Friday, May 10, 2013

At Home in the South (Mostly): G. K. Chesterton

In such a cheerful man as Chesterton - poetic, laughsome, defender of many of the old Christian creeds, storyteller, scalder of Puritans - it is not difficult to see one who would get along just fine in the Southland.  He very nearly admitted as much in his book, What I Saw in America.  For example, in the chapter entitled 'Lincoln and Lost Causes', he wrote,

'At least two Cavaliers had been in the field before any Puritans. And they had carried with them much more of the atmosphere and nature of the normal Englishman than any Puritan could possibly carry. They had established it especially in Virginia, which had been founded by a great Elizabethan and named after the great Elizabeth. Before there was any New England in the North, there was something very like Old England in the South. Relatively speaking, there is still.'

And later,

'Now if it were a matter of making foreigners feel the real humours and humanities of England, there are no Americans so able or willing to do it as the Americans of the Southern States. As I have already hinted, some of them are so loyal to the English humanities, that they think it their duty to defend even the English inhumanities. New England is turning into New Ireland. But Old England can still be faintly traced in Old Dixie. It contains some of the best things that England herself has had, and therefore (of course) the things that England herself has lost, or is trying to lose. But above all, as I have said, there are people in these places whose historic memories and family traditions really hold them to us, not by alliance but by affection.'

His support for widely distributed property (land, tools of production, etc.), for the strong, virtuous, self-sufficient family and local community over against the centralized, collectivized, corrupt, industrial centre finds much support in traditional Southern thought and life.  And so we nod in sad assent when we read,

'The Northern slavery, industrial slavery, or what is called wage slavery, is not decaying but increasing; and the end of it is not yet.'

However, one thing Mr Chesterton would find disagreeable is the mind of the South toward Lincoln.  He does not shy away from some of his shortcomings:

'Above all, they know nothing about the respect in which Lincoln was quite un-English, was indeed the very reverse 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. I mean his lust for logic for its own sake, and the way he kept mathematical truths in his mind like the fixed stars. He was so far from being a merely practical man, impatient of academic abstractions, that he reviewed and revelled in academic abstractions, even while he could not apply them to practical life.'

But in the end he comes to the woeful conclusion that

'If Lincoln was right, he was right in guessing that there was not really a Northern nation and a Southern nation, but only one American nation. And if he has been proved right, he has been proved right by the fact that men in the South, as well as the North, do now feel a patriotism for that American nation. His wisdom, if it really was wisdom, was justified not by his opponents being conquered, but by their being converted.'

First, as his own writings in this book show, the North and the South are two very different peoples - grim, fundamentalist Puritans and easy-going, Christian squires and yeomen.  There is not simply 'one American nation', except in the sense that all the peoples of all the States are now forcibly ruled by Washington, D.C.  Which leads to the second rebuttal, that the South was not converted to a loyalty to the American Empire by a happy and free choice.  She submitted to this foreign rule back then out of sheer necessity, under the brutal circumstances of much bleeding and starvation and things worse than these; today, because of imperial propaganda (inside the schools and out) and ignorance of her own good inheritance.

But even with these views, Mr Chesterton would have been a more than welcome addition to the Southern family if he had wished to remain here.  What family, after all, does not have disagreements from time to time?  And who is to say that he might not have changed his mind on some of these matters under the influence of works by a Col Taylor or a Rev Dabney (or by simply experiencing the life of Southern folk for an extended season)?

Wassail, Mr Chesterton!

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