Sunday, May 22, 2011

Chesterton - What I Saw in America

GK Chesterton, the gregarious British satirist, essayist and author of the early 20th century, is probably most well-known for his "religious" books like Orthodoxy.  Yet, he was also a prolific commentator and evaluator of the culture and spirit of his time.  His age was an age of liberalism, rationalism and the march of progress...survival of the fittest, expressed in economic terms through free-market capitalism, was accepted wisdom.  Yet, Chesterton saw the flaws inherent in the thoughts and ideas of his age, and with great wit and vigor he defended the old ways of thinking and behaving as still relevant and essential to society.

Most of Chesterton's work was done in England.  However, In 1922, Chesterton went on a speaking tour throughout the United States.  The tour ended up providing the ever-curious Chesterton with a palette full of ideas with which to work.  He turned them into the book, What I Saw in America.  The book provides an invaluable "outsiders" perspective on America during the early 1920s.  Chesterton interacts deftly with many of the cultural and political issues that were prominent in America at the time, such as Harding's "return to normalcy," the debate over Prohibition, thoughts about women's suffrage, discussions of men such as Williams Jennings Bryan and Henry Ford, and thoughts about popular books of the time (such as Sinclair Lewis' Main Street).

I recently read through the book, and found it intriguing and worth sharing and reflecting on.  In the following weeks, I'll be posting a couple "summaries" of various topics addressed by Chesterton in the book.  It would be a disservice to write about Chesterton without letting him speak, in his unique and inimitable style, for here is Chesterton on the Republican and Democratic Parties:
"I do not understand the principle upon which the causes were selected on both sides; and I incline to think that it was with the impartial object of distributing nonsense equally on both sides."
He then continues, providing a rather insightful generalized summary of the two parties:

"The Republican party originally stood for the triumph of the North, and the North stood for the nineteenth century; that is for the characteristic commercial expansion of the nineteenth century; for a firm faith in the profit and progress of its great and growing cities, its division of labour, its industrial science, and its evolutionary reform. The Democratic party stood more loosely for all the elements that doubted whether this development was democratic or was desirable; all that looked back to Jeffersonian idealism and the serene abstractions of the eighteenth century, or forward to Bryanite idealism and some simplified Utopia founded on grain rather than gold."
 Finally, he wryly points out which party he would probably belong to if he lived in the United States.  He mentions that a political figure had claimed that the Democratic party was supported by "Rome, rum, and rebellion" (a common denunciation).  Chesterton then writes:
They seem to me to be three excellent things in their place; and that is why I suspect that I should have belonged to the Democratic party, if I had been born in America when there was a Democratic party