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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: April 2016

6 - Chestertonian Distributism and the Democratic Ideal


There was, as revealed in his assessment of Main Street, much that G. K. Chesterton appreciated about Americans. He admired their generosity, courage, hospitality, and friendliness. He was repeatedly impressed with the way people from different classes related to one another. Other qualities, however, he found less attractive, and chief among these were the related faces of the American “mood” that he referred to as “hustle and uplift.” The former, which he also described as “the last hysteria of the herd instinct,” approximated the sort of restlessness that Tocqueville noticed among Americans a century earlier. In an interview during his first visit to the United States, Chesterton made clear that, while he liked the American people, he was not impressed with their “hustle.” Frances, who was sometimes overwhelmed by the frenzied pace and noise of American life, similarly told a reporter, “You are in such a surprising hurry here about everything.”

In describing the busyness, hustle, and energy of the American people, Chesterton noticed that it seemed to lack a clear objective. Instead, he observed “passionate worship of energy for its own sake,” and called it a “chief fault of the American people.” Dorothy Collins agreed with the Chestertons on this point; as she complained in a letter to her mother, she found American energy and friendliness at times overpowering:

The Americans are kind in a way that overwhelms and almost smothers one. Their restlessness, vitality, and noisiness almost leaves one breathless and sometimes, unless one is feeling very strong, almost a nervous wreck. I cannot explain it. You need to be in the country to appreciate what I mean, although just to meet one or two typical Americans in England gives one an idea of their bounding energy.

Along with this restless and forceful energy, Chesterston observed the related quality of a kind of distractedness or “homelessness” among Americans. To illustrate this point, he described the practice common in American restaurants at the time where people would “frequently start up and dart from the room at a summons from the telephone.” He was relieved to discover, while staying at a Canadian hotel, that such paging was forbidden in the hotel's dining room. He contrasted this with American practices and specifically recalled an incident in a crowded and smoky Pittsburg parterre, where calls for a Mr. Anderson rang out interminably.