I have had for many years a great ambivalence toward G. K. Chesterton: I enjoyed his works back when I read most of them (which was decades ago) but have since found his too-often-quoted bons mots irritating in their appropriation by lesser men, for lesser causes. You know what I mean: The “Prophet Chesterton” warned us against gays/feminists/Muslims/liberals/etc. I can imagine a perfectly decent and intelligent person thinking Oscar Wilde shallow, for similar reasons: He was after all a great man, not reducible to his quips and his political usefulness to the present day. (It rather reminds me of the commonplace, “I like Elvis OK, it’s just his fan club I have a problem with.”) So I have found the terrific new biography of Chesterton by Ian Ker an excellent corrective, because it gives us a portrait of the man in full, in which his personal faults and various opinions find a helpful context.
Even when defending Chesterton on a disputed point, Ker gives the reader enough information to come to his or her own conclusions. Take, for example, the notorious question of whether GKC was an anti-Semite. Ker quotes from a 1911 Chesterton letter: “Jews (being landless) unnaturally alternate between too much power and too little . . . the Jew millionaire is too safe and the Jew pedlar too harassed . . . I don’t mind how fiercely you fight for the pedlar.” One can say that in these words there is more a class bias than a race bias, but talk of a “Jew millionaire” being “too safe” is, to my ears, too close to the recent Norwegian headline Jay pointed out a few days ago: “Rich Jews Threaten Obama.” Ker also quotes a passage from Chesterton’s 1935 book The Well and the Shallows: “The Jews are now being jumped on very unjustly in Germany,” with the result that Chesterton and Belloc, “who began in the days of Jewish omnipotence by attacking the Jews, will now probably die defending them.” So Chesterton opposed the policies of the Nazis, and was willing to fight them, which put him ahead of many people in the England of 1935; but he spoke of “the days of Jewish omnipotence,” a puzzling era to which I find no reference in serious history books. Can anybody help me as to when exactly that era was? The upshot of the quote, then, is that Chesterton was a decent and kind man who opposed Nazism, but had a certain attitude toward the Jews that was unfortunate. Whether it was anti-Semitism or not depends on rather complicated issues of taxonomy; someone who said that sort of thing today would almost certainly be an anti-Semite, but in the context of the virulent common prejudices of 1935 it might have been more excusable. (One of the most commonly quoted Chesterton mots is, “The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” This system was evidently not, in Chesterton’s case, fail-safe.)
I mention this in detail to get the unpleasantness out of the way first; it’s well-known, after all, that anti-Semitism is the most serious rap against Chesterton these days. But read the 729 pages of this book, and you will see that his faults are the concomitant of his virtues. He was a Romantic, who loved sharp lines and bright colors, and devoured the world as only a genuine lover would. In his enthusiasm he sometimes bit off more than he could chew, and ended up getting some things wrong. But as a percentage of the staggering volume of words he generated, what he got wrong was relatively small. And what comes through most vividly in the book is Chesterton’s overall decency: I think most people will come away from a reading of this book with a sense that it is a great thing to look at the created world from the standpoint of Chesterton. From there — as from any other given angle — you will see some things wrong or out of proportion; but you will be consumed by gratitude for the gift of existence in all its diversity, and, most likely, end up reaching out for Someone to thank for it.
NB. The only review of this book I have read so far manages to get it spectacularly wrong, in one important regard. The London Telegraph’s review ends as follows:
By the time page 700 is reached, with its summary of the Chestertons’ final trip abroad (“They met on the quay in Calais. They arrived in Amiens on the evening of the 10th. Next day they left for Rouen . . .”) it becomes clear that this book has done what should have been impossible: it makes Chesterton sound boring.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. I read this review before reading the book, and so I picked up the book with great trepidation, expecting a tedious chronicle of names and dates and personal trivia. To my surprise and delight, I found that the passage quoted by the Telegraph reviewer was far from representative. Any biography of this size is bound to have some elements of dry, encyclopedic chronology; but in Ker’s book, they are far more the exception than the rule. On just about every page, one will find extended quotes from Chesterton, of the kind that display his personality and overall joie de vivre. The author made me rediscover my early love of Chesterton and his perspective on the world, and for that I am deeply grateful.