I’ve never been much for travel reading–nonfiction travel reading, that is. (The travels of fictional characters are another matter.) Even this year, when I read two travel memoirs, my motives weren’t exactly pure. Winter Notes on Summer Impressions was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. What I Saw in America was written by G.K. Chesterton. Yes. Clearly I read these books because of their intrinsic excellence and not because they are by two of my favorite authors.
Accurate travel writing is apparently difficult. Chesterton’s book was good overall, but little governmental tidbits that an Englishman wouldn’t know weakened some of his points. (For instance, in his treatment of the Civil War, he neglects to deal with the legal aspects of secession–which both sides would probably agree are more important than whether the South was a second Ireland.) Dostoevsky’s book told far more about his mindset than it did about the countries he visited. Chesterton could be accused of the same crime, but as his mindset was much more positive (as usual), he remained mostly accurate.
Dostoevsky: Catholics do lots of manipulative missionary work. Anglicans are pompous and won’t do anything at all. Englishmen are stuck up, in general: the French are irrational hypocrites. (Basically, if it’s not Russian, it stinks.)
On the bright side, some critics think that Winter Notes eventually morphed into Notes from Underground–another of Dostoevsky’s very happy books. (Actually, I thought the first half was darkly funny, but I have since been condemned for heartlessness. At any rate, Notes does not end very happily.)
Chesterton was much more generous. Americans don’t mean to be annoying; it’s just that their national spirit is on a permanent high. The English, apparently, have mood swings, and woe betide the American who shows up during one. Also, saying “It’s up to you” brands you as an American right away–or, at least, it did back in 1922. As does exaggerating.
One of the things I found most interesting was Chesterton’s attitude toward the presidency. This was Warren G. Harding’s era, in which the best thing about the president was his middle name. (Gamaliel, in case you’re wondering.) Yet Chesterton considered the American president to have the power of a medieval monarch. Medieval monarchs might have their powers somewhat curtailed, but nowhere near as curtailed as the power of the “king” of England in 1922–let alone today. Chesterton seemed to have little concern about the “imperial” behavior of the president. Most Americans would have an entirely different reaction to that sort of charge.
The real reason to read this book? Chesterton’s writing is punctuated with his characteristic flashes of insight. “Generally speaking,” he wrote, “men are never so mean and false and hypocritical as when they are occupied in being impartial. They are performing the first and most typical of all the actions of the devil; they are claiming the throne of God.”
This, before the postmodernists deconstructed supposed modernist objectivity. Take that, Jaques Derrida. Chesterton wins.