Chesterton Everlasting

From the NR archives

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following book review by Evelyn Waugh of Garry Wills’s Chesterton: Man and Mask first appeared in the April 22, 1961, issue of National Review.

The publishers claim for Chesterton: Man and Mask that it is a book of which Chesterton would have approved. There is certainly nothing in it — except perhaps the disparagement of Belloc — likely to cause positive offense, but it has two features which might have displeased its subject. First, its genesis. It is the thesis for a doctorate. The writing of theses has become a very prominent part in the American educational process, not only by aspiring doctors but, it seems, at high schools. Research is no longer confined to recondite subjects and foreign texts; popular modern work is investigated with equal zeal and greater ease. The fashion bears hard on contemporary writers, particularly if they are Catholics, for there are not a great number of modern Catholic writers in English and it is natural for Catholic teachers to direct their pupils towards them. Even the dimmest are beset by importunate adolescents: “I have chosen you for English. Please tell me what first influenced you to write.” Chesterton did not live to suffer from the craze but he is a writer of the modern world to this extent, that it is a grave reproach to suppose that his work needs elucidation. A writer who cannot make his meaning clear to his own generation and their immediate successors is a bad writer. Chesterton, of all men of our times, wrote especially for the common man, repeating in clear language his simple, valuable messages.

A second cause which Chesterton might have for complaint, is Mr. Wills’s literary style. It is not uniformly bad. Indeed, again and again he shows himself capable of constructing a grammatical, even an elegant, sentence. But not always — and the jargon of the lecture room keeps slipping in — “existential,” “dialectic,” “normative,” “experiential,” “complementarity” — in a way which would have set the teeth, on edge in the head of the old journalist.

Chesterton was notoriously inaccurate; Mr. Wills thinks willfully so. He not only applauds but emulates this trait. It would be tedious to pick out all his errors. Let two suffice. He says that the author of the “Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine” wrote “nothing but the shortest poems.” In his brief account of the Marconi scandal he introduces three mysterious characters named “Isaac and Samuel Rufus and Henry Isaacs” whom the astute reader may tentatively identify as Rufus and Godfrey Isaacs and Herbert Samuel.

These criticisms made, one can turn to Mr. Wills’s virtues. He is a young man without the dandyism proper to his years, but he is also free of adolescent prurience. The title Man and Mask raised apprehensions of an attempt at exposure. It has become commonly accepted nowadays that any man’s idiosyncrasies of appearance or manner are a disguise deliberately adopted to conceal some fear or vice. Persona is one of the cant terms of modem criticism, and modern critics regard it as their function, to strip their subject of its protective mask. They should take notice of Max Beerbohm’s Happy Hypocrite. The mask, the style, is the man.

Mr. Wills to his great credit shows no inclination to expose Chesterton. There are questions which do titillate curiosity: What, if any, were his homosexual adventures at the Slade? To what extent, if at all, was he ever in danger of becoming a serious drunkard? The obesity which he bore like a panache must have been morbid. The physical health of an artist, like his financial means, is something which a critic may reasonably consider an influence on his work. How much was Chesterton, how much Belloc, really driven by financial need to the over-production which oppressed them both? How much was it the product of a nervous restlessness and sloth? For profusion can be slothful. It requires more effort to do a small thing really well than do many things carelessly. Mr. Wills, with commendable restraint, denies himself the investigation of these problems. He concerns himself very little with the events and circumstances of Chesterton’s life. He has contented himself with a study of his written work and has been assiduous in pursuing it in all its huge ephemeral bulk.

There used (and I daresay there still is) to be a company of ladies at the Hollywood film studios whose task it was to tell stories to the directors and producers who lacked the aptitude of reading. They used to peruse all the literature of their time, contemporary and classic, and spin a comprehensive yarn to the assembled company. Now and then they would strike a spark from those flinty imaginations and a voice would proclaim: “That’s for me. Go buy it.”

Mr. Wills has performed a similar service for Chesterton. He has read everything and he presents us with a conscientious, if clumsy, précis. He begins his book by suggesting some questions that require solution. He then plods through his work taking it, book by book, poem by poem, essay by essay, and telling us what it is about. At the end he honestly admits failure. “This book,” he admits, “opened with a series of questions which, when I wrote the first pages, I hoped in some measure to answer. Now I know that is impossible.”

As a small boy I possessed a book called The Conjuror at Home which opened with the valuable advice: “Never tell your audience in advance what you propose to do. It may not come off.” Mr. Wills might have heeded this advice. If he had said in his opening chapter: “I propose to read everything Chesterton ever wrote and prove that I have done so,” we should have applauded his stamina. If his examiners merely require evidence of hard reading, he deserved his doctorate cum laude, for Chesterton’s output was vast, as is also (it comes as a surprise to this reviewer to learn) the volume of critical studies written about him. It is hard to conceive that Mr. Wills’s exegesis will greatly illumine the general reader.

For him, as for this reviewer, Chesterton is primarily the author of The Everlasting Man. In that book all his random thoughts are concentrated and refined; all his aberrations made straight. It is a great, popular book, one of the few really great popular books of the century; the triumphant assertion that a book can be both great and popular. And it needs no elucidation. It is brilliantly clear. It met a temporary need and survives as a permanent monument. Besides this, Chesterton wrote a number of memorable and delightful verses, notably Lepanto. He was a lovable and much loved man abounding in charity and humility. Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist. It is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice — all the odious qualities — which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy, renew, his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed. And in doing so he enriches the world more than the generous and good, though he may lose his own soul in the process. That is the paradox of artistic achievement.

It was a happy chance that Chesterton lived before the era of television. His gifts, his amiability, his very simple eccentricities would have tempted him to become one of the great performers on that damning machine. He lived on the edge of the chasm. Men still had to express themselves in writing until Chesterton was too well habituated to literature to learn new tricks. Living today his words would be lost, his prestige prodigious and his renown brief.

— Evelyn Waugh was an English journalist and novelist. This article first appeared in the April 22, 1961, issue of National Review.


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