What I Saw in America (Anthem Studies in Travel)

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A Year in Reading: Allen Barra

The best book I read in almost any year is one by G.K. Chesterton. My favorite book this year was Chesterton’s What I Saw In America, published in 1922.  I think it’s a much more incisive look at America than the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville.  Chesterton, of course, had advantages Tocqueville had not – thanks to the railway system, he could travel as far west as Oklahoma, a fact which he took full advantage of.

But I doubt Tocqueville would have had interests visiting Oklahoma or any place in our country too far from the Northeast. To the Frenchman, America meant good descendants of European aristocracy living in the big cities.  Chesterton perceived that “the great part of America is singularly and even strikingly unlike New York.”  By which he did not mean that New Yorkers weren’t “real” Americans, simply that their European-ness made them different from Americans in Oklahoma or Ohio in the same that Oklahohomas and Ohioans are different from each other.

Tocqueville, deep down, mistrusted democracy and was appalled when Andrew Jackson was elected president.  Chesterton understood that “all the popular presidents, Jackson and Lincoln and Roosevelt” – ‘The names,” he noted, “have become curiously interchanged’ — were closer in spirit to medieval kings than to modern constitutional monarchs and that they were permitted, even expected, to act as democratic despots.”

In two of his most famous passages, Tocqueville claimed to know “of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America” and that “freedom of opinion does not exist in America.” Chesterton, observing the fervor with which America entered World War I, understood what Tocqueville meant but made an important distinction. American public opinion “can be a prairie fire. It eats up everything that opposes it.” But “there is the grandeur as well as the grave disadvantages of a natural catastrophe in that national unity.”

Because he came to America 90 years later than Tocqueville and during an industrial boom, the Englishman was able to divine a deep contradiction in American democracy that escaped the Frenchman (who, in any event, had little interest in economics or industry)— namely, that “the democratic ideal of countries like America, while it is still generally sincere and sometimes intense, is at issue with another tendency, an industrial progress which is of all things on earth the most undemocratic: . . . Industrial capitalism and democracy are everywhere in controversy; but perhaps only here are they in conflict.” (There’s little doubt where Chesterton would have stood on the WalMarting and McDonaldization of the globe.)

Unlike Tocqueville, Chesterton fully embraced America’s vitality, which entitled him to criticize its attendant vulgarity. “What a glorious garden of wonders this would be,” he said to American friends as they gazed at the lights of Broadway by night, “to anyone who was lucky enough to be unable to read.”

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