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How Big He Is

by David Paul Deavel
G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, by Ian Ker (Oxford, 747 pp., $65)

Chesterton wrote that, in a great biography, “the book vanishes and the man remains; not the man who wrote the book, but the man about whom it was written.” In the case of Boswell’s Johnson, the subject “remained” precisely because Boswell was “the first who discovered that in biography the suppression of a man’s faults did not merely wreck truth, but wrecked his virtues.” I suspect Chesterton would have approved of Ian Ker’s new biography of him for these reasons.

There has been no lack of popular books about Chesterton since his death, including a number of decent biographies, particularly those by Maisie Ward, Michael Ffinch, Dudley Barker, Michael Coren, and Joseph Pearce. As Ker notes, because of Ward’s access to Chesterton’s contemporaries and many papers that were destroyed during World War II, the “principal source for Chesterton’s life” remains her 1944 biography (along with its 1952 sequel, Return to Chesterton). As William Oddie noted three years ago in his study of Chesterton’s early intellectual development, an “academic embargo against recognition of Chesterton’s stature remains in place.” Oddie’s Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy and Ker’s biography, both published by Oxford University Press, thus mark a new stage in both the recognition of Chesterton’s literary stature and the critical study of his thought.

Ker has some distinct advantages in writing about Chesterton. As the world’s leading authority on John Henry Newman — his 1988 biography of Newman is the standard — and a scholar deep in both English literature and theology, Ker is supremely capable of locating Chesterton’s thought amid that of his contemporaries as well as evaluating it critically. Ker “discovered” Chesterton when he was working on The Catholic Revival in English Literature 1845–1961 (2003). Ker’s digging more deeply into Chesterton’s corpus for that book revealed to him parallels with and influence by Newman. He also “realized that Chesterton was a much bigger figure than either I or the academic world that I knew was aware.” The resulting biography is thus not only what Ker claims is “the first full-length intellectual and literary life of Chesterton,” but a serious argument for Chesterton’s “rightful position as the successor of the great Victorian ‘sages,’ and particularly Newman.”

In seeking to establish Chesterton’s rightful place, Ker fulfils Chesterton’s desire for biography that presents faults as well as virtues. By referring to Chesterton as a “sage,” Ker is borrowing John Holloway’s term for the great prose writers of the 19th century: among them, Carlyle and Matthew Arnold. By doing so, Ker shows how he thinks Chesterton must be promoted by those who want him (literarily) canonized. Though he wrote a handful of good serious poems as well as some wonderful satirical and nonsense verse, Chesterton was not a major poet. Nor was he, despite The Man Who Was Thursday, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and his detective fiction, a major novelist. The mark of his greatness is found instead in his literary criticism, his philosophical and theological apologetics, and his Autobiography.

Ker argues that Chesterton goes unrecognized as a literary critic because he wrote more about prose than about poetry, and he wrote best on the sages to whom Ker compares him. In The Victorian Age in Literature, Chesterton’s genius for appreciating the ironies of figures such as the medievalist Ruskin (“he set up and worshipped all the arts and trophies of the Catholic Church as a rival to the Church itself”) and the apostle of “culture” Matthew Arnold (“some may suspect that culture was a man, whose name was Matthew Arnold”) show Chesterton at his most powerful and personally involved. In Charles Dickens, considered by no less than T. S. Eliot “the best essay on that author that has ever been written,” Chesterton argued, in a time in which it was unfashionable, for the superior quality of Dickens’s fictional creations over those of Victorian novelists considered his betters. “He is not come, as a writer, that his creatures may copy life and copy its narrowness; he is come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”

The mock-scriptural line points to an aspect of Chesterton’s thought and rhetoric unappreciated by some of his best critics, namely the importance of humor. For Chesterton the opposite of funny was not “serious,” but “not funny,” and his apologetic works, including Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Francis, contain what Ker calls a “mini-philosophy, not to say mini-theology, of laughter.” Chesterton saw the “road to international friendship” as consisting largely in understanding another nation’s jokes. After his first American tour, he concluded that the humor of Americans was in making “life more wild and impossible than it is” while British humor rendered life “more flat and farcical than it is.” Perhaps Bob Newhart and Monty Python are the emblems of 20th-century Anglo-American cultural cross-fertilization.    

Chesterton early on argued for the theological roots of laughter: “Why do we laugh? Because it is a grave religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.” In one poem he opined that the secret of the Cross was the laughter of God. And correspondingly, the “test of a good religion” is “whether you can joke about it.” While Islam had a rational and logical character to it, it did not seem to be a religion to joke about.

Islam’s unhumorous quality was not the only thing going against it. Chesterton’s defense of Christianity was based on its completeness. Like Newman in what some have called his “cumulative” case, Chesterton defended Christianity against Islam, and Catholicism (even as an Anglican) against Protestantism, on the basis not of simplicity of argument but of complexity: If the world itself is a complex thing with complex problems, then the complexity of Christian faith and theology will match it. The complex Trinitarian creed “breeds thoughts” such as the “sharp combination of liberty and limitation which we call choice.” In Islam, Chesterton said, liberty was left off; in liberal Protestantism and secularism, limitation was, as intellectuals hewed to what Thomas Sowell would later call “the unconstrained vision.” The latter vision led and leads to tyrannies soft and hard, as Chesterton’s struggle against the early-20th-century eugenics movement shows.

While penetrating about many of the negative aspects of modern liberalism, Chesterton was not always accurate or wise in his political views and rhetoric. Before his death in 1936, he correctly predicted the onslaught of World War II. But concerning the Marconi scandal, a case of insider trading that took place in Asquith’s government, and for which Chesterton’s brother Cecil was sued for libel, Ker notes that Chesterton’s conclusion — that its outcome showed there was no difference between the political parties — was demonstrably false. Ker also judges that Chesterton’s rhetoric about the Jews as a people was unwise, though not anti-Semitic, as many of his critics have averred. Though rejecting all biological racialism, he was in fact a Zionist who believed that the Jews were a separate people and deserved a homeland and, in foreign countries, “some sort of self-governing enclave with special laws and exemptions.” Their tendency to be involved in what Chesterton considered the dirty business of international trade and finance was due to the fact that Jews had no homeland of their own — an excuse Prussians, Englishmen, and Americans did not have. This may all be impractical, naïve, or false, but it is not, in my view, anti-Semitic; the question remains open for discussion.

In this context, it sounds clichéd to say individual Jews were some of Chesterton’s best friends, but, as any biography of Chesterton shows, everybody seemed to be among Chesterton’s best friends. At London’s St. Paul’s School, Chesterton’s boyhood Junior Debating Club was one-third Jewish, and Chesterton remained close to each member his entire life. Chesterton found friends among those who agreed and disagreed with him on all topics. Unlike Hilaire Belloc, in whose controversies Chesterton lamented a “sundering quality,” he never failed to separate the opinions from the persons. H. G. Wells said that if his “Atheology” were mistaken, he would “be able to pass into Heaven . . . as a friend of G.K.C.” If Chesterton’s politics are not uniformly useful for modern conservatives, Chesterton’s ability to argue without descending to quarrels, always with a joke and a smile ready, is a necessity.

Unfortunately, Ker’s volume is riddled with typos and, perhaps necessarily in a book this size, repetition and dry chronicling, but, as with the faults it displays in its subject, this does nothing to wreck its virtues. I have largely skipped over the personal side of Chesterton’s life, but this has been done fairly well before: Ker fills in and corrects details. What his biography adds is a judicious critical eye that will help make the case that Chesterton is bigger than the keepers of culture have allowed. Chesterton will remain. My guess is, the book will, too.

– Mr. Deavel is an associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and a contributing editor of Gilbert Magazine.