G. K. Chesterton: A Biography
Oxford University Press, 2011
736 pp., $65.00
Ralph C. Wood
Chesterton vs. Hitchens
The enfant terrible of the New Atheism, Christopher Hitchens, spent his dying days in a Houston hospital reading G. K. Chesterton—not only the 750 pages of Ian Ker's massive recent biography, but also an equivalent amount of GKC's own poetry and prose. The novelist Ian McEwan, who was at Hitchens' bedside before his death in December 2011, reports that they spoke of various writers: Theodore Dreiser, Robert Browning, Thomas Mann, George Orwell, Philip Larkin. McEwan also reports that Hitchens died nobly and without complaint at age 62, though ravaged by esophageal cancer that deprived him of his most important gift: the spoken word. Yet there was no last-minute conversion. On the contrary, Hitchins seems never to have felt the sting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's aphorism that Chesterton often cited: "The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank." Gratitude to his wife and many friends seem to have sufficed for Hitchens.
Even so, he was reading huge chunks of Chesterton at the end. I suspect that "Hitch," as his friends called him, was not only fulfilling his promise to write a 3000-word review of Ker's book for the Atlantic. (Titled "The Reactionary," the review was posthumously published in the March 2012 issue.) He was also settling scores with his bête noire. Far from granting him the generous farewell of a dying man to a worthy opponent long dead, Hitchens bid Chesterton a bitter parting word. His review is so acerbic and dismissive that one cannot but suspect that our most celebrated public atheist may have been overcompensating—as if he had a secret wish that Chesterton might have been right. "There are days," he wrote in God Is Not Great, "when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb."
Any serious assessment of Ker's huge book must come to terms with Hitchens' damning conclusion that "when [Chesterton] was charming, he was also deeply unserious and frivolous …; when he was serious, ...