. Agricultural improvements were crucial factors in city growth and the development of high culture. Cities are as necessary to full human life as agriculture and religion. It all depends on the nature of cities. Ancient Greece and medieval Italy had broadly human cities (though even these feuded as violently as any Hatfields and McCoys); nineteenth-century European cities were far narrower.
Chesterton’s solution of the urban problem is in several ways a bad one: a Luddite breaking of machinery and turn to an idealized past. In the last few decades, we have often heard of these returns to nature and the past. First, among the Woodstock generation in which the return was mixed with drugs, sex, and wild political views. Some Woodstockers also had a positive, if preposterous, view of the Middle Ages. Similar sentiment has arisen among southern conservatives like the Fugitives and the Agrarians, who are more congenial, but who generally have a good idea of what they are fugitives from, but only a very vague, sentimental idea of what they are fleeing to. The Middle Ages and the antebellum South possessed many fine things, but neither would offer a very satisfactory life for any physically and mentally vigorous person today.
To take only some obvious material advantages, when our children are struggling to breathe during asthma attacks or our friends need kidney dialysis to survive, we are grateful for modern inventions and machinery. Though industrial production as it has been practiced up to now has taken a heavy toll on human flourishing and the world ecological system, we should not throw out the baby with the bath water. We need a better balance between nature and human production, between country and city, and different kinds of industry and urban life. No one has yet come up with the needed models for this social balance. Earlier periods help us identify principles we want to preserve, but cannot provide exact blueprints for modern conditions.
No one, least of all Chesterton himself, would dream of putting Chesterton at the head of any practical enterprise; his inestimable value has been to keep alive a vision of old virtues in the face of the kinds of people who are the very embodiment of practicality run wild. If he did not quite have a vision that many of us would accept for an American future, he was right about the dangers of many of those who have been prominent in the American past.
Homage to Lincoln
Chesterton tried to warn Americans about our commercial and technical heroes, such as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. He saw other American figures who, though incomplete, were better representatives of America’s past and future. None, perhaps, loomed larger for Chesterton than Abraham Lincoln.
In all of Chesterton’s writing on America, there is nothing more beautiful and moving than his essay, “Abraham Lincoln in London,” in which we find Chesterton showing an uncanny clairvoyance about America. Lincoln exerted a strange fascination on Chesterton. In an earlier essay “Lincoln and Lost Causes” Chesterton used the great president as a point of departure for discussion of southern traditionalism (good and bad), the Irish question, and capitalism: “A wise man’s attitude toward capitalism will be very like Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery”: “intolerable,” but for various reasons to be tolerated.
The whole essay emphasizes the oddness, the un-English character of Lincoln. Chesterton goes so far to advise the British to think of Lincoln as a Frenchman, “since it seems so hard for some of us to believe that he was an American.”
But by the later essay, Lincoln had become for Chesterton something he had earlier thought did not exist—a true American type. The way this realization came upon him is worth quoting at length:
Whilst I was in America, I often lingered in small towns and wayside places; and in a curious and almost creepy fashion the great presence of Abraham Lincoln continually grew upon me. I think it necessary to linger a little in America, and especially in what many would call the most uninteresting or unpleasing parts of America, before this strong sense of a strange kind of greatness can grow upon the soul.
There was a controversy in London just then about a new statue of Lincoln, Chesterton thought it did not really convey the “secret” of the man:
I will not affirm that the sculptor conveyed the secret of which I speak, for I am by no means certain that it could be conveyed. Curiously enough, I feel as if it could be conveyed better by landscape than by sculpture. It is the landscape of America that conveys it most vividly to me, especially all the landscapes that would probably be most carefully avoided by a landscape painter.
Chesterton notes that American rural towns have a raw, incomplete ugliness that differs markedly from the softened shabbiness of poor areas of the Old World: “There is some deep difference of feeling about the need for completeness and harmony, and there is the same thing in the political life and ethical life of the great Western nation.” And building on that insight, his language becomes almost visionary about the country origins of Lincoln:
It was out of this landscape that the great President came and one might almost trace a fanciful shadow of his figure in the thin trees and the stiff wooden pillars. A man of any imagination might look down these strange streets, with their frame houses filled with the latest conveniences and surrounded with the latest litter, till he could see approaching down the long perspective that long ungainly figure, with the preposterous stove-pipe hat and the rustic umbrella and deep melancholy eyes, the humour and the hard posture and the heart that fed upon hope deferred.
Gazing still deeper into this vision, Chesterton concludes:
Nowhere else in the world could a man of exactly that type have been a great man; he would at best have been a good man, generally derided as an exceedingly dowdy sort of dunce or failure. It is the real glory of that great democracy that it did draw out the capacities of such a man and turn him into a democratic leader; a demagogue who was not a dandy or a sham gentleman, or, for that matter, a real gentleman; not a cynic or one condescending to the common people, but one all the more great for a streak of something that was common. These are the sorts of tasks that really await those who would reconcile the nations.
In these passages, truly, one greatness recognizes another greatness, and Chesterton, we can say, knew something profound about America. We can only hope that someday the American people may know a good deal more about Chesterton as well.