February 19, 2002
1961 a young writer named Garry Wills published his first book, an
excellent study of the works of G.K. Chesterton. It was soon out of print
and hard to find. I luckily came across it in a used book store. Now, I am
happy to say, it has finally been reissued in paperback (Doubleday/Image).
Chesterton (18741936) was a
popular English writer of that versatile, unclassifiable sort who are
called men of letters. He wrote essays, novels, poems,
detective stories, literary criticism, political tracts, and religious
apologetics. It has been said of him that he never wrote his masterpiece,
because no genre could give full expression to his wild genius.
Id prefer to say that his genius
could take many forms. No matter what genre he used, he touched
and still touches the reader with a rare immediacy. You feel his
personality at once. You not only trust him; you feel that he trusts you. He
is the humblest, the most human, the most genial of geniuses.
Chestertons literary criticism
is superb because he approaches every author with lively sympathy,
looking for the secret of his appeal. When you read him on Chaucer,
Shakespeare, Blake, Dickens, Browning, Stevenson, or Shaw, you feel that
each author has found in Chesterton his most appreciative reader ever.
Even his sharp wit rarely wounds.
After visiting this country, he noted its shortcomings in a kindly epigram:
The real American is all right. It is the ideal American who is all
wrong. These are words we should take to heart, especially when
we are tempted to national self-righteousness.
Chesterton was prophetic about the
evils of the twentieth century: The old tyrants invoked the past.
The new tyrants will invoke the future. Again: Most men
now are not so much rushing to extremes as sliding to extremes; and even
reaching the most violent extremes by being almost entirely
He also perceived a special danger of
our own time, anarchy from above: A government
may grow anarchic as much as a people. People cling to government
because they want law and order; they fail to see the peril of a lawless
government that produces social disorder.
Then there are his miscellaneous
insights. The morality of a great writer is not the morality he
teaches, but the morality he takes for granted. There is
more simplicity in a man who eats caviar on impulse than in a man who
eats grape-nuts on principle. The madman is not the man
who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything
except his reason.
One of my own favorite Chesterton
books is Whats Wrong with the World (available, like
most of his works, from Ignatius Press, San Francisco).
There he insists on the need for
clarity of principle: It is not merely true that a creed unites men.
Nay, a difference of creed unites men so long as it is a clear
difference. A boundary unites.... It is exactly the same with politics. Our
political vagueness divides men, it does not fuse them. Men will walk
along the edge of a chasm in clear weather, but they will edge miles away
from it in a fog. So a Tory can walk up to the very edge of Socialism,
if he knows what is Socialism. But if he is told that Socialism
is a spirit, a sublime atmosphere, a noble, indefinable tendency, why, then
he keeps out of its way; and quite right too. One can meet an assertion
with argument; but healthy bigotry is the only way in which one can meet
He similarly observes that
men usually quarrel because they do not know how to argue.
And Chesterton loved nothing more than a good argument, because he saw
it as a way of reaching not only truth but friendship. This is why his tone
is always chivalrous, even when he says of an opponent that Mr.
Blatchford is not only an early Christian; he is the only early Christian
who ought really to have been eaten by lions. Mr. Blatchford must
have laughed at that as heartily as anyone else.
Today Chesterton is not among the
best known of authors. But among those who do know him, he is one of the