A big man, physically and intellectually, British Catholic author Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) finally gets the big book he deserves.
Father Ian Ker, a writer and critic who authored a well-respected biography of Blessed John Henry Newman, among other books, has published a monumental study of the author of such apologetic classics as Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man and The Man Who Was Thursday.
However, Father Ker has a larger project in mind than just showing that Chesterton remains in many ways one of the most important Catholic literary figures of the last century. He makes a convincing case for Chesterton being simply an important literary figure. His criticism of writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens and others, Father Ker argues, places Chesterton in the first rank of English critics, while his detective stories, centered on the inimitable Father Brown, are solidly within the great English tradition. Chesterton, Father Ker writes, “should be seen as the obvious successor to Newman in view of their non-fiction works and indeed as a successor to the other great Victorian ‘sages’ ... specifically the other great non-fiction prose writers, Carlyle, Ruskin and Arnold.”
Yet, of course, Chesterton was the great Catholic writer of his age; his arguments for the truth of the faith and the reality of Catholic Europe remain as fresh and striking today as they did then. Father Ker vividly portrays Chesterton’s pre-convert life as the son of mildly Protestant parents in the London suburbs and his education as an art student. He also describes, using a wealth of public and private sources, Chesterton’s gradual conclusion that the Church represented not only the best of Western culture, but truth itself. This conclusion, which Chesterton had been arguing about publicly and privately for decades, led to his conversion in 1922.
Father Ker does a good job in rescuing Chesterton’s beloved wife, Frances, from behind her husband’s formidable shadow. He also devotes chapters to the significant points in Chesterton’s life, including his long relationship with the controversial Catholic critic and historian Hilaire Belloc, Chesterton’s trip to America (which he famously described as a “nation with the soul of a church”) and his long controversies with George Bernard Shaw and Robert Blatchford over the truth of religious belief.
A central theme of Chesterton’s work, both before and after he became a Catholic, was humor combined with a strong sense of the importance of imagination and the sense for limits. Humor expresses the inexpressible joy in and gratitude for existence itself. Limits for Chesterton — using that gift of paradox for which he was well known — were liberating and human rather than constricting. The limits imposed by dogma, for example, allowed a glimpse of the divine.
Thus, Chesterton championed small communities rather than large empires and small businesses rather than commercial empires, leading to one of his best-known aphorisms: “The patriot never, under any circumstances, boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of its smallness.”
Once he converted, Chesterton became the happy champion of Christendom, debating eugenicists, socialists, communists and capitalists with equal glee, all the while turning out book after book and some strong poetry, including his Ballad of the White Horse.
Out of this great intellectual and spiritual struggle come some of Chesterton’s greatest aphorisms and short sayings. Every Chestertonian has his favorite, and indeed there are whole books devoted to them. Father Ker quotes many of the more famous ones, and sometimes those not so well-known, at length.
Although any Chesterton text is better than none, the book would have benefited from another run through of the editor’s pen. It is clear that Father Ker’s affection for his subject sometimes relaxes his capacity to edit Chesterton. While understandable, sometimes one wishes for more interpretation.
Nevertheless, Father Ker’s book gives us a solid understanding of Chesterton’s lasting significance.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (KirkCenter.org).
By Ian Ker
Oxford University Press, 2011
To order: oup.com