Virginia vs. America

One of the best anecdotes in Virginian-Pilot columnist Guy Friddell’s charming little pitch for Virginia tourism, 1966’s What Is It About Virginia?is a walk he takes through Colonial Williamsburg with Arnold Toynbee in 1961. Toynbee was not optimistic about the Old Dominion, and Friddell makes his case for how progressive and hopeful things are, in light of, especially, recent successes of the civil rights movement. The chapter begins, however, with a story about a different historian:

The most thorough recent investigation of Virginia was by Dr. Gottmann, a French economic geographer commissioned by philanthropist Paul Mellon to diagnose the Old Dominion.

The doctor took stock of us for 18 months, visiting every county and city, a latter-day Tocqueville, perceptive and balanced in his judgments.

At the conclusion of his research, state officials honored him at luncheon in the Hotel Richmond. The geographer had an interesting face, the listening sort, with merry quickness in his features that promised a deft riposte when he chose, a fencer’s face.

The meal droned along, the conversation about as distinctive as the mashed potatoes, and, in a lull, I leaned forward and called down the table to ask Dr. Gottmann what impressed him most about America.

“The waste!” he called back.

“I mean,” he added, “the creative waste.”

Europe, his thesis went, tends to revere things as they are simply because they have always been there. At every turn, a thousand-year-old building bars the way. But Americans, with eyes on the future, do not hesitate to turn a river, level a mountain, fill a canyon, and pull down a skyscraper only recently built to build a bigger one.

“Willingness to change is the outstanding characteristic of America,” he said.

As the company was digesting this, I asked what he found to be the outstanding characteristic of Virginia.

“Reluctance to change,” said the little Frenchman, smiling.

He viewed Virginia as an oasis of calm. Perhaps its leisurely way of life had a mission in the mellowing of America, but, fortunately for the Western World, America’s Promethian tradition had prevailed.


(Above, James Kilpatrick on the left and Friddell on the right, at the Richmond News-Leader in 1952)

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