G.K. Chesterton, like the God he worshipped, has risen from the dead. There was a time, in the decades after his death, that he was woefully neglected and seemed to have been almost forgotten. He was dead and, as far as many people were concerned, he was buried.
Chesterton had fallen out of fashion during the fifties and sixties as orthodoxy itself had fallen out of fashion. During those darkening days and the darkening daze that they heralded, religion had apparently succumbed to a dumbed-down ecumenism in which no god of any religion could be proclaimed as the One God to be worshipped exclusively. In such a climate there could be no place for a Christian crusader who used his words as a sword with which to vanquish the enemies of the Faith; there could be no place for a modern-day St. George who used his pen to slay the dragons of modernity; there could be no place for a “Knight of the Holy Ghost,” to employ the epithet that Dale Ahlquist employs for Chesterton in the title of his new book, which is subtitled “A Short History of G. K. Chesterton.”
Mr. Ahlquist is uniquely qualified to write this short history of the man to whom he has dedicated his life. As the present author expressed it in the endorsement on the back cover of the book, “Dale Ahlquist is probably the greatest living authority on the life and work of G.K. Chesterton. As such, nobody is better qualified to offer a concise and illuminating overview of Chesterton’s important contribution to contemporary faith and culture.” For years, as President of the American Chesterton Society, Mr. Ahlquist has been an indefatigable champion of G.K. Chesterton. Like a servant of the servants of the poor, he has been a champion of this champion of the Faith. More than anyone he has borne witness to the power of GKC and has witnessed the resurrection of Chesterton’s reputation. His book is therefore the fruit of much labour and tremendous knowledge, as well as being an act of unabashed homage to one whom Mr. Ahlquist considers to be not merely a hero but a saint.
The book is divided into three parts. The first is a portrait of Chesterton “the man,” the second an appraisal of Chesterton “the writer,” and the third asks whether Chesterton should be considered a saint.
The first part constitutes a succinct biographical summary of Chesterton’s life which also serves as a defence of Chesterton’s reputation. Mr. Ahlquist defends Chesterton’s much publicized love for wine and ale, insisting that the fermented fruits of the grape and grain are “God’s good gifts,” and yet he insists that Chesterton could not be accused of drunkenness. As if to prove his point, he quotes Chesterton himself as saying that “there is nothing so good as drink, and nothing so bad as drunkenness.” For Chesterton, as for all those who enjoy such things, the imbibing of fermented or distilled beverages teaches the necessity of temperance and prudence. In ironic contrast, and as Chesterton never tired of telling us, there are few things less temperate than the ill-tempered prudes in the temperance movement who lose their temper at other people’s intemperance.
Intent on painting a positive portrait of Chesterton the man, Mr. Ahlquist concedes that his hero succumbed on occasion to “a few flashes of temper” but likens these to taking “a whip against the moneychangers,” thereby apparently seeking to sanctify and therefore justify such moments of anger. “For the most part,” he continues, “except in one instance where he unleashed some bitterness after the death of his brother, he expressed his anger with restraint.” This is indubitably the case. There are few who argued as much as Chesterton and fewer still who have quarreled less. He crossed swords with many and made enemies of none. Indeed, this crucial distinction between arguing and quarreling is exemplified by Chesterton to such a degree that he should serve as an exemplar to all those who seek to employ the power of rhetoric in the service of truth.
In the second part of the book, on Chesterton the writer, Mr. Ahlquist sub-divides his discussion of Chesterton’s literary legacy into four areas: Chesterton’s books, his poetry, his journalism, and finally the Father Brown stories. It is with this section that many lovers and admirers of Chesterton’s work will have queries and quibbles. The most obvious anomaly is the inordinate amount of space that Mr. Ahlquist devotes to the journalism. No fewer than 52 of the 78 pages on Chesterton’s literary legacy are devoted to a discussion of the essays that he wrote for various journals. Mr. Ahlquist would no doubt defend this peculiar lack of balance by pointing to Chesterton’s own estimation of himself as being, first and foremost, a journalist. It is true that Chesterton made most of his money from his journalism; it is equally true that, in terms of quantity, he employed more words on his essays than on his books; and it is also true that Chesterton is one of the finest essayists in the English language. And yet none of this justifies the devotion of two-thirds of the discussion of Chesterton’s oeuvre on only one of the literary forms in which he excelled.
As if to add insult to injury, or salt to the wound of the reader’s offended literary sensibility, Mr. Ahlquist fails to even mention Chesterton’s novels. This is nothing less than a significant sin of omission. The Man Who was Thursday is indubitably one of the classic novels of the twentieth century and The Ball and the Cross is a superb and sadly neglected work, and yet these and the other novels do not apparently warrant the reader’s attention. How can these gems of literary fiction fail to warrant as much as a passing reference or the smallest of deferential nods in their direction? For these defects and deficiencies, Mr. Ahlquist’s book will serve as a fine introduction to his subject but will not serve as the final word. In this case the first should not be last!
Were the present author to write a book on “Chesterton the Writer” it would be subdivided very differently. Categorizing by genre, it would include sections on the novels, the essays, the short stories, the poetry, the biographies, the histories, the literary criticism, and, last but not least, the works of Christian apologetics.
Enough. And let’s make it plain that such quibbling is not quarreling. On the contrary, it is a healthy discussion between friends. This being so, and laying such arguments aside, Knight of the Holy Ghost is nonetheless a marvelous introduction to the life and work of Chesterton which ends, appropriately enough, with questions concerning Chesterton’s sanctity. Was Chesterton a saint? Mr. Ahlquist believes so, and the present author is not minded to disagree with him. Will he be canonized? That remains to be seen. Some might feel, considering the indifference and the inertia of those who could initiate the canonization process, that it is unlikely. Perhaps it is more than unlikely. Perhaps it will take a miracle. Now that is something worthy of our prayers.