David Paul Deavel
A prophet is never welcome in his own hometown. For a long time after the tumult of the Sixties, G. K. Chesterton's writings seemed to have lost a welcome anywhere, except, perhaps, among the detective fiction enthusiasts who have kept the Father Brown tales in circulation continuously on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Denis J. Conlon, an English literary scholar who has specialized in Chesterton for many years, much of Chesterton's work is still out of print and hard-to-get in his own merry England. A friend of mine studying in Rome a few years ago told me that the English and Irish Catholic seminarians he met almost universally regarded Chesterton a pre-modern, pre-Vatican II embarrassment. The situation was about the same in America for a long time. As of 1985 there were probably fewer than ten of Chesterton's books in print, and those were, aside from his detective fiction, mostly published by small and often obscure Catholic presses.
The situation was bound to change, however, as this particular prophet still had his faithful remnant, about thirty-five of whom (at most) met throughout the Eighties and early Nineties in Milwaukee every year and exchanged news and views in a little rag called the Midwest Chesterton News. On the more scholarly side, Ian Boyd, a priest and literary scholar, had since 1974 been running the Chesterton Review, a literary quarterly that printed forgotten pieces by Chesterton as well as scholarly essays on his life, thought, and interlocutors. Ignatius Press, a small but growing outfit run by Joseph Fessio, SJ (one of Joseph Ratzinger's doctoral students), decided to publish a collected works with scholarly introductions and footnotes that will eventually number roughly 50 volumes. And newly emerging publications like Crisis, New Oxford Review, and First Things quoted Chesterton incessantly and sometimes ran articles about him. He even began popping up in Christianity Today, where he had fans in Philip Yancey and Charles Colson.
Here one might briefly note the role of Christian rock in the revival of Chesterton in America. One of the younger people traveling to Milwaukee in those lean years was a young Baptist named Dale Ahlquist. While in college in the late Seventies, Ahlquist spent some time at the home of his sister and then brother-in-law working for the summer. His sister's husband, the so-called godfather of Christian rock, was the late Larry Norman. Norman found Ahlquist reading a book by C. S. Lewis and asked if he was familiar with Chesterton. Upon discovering that he wasn't, Norman cryptically remarked that after reading Chesterton one doesn't even "need" Lewis anymore.
Ahlquist didn't immediately read Chesterton. But three years later he brought The Everlasting Man to read on his honeymoon trip (no giggling, please—his wife brought Les Misérables). Ahlquist's love of Chesterton was born shortly thereafter. After several years with the Midwest Chesterton Society, Ahlquist spotted a need. In 1996 he founded the American Chesterton Society (ACS) as an umbrella group to help local societies share resources far beyond the Milwaukee range. The Midwest Chesterton News gave way to Gilbert: The Magazine of G. K. Chesterton (now Gilbert Magazine; I am, full disclosure, a contributing editor). After a late-Nineties appearance on EWTN, the Catholic television network, to talk about his own recent conversion to Catholicism, Ahlquist and Chesterton impersonator John C. "Chuck" Chalberg began the "G. K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense" show on the same network (a show which has been reviewed favorably in The New York Times of all places). By 2001, ACS had become a full-time job for Ahlquist, who was speaking all over the United States and increasingly beyond. The annual Milwaukee meetings had moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, and by 2008 attendance topped seven hundred. The number of local groups grows annually: recent kick-offs include societies in Boston and Atlanta. Chesterton references abound, from Ravi Zacharias in his Veritas Forums to Christopher Hitchens' Atlantic reviews to Mike Huckabee's speeches. In 2008, the centennial of Orthodoxy and The Man Who Was Thursday, The New Yorker featured a critically admiring piece by Adam Gopnik. Not letting le hyperpower get a step ahead, the Parisian quarterly L'Atelier du Roman devoted their entire fall 2008 issue to Chesterton ("Le dieu bien tempéré de Chesterton"). Chesterton books in print now number over eighty, many containing material never before collected. It's not just Catholic presses doing all the lifting, either. Reformation Press put out annotated editions of Orthodoxy and Heretics. GKC's return to prominence seems nearly complete, at least in America and maybe France.
"Nearly" is the key word. As the above may indicate, Chesterton's return has been—appropriately, considering he died in 1936—from the ground up. Academic attention to Chesterton has been almost nonexistent, due in part to his Catholic Christian fervor and in part to his rejection of the literary modernism that has been sacrosanct in academic circles for so long. Chesterton's "transgressive" tendencies simply transgress the wrong orthodoxies. Some say he put a jolly, boozy, smoky halo around Christianity. One wonders which part of this halo was most offensive. Who, Plato might have asked, can successfully transgress the transgressors?
The answer, according to Adam Schwartz (whose father, the late Joseph Schwartz, founded the journal Renascence and was one of the central figures in the Milwaukee Chesterton days), is that in the early 20th century, Christians, in particular Roman Catholics, did do so quite thoroughly—and were recognized by everyone, secularists included. In The Third Spring: G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson & David Jones (CUA Press, 2005), Schwartz chronicles the spiritual journeys of four prominent Roman Catholic converts, seeing their rebellion in the context of their conversions to a mode of Catholicism he refers to as the "Italianate model": "hierarchical, focused on the papacy, and acutely conscious of its separation from the British mainstream." While the four figures were different in temperament and work, Schwartz studies in depth their common faith and their fight against modern, secular life.
Schwartz, a historian by training, is not merely a capable scholar, but seems to have read everything by and about each of his subjects without succumbing to the temptation to load his text and footnotes with extraneous undigested research notes. What he does include is often fascinating, such as Hannah Arendt's 1945 declaration in The Nation that "as far as polemics go these Catholic converts or neo-Catholics have come out as victors." He clearly shares the general outlook of his subjects without special pleading. His style is scholarly without the attendant jargon and bloating, lively without flippancy, and at times clever. He refers to "these self-styled guerrillas of grace" sharpening their spiritual and imaginative swords "on the rock of Peter, hoping that what they considered their contemporary crusades would make them swords of honor."
This last phrase, an allusion to Evelyn Waugh's war trilogy, brings up one major criticism. Schwartz's chapter on Graham Greene is an intriguing attempt at understanding a man nobody seems to understand, perhaps even the intrepid Norman Sherry. But he strains too far in arguing that Greene maintained a lifelong "fundamental orthodoxy." Schwartz buys into Greene's claim that what he had lost were simply "beliefs" (which concerned "propositions about the transcendent") while his "faith," a matter of "metarational experience," had continued to grow. The later Greene, denying doctrines left and right while continuing his compulsive promiscuity and persistently weird leftish pontificating, seems almost a parody of modern liberal Catholicism, despite his affection for the Tridentine Latin Mass. Catholic? Yes. Orthodox? Hardly. Schwartz eschews Waugh because of his personal "eccentricity," but Waugh, whose artistry was arguably greater and his eccentricity largely posing, should have been the fourth in this party.
Chesterton, a half-generation older than the others and an inspiration to all of them, dominates the book. The chapter on Chesterton renders moot James Thompson's 15-year-old judgment that Chesterton's spiritual biography "has yet to be written." It may not be the final word, but Schwartz puts together all the pieces of Chesterton's religious thought and shows how they shaped his cultural criticism in a way not done before. Chesterton's conversions, to theism, Christianity, and finally Catholicism, are viewed as an "unfolding" without blurring the events, people, and "careful, often anguished, deliberation" that accompanied each phase. Schwartz also corrects many of the long-perpetuated mistakes in Chesterton's biography, such as the idea that Chesterton's youthful spiritual crisis was more attributable to loneliness in London than to the nihilistic ethos he encountered. Schwartz persuasively argues that Chesterton's beliefs and cultural criticism were rational, not simply reactions to adolescent trauma.
Mark Knight's Chesterton and Evil (Fordham University Press, 2004) similarly sees Chesterton's career as a unified whole, but focuses on his earlier fiction. The book progresses through the Father Brown stories and the other novels, but each chapter feels like a warm-up until we arrive at chapter four's discussion of The Man Who Was Thursday. Chesterton's privative view of evil and his literary decision to always show it for the nothing it is explains part of his rejection by the modernists. Knight chooses to view Chesterton in the company of writers like Wells, Conrad, and Kafka, comparisons that bring amusing small insights. But Knight, unlike Schwartz, has a much more soporific academic prose and attempts some contemporary philosophical references that look like filler. In the end, this is a book one consults rather than reads.
One suggestion from Knight is particularly welcome: look at Chesterton's early fiction more seriously. That has been made easier by Ignatius' twenty-fifth volume: Collected Works Vol. VII: The Ball and The Cross, Manalive, The Flying Inn (2004). Iain Benson's introduction, more readable than Knight, establishes Chesterton's approach to evil in these "novels of inconvenience": laugh at it.
One sees that same approach in Chesterton's Early Poetry (Inklings Books, 2004). Michael Perry introduces this collection of Greybeards at Play, The Wild Knight and Other Poems, and The Ballad of the White Horse by noting Auden's judgment that Greybeards "has some of the best pure nonsense verse in English" and that Chesterton was "essentially a comic poet." Indeed, even in the most "serious" poem in the collection, The Ballad of the White Horse, one hears Chesterton responding through King Alfred to his secular, academic critics, "mild as monkish clerks" (l. 257), who will one day be "ordering all things with dead words" (l. 254). Whether the academy notices or not, jolly GKC's words still live.
David Paul Deavel is an associate editor of LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and a contributing editor to Gilbert Magazine.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culturemagazine.
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