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Observing America

The Commentary of British Visitors to the United States, 1890–1950

Robert Frankel

Publication Year: 2007

Beginning with Alexis de Tocqueville and Frances Trollope, visitors to America have written some of the most penetrating and, occasionally, scathing commentaries on U.S. politics and culture. Observing America focuses on four of the most insightful British commentators on America between 1890 and 1950. The colorful journalist W. T. Stead championed Anglo-American unity while plunging into reform efforts in Chicago. The versatile writer H. G. Wells fiercely criticized capitalist America but found reason for hope in the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt. G. K. Chesterton, one of England’s great men of letters, urged Americans to preserve the vestiges of Jeffersonian democracy that he still discerned in the small towns of the heartland. And the influential political theorist and activist Harold Laski assailed the business ethos that he believed dominated the nation, especially after Franklin Roosevelt’s death. 
Robert Frankel examines the New World experiences of these commentators and the books they wrote about America. He also probes similar writings by other prominent observers from the British Isles, including Beatrice Webb, Rudyard Kipling, and George Bernard Shaw. The result is a book that offers keen insights into America’s national identity in a time of vast political and cultural change.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xvi

Despite the shared language, ties of blood, and enduring cultural bonds, the British have always viewed America as a country marked by its own distinctive identity. Since 1776—and even before—they have looked across the Atlantic with a sense of fascination and, inevitably, with their native land as a point of comparison. To gain an understanding of what British perceptions...

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Introduction: The Forebears

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pp. 3-16

The great nineteenth-century British observers of America were tough critics. Conservatively inclined observers were especially harsh in their assessments, which so much dominated the field prior to midcentury that Allan Nevins has called these decades the age of...

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1 The Plight of the Cities: W. T. Stead and 1890s Urban America

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pp. 17-51

Rarely in American history has a foreign visitor thrust himself onto the domestic scene quite in the way W. T. Stead did in the 1890s. This crusading journalist, one of the most prominent in late-Victorian Britain, possessed a special knack for attracting attention to himself, so it was only appropriate that he...

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2 The Bonds of Blood: W. T. Stead’s Vision of Anglo-American Unity at the Turn of the Century

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pp. 52-75

Despite Stead’s experiences in the United States, which led him to form a critical view of American cities and to despair over the political course he thought the nation was following, he did not withdraw from his conviction that Britain...

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3 The Promise of America: H. G. Wells and the Progressive Era

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pp. 76-110

By the beginning of the twentieth century, H. G. Wells had established himself as one of the most innovative young writers in the English language. In the latter half of the 1890s, through publication of such popular tales as...

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4 The Global Stage: H. G. Wells on America’s Emergence in the First World War

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pp. 111-139

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the global catastrophe that Wells had long held out as a possibility was becoming a reality. Convinced that Germany was the aggressor and that an Allied victory was imperative for the future of Western civilization, he enthusiastically lent his pen to promoting Britain’s war effort. In fact, he was responsible for coining....

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5 Main Street America: G. K. Chesterton and the Culture of the United States in the 1920s

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pp. 140-177

G.K. Chesterton framed the decade of the 1920s by making two trips to the United States, both of which inspired books. Because Chesterton stood as Wells’s ideological antagonist, it is not surprising that his view of America was substantially at odds with that of Wells. Though the 1920s marked a contrast...

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6 The New Deals: Harold Laski, H. G. Wells, and Roosevelt’s America versus Stalin’s Russia

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pp. 178-211

After Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, H. G.Wells and Harold Laski each revealed a renewed interest in America. Since reporting on the Washington Conference, Wells had paid just one visit to the United States, in 1931, and commented only intermittently on American...

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7 The Businessman’s America: Harold Laski’s View of the United States in the 1940s

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pp. 212-242

Although Laski felt a genuine affection for America, during the 1940s his commentary on the nation became increasingly negative. As the experimentation of the New Deal faded into history, he found less cause for optimism. Laski did welcome American participation in World War II—and he was...

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Conclusion: Lost Republic, Lost Tradition

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pp. 243-248

The British observers of America who followed in the footsteps of Bryce were a diverse lot. These commentators, writing about the United States in the years between 1890 and 1950, by no means marched in step in their assessments of American civilization. Nevertheless, certain general themes...

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pp. 249-250

I would like to express my appreciation for the assistance offered me as I examined manuscripts in the following repositories: the University of Illinois Library at Champaign-Urbana, the British Library of Political and Economic Science, the House of Lords Record Office, the New...


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pp. 251-292


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pp. 293-306


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pp. 307-318

E-ISBN-13: 9780299218836
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299218805

Publication Year: 2007