A Century of 'Thursday's'

ALLEN BARRA

For a writer whose first two books were published 100 years ago, G.K. Chesterton is looking pretty contemporary.

G.K. Chesterton
1874-1936

During his run for the Republican presidential nomination, Mike Huckabee quoted freely from Chesterton. On the Democratic side, numerous Obama supporters claim to see the influence of Chesterton's thought on the president-elect's worldview.

Wick Allison, former publisher of National Review (and current editor-in-chief of D Magazine) sees no contradiction in Chesterton's attraction for both the right and left. "I think both sides could benefit from reading Chesterton. I certainly see a conservative side to Obama that connects to what Chesterton said of tradition, that it represents 'the democracy of the dead.'"

Gilbert Keith Chesterton would be pleased to learn that, 82 years after his death, he is still contributing to that democracy, though certainly he would be amused to find that he has served as an icon to writers as diverse as William F. Buckley Jr., Garry Wills, C.S. Lewis and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman (who paid him homage with the character "Gilbert" in his Sandman comics).

Born in 1874 into a middle-class London family of secular liberals, GKC – as he was often referred to in the press – retained some of his parents' principles, but as a young man he found liberalism to be thin soup for the soul. His religious faith was first expressed in "Orthodoxy," published in 1908. "Orthodoxy," wrote its author, was not "an ecclesiastical treatise but a sort of slovenly autobiography." The book established the cornerstones of Chesterton's philosophy, which were simple and constant throughout his life: faith and patriotism.

His definition of patriotism, though, often conflicted with that of his contemporary, Rudyard Kipling (both died in 1936). The poet laureate of the Empire, Kipling was contemptuous of his native country; Chesterton, the apostle of smallness, loathed the Empire – he opposed the Boer War and was outspoken for Irish independence – while loving England with a passion that would have made Charles Dickens blush.

For the last three decades of his life, Chesterton waged public duels with opponents of religion and democracy, such intellectual heavyweights as Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. In comparison our own day's best-known atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, hardly weigh in. Chesterton's public debates were invariably amicable; after all, he reasoned, "If there were no God, there would be no atheists." Some of GKC's most fervent opponents on ideological grounds remained his friends for life; Shaw, for instance, called Chesterton's biography of him "the best work of literary art I've yet provoked."

Best known to American readers as the author of the perpetually popular Father Brown mysteries, Chesterton is one of the most quoted aphorists in the English language. A few of my favorites:

  • On seeing the lights of Broadway for the first time: "What a glorious garden of wonders this would be, to anyone who is lucky enough to be unable to read."

  • On Dickens: "Did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted."

  • On patriotism: "'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no true patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.'"

  • On comparative religion: "Students of popular science . . . are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism."

The most famous single work among Chesterton's 90-plus volumes of fiction, stories, poems, plays and essays is The Man Who Was Thursday, also published in 1908 and currently in print in no less than seven editions. Chesterton jokingly dismissed it as "a very melodramatic sort of moonshine." Perhaps, but it is also one of the most intriguing and enduring mystery-adventure stories ever written, a phantasmagorical spy story replete with secret identities, sword fights, and more chases than a James Bond movie. (My favorites involve elephants and hot-air balloons.)

To G.K. Chesterton, though, genuine spirituality could never be the product of politics. He began writing to find his way out of depression and having found his faith, he never again succumbed to the dark lure of alienation.

Set in a surrealistic London of shadowy, labyrinthine streets, the plot is populated by poets posing as undercover policemen and policemen pretending to be anarchists. This may sound slapstick, but The Man Who Was Thursday presages the dark clouds gathering over Europe before World War I.

An air of impending dread pervades the novel; the term "anarchist," after all, stirred the fear 100 years ago that "terrorist" does today.

Though largely ignored when it was first published, Thursday attracted, in time, an enormous cult following, including George Orwell (who was also impressed by Chesterton's first political fable, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a work set in the year 1984), Argentinean shortstory writer Jorge Luis Borges, and Michael Collins. Yes, that Michael Collins. At the 1921 peace negotiations between Ireland and Britain, Collins told a British official that he had learned much from "Thursday," particularly the lesson that "if you don't seem to be hiding, nobody hunts you out."

Surely no other writer in any century can claim a following that includes Irish rebels, Latin American fabulists and Christian apologists.

It would be interesting to know what Chesterton would make of current American politics. Certainly he was skeptical enough of political parties in his own time. "The business of the Progressives," he wrote in 1929, "is to go on making mistakes, while the business of Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected." A critic of both socialism and capitalism, he gave himself to no political party except "the distributists," whose platform was summed up in his 1926 book The Outline of Sanity, advocating the spreading of wealth – attention, Mr. Obama – through simple measures such as the boycotting of big stores and laws geared to the establishment of small shops.

To G.K. Chesterton, though, genuine spirituality could never be the product of politics. He began writing to find his way out of depression and having found his faith, he never again succumbed to the dark lure of alienation. One admiring reader, a young Czech writer named Franz Kafka, thought Chesterton "so happy that one might almost believe he had found God." Indeed, Chesterton felt he had. "If a key fits a lock," he wrote in Orthodoxy, "you know it is the right key."

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Allen Barra. "A Century of 'Thursday's'." The Wall Street Journal (December 27, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Allen Barra is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, American History Magazine, Salon.com, TheAtlantic.com, and Truthdig.com. Among his books are Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends and Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee.

Copyright © 2011 Wall Street Journal




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