May 20, 2013
A Writer for All Time
Posted on Sep 30, 2011
By Allen Barra
His influence has emerged in the most unlikely places: a young Czech writer, Franz Kafka, thought Chesterton “so happy that one might almost believe he had found God.” Neil Gaiman, the most popular graphic novelist in the world, paid him homage with the character Gilbert in his “Sandman” series.
For me, the problem with “G.K. Chesterton, A Biography” is that I don’t think Ker cares all that much about Chesterton’s relevance to the modern age. The question inevitably arises: Was Chesterton, by our standards, a conservative or a liberal?
Our standards, I’m afraid, would have elicited nothing but contempt from him. As he wrote in an essay in 1929, “The business of the Progressives is to go on making mistakes, while the business of Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” The real problem with conservatism, he thought, is that it is “based upon the idea that if you leave things alone, you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone, you leave it to a torrent of change.” If forced to choose, he probably would have opted for traditionalist: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”
He was a witty and unsparing critic of both socialism and capitalism; he actually wrote for a socialist paper, The Daily Herald, for a time because the editors gave him the freedom to attack socialism in front of a readership prepared to disagree with him.
It was, however, his criticism of capitalism that earned him some of his most fervent friends and enemies and has kept him at arm’s length from modern conservatism. As GKC famously wrote, “Modernity is not democracy; machinery is not democracy, the surrender of everything to trade and commerce is not democracy. Capitalism is not democracy; and is admittedly, by trend and savour, rather against democracy. Plutocracy by definition is not democracy.” Unlike his conservative friends, he made a sharp distinction between private enterprise and private property: “A pickpocket is obviously a champion of private enterprise, but it would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that a pickpocket is a champion of private property.”
G. K. Chesterton: A Biography
By Ian Ker
Oxford University Press, 688 pages
The Everyman Chesterton
By G.K. Chesterton (Author), Ian Ker (Editor, Introduction)
Everyman’s Library, 952 pages
Chesterton’s definition of patriotism often conflicted with that of his contemporary, Rudyard Kipling (both died in 1936). The poet laureate of the British Empire, Kipling was contemptuous of his native country; Chesterton, the apostle of smallness, loathed the empire—he opposed the Boer War and was outspoken for Irish independence—while loving England with a passion that would have made Dickens blush. Ker quotes a contemporary: “He knew nothing so vulgar as that contempt for vulgarity which sneers at the clerks on bank holiday or the Cockneys on Margate sands.”
Unfortunately for the 21st century, Chesterton never truly developed his political philosophy, Distributism, beyond his 1926 book, “The Outline of Sanity,” which advocated the spreading of wealth—attention, President Obama!—through simple measures such as boycotting big stores and creating laws geared to the establishment of small shops.
William F. Buckley loved Chesterton the Catholic but not the progressive thinker; in his recent memoir, “Outside Looking In,” Garry Wills recalls that “when [Buckley] asked me at our first meeting if I was a conservative, I said, ‘Is a Distributist a conservative?’ Buckley replied, ‘Alas, no.’ ” (By the way, Wills’ 1961 book “Chesterton,” remains one of the best analyses of Chesterton’s political and economic thought. I’m hoping that Wills will follow up and elaborate on Chesterton’s political and economic ideas.)
None of GKC’s political writings nor his fiction, except for an excellent selection of the “Father Brown” stories, is represented in “The Everyman Chesterton.” The anthology is nearly as long as the biography, and considering that it contains thick portions of his hard-to-find studies—“Dickens,” “The Victorian Age in Literature,” “The Everlasting Man,” “Orthodoxy ” and “St. Thomas Aquinas”—“The Everyman Chesterton” is a terrific bargain. Two out-of-print but easy to find earlier collections—“The Man Who Was Chesterton” (1960) and “A Chesterton Anthology” (1985, selected and introduced by P.J. Kavanagh)—are, to my mind, more rounded expressions of Chesterton’s genius (for one thing, both contain numerous excerpts from his critical essays and political journalism).
Both “G.K. Chesterton, A Biography” and “The Everyman Chesterton” will be huge favorites of any lover of the man. What is less likely is that they will make Chesterton lovers of novices. However readers choose to make their entrances into the world of GKC, they are advised to jump in. But be wary: The pool is very big. Our greatest living cultural critic, Clive James, wrote in “Cultural Amnesia,” “My shelves containing Chesterton still outdistance my shelves containing Edmund Wilson, but with Wilson I know my way around almost to the inch, whereas there are cubic feet of Chesterton’s output where I can’t find my way back to something I noticed earlier. …” James also said, “Catching up with Chesterton’s prose is the work of a lifetime. He wrote a lot faster than most of us can read.”
Try the above mentioned anthologies or, for that matter, any book by Chesterton. “If a key fits a lock,” he wrote in “Orthodoxy,” “you know it is the right key.”
Allen Barra is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post Book World, and Bookforum and a contributing writer for American Heritage and The Village Voice.
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