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.
This is the intro to my latest article for the OLL Reading Room. I discuss the American work ethic and Chesterton’s prescient insight into American economic dynamism compared to Britain. (Relatedly, Alex on British stagnation this week.)
Here’s a fun bit of the book that I didn’t include in the OLL article. Chesterton wrote this about seeing New York City for the first time:
But there is a sense in which New York is always new; in the sense that it is always being renewed. A stranger might well say that the chief industry of the citizens consists of destroying their city; but he soon realises that they always start it all over again with undiminished energy and hope. At first I had a fancy that they never quite finished putting up a big building without feeling that it was time to pull it down again; and that somebody began to dig up the first foundations while somebody else was putting on the last tiles. This fills the whole of this brilliant and bewildering place with a quite unique and unparalleled air of rapid ruin.
Interested New Yorkers can find the rest online at Project Gutenberg. Delightful throughout if you like history. Amazon link to the book here.