Marshall McLuhan’s first essay was titled “G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic.” McLuhan also wrote on Hopkins and Joyce (contrasting him with Aquinas) long before he published The Medium Is the Massage in 1967. He credited his conversion to Catholicism to discovering Chesterton while in graduate school at Cambridge, writing to his mother: “[H]ad I not encountered Chesterton, I would have remained agnostic.” How G.K.C. the journalist, controversialist and Catholic convert himself (in 1922) came to affect his century will be the subject of many books to come. In the meantime, we have Ian Ker’s masterful biography.
Ker, whose books include The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, has now become the most important source we have for understanding the master of paradox. He improves upon Maisie Ward’s sources, interpretations and even her transcriptions. The latter becomes clear by page 40 in Ker, after several footnotes read that he is quoting from manuscripts previously quoted in Ward “with text corrected.” Finally Ker notes: “Ward is not the most accurate of transcribers, but here her text is unusually inaccurate.” But credit where credit is due: Maisie’s Gilbert Keith Chesterton was published in 1944 and has only now been superseded, nearly 70 years later.
According to some estimates, G.K.C. published more than four million words in his lifetime with his books, essays, poems and journalism. One gets the impression while reading Ker’s book that the author read the entire corpus and did not want any of his effort to go to waste. So we are treated to a page and a half on an article Chesterton wrote on patriotism in 1904 and 23 pages on Orthodoxy. Lengthy explications of the writings are broken up by returns to the chronology of Chesterton’s life. (Ker put the same reading to good use with the simultaneous publication this spring of a 900-page edited collection: The Everyman Chesterton. It disappoints only in its exclusion of G.K.C.’s silly verse and his drawings for children, which Ward faithfully preserved in Return to Chesterton, and what many believe to be Chesterton’s best book, Saint Francis of Assisi. Instead, Ker includes portions of Saint Thomas Aquinas, perhaps believing that Chesterton’s perspective on St. Francis is carried into the first chapter, “On Two Friars,” of the latter work.)
Ker consistently selects the best source and quotation to make his point, as when he plucks the following description of G.K.C.’s famously ragtag appearance from Henry James’s secretary. James instructed her to spy on Chesterton, and she saw “a sort of elephant with a crimson face and oily curls. [Mr. James] thinks it very tragic that his mind should be imprisoned in such a body.” Chesterton’s inability to care for himself is, in fact, a constant theme in this biography. He lived in an era when a wife might literally dress her husband, and Chesterton’s Frances did that and more. Over and over we are reminded how impractical the man was, how he went from mother to wife never having to tend to his daily needs himself. We see taxis waiting for hours while he refuses to walk one block of Fleet Street (his bulk dissuaded him) or from pub to pub (drink dissuaded him), talking and scribbling all the way. Here is the lovable, affable, absent-minded journalist.
Ker offers surprises to the devout admirer of Chesterton, as when Frances attends séances in an attempt to communicate with her dead brother. And he delights the assiduous reader with fresh details about Chesterton’s friendship with Shaw, new information unearthed from the British Library regarding the Chestertons’ visit to the Holy Land in winter 1920 and revelations from the “American Diary” of Frances, kept during their 1921 trip.
There are problems with Chesterton, of course, and Ker does not always address them adequately. When he discusses anti-Semitism, he is less than convincing in defense of his subject, and on one occasion the explanation itself is disconcerting. This is a case when Chesterton was himself subjected to prejudice. While still a young writer, he had an article rejected by a literary advisor who judged that “the handwriting was that of a Jew.” Ker defends the advisor’s comment, explaining he “was simply saying that Chesterton’s handwriting was like that of a Jew” in its ornate style, “Jews being famously artistic.” Such generalizations seem inconsequential when Ker later offers that “hairdressers are famous for their conversational resources,” but not so here. Then, when discussing Chesterton’s controversial A Short History of England, a key book for understanding his alleged anti-Semitism, Ker goes on for five pages without even mentioning the issue. In A Short History Chesterton refers to the Jews of England as “alien financiers” who were “as powerful as they are unpopular” and hence justly expelled from England by the king in 1290. Still later, Ker concludes that Chesterton was not anti-Semitic, but anti-Jewish, as “many Europeans are anti-American today.”
There are other occasions when Ker’s admiration for his subject seems to get in the way of objectivity. More than once he states that G.K.C.’s Autobiography should be ranked with Newman’s and Ruskin’s as the greatest by Victorian “sages.” Comparisons to Newman recur frequently throughout the biography. Ker aims to convince us that Chesterton was a “major” writer, not a minor one. He goes so far as to write, “I have set out enough evidence to show that Chesterton is one of our great literary critics, to be mentioned in the same breath as Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, and Eliot.” One would be hard pressed to locate another critic today who would agree. Ker bases his opinion largely on Charles Dickens, in which Chesterton claims Dickens was an unconscious Catholic—a claim he would later make about Shakespeare in his debates with Shaw.
Like most of his contemporaries, Chesterton’s perspective on people of other faith traditions is usually unhelpful for the multifaith 21st century. Ker seems to quote unwittingly and with approval an unfortunate instance of Chestertonian juxtaposition from 1904, as Chesterton contrasts the way Islam, by forbidding alcohol consumption, “makes wine a poison” while Christianity “makes it a sacrament.” Later, in discussions of his major works, Ker approvingly quotes as Chesterton disparages Islam with lines about its “sinister” and “barbaric” qualities. This is unfortunate. Ker’s biography is essential, a labor of love to be sure, but one wishes for critique as well as context of this fascinating man who proudly traded in words.