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Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874-1908
Oxford University Press, 2009
416 pp., $61.00
The first use of good literature," wrote G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), "is that it prevents a man from being merely modern." When Chesterton said that he doubtless had in mind some of his own favorite authors—resolute originals like Dickens, Browning, Whitman, and Stevenson, who had little in common with the decadents fashionable in his youth, or with the modernists who succeeded them. Yet he might just as well have been describing his own work, for anti-modernity characterizes nearly everything Chesterton wrote from his paean to the local and the small and the limited in The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) to his celebration of holy reason in St. Thomas Aquinas (1933).
Of course, one of the paradoxes of Chesterton's work is that its distrust of modernity is what continues to make it modern. T.S. Eliot recognized this when he observed: "Even if Chesterton's social and economic ideas appear to be totally without effect, even if they should be demonstrated to be wrong—which would perhaps only mean that men have not had the goodwill to carry them out—they were the ideas for his time that were fundamentally Christian and Catholic. He did more … than any man of his time&hellip to maintain the existence of the important minority in the modern world."
In his brilliant study Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC 1874-1908, William Oddie revisits Chesterton's formative years to show how his critique of the modern culminated in Orthodoxy (1908), one of his finest books, in which he set out his distinctly Christian vision, celebrating God over nihilism, joy over despair, the common man over Superman, wonder over sophistry. Taking it as a given that, "We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome," Chesterton saw in the Christian tradition a means of acquiring that view by discovering the "romance of orthodoxy." "It is always easy to be a modernist," he wrote, "as it is easy to be a snob. To have ...