Chesterton: A Literary Babe Ruth
A Chesterton Anthology
By Edited by P.J. Kavanaugh
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Review Author: Pete Sheehan
As I Was Saying: A Chesterton Reader. Edited by Robert Knille. Eerdmans. 314 pages. $18.95.
Fr. William Bichel, a Jesuit at John Carroll University, had a quick answer to those who asked what they should read by G.K. Chesterton: “Anything he wrote.”
Such a tribute to Chesterton testifies to both the quality and quantity of his writing, which encompasses more than 60 books and untold articles for over 75 different British journals (including more than 1,500 essays for the Illustrated London News alone), as well as some American magazines. During his relatively brief life (1874 to 1936) Chesterton wrote literary criticism, history, poetry, commentary on political, social, philosophical, and religious issues, novels, Christian — and later, more specifically Roman Catholic — apologetics, and mystery stories. He won not only a popular following but also the respect and admiration — if not always the agreement — of serious intellectual and literary figures of his time. He influenced a number of Christian writers, notably C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Day, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Christopher Derrick.
The assembler of an anthology of Chesterton’s work has one advantage and one disadvantage. The advantage is that one can hardly go wrong, for great effort would be required to produce a Chesterton anthology devoid of penetrating insights, great wit, compelling arguments, and exquisite writing. On the other hand, one who puts together a collection of Chesterton inevitably suffers from a limit of space that forces him to omit much worthy material. The challenge is to offer a representative sample of Chesterton’s writing that is sufficiently broad to give a hint of the diversity of his works, while also revealing their depth.
Two recent anthologies, As I Was Saying, edited by Robert Knille, and A Chesterton Anthology, edited by P.J. Kavanaugh, achieve considerable success in presenting both the depth and diversity of Chesterton’s works. Both volumes remind one of why Chesterton was once both popular and prominent, and why he deserves to be better known today.
Chesterton offers much that is relevant to society and to the Catholic Church today. At a time when the Church was still immured in its fortress mentality, Chesterton, like an intellectual knight errant, never hesitated to sally forth against such formidable opponents as Clarence Darrow, H.G. Wells, and Bernard Shaw. As a Catholic layman and a convert, he exemplified, long before Vatican II, how a layman can make his mark as a public figure, through both his deeds and his writing. Chesterton spurned the tyranny of ideology and procrustean factionalism so characteristic of current Catholic debate, leaving him free, for example, to assail both capitalism and socialism, and to praise and criticize his beloved homeland, England. On matters of the faith he avoided the pitfalls of ideology as well. One can hardly imagine, for example, a Chesterton-edited journal of today proclaiming “Mater Si, Magistra No” to Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Mater Et Magistra. Neither could one envision Chesterton urging a Catholic university audience to embrace a “pro-choice” position on abortion.
In Chesterton’s writings one finds other traits worthy of emulation. His adherence to eternal truths contrasts sharply with the faddishness of the 20th century, which Chesterton, in an essay reprinted in Knille’s book, described as “the only period in all of human history where men brag of being modern. For though today is always today, and the moment is always modern, we are the only men in all history who fell back upon bragging about the mere fact that today is not yesterday.” Our era, with its characteristic combination of virulent extremism and tepid moderation, could certainly benefit from Chesterton’s idea, presented in Orthodoxy (excerpted in both anthologies), of “ the new balance” of Christianity, which in counter-balancing such opposing forces as optimism and pessimism or pride and humility, accommodates “both things at the top of their energy.”
Perhaps most important of all, Chesterton replies vigorously to deriders of Christian orthodoxy. To those who mock orthodoxy as refuge from complexity for the timid, he brandishes “the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy,” which he compares to “the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to swoop this way and sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and accuracy of arithmetic.” To those who call for “relevant” ideas to replace “outmoded” Catholic thinking, Chesterton points out that “it is not true, as the rationalist historians imply, that orthodoxy has grown old slowly,” but rather that heresy “has grown old quickly.” “The only way really to meet all of the human needs of the future is to pass into the possession of all the Catholic thoughts of the past.”
Though a great man, Chesterton was not infallible and both anthologies reveal his fallibility. He tended to gloss over such misdeeds of the medieval Church as the Crusades. His usually solid arguments sometimes lack the logical tightness almost always found, for example, in C.S. Lewis. Even though Chesterton generally avoided the errors of his time, he fell prisoner to the reigning ethos on some issues. He treated cavalierly the matter of the morality of war and snidely dismissed pacifism. His lack of understanding led him to caricature Eastern religion. In fairness to Chesterton, his opposition to women’s suffrage seems to have stemmed not from contempt for women — whom he esteemed — but from a rather admirable disdain for politics. Chesterton was the literary equivalent of Babe Ruth: his strikeouts, while not insignificant, are far outweighed by his home runs.
It is difficult to decide which of these anthologies is superior. Kavanaugh’s volume seems to validate the sports maxim that a good big man will beat a good little man. Weighing in at a formidable 515 pages — as opposed to the leaner 314 pages of Knille’s collection — the Kavanaugh anthology offers a fair selection from Heretics, while Knille excerpts only snippets. Kavanaugh includes much more from both St. Thomas Aquinas and Orthodoxy, perhaps Chesterton’s best book. Kavanaugh prints an entire Father Brown story, “The Queer Feet,” while Knille gives only excerpts from several of the stories. The Man Who Was Thursday appears in its entirety in Kavanaugh’s book; Knille fails to include any of the complete novels. Knille’s collection is not without its strengths, though. It compensates in breadth for what it lacks in depth. One finds such delights in Knille as Chesterton’s writings about America and his thoughts on distributism, neither of which appears in Kavanaugh. In addition, Knille selects from a wider variety of books than does Kavanaugh.
So, which is best? One could hardly go wrong with either book. For those unfamiliar with Chesterton, Knille probably serves as the better introduction. On the other hand, those who are already acquainted with Chesterton might prefer the greater depth of Kavanaugh. The most important point about these two volumes, however, is that they may indicate a revival of interest in Chesterton. Both were published at the same time that Ignatius Press announced the first volume of a projected complete edition of Chesterton’s works and Loyola University Press published a book of Chesterton’s art. A play based on Chesterton’s life is also making the rounds.
Only a lazy reviewer quotes dust-jacket blurbs, but I find it significant that columnist George Will predicts that Knille’s book “will whet the reader’s appetite for even more Chesterton,” which, Will remarks, “America has long needed.” One can hope that Will is correct, and that Knille’s and Kavanaugh’s anthologies foretell a Chesterton revival.
“Modern investigators of miraculous history have solemnly admitted that a characteristic of the great saints is their power of ‘levitation.’ They might go further; a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” — G.K. Chesterton
© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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