Book Reviews - Autumn 2011

A Chesterton With No Flab

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A new anthology often obscures the writer’s best work

By Garry Wills

August 25, 2011


 

The Everyman Chesterton, By G. K. Chesterton; edited by Ian Ker, Everyman’s Library, 952 pp., $30

Last spring British author Ian Ker, best known for his biography of John Henry Newman, dropped two great doorstops on the public threshold—a 700-page biography of G. K. Chesterton and this 900-page anthology of Chesterton’s own writings. Some British reviewers of the biography reacted as if it were thumped down on their toes. They found it too inclusive in its material and too narrow in its focus. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst concluded his review for The Telegraph, “This book has done what should have been impossible: it makes Chesterton sound boring.” D. J. Taylor in The Independent said that Ker’s omnium-gatherum of all things Chesterton hid “the really striking contribution he [Chesterton] made to early 20th-century letters.”

As if responding to the call for a more selective approach to Chesterton’s vast and windy output, Ker promises in his anthology to concentrate on “the lesser-known Chesterton.” Then he gives us much of the best-known Chesterton—16 Father Brown stories, the complete Orthodoxy and Charles Dickens (with minor excisions), and the poem “Lepanto.” Of books that might be considered rarer (but only slightly), he gives us, complete (again with a few cuts), The Everlasting Man and St. Thomas Aquinas, along with three of the four chapters in The Victorian Age in Literature, and two chapters from the Autobiography. He justifies the two Autobiography chapters by saying it is “in the same class as Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua and Ruskin’s Praeterita”—a manifest absurdity. Chesterton’s late book is a perfunctory glide over externals, while the other two books dig deep into their authors’ interiors.

Ker’s way of flinging whole books onto the pile is just plain lazy. He does not include a single essay by Chesterton, apparently on the grounds that they were all simply dashed off for the newspapers. But two of the greatest things Chesterton ever wrote were his long essays on the Book of Job and on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The essay on Samuel Johnson in GKC as MC is the best thing he wrote about one of his favorite authors: “He may seem to be hammering at the brain through long nights of noise and thunder, but he can walk into the heart without knocking.” True, none of these essays was written for a newspaper, and one would have to search a bit to find them, but that should not be beyond the energy of a Chesterton biographer. Actually, not all of Chesterton’s newspaper articles are shallow (though most are). “The Diabolist” tells of Chesterton’s spiritual crisis when he was in art school, and it is more searing than anything in his Autobiography. His essay on Lincoln Cathedral, “The Architect of Spears,” is the best of his many accounts of the Gothic.

Ker rightly omits all of Chesterton’s books on authors except the Charles Dickens. They do not merit inclusion. But the anthologist purporting to bring us the lesser-known Chesterton could find a brilliant passage in most of them. In Robert Browning, his excursus on the nature of the grotesque is penetrating. In Chaucer, the tale told by “Geoffrey Chaucer” is one of Chesterton’s brightest ideas. In William Blake, the treatment of the three strands in 18th-century art—classical, humane, and occult—is nicely balanced. In G. F. Watts, he describes the limits of words for expressing the soul: “There are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest”—and where words do not capture some tints, music, dance, and the plastic arts can. In George Bernard Shaw, the treatment of Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra is riveting: “He walks like a winged man who has chosen to fold his wings.” If I were doing an anthology (one not running 900 pages), I could easily find room for such scintillating excerpts.

Chesterton is always entertaining when he writes about Dickens, but that is no excuse for including his entire book on the man. He is also highly repetitive, and the basic insights of the Dickens book can be found best stated in his chapter on The Pickwick Papers. But Ker is right to include the chapters of The Victorian Age in Literature. This study treats the authors Chesterton grew up with, and he is incisive on them all. “Ruskin had a strong right hand that wrote of the great mediaeval minsters in tall harmonies and traceries as splendid as their own; and also, so to speak, a weak and feverish left hand that was always fidgeting and trying to take the pen away—and write an evangelical tract about the immorality of foreigners.” He catches the tone of each author, carefully sorting out the differences between George Meredith and Thomas Hardy—and he is as good on minor figures as on the great ones.

The Father Brown tales have the premise that their eponymous priest understands crime because he understands sin. The variations on this theme become tiresome, and including so many of them leaves no room for Chesterton’s best mystery story, The Man Who Was Thursday, his only successful novel. This book solves the problem Chesterton said was the plague of all mystery stories—that interest fades abruptly when the criminal is identified. In Thursday, the mystery is just beginning at the end, and it echoes in the mind long after the tale is done. This is the one complete book I would include in an anthology (as opposed to Ker’s five complete books).

Ker is right to put only a few of Chesterton’s poems in his anthology, but omits one great one, the translation from Du Bellay’s “Heureux qui comme Ulysse,” ending

More than your Tiber is my Loire to me,
Than Palatine, my little Lyré there;
And more than all the winds of all the sea
The quiet kindness of the Angevin air.

Ker includes the tub-thumping war cry “Lepanto” but omits the more artfully considered “Ballad of the White Horse.” Early sketches show that Chesterton spent more time on the architecture of this poem than on anything he wrote. And it, too, ends with something that lingers in the mind. He often praised the working man, but never so well as when a working woman strikes King Alfred in the face. At first the king’s anger flares, but then he considers what working means.

And well may God with the serving folk
Cast in his dreadful lot;
Is not he too a servant,
And is not he forgot?

Did not a great grey servant
Of all my sires and me
Build this pavilion of the pines,
And herd the fowls and fill the vines,
And labour and pass and leave no sign
Save mercy and mystery?

Since Ker is a Catholic priest who considers Chesterton a Catholic saint, it is not surprising that his book is heavy on apologetics. But how is this bringing a lesser-known Chesterton to new readers, when his audience has already shrunk to small Catholic circles? Chesterton’s apologetic works contain fierce attacks on forgotten enemies from early in the last century and are full of hyperbole about the Roman church as the source of all things good. That is why I would exclude from any anthology of his best writings Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, and St. Thomas Aquinas. The last is especially melodramatic and repetitious, repetitious, repetitious. If one wants a lesser-known Chesterton who probes the mysterious nature of Christianity, the best place to find him is in a work discovered in his papers after his death, a play called The Surprise.

Its first act opens idyllically with a friar walking through a forest, where he comes upon a puppeteer rehearsing his act. The showman is a traveling entertainer placed high on his rolling caravan, above his life-size marionettes. The puppeteer tells the friar to sit down on the grass and see his performance. Then, from his high perch, he starts working the strings that move his creatures. The story enacted is a romantic tale whose hero recruits his best friend to go rescue the woman he loves—she is about to be kidnapped by the hero’s rival. It is a simple story but told with wit and swashbuckling dramatic touches. At the end of it, the friar congratulates the author of the play, who seems sad—and the friar asks why. The man explains that he is always sad when he sees his creatures perform, because they cannot respond to him on their own; they just move when he makes them move. He wants them to live. The friar prays for him.

At the end of Act I, the marionettes stir on their own and rise without their strings. They are alive. The story starts over in Act II with the same basic plot. But as it goes on little slips occur, departures from the script, not disastrous at first, but multiplying as the action goes forward. The hero and his friend, getting ready for their rescue mission, drink a little too much, and then quarrel. It turns out the best friend also loves the heroine. Still, they set out to find her. They get there late. The rival is now in charge, and muddle after muddle is occurring. Finally, the man on the caravan’s high place shouts, “Stop! I’m coming down!” Curtain.

Here, without the huffing and puffing and name-calling of the apologetic books, is a comic tale that stirs new ways of thinking about creation, predestination, free will, original sin, and the Incarnation. It is the kind of light confection that deepens with reconsiderations—the kind of thing only Chesterton could do.


Garry Wills is professor of history emeritus at Northwestern University, and the author of Lincoln at Gettysburg and, most recently, Verdi's Shakespeare.


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