Calling Out Chesterton
At the risk of being labeled a heretic, I must confess that to my mind there’s something not quite right with G. K. Chesterton. I assume that many in this audience would strike the virtual match to my imagined pyre, and I would not blame them. Who am I to criticize one of the great thinkers, writers, and Catholic apologists of the 20th century, and possibly any century? I wonder myself what I am setting out to accomplish here; I know only that every time I read Chesterton, which I have done over and over for more than 30 years to great benefit, I feel that I am being held hostage by a writer who is too smart for me, too convincing for all but the most skeptical, as well as too stylish, too humorous, too incisive, and too . . . In short, he does everything a great writer should do except give his reader enough room to breathe.
If you’re like me, reading Chesterton periodically and in long stretches over many days, you may know what I mean. So strong is his literary persona that you are persuaded not just to agree with him, you are tempted to be him as well. I knew a few students in college who took on a Chestertonian aura, complete with tweed, pipe, and nascent English accent, and would say things like “That’s precisely what G.K. is not saying” to some unsuspecting debate mate. That was decades ago, and I have no idea if Chesterton still holds sway on campus these days—even Catholic ones.
But if he doesn’t, that may not be as sad as it would seem. Why ruin Chesterton by assigning him in some survey of 20th-century literature? Or cramming him into a full theology or philosophy curriculum? He is an acquired taste, best discovered by the lifelong learner after college, when other great thinkers have been explored and you are looking for more than ideas, more even than meaning. It is when you are seeking a worldly guide who possesses both the insight of an elder and the innocence of a child—that’s where G.K. comes in.
And he comes in with a fully developed worldview that can capture and enrapture not only your mind but also your manner. If you find yourself thinking in perfectly measured prose, with the first clause seeming to deny something obvious while the next affirms something even more obvious, you’ve been “GK’d.” If you begin lamenting that you never lived in a fairyland of Chesterton’s description yet suddenly begin talking about the deep, culture-forming meaning of nursery rhymes, you’ve been “GK’d.” If you harbor a native sentiment for the underdog, mouth sly English puns that don’t quite make sense in America, show a passion for pubs and grub, and carry a walking stick because it’s witty and distinguished and maybe even attracts the ladies, you’ve been “GK’d.” The more developed Chestertonians may also argue for “distributism” over capitalism and land leagues over corporatism, all the while speaking longingly of the idyllic days before England’s meadows were fenced and her paupers forced into cities.
To be fair, we cannot hold Chesterton responsible for all of the excesses that his writing and persona engender. Still, I do bring one trenchant charge against him: He wrote so well and so widely, with such a force of personality and with such popularity (in his own day and ours), he should have foreseen the caricature he was forming. He built his own boat and served not only as captain and crew, but his wild-haired, bespeckled visage also formed the figurehead jutting from the bow. He sailed his own Chesterton, on seas that he imagined and made rough, with “ayes” to all his orders and a galley filled with fine English fare, if there were such a thing. He was the embodiment of sui generis, chronologically but never temperamentally part of the great Catholic literary movement of the 20th century that gathered in its sweep Hillaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Joyce Kilmer, J. F. Powers, Walker Percy, and Thomas Merton. Chesterton doesn’t stand so much above as beyond the ambit of these other great Catholic writers. They all had their talents, their topics, and their audiences, but none wrote so thoroughly outside himself as to encompass with genius Don John fighting with heavenly aid at the pivotal sea battle of Lepanto and Father Brown solving murder mysteries with priestly insight into human nature.
Chesterton should have known, with that prescient, all-seeing eye, what his admirers would do with him—forming societies and conferences and scooping up every stray word and opinion that a wise editor might have held back. Just as he saw the succession of his century’s lethal ideologies, and called out tyranny at home and abroad, so he should have seen the excesses of flattery his latter-day followers would afford him. Of all the men of his times, he was likely the only one who could have withheld a shred of genius for the common good, and he did not. Then again, maybe he did, and is enjoying the last laugh on the likes of me. Maybe he gave his readers more breathing room than they know. In any event, I should probably be happy for the G.K. we have rather than the one I’d wish for.
Well done, Gilbert.