‘A Colossal Genius’

There is a lot to dislike about G. K. Chesterton, both the man and his work. He was a mama’s boy who moved from being coddled by his mother to being babied by his wife. His wife knotted his ties and told him when to take a bath. Slothful and obese, he would hire a cab to avoid walking half a block. As far as his work goes, he was prolix in the extreme, and there is much maddening repetition in his journalism. Nor was he particularly interested in getting his facts straight or checking his often inaccurate quotations. T. S. Eliot, reviewing Chesterton’s book on Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote that Chesterton’s style was “exasperating to the last point of endurance,” that Chesterton’s cheerfulness depressed him, and that, in case you didn’t get the idea, “He appears less like a saint radiating spiritual vision than like a busman slapping himself on a frosty day.” And then there is Chesterton’s initial admiration of Mussolini.

And yet as George Bernard Shaw told T. E. Lawrence, Chesterton remains “a colossal genius,” colossal both in size and intellect. Despite Eliot’s reservations, Chesterton’s literary reputation has held up rather well, and when it came to his personal faults, Chesterton was often the first to acknowledge them. His writings and politics have led some to accuse him of anti-Semitism, a charge he vigorously denied. Yes, he sometimes criticized Jews, but that didn’t mean he was antagonistic toward them as a group. As Ian Ker readily points out in this monumental biography, Chesterton often defended the Jewish people. He was also prescient about Nazi Germany’s plans to invade Poland, and spoke out vociferously about Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.

Ker is the author of an acclaimed biography of John Henry Newman, and he describes Chesterton as a successor of Newman, “and indeed as a successor to the other great Victorian sages...Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold (the critic).” He bases this assessment not on what are usually considered Chesterton’s most famous works, such as the nonsense and satirical verse, the Father Brown stories, and fantastical novels like The Man Who Was Thursday. Instead, Ker argues that Chesterton’s enduring achievement is in his nonfiction prose, especially what he calls Chesterton’s “great literary works”: Charles Dickens, Orthodoxy, The Victorian Age in Literature, St. Francis of Assisi, The Everlasting Man, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Autobiography.

Ker explicates these works with skill and at considerable length. In doing so, he argues that there are three key ideas or values that shape Chesterton’s thought: humor, limitation, and wonder. 

The unfailing humor that was so significant an aspect of Chesterton’s personal life has its parallel in the enormous importance he attached in his writings to humor as a medium for comprehending and interpreting life, regarding comedy as he did as an art form at least as serious as tragedy. One can, without exaggeration, find in Chesterton a mini-philosophy, not to say mini-theology, of laughter. Chesterton’s philosophy of wonder at and gratitude for existence is well known, but I have also highlighted the complementary principle of limitation that informs all his thinking about art, literature, politics, and religion. Linked, too, to his philosophy of wonder is his concept of the role of the imagination in enabling us to see the familiar afresh, as it were for the first time.

Ker is thorough in his chronicling of Chesterton’s life. He begins at the beginning with Chesterton’s childhood in the London suburb of Kensington, his school days at Colet Court and St. Paul’s, and then his year in the Slade School of Art. It was at the Slade School that Chesterton dabbled in the occult and was tempted to despair of finding any meaning in life—what saved him was what he called a “makeshift mystical theory of my own,” to wit, the idea that “even mere existence...was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent compared with nothing.” Ker follows his career as a popular journalist; his travels in Eastern Europe, America, and the Middle East; his debates with George Bernard Shaw; friendships with Max Beerbohm, Maurice Baring, Hilaire Belloc, and many others; and, above all, his sometimes strained but always faithful and loving marriage. Chesterton and his wife, Frances, could not have children, but Ker debunks the rumor that their marriage was a celibate one.

In this very thoroughness lies the chief problem with Ker’s book. The author quotes extensively from Chesterton in what is finally an exhausting and tedious manner. And the detailed itineraries of every journey Chesterton makes, even down to which train he took, are enough to make the reader wish that Ker had picked up some of Chesterton’s own aversion to amassing mere facts.

Despite these failings, Ker’s biography is indispensable for anyone who admires Chesterton’s work and is interested in his life. It makes you want to get back to reading Chesterton himself, who wrote such astonishing passages as this one in Orthodoxy:

To the question, “What are you?” I could only answer, “God knows.” And to the question, “What is meant by the Fall?” I could answer with complete sincerity, “That, whatever I am, I am not myself.” This is the prime paradox of our religion; something that we have never in any full sense known, is not only better than ourselves, but even more natural to us than ourselves.

Ker, in G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, has given us the definitive life of a great Catholic sage, a man who loved to argue but never quarreled. He has reminded us how colossal Chesterton’s genius really was.

Published in the 2012-11-23 issue: 
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Franklin Freeman is a writer living in Maine.

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