The Many Identities of GKC
G.K. Chesterton: A Biography
By Ian Ker
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 784 pages
Review Author: Chene Richard Heady
English Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was considered, in his own lifetime, a major writer, a literary virtuoso able to compose effortlessly in seemingly any form. He was noteworthy particularly for his contributions to the essay, detective-fiction, and comic-verse genres. His reputation did not outlive him, however. By the 1950s, enthusiasm for his works persisted only in Catholic quarters and then, as Catholic universities sought to distance themselves from the so-called Catholic ghetto, it faded even there. Fortunately, over the past four decades Chesterton has slowly begun to accumulate a major author’s scholarly apparatus. He now possesses an academic journal devoted exclusively to his work (The Chesterton Review), a carefully edited Collected Works (Ignatius Press), titles in the major classics lines (Oxford World Classics, Penguin, Everyman), and even a collection of literary criticism on his writing edited by the living voice of the literary canon himself, Harold Bloom. Chesterton’s work is also presently undergoing something of a popular renaissance: Million-selling alt-rockers like Marcus Mumford and evangelical Protestant hipsters like Donald Miller cite him as a major influence, and the BBC has just renewed its Father Brown television series for a third season. The time is ripe for Ian Ker to give Chesterton the primary hallmark of literary significance he previously lacked: a scholarly biography published by a major university press.
For serious Catholics, Chesterton’s accomplishments as one of the greatest modern apologists (Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, The Thing) might be sufficient to justify a biography. Some of his central arguments — faith as the precondition for reason, tradition as the democracy of the dead, orthodoxy as an exciting adventure, dogmatic belief as the source of all meaningful social reform, etc. — are still commonly employed as defenses of the faith. But even viewed simply as an entertaining story, Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s life is well worth the telling. His rise to fame is richly improbable: In about six years he metamorphosed from an unimpressive college dropout working as an entry-level editor for a minor press to one of England’s better known literary figures. His composition process — scribbling brilliant articles in pubs just under deadline, simultaneously dictating an essay on one subject while handwriting an essay on another, tossing off some of the best light verse of the century as a contribution to a local charity bazaar — is the stuff of legend. His religious transformations are also dramatic, as he moved from an essentially Unitarian childhood to art-school flirtations with nihilism to an eccentric Anglo-Catholicism and finally to Roman Catholicism. Even his physical appearance was striking: six-foot-four-inches tall, over three hundred pounds, wrapped in a dramatic cape, dragging a deliberately quixotic sword cane across urban London. Even among the generally flamboyant Edwardian generation of authors, Chesterton possesses an unusually entertaining story, and up until now his story has never been properly told.
Ian Ker’s biography constitutes an important step forward in Chesterton scholarship and will long remain an invaluable work. I will differ with Ker before this review is done, but justice demands that I begin by singing his praises. No other biographer has told Chesterton’s story with anything even approaching Ker’s depth of detail; nor has any other biographer placed his evidence transparently before his readers (all other Chesterton biographies lack consistent footnotes). Ker’s biography is as encyclopedic in scope as it is massive in size. He weighs in on all major aspects of GKC’s life and thought, including the most controversial (such as his alleged anti-Semitism). Ker’s analyses are invariably balanced and thoughtful; he never oversimplifies, vilifies, or lionizes his subject. His case for Chesterton’s significance should resonate well beyond the legendary author’s core of Catholic admirers, and his biography should serve as the central point of reference for conversations about Chesterton’s life for the foreseeable future.
While the merits of this volume are manifold, three aspects of Ker’s approach deserve special commendation. First, Ker frequently uses sources unavailable to previous scholars — especially the diaries and notebooks of Chesterton’s wife, Frances, and his secretary/honorary daughter, Dorothy Collins — to present a clearer and more intimate picture of his subject’s private life than we’ve ever had before. Some biographers have described Chesterton’s deeply devoted wife in hagiographical terms; others have seen her as a control freak who unintentionally damaged her husband’s literary career. In Ker’s book, one comes to know a truly loving couple who bring out both the best and the worst in each other. Gilbert disdained the practicalities of daily life to the point where Frances literally tied his shoes and combed his hair (creating a level of dependency she seemed to enjoy); Frances suffered from chronic depression that only Gilbert seemed able to understand and to some degree lift (an effort that inspired some of his best books). Ker shows us that, like most significant human relationships, the Chesterton marriage defies easy classification; it was both empowering and disabling.
Second, Ker situates Chesterton’s work in literary history. The great Edwardian authors wrote in a populist vein and pointedly rejected the radically experimental style of modernists like James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Literary critics have often simply dismissed Chesterton as being on the wrong side of literary history. If Chesterton had died in mid-career, just before the rise of modernism — perhaps during his mysterious 1914-1915 near-fatal illness — he would likely now possess a more prominent place in the literary canon. Ker logically suggests that Chesterton is best understood not in light of the authors who came after him (the modernists) but in light of those who came before him (the Victorians). He views Chesterton particularly as a successor to the Victorian sages, a group of nonfiction prose writers and cultural critics including John Henry Newman and Matthew Arnold. Ker’s approach will prove, I think, a far more productive context for analyzing Chesterton’s work than any yet commonly employed.
Third, Ker attempts to define a Chesterton canon. The sheer volume of Chesterton’s literary output (thirty-six thick volumes of Collected Works and counting) makes it difficult to appraise. Generally speaking, the early work (1900-1914) is consistently brilliant and innovative; the later work (1914-1936) is wildly uneven but includes some of his best books. Chesterton’s detractors use his lesser writings to prove that he should not be classified as a major author; some of his overeager fans are prepared to defend the brilliance of even his generally bad late fiction. Ker constructively intervenes in this discussion by defining a canon of Chesterton’s major works (on which a claim for literary importance can be erected), to be separated from the lesser works and the dross (on which it cannot). For Ker, Chesterton is primarily an author of nonfiction, and is to be known principally for Orthodoxy, The Victorian Age in Literature, St. Francis of Assisi, Charles Dickens, The Everlasting Man, St. Thomas Aquinas, and his Autobiography. Ker’s summaries can also serve as a good introduction to these “major works” for the unfamiliar reader.
While one can certainly disagree with Ker’s selections, in initiating a conversation about what a Chesterton canon would look like, he has performed a valuable service both to Chesterton scholarship and to the curious reader who finds himself wondering where to begin reading this most prolific of authors.
Chestertonians have always wondered why his literary gifts, seemingly inexhaustible in youth, yielded good fruit more sporadically in age. Was it his 1909 move, at Frances’s insistence, from the bohemian energy of Fleet Street (the heart of English journalism) to the stolidity and seclusion of suburban Beaconsfield? Was it his 1914-1915 prolonged illness, which permanently affected his health and may have had some effect on his mind? (He lost his unusual ability to compose two articles simultaneously.) Was it World War I itself? (Most Edwardian authors, regardless of personal biography, struggled to address meaningfully the post-war world.) Was it his 1922 conversion to Catholicism? (Some feel that it stifled the elasticity and freedom of his thought.) Or was it his editorial work for his brother’s The New Witness (1916-1923) and his own G.K.’s Weekly (1925-1936)? Ker takes no explicit position on this question, but Frances blamed these periodicals, and he depicts her concerns very sympathetically.
Chesterton reluctantly accepted the editorship of The New Witness out of loyalty to his deceased brother’s memory. G.K.’s Weekly, on the other hand, was the great endeavor of the second half of his life. Chesterton’s mature political thought took the form of distributism, a political philosophy that, influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclicals, embraces the ideals of subsidiarity and localism, and critiques the centralizing tendencies of both modern conservatism (big business) and modern liberalism (big government). Chesterton determined that distributism could never receive a hearing in a mainstream British press dominated by magazines run by enormous corporations, and newspapers affiliated with major political parties. The nascent movement needed its own literary organ if its position was to be articulated at all. Hence, for the last eleven years of his life, Chesterton dedicated up to four days a week of uncompensated work to raising funds for and editing G.K.’s Weekly, a periodical whose circulation was always small (between 5,000 and 8,000 copies an issue) and whose financial problems were perpetual. Three of the five volumes of his Father Brown stories were written to get the cash the magazine needed to stay solvent.
I imagine that the story of G.K.’s Weekly — which did survive and (under a new name) considerably outlived Chesterton himself — should sound strangely familiar, and perhaps heartening, to readers of the present periodical. We may tend to imagine that Chesterton, who wrote during what has been dubbed the “Catholic Revival” in English literature, lived in a Golden Age, when it was easy for orthodox Catholics to speak with a strong, independent, and incisive public voice. But to read Ker’s detailed accounts of the financial and literary battles of G.K.’s Weekly is to see that our struggles were Chesterton’s as well.
Still, Frances Chesterton’s claim, so engagingly presented by Ker, that the demands of producing G.K.’s Weekly caused Gilbert’s own writing to suffer, perhaps even preventing the masterwork of which he might otherwise have been capable, is hard to dismiss. What might GKC have become? Ker sometimes takes this exercise in creating a hypothetical Chesterton a step further, oddly choosing to assert what Chesterton would have said and done regarding issues and situations that he never faced.
I am as tempted as any of Chesterton’s other admirers to speculate in this vein, wondering about an imaginary idealized Chesterton rather than analyzing the actual man. But this type of thinking is very anti-Chestertonian. Chesterton’s work is dedicated to snapping readers out of their narcissistic or utopian fantasies and awakening them to the wonder of the world that stands immediately before them. In a very Chestertonian paradox, the recondite and carefully factual Ker distorts our picture of his subject primarily by his manifest reluctance to ascribe significance to the one fact about Chesterton that most readers already know: He wrote detective stories. Ker repeatedly dismisses the literary value of the Father Brown mysteries, insisting that they “are not among his major writings, and they can hardly be called his ‘masterpiece.'” The impulse behind this claim is understandable. Ker’s identification of Chesterton with the Victorian sages holds most easily if Chesterton the prophetic social critic and essayist can be detached from Chesterton the detective-story writer.
The effort to separate these pieces of Chesterton’s literary identity, however, violates his own self-definition as an author and, if successful, would ultimately damage his literary reputation. Chesterton emphasizes his identity as a detective writer in his Autobiography; he was also one of the first important theorists of detective fiction. Like most major Edwardian authors, Chesterton was a dedicated populist. He believed that the purpose of literature was to engage and change its readers, and that the masses had fundamentally good taste. His decision to devote the bulk of his writing to newspaper columns and detective stories was quite deliberate and philosophically consistent. He used his mysteries to express his deepest ideas and convictions; some of his most famous quotations in defense of the faith come not from his apologetic works but from the interior thoughts of Father Brown.
Chesterton offers many compelling logical arguments for the Catholic faith, but he recognizes that people do not understand the world primarily through logical argumentation; we have other modes of cognition as well. We make sense of our lives and the world through the narrative, through the stories we tell about ourselves and others. In Orthodoxy he says that one of the great insights of the faith is that the universe is a story — a serial novel issued in daily installments. He also realizes that many people oppose the faith simply because its doctrines do not seem to fit into their narrative world and have no place in the story in which they live. Chesterton identifies Conan Doyle’s immensely popular Sherlock Holmes stories as one of the great myths of modern Western man. This mystery series neatly summarizes some key reasons why the Christian story fails to resonate with so many people today: It is the perfect narrative expression of a scientism which assumes that only the material sciences can ascribe meaning to our lives or unlock reality as a whole; if we wish to understand ourselves or the world, we must consult the scientific expert. In this regard, TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or Bones are just newer versions of the Holmes myth.
With Father Brown, Chesterton deliberately set out to create a counter-myth. As many critics have pointed out, detective stories are epistemological in nature; they depict a world in which justice and meaning have been apparently eradicated, and they restore its order and significance by determining how it can be properly interpreted. The detective and the sage are near akin. In replacing the ultra-empirical Sherlock Holmes (parodied in several Father Brown stories) with the Thomistic Father Brown, Chesterton is making a point about how and by whom the universe can be best understood. We can make best sense of the world not by isolating its material data but by understanding the people who live in it. The Catholic priest, a theoretical and practical expert in the vagaries of human nature, is then a credible detective. Thus we get Father Brown, a detective who identifies the material clues that prove a crime usually only after he has psychologically deduced which of the characters must have committed it.
Father Brown has become nearly as legendary as Holmes himself; Chesterton’s stories have remained continuously in print and have been beloved by generations of readers. He has starred in two motion pictures and in multiple television series, as well as in novels written by authors other than Chesterton. Thanks to Father Brown, the priest-detective remains a stock type in detective fiction as ubiquitous as he is improbable; there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of clerical detectives, and the type continues to proliferate. Each new work involving a priest-detective — even the worst written, even the least theologically orthodox — is by its storyline shaping its readers to look to the Church for the ultimate answers to the ultimate questions. Father Brown is Chesterton’s great imaginative apologetic as well as his most popular work.
And, according to many literary critics, Father Brown is Chesterton’s major literary achievement, his missing masterpiece. Critics as estimable as Harold Bloom rank the Father Brown stories above the Sherlock Holmes stories in the canon of detective fiction; they are the first instance of the metaphysical detective story, a subgenre to which literary figures as renowned as Jorge Borges and Kazuo Ishiguro have since contributed. To slight Father Brown is to miss a central aspect of Chesterton’s literary endeavor and to ensure that he will never find his proper place in the literary canon. Chesterton was a writer both prolific and undisciplined (the short essay was his ideal genre); without the demands of fundraising for G.K.’s Weekly pulling him back again and again to Father Brown he probably would not have produced a sizeable masterwork. What is, as GKC never tired of saying, is more remarkable than what could have been. And whatever differences of opinion I may have notwithstanding, I am grateful to Ian Ker for showing us Chesterton more fully than we have ever seen him before.
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Man does not make himself. Rather, as Aristotle remarked, he is already man when he begins to wonder what he is and why he is as he is.