By Ian Ker
Oxford University Press, 2011
747 pages, $65
To order: oup.com
A big man, physically and intellectually, Gilbert Keith Chesterton finally gets the big book he deserves. Father Ian Ker, who wrote a well-respected biography of Newman, among other books, has published a monumental study of the British Catholic author.
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, 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 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 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.
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.
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.