In early 1921, the great English Catholic journalist G.K. Chesterton visited the United States at the height of his literary career on a lecture tour that spanned the majority of the East Coast and Midwest, covering 30 cities including New York, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, and Nashville. For four months, he and his wife enjoyed the highly anticipated tour, delivering 50 sold-out speeches and being swarmed by the press everywhere he went.
The following year, he published What I Saw In America, an essay collection documenting his experience of traveling through the U.S. that sold quite well in both the U.S. and England. My copy from 1922 is a fifth edition from December of that year, which suggests the book was flying off the shelves within the first four months of its publication.
While entire books could be written on the subjects he offhandedly mentions, Chesterton mentions Nashville four times in the book, and each mention warrants an examination as they speak to surprisingly concurrent issues, which isn’t surprising given the author’s reputation as the prophet of common sense.
ANDREW JACKSON AND DEAD CITIES
When he first arrives in Nashville, he describes the atmosphere of the region as being comparatively more quiet and leisurely than the north. After settling in for the night in a hotel (presumably the Hermitage), he notices a faded painting looking down on him depicting President Andrew Jackson, “watchful like a white eagle,” and goes on to reflect on how the English do not fully appreciate his great role in disrupting the powers that be, by breaking the Second Bank of the United States in 1833.
“In the case of Andrew Jackson, it may be that I felt a special sense of individual isolation; for I believe that there are even fewer among Englishmen than among Americans who realize that the energy of that great man was largely directed towards saving us from the chief evil which destroys the nations today. He sought to cut down, as with a sword of simplicity, the new and nameless enormity of finance; and he must have known, as by a lightning flash, that the people were behind him because all the politicians were against him.”
He again mentions Nashville in the same essay while talking about “dead cities,” or cities that New Yorkers disregard as “a town that has had the impudence not to die.” Nashville is mentioned alongside Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Boston as cities that are more traditionally European and lively than industrial havens like New York, circa 1921.
“Such people are astonished to find an ancient thing still alive, just as they are now astonished and will be increasingly astonished to find Poland or the Papacy or the French nation alive. And what I mean by Philadelphia or Baltimore being alive is precisely what these people mean by their being dead; it is continuity; it is the presence of the life first breathed into them and of the purpose of their being; it is the benediction of the founders of the colonies and the fathers of the republic. This tradition is truly to be called life; for life alone can link the past and future… I felt in America what many Americans suppose can only be felt in Europe.”
Chesterton briefly mentions Nashville again offhandedly in his essay The Extraordinary American, noting the similarities between America and England by saying, “People are just as likely to boast of an old building in Nashville as in Norwich.”
ON THE CIVIL WAR
The most extensive, relevant, and controversial exploration of the topic comes in his essay Lincoln And Lost Causes, wherein he argues that the Civil War could arguably be read as an old-school aristocratic European conflict, wherein the southern Englishmen living in cities like Nashville, direct descendants of the aristocracy, were uprooted by ambitious northern technocrats.
“Again, it is characteristic that while the modern English know nothing about Lee they do know something about Lincoln; and nearly all that they know is wrong. They know nothing of his Southern connections, nothing of his considerable Southern sympathy, nothing of the meaning of his moderation in the face of the problem of slavery, now lightly treated as self-evident. Above all, they know nothing about the respect in which Lincoln was quite English, was indeed quite the inverse of English; and can be understood better if we think of him as a Frenchman, since it seems so hard for some of us to believe that he was an American.”
In Chesteron’s view, Lincoln was very much a politician; someone who sang loudly about the intolerability of slavery while being willing to tolerate it for political ends. And yet, Lincoln’s idealism spread across the world. Many English politicians invoked Lincoln as an example of how they ought to deal with the unruly Irish peasants under their rule who also sought independence—the irony being that the English propagandists didn’t realize how pro-England most of the Old South was, and how different Irish independence advocates were from Confederates.
“I do not say this, as will be seen in a moment, as a criticism of the comparative Toryism of the South. I say it as a criticism of the superlative stupidity of English propaganda,” he says. “It does not seem to occur to them that this comparison between the Unionist triumph in America and the Unionist triumph in Britain is rather hard upon our particular sympathizers, who did not triumph. When England exults in Lincoln’s victory over his foes, she is exulting in his victory over her own friends.”
Chesterton cannot be framed as a Neo-Confederate or an advocate for slavery, as he argues “in the main Abraham Lincoln was right,” but just to note just how complex the tensions that existed were, and how they can be propagandized cynically.
Lincoln’s belief in a unified American nation was ultimately justified insofar as modern Southerners take patriotic pride in Americanism rather than Southern identity, but this only happened due to a mass conversion of the South to Northern ways of thinking through conquest. English politicians using this metaphor of Unionist triumphalism are missing the point and acting cruelly toward their fellow man by not acknowledging how that process came about.
“Publicists are eloquently praising Abraham Lincoln, for all the wrong reasons; but fundamentally for the worst and vilest of all reasons—that he succeeded.”
ON COLONIZERS AND A POSITIVE VISION
What I Saw In America is a dense work, with more to say about the nature of the American soul that can be adequately summarized in a few paragraphs, but it is full of amazing insights. This is evident in one of the book’s most popular quotes. As he says of the beautiful lights of Broadway in New York City, “It would be very beautiful if only one couldn’t read,” and later notes that the city reminded him of Hell.
As funny as some of these comments are in hindsight, they do contain a valuable prescience. At a time such as ours when our nation struggles to protect and understand its core identity, books like these become more important. Much has already been said in the past decade of Alexis Tocqueville’s masterpiece Democracy in America, as Americans often benefit from having outsiders remind us of our best qualities—or in the case of John Oliver, to neg us to the point of submission.
But Chesterton’s account is far more contemporary, being only 102 years old, rather than Tocqueville’s pre-Civil War account from 1840. And his account has the added benefit of providing a positive vision for solutions. As Chesterton Society President Dale Ahlquist notes, Chesterton’s What I Saw In America offers “an extended reflection on what makes a nation a nation.”
This is especially true for the American South and Nashville, which face a severe identity crisis as our cities become settler colonies for northern economic refugees and enlightened progressive colonists from the West, who seek to transform and gentrify them; often by labeling them as racist and backward. We need to know who we are more than ever before, as Chesterton notes, “Politicians whitewash that [which] they do not destroy.”
“I occasionally heard in America rumors of the Ku Klux Klan; but the smallness and mildness of the manifestation, as compared to the old southern… cause is alone sufficient example of the exception that proves the rule,” Chesterton argues.
Just as young Americans know so little of the world before their birth that they are willing to defend Osama Bin Laden's rambles as some form of anti-imperialist masterpiece, those who believe in civilization—who truly believe in Nashville—need to educate themselves and their children just as Chesterton educated his fellow Englishmen who were ignorant of such realities. We need to remember who we are, who we aren’t, and why. We need to remember what it means to be a Tennessean.
What I Saw In America is available online for free as a LibraVox audiobook and as a pdf, and a Kindle edition of Chesterton’s collected works is available for $2.