The Reading Room
G.K. Chesterton and Work in 20th Century America
One hundred years ago, the British writer G.K. Chesterton traveled to the United States for a lecture tour. He published his observations of America in What I Saw in America (1922). In an essay titled “The American Businessman”, Chesterton notes with surprise how passionate Americans appear about their professional work.
Chesterton recognizes this enthusiasm for work as more than mere greed. He writes, “Now the extraordinary achievement of the American meat salesman is that his poetic enthusiasm can really be for meat sales; not for money but meat. An American commercial traveller asked me, with a religious fire in his eyes, whether I did not think that salesmanship could be an art.” [note that traveler is spelled with two l’s in the book]
The essay begins as an attempt by Chesterton to correct what he perceives as a misperception among the British that Americans are always talking about “dollars.” The difference in culture lies in the fact that, “the American talks about his work and the Englishman about his holidays.” Englishmen aspire to be gentlemen who have enough money that they do not need to work. “It is in a sense true that the English gentlemen wishes to have enough money to be able to forget about it. But it may be questioned whether he does entirely forget it. As against this weakness the American has succeeded… in making general a very real respect for work.” Chesterton believes that this respect for people who work is important for achieving democratic social ideals.
Economists would point out that specialization of tradesmen and exchange by businesswomen is, in itself, good because it is an engine of wealth creation. Chesterton does not express much explicit appreciation for industrialization or economic growth. He has a nostalgia for the family farm that I do not share. However, Chesterton acknowledges that urbanite Americans find a source of meaning in being part of the modern marketplace. He writes,
“it is true that for many of these Americans business is the business of life. It is really also, as I have said, the romance of life. We shall admire or deplore this spirit, accordingly as we are glad to see trade irradiated with so much poetry, or sorry to see so much poetry wasted on trade.”
Chesterton recognizes a spiritual danger for Americans who think too much about work and money. I was surprised by how constant that criticism of the American work ethic could be, which extends to this day. In contrast, Europeans still emphasize quality of life today, with a public policy that reflects those values. The work-life balance was explored in the 2022 TV show Severance, as I described in a previous OLL post.
Along with a genuine enthusiasm for the marketplace, Chesterton also noted that Americans seem more open to disruption from good ideas than Europeans. His rhetoric is extreme on that topic, although he is partly joking. He describes the following attitude as the “one real advantage that America has over England”:
“[America] does not think that ideas are merely destructive things. It does not think that a genius is only a person to be told to go away and blow his brains out; rather it would open all its machinery to the genius and beg him to blow his brains in.”
With my knowledge of economic history, I think of England as the birthplace of the industrial revolution and Scottish geniuses as the designers of the engines. So, it is interesting to read Chesterton’s report that describes England as sleepy and America as poised to dominate the world economy. Chesterton’s insights seem vindicated by the economic data that have emerged since. After the setback of the Great Depression, following Chesterton’s tour, the United States went on to become the richest country in the world and to remain so for 100 years. Britain, which had been slightly wealthier than America before the world wars, has recently become an example of stagnation. Incomes and productivity in Britain have remained flat throughout the 21st century.
Chesterton writes, “Thus when people say of a Yankee that he worships the dollar, they pay a compliment to his fine spirituality more true and delicate than they imagine. The dollar is an idol because it is an image; but it is an image of success and not of enjoyment.” We might see some confirmation of this stereotype by looking at the recent class of American billionaires (e.g., Jeff Bezos). They do not quit once they have enough money to buy an island. They continue starting new ventures because it’s the work that they love.
There are drawbacks to the American fascination with professional success than can turn unhealthy. We see in America how devastating it is for a community when industries decline and people who had found meaning in work struggle to adapt. Perhaps we have something to learn in our turn from Chesterton’s Englishmen who talk about their holidays.