Best and worst of America, circa 1947
John Gunther and the lost art of speaking frankly about places that stink.
I’ve been preoccupied lately filling in for my friend Matthew Cooper of the Washington Monthly for six weeks while he takes paternity leave, so I won’t be popping in here much. But Robert Gottlieb’s delightful recent appreciation of John Gunther’s Inside U.S.A, published in 1947, sent me back to my treasured copy of the 50th anniversary reissue (which I gather is now worth $890 because it’s out of print again). My edition has an equally delightful appreciation in the form of a foreword by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that you can read here.
It’s always dangerous to take Inside U.S.A. down from the shelf when you’ve got other things to do because it’s so damnably difficult to put down. It’s a snapshot of America at a triumphant moment, heading into a sustained period of widely shared prosperity and global leadership after World War II and the Great Depression. O to be that country again! But one thing you can’t help noticing, in the chapter where Gunther sums it all up, is that a lot of the problems that make us pine for these good old days turn out to have been subjects of great concern back then, too.
Gunther worries about Americans’ ignorance of their history (“Sociologists have collected appalling statistics to show how little of American history American school children know”), about our “deep-seated … tendency lawlessness and love of violence,” about “the accelerated speed and magnitude of consumption of our natural resources,” about “pressure groups” (today we call them “special interests”) that are devoted to “special privilege,” about the “disconcertingly small” number of “able and useful citizens” who show an interest in entering public life, about the power of political action committees (though back in 1947, it was, quaintly, the power of labor PACs that worried Gunther), about the rising power of women and what that might mean for men (in fact, women were at that postwar moment entering a period of abruptly diminished power, with wonky lamentations about the “end of men” six decades in the future), about the difficulty of reconciling “economic libertarianism with political democracy,” and about the baffling tendency of “underpossessed citizens” to be “among the most conservative the country has.”
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
To be fair, I’ve skipped over many things Gunther fretted about that we fret about no longer, like the materialism generated by the advertising industry and the blight of conformity in a society dominated by large institutions. Interestingly, these more dated concerns tended to be among Gunther’s least original observations, probably gleaned less from his first-hand reporting than from what he was hearing from other chroniclers of American life.
What follows is a less solemn summing-up by Gunther. Of course it’s very particular to 1947—almost none of these conclusions would stand up today. But please note how refreshingly un-polite it is. Journalists today live in perpetual fear of offending people who reside in this or that place, which when you think about it is its own kind of condescension. That was true even before the advent of political correctness and the Twitter mob. Somewhere along the way, a smothering sanctimony put the sorts of judgments you see here off limits to respectable mainstream journalists like Gunther, who was nobody’s idea of an irascible contrarian like H.L. Mencken or Ambrose Bierce.
The cleanest city I saw in America was Phoenix, Arizona; the dirtiest, Indianapolis, Indiana; the ugliest—with an intense, concentrated, degrading ugliness—Knoxville, Tennessee. The most beautiful house I saw was in Princeton, New Jersey; the ugliest building was a brewery in Spokane, Washington. The most crowded town I visited was San Diego, with Columbus, Ohio, as a close second choice; the least crowded was St. Louis. The most unexpectedly good hotels were in Denver, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Kansas City, and Spokane; the worst was in Charleston, South Carolina. The best beef I ever ate was in Montana, and the best ice cream in Richmond, Virginia; the best single meal I had in America was in Milwaukee, and the worst—but I give up!
The ugliest state capital I saw was in Concord, New Hampshire, the most charming, that in Montpelier, Vermong; the most dramatic that of Nebraska, with Louisiana and North Dakota runners-up; the biggest, that of Rhode Island; the most unusual, because filled with showcases like a museum, that in Utah. The state with the dirtiest politics is probably Pennsylvania; the cleanest, a tossup between Wisconsin and Vermont. The worst-bossed state is Tennessee or New Jersey; the least-bossed, Washington or Arizona. The best-governed state is probably New York, and for the worst just blindfold yourself and stick a finger anywhere below the Mason and Dixon’s line.
The most sensational view I ever saw in America is that from the Top of the Mark in the Hotel Mark Hopkins, in San Francisco, and the most spectacular road I have ever driven on is the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut. [Still a strikingly lovely road, I think.] The most satisfying flight I ever took was from San Francisco up the coast past Mount Shasta; the most trying, from Jackson, Mississippi, to New Orleans. The smoothest roadbed I have ever known on an American railroad is the velvet line of the Milwaukee into Chicago; the worst trip I ever took on a railroad was from Salt Lake City to Cheyenne.
The city in America with the least visible street signs is Butte, Montana, and the town best policed is Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The most turbulent city is Chicago [plus ca change …] or Kansas City, and the quietest, Madison, Wisconsin, or Santa Fe. The crudest newspaper in the United States is (or was) the Denver Post; the most enterprising and courageous is the St. Louis Post-Dispatch [sigh]. The best conversation I heard was in Boston, Nashville, and Seattle; the best draft beer was in Baltimore or Denver; the rowdiest atmosphere was in Omaha or Memphis; the funniest thing I saw was a Thurber drawing owned by the late Bob Benchley, with the caption, “So you think you’re going to leave, do you!”
It would be fun to see Jon Meacham or Ezra Klein or Jake Tapper update this. It isn’t going to happen. Not even journalists famous for their tart tongues, like Maureen Dowd or Dana Milbank, would dare try this today. Which is a shame, because I’d really like to know what the best and worst of America is in 2021.