Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New Chesterton Biographies in The New Criterion

Last week I saw Father Ian Ker's new biography of Chesterton at Eighth Day Books (the greatest bookstore in the world, that's all, right here in Wichita, Kansas)*. It is a massive tome! Roger Kimball comments on Father Ian Ker's book and William Oddie's book, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy:

Some of his recent admirers have endeavored to fill the gap. A serious “Collected Works” by Ignatius Press got going in 1986 and, as of this writing, is nearing its fortieth stout volume. Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, William Oddie’s recent study of Chesterton’s development, and G. K. Chesterton, the new brick-like 750-page biography by Ian Ker, the authoritative biographer of Cardinal Newman, are models of academic diligence. These stately tomes are bulletins in what seems to be a renaissance of interest in (to adopt Oddie’s shorthand) GKC. Both make large claims for their subject. Cardinal Newman was canonized last year; why not Chesterton next? Ker nominates Chesterton as “the successor of the great Victorian ‘sages,’ and particularly Newman,” and suggests that we place him in the pantheon of English literary critics alongside Dr. Johnson, Matthew Arnold, and Ruskin.

I can envision Chesterton in a niche next to Dr. Johnson and Arnold; seeing him next to Newman is more difficult. Worldliness is not necessarily at odds with holiness; I wonder, though, about ruddiness. (Quoth Chesterton: “And Noah he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine/ ‘I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.’ ”) Chesterton was assuredly devout. But he fought as many social and political battles as he did literary or religious ones. And in that arena he did not always distinguish himself. One tort that has shadowed him for decades is the charge of anti-Semitism. Auden, in the preface to his anthology of Chesterton’s nonfictional prose, admits that, though he always enjoyed Chesterton’s poetry and fiction, he had avoided his nonfictional prose because of his reputation as an anti-Semite. Ker, in his extensive index, has a longish entry devoted to “Chesterton, anti-Semitism of, alleged.” The adjective is meant to be extenuating. Kerr’s (sic)conclusion is that “he was anti-Jewish just as he was anti-Prussian, but only in the sense that he associated Jews with capitalism and international finance, just as he associated Prussians with barbarism and military aggression.” Ker seems to regard this as an exoneration. I think Auden is right that Chesterton cannot be “completely exonerated.” . . .

Chesterton’s anti-Semitism shouldn’t be overstated. It existed, and was abetted by his brother and by Hilaire Belloc, who seemed to regard government corruption as a largely Jewish concession. But, as John Gross notes in his splendid pages on Chesterton in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, anti-Semitism did not obscure Chesterton’s “fundamental decency.” “He hated oppression; he belonged to the world before totalitarianism.” And it is also worth noting that he was one of the very first in England to attack Hitler and Hitlerism.

*Shameless promotion alert here/full disclosure: Eighth Day Books very kindly reviewed Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation when it came out and has included it in their annual catalog--

We present here a remarkable synthesis. At once a devout Catholic writing primarily but not exclusively for Catholics, a writer of limpid prose, and a skilled chronicler, Stephanie Mann shows how to write accurate and trustworthy history while unabashedly staking a claim about wrongs and rights and final judgment on matters. Her territory is the English Reformation and the subsequent fortunes of Catholics in England up through the twentieth century. It's a cavalcade of momentous persons and periods and movements, never losing its connecting thread of conflict between Church and State, and whether public order ever trumps freedom of faith and conscience. Find in this book vivid accounts of Henry VIII and the wives (three Catherines, two Anne's, and one Jane). There are lucid accounts of the reigns of Mary and her half-sister Elizabeth I, James VI, and Charles I. The English Civil War, the Puritans and Cromwell, and the Restoration are given due attention. But Mann isn't writing mere political history. She is at her best when describing the interfacing cultural and religious climates: the lukewarmness-dangerous to all sides-of the eighteenth century, the Oxford movement and conversion of Newman in the nineteenth, and the influence of literary and intellectual figures such as Chesterton, Benson, and Anscombe in the twentieth. With its extensive glossary of persons and terms, timeline of events, study questions and bibliography, Supremacy and Survival is a marvelous resource for teachers. But it is also a book for common readers, forcing the question to all of what kind of faith creates a willingness-sometimes even joyful willingness-to accept hanging, drawing and quartering and other hideous tortures, for its sake.

Also, I've worked at Eighth Day Books twice! (between full-time jobs)!


  1. I am indeed fortunate--it is a great bookstore. Their annual catalog is a treasure in itself!