The prolific, charismatic English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874–1936) first visited the United States in 1921 on a lecture tour and then returned for an extended stay at the University of Notre Dame in 1930–31. From these two visits came two books — What I Saw in America (1922) and Sidelights on New London and Newer York (1932). One of the great Anglophone writers of the last 125 years, he died in 1936.
Unlike most eminent English literary travelers in America, whatever their political or ideological views, Chesterton actually liked the U.S.A., both theoretically and emotionally, and his grounds for doing so are worth knowing about. He was truly a friend of the American republic in a way that was not only rare among sophisticated foreigners but also rare among the most esteemed American writers and media figures in the ’20s and ’30s — figures such as the urbane, acidulous satirist H. L. Mencken, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Sinclair Lewis, the witty cynic Dorothy Parker, and the crusading left-wing attorney Clarence Darrow, whom Chesterton publicly debated; not to speak of domestic communists and the expatriate American writers in Europe.
What the urbane visitors and the highly literate Americans hated was what they took to be the ignorant, boorish boosterism of the small town, the crass commercial capitalism of towns and cities, the huckstering and bigotry of much evangelical religion, the cold, petty moralism of the weakening Puritan-Prohibitionist tradition, and the aesthetic ugliness of the humanly constructed landscape and the insensitivity of its cultural priorities — the U.S.A. as what Mencken called “the Sahara of the Bozart.” It was an indictment made by a great deal of American literature from Mark Twain onward to our own time. Few educated Americans can be unfamiliar with it.
Chesterton acknowledged the accuracy of much of this description, criticism, and disdain, and he agreed with some of the antagonism. He called one of the chapters in his 1932 book on America “Against Main Street,” referring to the successful satirical novel Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature (1930). But the next chapter of his book he called “For Main Street.” Why?
Unlike the brilliant foreign visitors and the bitter domestic scourges, Chesterton was actually and simultaneously a democrat, a republican, an egalitarian, and a serious philosophical Christian: an undivided, unalienated self. He was also an anti-imperialist with a profound historical and moral imagination. An Englishman, he despised the British Empire and its pretentious, pharisaical, self-serving enunciation of its “white man’s burden” to civilize the non-white world (and Ireland). His sense of history committed him to the view that medieval localism, agrarianism, craftsmanship, and religiosity had been good things: thus his admiration of the agrarian radical William Cobbett (1763–1835), of whom he wrote a fine biography (1925). In the medieval European order — countryside, guild, or municipality — however poor and technologically primitive compared to later, more “advanced” ages, there was a happiness possible: People felt “pity and a craving for equality,” and there was the “prodigious presence of a religious transfiguration in common life.” Chesterton detested and critiqued the elite, aristocratic British “landlordism” that enclosed common lands in England and dispossessed its rural people (and also dispossessed the Irish), from the tyrant and monastery-looter Henry VIII to nearly his own time. (He said the “sporting” English upper classes of the 18th and 19th centuries cared more about pheasants than about peasants.) He also deeply admired and shared the republican spirit that overthrew the British rule in North America (1776–83) and the Ancien Régime in France (1789–93) and thought it was fundamentally right in its hopeful assertion and belief that “all men are created equal.” It is not surprising that Chesterton’s book on Charles Dickens (1906) and his introductions to the Everyman editions of his novels can still be considered by some critics to be the finest works of literary criticism on this great Christian-democratic master, an argument made in the introduction to my own 2012 edition of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.
Chesterton and his longtime friend and ally Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953), a brilliant historian, polemicist, and sometime Liberal member of the British Parliament (1906–10), who traveled in America and married an American woman, came to call their political position “Distributism,” which entailed the belief that the widespread distribution of private property, bringing with it the liberty, empowerment, and self-respect of a citizenry so endowed, was the basis of political, social, and economic health. Keenly aware of the gross selfishness and sinfulness of powerful elites across human history — documented anew recently in Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015) — Chesterton and Belloc (like the earlier English political dissenters William Blake and Cobbett) saw the Christian tradition as the key to truth, self-knowledge, self-respect, justice, and social-political sanity. Like his later admirer William F. Buckley Jr., Chesterton used the traditional phrase “Right Reason” for the central rational-moral-political tradition of the West. An ecumenical “mere Christian” from about 1900 on, Chesterton became a Roman Catholic after his return from America in 1922 and then published his great study of Saint Thomas Aquinas just after his return from America in 1933. His orthodox Christian rationalism has inspired innumerable other modern writers, including T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Étienne Gilson, Buckley, and Malcolm Muggeridge.
Two fine literary-critical books on high English literary culture in the modern period, by John Gross (The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, 1969) and John Carey (The Intellectuals and the Masses, 1992), argue that Chesterton was, among British writers in the period from the 1890s to his death in 1936, almost unique in resisting the powerful ideological appeals of Darwinism, Marxism, and/or Nietzsche: His development has been given detailed study in William Oddie’s authoritative Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC (2008). What he recovered was the central Christian-democratic insight and belief that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Although this belief is clearly implicit in the New Testament and worked out by figures such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, Locke, and Tocqueville — and mediated in literature by Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky — it is nevertheless given its greatest modern force in the American Declaration of Independence and the statesmanship and speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the key figure in Chesterton’s 1932 book on America.
To Chesterton, what the harsh foreign and domestic critics of the American “Main Street” fail to exert is any adequate historical-moral imagination, any realization of just how tragically unjust most history has been and continues to be for millions of people. Chesterton also intensely disliked both British and American plutocracy, which along with its twin, imperialism, he called “that perilous power and opportunity, which is given by wealth and worldly success” (an enduring, cross-cultural, global theme and factor in Frankopan’s Silk Roads). He cut his journalistic teeth in London writing against British imperialism in the Boer War (1899–1902), frequently criticized British behavior in Ireland and India (Gandhi was one of his appreciative readers, as were veterans and critics of British India such as George Orwell and Malcolm Muggeridge); after World War I he defended renascent Poland against the menaces of Russia and Germany. He also defended the American “Main Street,” especially against its harsh critics but also against the easy, corrupt, cosmopolitan, weary sophistication of the great American cities such as New York and their European counterparts.
Chesterton came to identify the real greatness of the U.S.A. not so much with effective democracy (like Belloc, he grew to be rather disillusioned with party-politics democracy in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere) as with egalitarianism. Yet the word and the cluster of concepts it unites need distinguishing into at least four categories that are not easy to harmonize: equality under God (ultimate equality: the equal worth or value of all human beings), equality under the law (political equality; equal access to public goods), equality of opportunity (social-economic equality: “equal chances”), and equality of result, outcome, or condition. It is a commonplace of political commentary that the second and third kinds of equality can be harmonized with liberty but not with the last kind of equality, which from Rousseau to Marx, Lenin, the Khmer Rouge, and Mao Zedong has been the obsession of egalitarian revolutionaries: equality of outcome.
Chesterton came to see the ultimate egalitarian assertion of the American Declaration of Independence and the life, achievement, and model of Abraham Lincoln as the key to the American republic, which he famously called “the nation with the soul of a church.” In his 1922 book on America, Chesterton wrote of the relation between democracy and equality that “there is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the Divine origin of man.” He had seen throughout his lifetime the grievous flaws and failures of “the drama of atheist humanism,” especially in its social-Darwinist/imperialist and Nietzschean forms but also in Bolshevik Russian Communism. In 1944 his first biographer, Maisie Ward, chose to capitalize, in the text of her work, his assertion about the Christian dogmatic basis for any defensible democratic ideal, and she called it “the climax of Gilbert’s thinking about America.”
If ultimate equality, equality under God (the equal worth of all human beings), is the indispensable basis for democracy, it must follow that grossly unequal conditions and outcomes — slavery, segregation, ethnic or sexual discrimination, humiliation, grinding poverty, or starvation — are intolerable insults, scandals, and hypocrisies. In Lord Charnwood’s great 1916 biography of Lincoln he saw that Lincoln’s 1858 opposition to Stephen Douglas on “popular-sovereignty” majoritarianism (i.e., utilitarian democracy without any reference to ultimate equality, individual human dignity) and Douglas’s disdain for black people and indifference to slavery were violations of the fundamental American doctrine, which is arguably the fundamental doctrine of Western and world civilization inasmuch as the term “civilization” itself is not merely self-serving vanity and hypocrisy. From these insights Harry V. Jaffa in his great books on Lincoln (1959, 2000) also reconstructed, against feckless scientistic relativism (e.g., Clarence Darrow and the influential historian Carl Becker), the perennial relevance of the great statesman’s vision of America, the West, and the world. Subsequent writers on Lincoln such as Allen C. Guelzo and Richard Lowry have continued this theme.
As a young man in the 1890s, as Oddie’s book shows, the urban art student Chesterton had fought an agonizing intellectual-emotional battle against the emergent Nietzschean skepticism, pessimism, aestheticism, and immoralism, and it was what Oddie calls “the making of GKC.” By the time of his great creative year, 1908 (see my “Chesterton’s Marvelous Year,” NR, July 14, 2008), looking back on these earlier years, Chesterton was able to write, to his friend E. C. Bentley, in the dedicatory verses prefacing The Man Who Was Thursday:
We [have] lived to see
God break their bitter charms,
God and the good Republic
Come riding back in arms:
We have seen the City of Mansoul,
Even as it rocked, relieved.
What Chesterton discovered in America was “the good republic.” It was and is tiresomely and nauseatingly full of nonsense, foolishness, ostentatious vanity, a degrading, lascivious commercial culture, and injustice, like all historical states; but it has not wholly lost its noble initiating vision and the criteria for justice which that vision perennially provides, which Lincoln saw and bore witness to so clearly. Chesterton saw even in that ominous, difficult year 1932 that this was an accomplishment of world-historical proportions. In “What of the Republic?,” the penultimate chapter of his 1932 book, he praised “the old republican simplicity” as opposed to “the tawdry and inadequate [modern] ideal of mere ambition and unrest.” The Americans, he wrote,
have this great advantage over us: that their older sanity was solidified into a creed; but I think that creed must become more rather than less Christian. It is no case for the Pharisee; heaven knows the English have often forgotten the cross on their flag. But I think that the crossless [American] flag may yet become a symbol of something; by whose stars we are illumined, and by whose stripes we are healed.
In 2021, a century after Chesterton’s first trip to America, it is still a work-in-progress and a noble symbol; but also an enduring accomplishment.