By Jay Parini
The Chronicle Review
September 18, 2011
Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
It has been over half a century since Maisie Ward's major biography of G.K Chesterton (1874-1936) appeared in 1943. Since then, Chesterton has largely been a darling of Anglophiles, conservatives, and orthodox Roman Catholics, the sort of writer often invoked in the pages of the National Review. And oh, yes, read by mystery-story lovers everywhere for his Father Brown series.
More recently, however, he has begun to find a sympathetic audience in wider literary circles, as evidenced by G.K. Chesterton, Ian Ker's detailed and compelling new biography from Oxford University Press, and a generous collection of his writings this year from Everyman's Library, selected by Ker, a senior research fellow at St. Benet's Hall, Oxford University. From my viewpoint, it's time Chesterton was taken seriously as a major critic and biographer, a thinker of sharp wit and deep learning.
Chesterton's work includes nearly every type of writing—poetry, philosophy, literary criticism, biography, political and social argument, playwriting, detective fiction, and Christian apologetics. Yet he was, in the main, a journalist at heart, pumping out weekly columns for a variety of papers, especially The Daily Mail, on every conceivable subject, and his devoted audience included the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, who was "thunderstruck" by Chesterton's fierce independence of thought.
Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine fabulist, never failed to mention Chesterton among his favorite writers. Being a fan of detective fiction, he too adored the Father Brown stories, regarding Chesterton, with Edgar Allan Poe and Conan Doyle, as a founding father of the genre. Yet it was more than the detective fiction that interested Borges; he quoted Chesterton extensively as a linguistic philosopher, crediting him with "the most lucid words written about language."
Writers often gravitated toward Chesterton, including George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, both ardent socialists but good, if contentious, friends during his lifetime. Indeed, Chesterton debated Shaw in public on several occasions, and Chesterton's own idiosyncratic but highly suggestive history of the world (The Everlasting Man, 1925) might be considered a riposte to Wells's The Outline of History (1919). (Wells regarded human beings as a species who evolved from a highly primitive form and might one day use their intelligence to establish a peaceful and prosperous world. Chesterton thought that impossible; human beings would continue to suffer from something akin to what Christians call "original sin.") Among later writers, T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien admired him, while W.H. Auden took the trouble to edit a selection from Chesterton's nonfiction in 1970.
The reason for the interest is simple: Few writers have ranged so widely and so well, in aphoristic prose that repays thoughtful rereading. At his best, as in his Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906), Chesterton ranks among the finest critics of English literature. His studies of Victorian fiction and poetry (there is also a remarkable 1903 book on Browning) still command our attention, and his Autobiography (1936) is among the treasures of that genre—a genial if rambling production that brings English life and letters during the early decades of the 20th century into vivid relief.
Yet Chesterton's reputation has been difficult to assess, in part because so many of his fans from the Catholic and political right have tended to emphasize only his Christian apologetics, as in Orthodoxy (1908). Yet even that is a more complicated work than often portrayed, with little of the theological rigidity and sense of moral stricture one associates with the term. For instance, Chesterton took a detour at one point to discuss the Fenians, the Irish rebels against British rule, whom most of his countrymen regarded as terrorists. With his usual enjoyment of paradox, he argued that "the lawlessness of Ireland is a Christian lawlessness, founded on reason and justice."
Chesterton was a lifelong Christian who, as Ker shows, moved gradually but inexorably from the Anglo-Catholicism of his childhood to Rome (he was received into the Roman Church in 1922). Even then, he remained complicated and ironical, reassessing such major figures in the history of Christianity as Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi—an unlikely duo, drawn from opposite ends of the Catholic temperament.
In truth, Chesterton was a natural democrat who identified more with the beer-drinking masses than snobs with glasses of sherry in their Oxford college gardens. His lifelong interest in the Middle Ages was less about a love of feudalism and hierarchy than a warm identification with peasants and craftsmen. As Ker notes, he held in high regard the idea of "self-government," which he saw in the medieval guild system, of which Britain's "attenuated and threatened" trade unions were but "a ghost."
There is what Ker calls a "defense of the common man" that ran through Chesterton's writings—and separated him from most other writers of his era. As Chesterton put it, the "merely educated can scarcely ever be brought to believe that this world is itself an interesting place. When they look at a work of art, good or bad, they expect to be interested, but when they look at a newspaper advertisement or a group in the street, they do not, properly and literally speaking, expect to be interested. But to common and simple people this world is a work of art, though it is, like many great works of art, anonymous."
In his early study of Dickens, he admired the author's "carnival of liberty": the "buffoonery and bravery of the spirit of the Middle Ages," the "large jokes and long stories and brown ale." By contrast, "The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day."
Like Chaucer, Chesterton explained, Dickens "loved story within story, everyman telling a tale. Sam Weller would have been a great gain to the Canterbury Pilgrimage and told an admirable story. Rossetti's Damozel would have been a great bore, regarded as too fast by the Prioress and too priggish by the wife of Bath." In those words the shimmering and paradoxical quality of Chesterton's vision inheres.
The study of Dickens was seminal, sparking a revival of interest in the novelist, granting respectability to a figure whose popularity with the masses had diminished his standing among critics and literary historians. (It was a beginning; Dickens's firm place in the canon took a few more decades to establish itself.)
Chesterton's ideal critic was an oppositional, even quarrelsome figure, one who tore down false idols and found value in unexpected places; he argued frequently that criticism does not exist to say what authors already understood about themselves. Rather, "it exists to say the things about them which they did not know themselves."
In that spirit, far from being a defender of conventionality, Chesterton was a natural anarchist, a beery supporter of small-scale government (he rejected the notion of socialism, calling himself a Distributist, which he defined as "Man standing on two legs and requiring two boots ... his own boots"). In his essays (and the Father Brown stories), he mounted an attack on capitalism and the class system. And he abhorred Britain's class society, which he believed was dominated, in the modern age, by soulless materialism. As for the aristocracy: "The typical aristocrat was the typical upstart" whose family was "founded on stealing" and whose "family was stealing still."
One hears this characteristic note of prickly opposition in the very first sentence of the Autobiography: "Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in a little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge."
In other words, for Chesterton, hardly any firm ground exists. So he bows in "blind credulity" to "mere authority" and the "tradition of elders," though he seems to do so for whimsical reasons. He teases the reader at every turn, pulling out rhetorical rugs wherever he can, seeming to side with religion, then undercutting it as superstition; playing with "believing" in his birthplace and dates while denying any direct experience of the "facts." But he makes sure to place the church of his baptism under the shadow of a waterworks, thereby showing himself already in a contrary stance toward modern life, with its ugly mechanical systems. In a way, all of Chesterton's writing plays with paradox in this way.
Perhaps that is why he had a healthy disregard for "facts," not unlike Oscar Wilde, who complained that the English "were always degrading truths into facts." Chesterton tried in his criticism (which was largely biographical in flavor) to get at the character of a figure before worrying too much about specific details (his critics often pointed to factual errors in his work, although those were rarely deal-breaking, merely a sign of sloppiness).
Like Dickens and Wilde and so many other British writers before and after him, Chesterton was popular in the United States, where he made a good deal of cash by lecturing. He cut a memorable figure, with his flowing cape and walking stick, and his 6-foot-4-inch frame, weighing in at nearly 300 pounds. And not unlike Dickens, he left America with mixed emotions. On the one hand, he condemned the materialism, the worship of success, and emphasis on conformity, which seemed so at odds with the American faith in the individual. Yet he admired the fact that Americans had "a very real respect for work" and for "the dignity of labor," and had no attachment to the English idea of leisure, which had been elevated to a kind of ideal in the Old World. He also liked the fact that Americans were childlike, "not afraid of curiosity," and full of "vivacity." Above all, Americans had an abundant power of wonder.
And for Chesterton, wonder was accompanied by joy: "The mass of men," he wrote at the conclusion of Orthodoxy, "have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul."
It is the quality of wonder that so many readers and critics have lost sight of in the priggish, conservative Chesterton they seem to prefer. This man was an eagle, flying high over the barren landscapes of modernism, and his astute challenges to mundane views challenge us to rethink thoughtless positions on a variety of subjects.
His good cheer was not baseless optimism: It arose from a deep conviction that the human imagination is glorious, has its origins in divine realities, and refuses to lie down. He believed, in a strange way, in belief itself as the ground of experience. As he once said, "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."
- Jay Parini is a novelist, poet, and professor of English at Middlebury College. His most recent novel is The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville (Doubleday, 2010).