One can never predict which British visitors will master American reportage and which will not. Harold Laski’s written English usually resembled the efforts of a blind, one-armed commissar trying to thread a needle; but lo and behold, when the London School of Economics don came to write The American Presidency (1940) he made a craftsmanlike job of it. Alistair Cooke, undistinguished in his native England, blossomed stateside for seven decades. But before either Laski or Cooke had acquired large American audiences, there was Hilaire Belloc.
With a short-lived Californian wife (Elodie, née Hogan) with Pennsylvanian relatives on his mother’s side, and with a youthful propensity to walk vast distances on American soil, paying his way by offering sketches to his hosts—though the allegation that he crossed the whole continent on foot owes more to romantic embroidery than to sober truth—he visited America four times before his 30th birthday. After his fifth tour, in 1923, he devoted to the topic an entire book: The Contrast.
Alas for Belloc’s hopes of “pearls and caviar,” The Contrast soon fell out of print and has been largely forgotten. A commendably comprehensive 2007 survey entitled Observing America, by Supreme Court historian Robert Frankel, includes ample coverage of Laski’s, G.K. Chesterton’s, H.G. Wells’s, and Beatrice Webb’s American peregrinations but takes only brief notice of Belloc’s account. Few among critics—Belloc’s biographer A.N. Wilson excepted—have examined The Contrast. Fewer still have absorbed it. More should.
As so often is the case with Belloc, to read The Contrast in our own time is to be overwhelmed by the pathos of might-have-beens. If ever proof existed of the dictum—certainly disseminated, and perhaps invented, by Welsh-American-Australian political scientist Owen Harries—that “a truly bad idea never dies,” current canting about “the Anglosphere” is that proof. It has inflamed lofty intellects as well as fourth-rate Etonian metrosexuals. Robert Conquest, Sovietologist of genius, has propagated it. The late, great political theorist Kenneth Minogue at least flirted with it. Kipling, not least in his relations with Teddy Roosevelt, had something like it in mind.
Yet here is Belloc, writing in 1924, full of love for everything that is best in civic America; Belloc, at least as lastingly respected by American readers as by his compatriots; Belloc, willing to credit whatever the locals tell him about “a city upon a hill”; Belloc, free from the spasms of vulgar English provincialism which periodically gripped even a co-religionist such as Evelyn Waugh; Belloc the unremitting Teutonophobe; Belloc, who, by every canon of modern logic—such as it is—should have been an Atlanticist on steroids. So what, in The Contrast, did he do? Without perhaps realizing the implications of his act, he managed to dynamite every last stone of the Anglosphere’s ideological foundations. The resultant debris makes subjugated Carthage resemble Shangri-La.
It all began when Belloc underestimated, as foreigners will, American munificence. Having insisted to a New York public relations agency, Feakins Inc., that he be paid “a guaranteed (not speculative) average of between 65 and 70 pounds a lecture,” he assumed and rather hoped that Feakins would shy away from so preposterous a demand. After all, he craved the 1923 equivalent of $4,000 per speech in 2014 money. Feakins did nothing of the kind, and agreed to pay every penny of the sum sought. Thus Belloc contemplated the alarming prospect of boarding a transatlantic liner to the land where every inch of ground would remind him of Elodie.
In The Contrast he argued a postulate of breathtaking simplicity:
My thesis is that the New World is wholly alien to the Old. Had time proceeded further, were the language become admittedly foreign, the architecture transformed to a new native type, the institutions grown grotesquely diverse between America and Europe … the thesis would be of a different kind and differently approached, above all much easier to advance. The difficulty of presenting it today lies in the existing superficial similarities, and the remaining lessening bonds which mask the essential truth … in proportion as this truth of the Contrast is missed, the interaction, especially the political interaction, of the New World with the Old, and more particularly of the New World with the English part of the Old, will lead to disasters. …
Public men are beginning to say—quite lately—that the use of one European language in America, the English, out of so many European languages, is a source of error, because it masks the essential division between America and all Europe. That is true and the more that is said the better.
Blessed or cursed from childhood with extraordinarily acute vision and hearing, Belloc is among the most sensuous English writers of his age. His ability to convey the essence of landscapes never deserted him in his active career. Landscapes, but also soundscapes. I write as an Australian whose own first devastating aural exposure to American life—Newark Airport, 1990, should you care, with a gigantic portrait of George H.W. Bush looming over the baggage-carousels like its Pyongyang counterparts—echoed Belloc’s in every single detail:
I landed. The first phrase of popular speech I heard was incomprehensible, the more incomprehensible because I expected it to be in my own idiom; much the more incomprehensible because it was incomprehensible through a manner and spirit of diction more than through verbal form. The new speech rapidly grew familiar to me; in a day or two I could make myself understood with repetitions and talking slowly, while, with great care, I could understand at the first saying most of what was said to me in the streets. But the impression of strangeness was the more accentuated by that experience of learning. It was astonishing that, with what I had always thought to be our own English language, such a process should be necessary! … In this particular thing of America I had learnt, as fully as one learns a conviction of one’s own mind, as fully as one knows one’s own mood, that it was, with every adjective and adverb I could use, alien, foreign, different: not Europe, not Africa.
Unconsciously channeling Jefferson’s advice from 1807—“he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods”—Belloc came to bemoan his previous half-acquaintanceship with American culture. “Had I never read,” he complained, “what Americans had written of themselves nor any description of what Europeans had reported upon their return, the shock of the real discovery would have been less overwhelming.”
As aurally, so physically. Of the Englishman who crosses the U.S. from east to west, Belloc writes: “He has, by this time [having reached the Plains States], passed through as much space as separates Slavonic Europe from the Atlantic, or the Baltic from the Mediterranean, Warsaw from Paris, Naples from Hamburg: yet all the whole his impression has been one. Of our European diversity not a trace.”
Ah, but then:
In one miraculous moment, he and his world are changed. He reaches, unexpecting it, the sharpest border-line, the sharpest physical frontier that is, perhaps, in this world. For he comes to the high edge of the deserts, looks down as from a table, and passes at once into what stabs him with a sudden vision of Europe glorified. It is the cascade of dense forests downwards and still downwards and, below, into the paradise of California.
From which paradise, as the great song assured millions 53 years on, “you can check out any time you like / But you can never leave.” Certainly Belloc could not, what with memories of Elodie singeing his soul, and with his attire that in all weathers remained funereally black.
American political life is apt to inspire in even the most cosmopolitan Englishmen that same refined distaste with which the Marschallin, in Der Rosenkavalier’s first act, greets Baron Ochs’ prolix erotic autobiography. But over Belloc, it exercised a mesmerizing fascination.
Having dissected English parliamentarianism with a ruthlessness sharpened by his own unhappy four-year legislative experience, Belloc saw in the Founding Fathers’ legacy an administrative arrangement much more congenial. Much more regal, for one thing: it embodied, as the Houses of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Windsor certainly did not, “the principle of executive responsibility vested in one man: the principle which must be called, if we are to be accurate … the principle of Monarchy.” A principle, moreover, as evident in the mayoralty of Los Angeles or the governorship of Alabama as in the White House itself. “The American people of today differ from the Europeans of today in this: that they have retained in a very large degree the institution of MONARCHY and are daily increasing its scope.” (Italics and uppercase are in the original. Sometimes Belloc’s literary style resembled Queen Victoria’s.)
Admittedly, signs of comparable executive responsibility were burgeoning in the Europe of 1923. Schadenfreude impelled Belloc to note: “in Italy Mussolini … has kicked the parliament off its usurped throne. In Spain the last set of professional politicians have fled for their lives” from Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship. The same phenomenon had also befallen Budapest. It would later ensue in Lisbon, Warsaw, Athens, Belgrade, and the Baltic capitals. But these represented self-conscious coups against liberal paralysis, whereas in America a monarchy had—contra Walter Bagehot—“insinuated itself beneath the folds of a republic.”
Historians of American leadership can pick holes in Belloc’s contention. Like plenty before and since, Belloc exaggerated the exportability of American systems. One sage whom he does not quote is John Adams, who warned: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” What if the English plutocracy of 1923 had already grown so sclerotic that no blood-transfusion of American monarchism could rejuvenate it? The question goes unanswered. Besides, Belloc could also be charged with reading an eternal verity into the prevailing historical chance of chief-executive activism. How “monarchical” were Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, even Coolidge and Taft Senior? Still, here as elsewhere, Belloc got more right than wrong.
On American literature, Belloc is at his weakest. He who knew more about poets, novelists, and journalists in Spain, Italy, and France than 99 percent of Oxbridge professors, in his day or our own, gravely shortchanged himself when it came to their U.S. counterparts. At one stage—contradicting his own basic theme—he toys with the silly but hitherto widespread notion that American literature, as opposed to imitation English literature, does not exist. (Kingsley Amis peddled that balderdash as late as the 1950s.) Elsewhere he recognizes such literature’s distinctiveness but underrates it, thanks to its shortage of Latin and Greek influences.
You would never guess from The Contrast that Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, Whittier, Longfellow, assorted Jameses, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and Emily Dickinson had enriched humane letters before Belloc was old enough to vote. Still less would you suppose that in 1923 Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, and Edna St. Vincent Millay already occupied honored places, not to mention expatriates T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. No, Chesterton had keener eyes than Belloc on this issue, when he observed:
Those … who mock American journalism from the standpoint of somewhat mellower traditions forget a certain paradox which partly redeems it. For while the journalism of the States permits a pantomimic vulgarity long past anything English, it also shows a real excitement about the most earnest mental problems, of which English papers are innocent, or rather incapable.
The Belloc of 1923 may be legitimately censured, in his comments about America’s Jewish population, for failing to anticipate Father Coughlin’s Judeophobic propaganda. Then again, it took the Great Depression at its most societally wrenching to give “the radio priest” a national audience. Even that economic crisis could not rescue Gerald L.K. Smith from the political sidelines. And it should be recalled here that Chesterton’s repeated denunciations of Nazism included the following homage to his brother-in-arms: “I am quite ready to believe now that Belloc and I will die defending the last Jew in Europe.”
“What is to be done?” Thus, famously, asked Lenin—and, half a century before Lenin, the journalist Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Belloc had too much basic decency to condemn a political problem without spelling out the needed political solution. His remedy for the misconceptions caused by “the Contrast” is, like his explanation of this contrast’s existence, straightforwardness itself.
Britain, Belloc concludes, should treat America the way America treats Britain: as a foreign power, no less foreign for its alleged comity. Its opinion-makers should start reading Washington’s Farewell Address. Lord Palmerston’s aphorism “We have no permanent allies, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests” would be another valuable addition to their conceptual furniture. “It is,” writes Belloc, “an error to treat as typical the friendship of that sort of American whom the Americans call Anglo-Maniac. His emotion is genuine enough, his feeling for England is sincere; but he is hateful to his compatriots.”
This hatefulness had been partly determined by the very nature of 19th-century American immigration, about which development the average Brit of 1923 knew little and cared less. More fool he. Britain’s clampdown on Dublin’s 1916 Easter Rising, a clampdown soon forgotten by most of the British public, provoked in America—scarcely less than in the Emerald Isle itself—an Anglophobic rage still detectable 98 years on. This rage manifested itself in such forms as the NORAID campaign, underwritten by Teddy Kennedy and his fellow moral giants, to subsidize Sinn Fein gangsterism during Northern Ireland’s 1969-1998 Troubles.
Here is a pleasant exercise, engendered by The Contrast, in counterfactual history. Suppose Britain had in fact done, as De Gaulle and Franco would later do in their different ways, what Belloc advocated. No sacrifice of the British Empire upon the shoals of Wall Street. No Eisenhower to wage economic combat against Prime Minister Anthony Eden and France’s Guy Mollet in 1956, while treating Khrushchev’s rape of Hungary as a mere case of sexual harassment. No “War on Terror,” probably. Current fantasizing about an Anglo-American “special relationship”—a relationship so special that, to quote Germany’s ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, only one party knows it exists—cannot gainsay the crushing force of Patrick J. Buchanan’s verdict on Britain’s geopolitical decline: “There is a world of difference between watching a great lady descend a staircase and seeing a slattern being kicked down a flight of stairs.”
So cheerless a humiliation would have grieved Belloc. It would not for a moment have surprised him.
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.