After his second trip to America in 1931, G.K. Chesterton mused, “The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong.” Never one to shy away from a good fight, he decided to take on the ideal American. In putting together a book of sometimes polemical essays, he prefaces his remarks with the observation that most people suffer from a certain nervousness about Youth or about America: “This results in shocking exhibitions of mildness and tact; and the failure to condemn things that really ought to be condemned.” While Chesterton maintains his charity, as always, he is quite straightforward in his condemnations of things he feels really need to be condemned.
Let’s go down the list.
Fads and Fashions. America, unfortunately, gets sucked into trendiness more quickly and completely than dust into a Hoover. It explains why, as Chesterton says, “Beauty Parlours have almost become America’s national industry.” But the problem of herding applies not only to standards of beauty and modesty, but to ideas and philosophies. It renders people unable to make sound judgments about anything without consulting a calendar or a clock. Chesterton seeks to judge things not by the test of time, but by the test of truth. The standard of eternal common sense can be applied as much to modern fads and fashions as to ancient fads and fashions.
Immorality. It may be a bore to moralize, says Chesterton, “but it is not quite so much of a bore as the tendency to immoralize; or to moralize against morality.” Much of immoral behavior is due to mere pleasure-seeking. But pleasure seeking is not pleasure-finding. “The very fury with which people go on seeking pleasure is a proof that they have not found it.”
Prohibition. Chesterton points out that almost no one in America actually likes Prohibition – except the bootleggers. He concludes that Prohibition is a the result of two things: Puritanism and the growth of government. If the logic of Prohibition is played out, the government will one day prohibit everything. We’re watching it happen now. It is a kind of madness. Always pointing out paradoxes, Chesterton says, “Cocktails are perhaps the only practical product of Prohibition.” And yet, he says, the cocktail is made for cowards! Weaklings! “Most Americans were born drunk and really require a little wine or beer to sober them.”
Capitalism and Commercialism. The only problem with these two American ideals is that they are directly the reverse of the Christian idea of charity to the poor and the idea of Christian humility. Capitalism has given us the mega-merger, resulting in the loss of human distinction and local color. “Nobody seems to have any notion of improving anything except by pouring it into something else…The idea… is to pool everything. It is a very stagnant pool.” And advertising is not criticized; it is only advertised.
Impartiality. Chesterton foresees the rise of the all-pervasive cult of Tolerance. Impartiality, he says, “is the most irritating thing I can think of.” The normal human thing to do is make conclusions and care about them. But as with most things, says Chesterton, “America has never been quite normal.”
Psychology. “Our fathers did not talk about psychology; they talked about it a knowledge of Human Nature. But they had it; and we have not. They knew by instinct all that we ignore by the help of information. For it is exactly the first facts about human nature that are now being ignored by humanity.”
Modern Marriage. It seems that the modern attitude toward marriage is that it is merely a prelude to divorce. The attacks on marriage have taken a new form since Chesterton wrote about it, but his defense is completely the same, and his observation that the modern mind seems to have abandoned the use of reason is more pertinent than ever. “The founding of a family,” he says, “must be on a firm foundation, and the rearing of the immature must be protected by something patient and enduring.” This is the common conclusion of mankind. While government grows more elusive everyday, the traditions of humanity support humanity. “A free man and a free woman choose to found on earth the only voluntary state; the only state which creates and loves its own citizens.”
There is a third section to Sidelights containing literary essays. Most notable is “Magic and Fantasy in Fiction,” which is a defense of the Harry Potter books over 70 years before they were written:
There runs through the whole tradition the idea that black magic is that which blots out or disguises the true form of a thing; while white magic, in the good sense, restores it to its own form and not another…This division, even in the deep roots of legend and primitive literature, would help critics very much in judging the real principles of uncanny or fantastic fiction. There is no reason within reason, why literature should not describe the demonic as well as the divine aspect of mystery or myth.
It is fitting that in a book where Chesterton takes Puritans to task, he concludes by defending a popular type of literature that would two generations after him be attacked by Puritans. The Prohibitionists and the Pleasure-Seekers alike are always lurking at the gate, trying to tear it down.
The original Sidelights is available in Vol.21 of The Collected Works.