by John Holbo on February 23, 2010

I never really got the whole G.K. Chesterton thing. I understand lots of folks really like Chesterton but, having never read anything but a few Father Brown mysteries, I formed a theory about that: some people really like formulaic mystery series, and some people really like this C.S. Lewis-ish naive-is-sophisticated-in-a-peculiarly-English-way attitudinizing. I feel I can take or leave the both of them. So, to repeat, I never got the Chesterton thing. But I figured maybe I should sample the non-Father Brownish material, just to be sure. (People do seem to love their Chesterton, not just the Father Brown fanboys.) I’m halfway through Manalive. And it’s pretty great! Obviously, being a tediously predictable person in my own way, I want someone to do it up proper as a graphic novel, with Innocent Smith as Manalive, in a tight green costume! With strength of leaps proportional to those of a grasshopper! And a revolver! Dealing out Life! More Life-Affirming Tales of Manalive, the Living Man!

Discuss. What’s your favorite Chesterton? Is Father Brown as fundamentally tedious as I take him to be? Is Innocent Smith just as tedious, only I like him because I’m susceptible to any whiff or soupcon of man-and-superman themery? The public is banging on its breakfast table, demanding answers to these and other questions, quite possibly.



LizardBreath 02.23.10 at 2:18 am

I’m irrationally fond of Chesterton myself, in an embarrassed kind of way. The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon Of Notting Hill are both worth reading, if you’ve gotten interested.


Kieran Healy 02.23.10 at 2:18 am

I arrived at the same theory you previously held, by much the same route. So I will be avoiding Manalive.


sg 02.23.10 at 2:19 am

My favourite GK Chesterton is Iron Maiden’s Revelation. A masterpiece!


gordan 02.23.10 at 2:25 am

“Orthodoxy” is his best non-fiction.


LizardBreath 02.23.10 at 2:28 am

If I was going to describe the appeal, it’s that Chesterton puts forth a combination of ideas I can agree with, and frankly horrific ideas I associate with right wing maniacs, in a way that seems just wrong, rather than malicious. The central idea of The Napoleon Of Notting Hill is that people leading boring, contented lives would be much happier if you killed them a little occasionally, which seems fundamentally misguided to me. But I find myself not holding the craziness (and oh, the anti-Semitism and racism) against Chesterton personally. It’d be nice if everyone that desperately, horrifically misguided were that pleasant.


kid bitzer 02.23.10 at 2:28 am

ditto lb’s recommendations, and i’m embarrassed for her, too.


Sarang 02.23.10 at 2:32 am

I enjoyed _The Man whose name was Thursday_. There’s supposed to be a bunch of sporadically good but unsystematic Chesterton out there in periodicals and such; I think Empson credits him in 7 Types with being a great close reader but I’ve forgotten why.


LizardBreath 02.23.10 at 2:32 am

I’ve got a Kipling problem too. This is probably diagnostic of some broader character flaw.


Rich Puchalsky 02.23.10 at 2:46 am

The Man Who Was Thursday is a great piece of writing, and possibly Chesterton’s only great piece of writing. The Father Brown mysteries are both formulaic, and not very good even as formulaic mysteries. The Napoleon of Notting Hill has the energy that comes from it being a Gary Stu book (i.e. the main character is really who Chesterton would like to be, the person who awakens everyone to the joys of killing each other honorably over trifles, as opposed to all that tiresomely leveling and peaceful universality).

The Man Who Was Thursday is great partly because it’s so over-the-top — haven’t read Manalive, but I suspect something similar. In Thursday, the anarchists don’t just throw big black round anarchist bombs. They have an underground lair and an armory in that lair filled with racks of big black round anarchist bombs, the armory room itself being shaped like a bomb. The other part of the greatness of Thursday is its frankly religious component. Chesterton, perhaps because he considered Thursday to be a sort of description of a nightmare, was able to confront a rather more anguished spirituality than e.g. Lewis.


Brainz 02.23.10 at 2:50 am

I’m a huge fan of Thursday — there’s another book that needs a graphic adaptation.

It’s not my favorite Chesterton, but Eugenics and Other Evils was a remarkable read. I’d never given any thought to how one would make a racist and anti-Semitic argument against eugenics, but G.K. sure did.


Harry 02.23.10 at 2:52 am

Thursday. Read it in my teens. Have found my several other attempts at GKC disappointing. Father Brown has been dramatized very well on radio, which makes reading it pointless. But Thursday is fantastic.


LizardBreath 02.23.10 at 2:55 am

I would clear TNONH from being a Gary Stu on the grounds that the hero is explicitly described and represented as an oblivious nitwit. If Chesterton’s identifying with a character, it’s the King/journalist. Who’s also a selfserving portrait, but not flattering enough to be a Gary Stu.


Vance Maverick 02.23.10 at 2:56 am

My Chesterton problem is the smugness. He adds something to mask the taste, but it’s there, and eventually cloys altogether. Rich objects to Father Brown, while I found at least some of them enjoyable; it’s possible the relevant properties aren’t really to be discovered in the texts as such, but build up like toxins in the reader’s system. As LB’s comments show, he’s always promulgating ideas, which ought to be annoying, but the annoyance is at least deferred.


Cobb 02.23.10 at 3:06 am

Why is it difficult to take Father Brown directly as an antidote to Sherlock Holmes? Is Holmes superior literature? I don’t see that Brown is naive but seems to be naive in the ways that Holmes is explicitly and overtly erudite. Why would Holmes’ batchelor ways be considered superior to those of a cleric?

I like the simple explanation that Brown is an adept because clerics spend a lifetime studying good and evil, and why would they not be as prescient as those who present themselves as Holmes does purely as one needing some titallating diversion from the tedium of Victorian life?


Luther Blissett 02.23.10 at 3:08 am

*The Man Who Was Thursday* is amazing, agreed.

But the Father Brown mysteries are only formulaic in the same way that Poe’s mysteries were formulaic from the start: the mystery is not the point. The point is the essay that the stories really want to be.

What I enjoy about the FB stories is the way Chesterton works his main conceit over and again: priests are up to their necks in the shit and pain and horror of life, and so who could have a better understanding of the criminal mind than the seemingly innocent and meek Father Brown. The stories’ sharp juxtaposition between rabid violence and FB’s mild exterior keeps them interesting to me.


Steve Casburn 02.23.10 at 3:12 am

My favorite Chesterton is his books Heretics (1905) and Orthodoxy (1908). They are that rarity: The joyful polemic. The controversies he takes a side in are mostly long forgotten, but the ideas he plays with remain modern, and his style can be delightful.


M 02.23.10 at 3:13 am

My experiences with C.S. Lewis are identical to mine with Tom Wolfe: nearly every sentence screams out its stupidity and immorality, but I nevertheless feel as though I’m enjoying the work completely unironically, somehow. Is Chesterton the same way?


Rich Puchalsky 02.23.10 at 3:14 am

I would argue against LB’s that Chesterton might enjoy depicting himself as that sort of nitwit. After all, the main character in TNONH doesn’t have what we’d call an argument as such. If any of the kind of people who Chesterton disagreed with analyzed the main character’s actions, sure, they’d describe him as a nitwit. At the same time, he’s the one who brings joy and vitality and mystery back to life as people slaughter each other in intra-neighborhood rumbles. Depicting him as a nitwit is rather like the right wing’s general, preemptive aw-shucks routine.


Rich Puchalsky 02.23.10 at 3:20 am

Er, LB in my late comment was meant to be LizardBreath, not Luther Blissett.


LizardBreath 02.23.10 at 3:37 am

Still, Chesterton consistently describes himself as physically ridiculous, and is, as Vance said, insufferably smug about how clever he is. I can’t see an attractive, physically imposing dimwit as a selfportrait.


nnyhav 02.23.10 at 3:37 am

I stayed away from the FB stuff entirely, but in addition to above-mentioned would recommend The Club of Queer Trades … later fiction did less for me. His take on Dickens also of interest.


ChrisB 02.23.10 at 3:41 am

There’s something to be said for his poetry: compare this to Dorothy Parker –

A Ballade of Suicide

The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall;
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours on the wall
Are drawing a long breath to shout “Hurray!”
The strangest whim has seized me. . . . After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

To-morrow is the time I get my pay–
My uncle’s sword is hanging in the hall–
I see a little cloud all pink and grey–
Perhaps the rector’s mother will not call– I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way–
I never read the works of Juvenal–
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

The world will have another washing-day;
The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
And H.G. Wells has found that children play,
And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall,
Rationalists are growing rational–
And through thick woods one finds a stream astray
So secret that the very sky seems small–
I think I will not hang myself to-day.


Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;
Even to-day your royal head may fall,
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

or this –


Matt 02.23.10 at 4:08 am

I never could get in to the Father Brown stories and also dislike much of Chesterton’s ideas, but I do like the “Philosophical policeman” in TMWWT:

we say that the dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigimists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential idea of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish they property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession. Bigamists respect marriage, or else they would not go through the highly ceremonial and even ritualistic formality of bigamy. But philosophers despise marriage as marriage. Murders respect human life; they merely wish to attain a greater fullness of human life in themselves by sacrifice of what what seems to them to be lesser lives. But philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people’s

I think, however, that I might like this bit for the wrong reasons.


Vance Maverick 02.23.10 at 4:15 am

Look what Google found between pp. 1 and 2 of Manalive….


TheSophist 02.23.10 at 4:25 am

I’m not sure I should bring this up (maybe we’re due for a harmonic convergence of CT themes), but Zizek is very interesting on Chesterton in general, and TMWWT in particular. In TMOC SZ attaches particular importance to Chesterton’s claim that, on the cross God became, just for an instant, an atheist. Given how many folks Zizek is scornfully dismissive of, I’ve always found his fondness (I really think that’s the right word) for Chesterton intriguing (although not intriguing enough for me to reread any of the oeuvre.)


TheSophist 02.23.10 at 4:28 am

…urp! Apologies to all for the surfeit of commas in the above. Two different versions got conflated, and the punctuation ran riot…


Josh 02.23.10 at 4:53 am

M, I kinda see that. Orthodoxy is a can’t-put-down read, and it felt afterward to me like a beautiful, elegant pogrom.

As detective stories go, I liked The Paradoxes of Mr Pond better than a lot of Father Brown. But I think Luther’s right; and the first, second, and fifth Father Brown volumes contain some gorgeous and witty writing (the others way too much hectoring).

I picked up the two Chesterton volumes Borges repeatedly alludes to, Four Faultless Felons and G.F. Watts. Loved the latter, but the former left no impression good or bad, not even in its anti-semitism.

And The Man Who Was Thursday is, like, perfect.


bad Jim 02.23.10 at 5:45 am

ChrisB, thank you for that bit of Parker. As one who once committed a proper sestina, I found whatever that was entirely delightful. I keep promising myself that one day I’ll read all her stuff, but perhaps it’s more appropriate to encounter it piecemeal.


Dave Maier 02.23.10 at 6:17 am

I read Father Brown right after Sherlock Holmes, as a teen, and I liked ’em fine. But generally I agree with Vance’s #11. After all the above hosannas I hate to admit it, but I recently read Thursday, and (except for the amusing over-the-top-ness) it left me cold. Maybe it’s me — too many of the toxins Vance mentions.


Martin 02.23.10 at 6:47 am

I’ve never read the fiction. I’ve read a lot of his essays, and the guy is just fantastic. I’m surprised that hardly anyone here (couple of people) have mentioned his nonfiction writing. His worldview is basically unacceptable to a modern intellectual, but if you imagine an earlier version of George Orwell, who happened to be a devout Roman Catholic, that’s not too far off. I am really very fond of his essays. Even if you dispense with the conclusions, they are argued as well as such things can be argued, and GKC always projects a sane, humane, worldly outlook. He’s great.


John Holbo 02.23.10 at 6:57 am

Just to clarify Chris B’s poetry sample above: that’s actually Chesterton he’s quoting, not Parker, Bad Jim. (Chris’ comment is a bit misleading, the way he introduces the verse.)

I agree: it’s good poetry. So: thanks, Chris B!


Colin Danby 02.23.10 at 7:31 am

Wow, Vance. Now we can read between the pages. And then there’s a little condom-covered ghost at the bottom of the picture.


John Holbo 02.23.10 at 7:40 am

Wait, what, I clicked Vance’s link but I didn’t see anything. It just seemed like a snippet view of a few pages. What’s between p. 1 and 2?


Zamfir 02.23.10 at 8:27 am

It’s as if people here know too much about Chesterton the person, and his real views, to enjoy the stories on their own. There’s moralizing and irony in the stories, and when I don’t like the moralizing I can just assume it’s ironic. If you know which parts are in the end serious, it might be a different experience.

I have once read a “Complete Stories of Father Brown”, entirely. Years later, I found myself stuck with (among other choices) a copy of the same, and I read it again, skipping only the stories I remembered I didn’t like much. And I liked a lot of the stories.


ajay 02.23.10 at 10:12 am

Just finished “The Ball and the Cross” which is… interesting; similar to The Napoleon of Notting Hill in that it’s about the importance and value of fighting for stuff rather than just debating it in a “views on shape of earth differ” way, although it’s about a prolonged duel between an atheist and a Highland Catholic, rather than a civil war. (Morally preferable)

I agree that TNONH seems to believe that “war is a force that gives us meaning”, which is an unpleasant, though not necessarily untrue, line to take. Just because war is harmful and wasteful and even on occasion evil doesn’t mean it’s not fun for a lot of the people involved.

I think that TNONH is a bit more complex than LB thinks: Auberon Quin doesn’t want to bring back war, he wants to bring back pageantry. He has a decade of peaceful silliness as King before war breaks out. It’s his opposite number, Adam Wayne, and his followers like Turnbull who takes Quin’s policy to its logical extreme – those mediaeval city states that Quin loves so much were the way they were because they were very frequently at war with each other. And the first battle between Notting Hill and South Kensington is described in a rather unheroic way; chaotic scuffles in the streets, followed by (basically) Wayne’s threat of a London-scale weapon of mass destruction.


chris y 02.23.10 at 10:14 am

The point is the essay that the stories really want to be.

How true! (Number 47 in “Ways to avoid saying ‘This!’ in blog comments). Also entertaining in its perverse way is ‘The Flying Inn’, which offers a late 19th century vision of the ‘dhimmification’ of Britain.

LizardBreath, you shouldn’t be embarrased about Kipling. Kipling was the greatest short story writer of his age, and you have Dorothy Parker’s word on it (somewhere in Constant Reader, I’m not going to look it up). He was no slouch as a poet either. Certainly he was an unrepentant imperialist. Also, Shakespeare and Marlowe were viciously anti-Semitic and Milton thought Oliver Cromwell was on a mission from god.


Thirsty Gargoyle 02.23.10 at 11:38 am

I’d agree that the Father Brown stories are best seen as narrative essays rather than conventional mysteries. Of his other works, I’d comfortably say Thursday is Chesterton’s masterpiece, being a work of weird and unclassifiable genius. Sadly, the best edition of it I’ve ever seen – the OUP World’s Classics one from the mid 1990s – is no longer in print, which is a shame, as it had an introduction that nailed the text and included the two essays that help most to decode it. Heretics and Orthodoxy act as kind of companion pieces to Thursday.

The idea that Adam Wayne in Napoleon is meant to be a fantastic version of Chesterton himself doesn’t work; the book’s final chapter features a rapprochement between Wayne and Auberon Quin, the book’s other key character, playing with the idea that neither of them is a complete person. If you put them together you have a whole human, but neither is really healthy in isolation. It might be right to say that Chesterton views them as aspects of himself, but they are only aspects – fragments, even. The book’s about a lot of things, but its core idea isn’t that violence is a good way of livening things up, but that small is beautiful. His love on London, local traditions, and medieval pegeantry all underpin the book, as does his opposition of a few years earlier to the Boer War. As with Thursday, there are a couple of essays in Heretics, in this case notably those on Kipling and Wells, that help to unlock Napoleon

The anti-semitism charge is guaranteed to pop up pretty much whenever he’s discussed, and while you’ll find no shortage of instances of anti-semitic statements in, say, The Flying Inn, it’s worth keeping in mind that London’s Wiener Library scrutinised his record on this pretty intensely, and found that he was never seriously anti-semitic either socially or philosophically, and that ‘when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on’.


ajay 02.23.10 at 11:47 am

I agree with 34: if anything, Quin, not Wayne, is the Gary Stu, being physically ridiculous, clever, cultured, and in love with small-scale patriotism, pageantry and mediaevalism.

The core of the book, really, is the debate between Barker and Buck, the businesslike Provosts of West and South Kensington, and Wayne. They argue that it’s just obviously silly to fight for Notting Hill (which at the time was a rather run-down suburb of London, not the expensive BoBo area it’s since become; the modern version would be called The Clausewitz of Croydon or something). Wayne replies “why? Why is it any sillier to fight for Notting Hill than to fight for anywhere else? That which is large enough for the rich to covet is large enough for the poor to defend.”


Tim Worstall 02.23.10 at 12:02 pm

Not so much the novels, I used to love the little newspaper pieces he did (clearly, I read collections, not as he was doing them). The tale is that he would be out drinking around Fleet Street, run out of money, dash one off, get a messenger boy to deliver it to an editor and use the money coming by return to carry on.

Whether the poetry is actually good poetry I’ve no idea given my literary philistinism. But these two are famous at least:

“They have given us into the hands of the new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger and honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evenings; and they know no songs.

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.


Gareth Rees 02.23.10 at 12:14 pm

The Father Brown stories remind me a bit of Heinlein, because Chesterton often appears to be creating situations and characters purely in order to provide an opportunity to indulge in a bit of propaganda.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with Orwell’s attack on him (from “Notes on Nationalism“): “Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repetition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians.’ Every book that he wrote, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan.”

Chesterton is also prone to simple racism, as in the case of “The Wrong Shape”: “Don’t you ever feel that about Eastern art? The colours are intoxicatingly lovely; but the shapes are mean and bad — deliberately mean and bad. I have seen wicked things in a Turkey carpet.”


ajay 02.23.10 at 1:00 pm

Late-19th-century Englishman occasionally wrote racist things.

We’ll have more on that breaking story after this.


kid bitzer 02.23.10 at 1:16 pm

i sympathize. i saw something nasty in the woodshed once.

even more sympathetically: i find it impossible to keep my esthetic reaction to precolombian art unencumbered by my judgements of precolombian societies. i am repelled by human sacrifice and cruelty, and i think i see these things in the art, though quite likely i’m mistaken.


Adam Roberts 02.23.10 at 1:16 pm

Orthodoxy for me.


kid bitzer 02.23.10 at 1:31 pm

and on kipling’s racism, two things:
1) kim is not the work of a simple-minded racist. a myriad-minded racist, perhaps. but that work transcends him, no matter what you think of him.

2) the race he excoriates with the most vehemence and loathing is the yanks.


mor 02.23.10 at 1:42 pm

John – Shouldn’t we be getting along?
F.B. – No if we stay here long enough he will come back to us. A lie always returns to its point of issue. Lies are fired around the globe as though in a giant collider and when they meet the showers of quodlibets that are created contain truths which fly to each other and make one big truth.
John – What is that truth.
F.B. – You’re sitting on my hat. Let’s go, here he is now.


dsquared 02.23.10 at 2:05 pm

I’m sure #36 is in some way wrong, but I’ve not read much of Chesterton and can’t say exactly how.


alex 02.23.10 at 2:05 pm

Where’s Kipling in this thread? Did I miss something?


ajay 02.23.10 at 2:23 pm

44: mentioned in passing in comments 7 and 33.

43: I know what you mean. Maybe he never, in fact, liked Chesterton’s newspaper works at all?

42: ?


kid bitzer 02.23.10 at 2:24 pm

lb said she kipled, way up.


Tom Hurka 02.23.10 at 2:56 pm

I enjoyed The Club of Queer Trades, many years ago. And Tony van Bridge (Canadian actor) did a one-man GKC show in the 1970s that I saw and liked. I probably didn’t have much clue about what was going on, though.


Walt 02.23.10 at 3:01 pm

43: They’re both by Emily Dickinson.


BT 02.23.10 at 3:06 pm

I will add my vote for TMWWT and also suggest that Max Beerbohm’s parody of Chesterton, “Some Damnable Lies About Christmas,” is pretty amusing:


LizardBreath 02.23.10 at 3:09 pm

41: Oh, I don’t think Kipling ever said anything as rude about Americans as he did about the Germans. And I’d agree that he was less racist than plenty of other writers of his time.

32: I think that TNONH is a bit more complex than LB thinks: Auberon Quin doesn’t want to bring back war, he wants to bring back pageantry. He has a decade of peaceful silliness as King before war breaks out.

Yes but. You’re right that the goal is small-scale patriotism and pageantry, but a certain amount of slaughter is presented as a proportionate and necessary route to that goal. There’s a really disturbing conversation between Quin and Wayne, where Wayne acknowledges that his Notting Hill patriotism sounds absurd to most people, and says that it won’t sound absurd once some blood is shed for it. Here.

To the extent that we’re supposed to take that as argument for a position that Chesterton sympathizes with, it’s impressively wrongheaded. And I don’t think the harmlessness of the battle as presented in the book helps it — one of the scariest arguments for war, that we’ve seen a lot of in the last decade, is that this time the casualties are going to be negligible: this one will be a fun little war.


robert the red 02.23.10 at 3:51 pm

I listened to Thursday and a handful of Father Brown stories on my iPod. I found them tedious and tendentious, and thought the religiosity was especially awful. On the other hand, I had avoided Kipling for years, but finally listened to Kim and thought it was great fun.


ajay 02.23.10 at 4:19 pm

49: I wasn’t saying that the battle is presented as harmless – just that it’s not presented as heroic. There’s no great moment with Wayne, sword in hand, facing off against the oncoming hordes of Kensington. He just makes a strategic retreat to Campden Hill and threatens to drown them all like rats in a trap. Utterly unheroic and very effective. (Of course, the final battle is quite the opposite.)

Agreed that Wayne’s views on the sacrament of bloodshed are really disturbing: but Quin finds them horrifying too, remember. Of the two, he’s definitely the one closest to being Chesterton’s author-mouthpiece.

Wayne’s views, meanwhile, sound disturbing, but they’re pretty accurate. How many tourists does Carroll Valley, PA, get every year? How many go to the little town just up the road? If you want people to hold your cause sacred, as hundreds of patriots and rebels and terrorists have found, there’s no ink brighter than martyrs’ blood.


Rich Puchalsky 02.23.10 at 4:31 pm

“The idea that Adam Wayne in Napoleon is meant to be a fantastic version of Chesterton himself […]”

I think that people (i.e. in comments 34 and 35, and in previous comments by LizardBreath) seem to have a different idea than I do of what a Gary Stu / Mary Sue is. It’s not a fantastic version of yourself. It’s the hero the author would like to be. It need not have any resemblance to the actual characteristics of the author. In Chesterton’s case, given his ideals, I could well believe that his wish-fulfillment ideal was a lot stupider, yet more influential, than he himself was.


Ralph Hitchens 02.23.10 at 4:33 pm

“The Ballad of the White Horse” was an inspring epic poem, and “Lepanto” in the same vein.


LizardBreath 02.23.10 at 4:39 pm

Oh, Wayne’s views are descriptively accurate, it’s just that the idea of wars as desirable because they have the effect of making people attached to a place is grotesquely misguided. All the tchotchkes sold and the lectures delivered at Gettysburg don’t make the blood shed there worthwhile. And while Wayne isn’t generally a mouthpiece for Chesterton, it’s hard for me to read the book and not think that Chesterton’s arguing through him at that point — that this is a point where Wayne’s supposed to be correcting Quin’s insensitivity.


bigcitylib 02.23.10 at 4:46 pm

Man who was Thurs. Awesome. Everything else. Meh.


Rich Puchalsky 02.23.10 at 4:54 pm

What’s good about Thursday? Well, if you take away Chesterton’s defensively supplied authorial guidance — “its a nightmare, that’s all. Nothing to see here, move along” — it presents God as the creep that you always sort of suspected he was. God is Sunday, the simultaneous James Bond villain and (ooh, spoilers! stop reading here!) shadowy police department head, like M in the Bond stories. The police detectives who pretend to be anarchists are, as the ending makes clear, really all of us. (I’m thinking of the scene where they all ask God why evil exists, and their queries range from the philosophical to an agonized and childlike “why does it have to hurt so much?”) In Thursday, Chesterton is able to confront a God whose role as chief anarchist is really inseparable from his role as chief policeman.

The usual Chesterton smugness is there — at the end, he has to triumphantly announce that the reason everyone has to suffer is because people hate fat policemen, an objection which Chesterton forced into his anarchist character’s mouth so to speak — but the overall nightmare-vision is enough so that Chesterton was taken away from his usual tub-thumping to a large extent.

The over-the-top element is of a particular kind, too. It’s the Gary Stu-ization — all right, the wish-fulfillment — of *everyone*. His police need cool anarchists to fight against, so the anarchists are made just as honorable, just as rich — they eat lobster in their hideout — as the aristocratic-values people who fight them. They aren’t actual anarchists, of course: Chesterton shows no sign of knowing what anarchism is actually about.


baa 02.23.10 at 6:01 pm

Unsurprisingly, I find myself entirely in agreement with Lizardbreath (Hi LB!).

Man Who Was Thursday and Napoleon of Notting Hill are both great. I’d also recommend The Club of Queer Trades. The appeals of Chesterton are, I think, as follows:

1. Prose style. Either you like it or you don’t, but it’s not usual.
2. Imagination. In “Club of Queer Trades” the retired Major Brown walks down a random suburban street to find a garden in which “Death to Major Brown” is spelled out in a vast pattern of pansies. The rest of the story is explaining this arresting tableau.
3. Unpredictability. Chesterton is quite explicitly a dogmatist. But he’s also an odd duck. This makes him interesting.


bert 02.23.10 at 6:35 pm


I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made.

Doggerel for Kippers. Doesn’t even reach the complacent mediocrity of Betjeman.


phosphorious 02.23.10 at 6:40 pm

A defense of the father Brown stories: They are deliberately gimmicky beyond belief. One of the clever plans a villain uses (in “The Wrong Shape” I believe) relies crucially on the use/mention distinction.

It’s as if Chesterton has set out to show that there isn’t anything that can be used to motivate a mystery story.


Tim 02.23.10 at 7:57 pm

I read “Orthodoxy” nearly twenty years ago and loved it, though I doubt I would agree with much of it now. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Chesterton, however. I was raised in a fundamentalist home and he was key in my moving beyond it. For me, and many others I imagine, folks like Chesterton and Lewis were gateway drugs to a larger world.


monboddo 02.24.10 at 1:27 am

Yes to TMWWT — a lot of fun. Bored by Father Brown, more bored by the religious stuff. And while I was never a big fan of most of CS Lewis’s stuff, The Screwtape Letters is great, not so much for the devils as for the insights into human nature.


Ginger Yellow 02.24.10 at 12:12 pm

My experiences with C.S. Lewis are identical to mine with Tom Wolfe: nearly every sentence screams out its stupidity and immorality

I certainly feel that way about CS Lewis’s theology, but I found The Discarded Image to be superb. Then again, I’m not a mediaevalist, just someone who has read a fair bit of mediaeval English literature.


Anderson 02.24.10 at 5:57 pm

45: Okay, whoever wrote that, I am willing to read more by him.

C.S. Lewis: the charm of his works is that Lewis is writing to convince himself. The tedium of his works is that Lewis is writing to convince himself. You can go back & forth between these poles in many a given paragraph.


Kellie 02.24.10 at 7:18 pm

My favorite Chesterton book is a selection of his poems called “Collected Nonsense and Light Verse.” It’s out of print, but well worth tracking down. It has poems, parodies, dedications scribbled in books, and a bunch of his own drawings.

Here’s one of the shortest:

Workers fly back and forth like piston-rods
And clerks like clocks strike eight or nine or ten:
Say, you who know when men will be like gods,
In what wild future men will be like men.

And a longer one, because I can’t resist:

Lord Lilac thought it rather rotten
That Shakespeare should be quite forgotten,
And therefore got on a Committee
With several chaps out of the City,
And Shorter and Sir Herbert Tree,
Lord Rothschild and Lord Rosebery,
And F.C.G. and Comyns Carr,
Two dukes and a dramatic star,
Also a clergy man now dead;
And while the vain world careless sped
Unheeding the heroic name —
The souls most fed with Shakespeare’s flame
Still sat unconquered in a ring,
Remembering him like anything.

Lord Lilac did not long remain,
Lord Lilac did not come again.
He softly lit a cigarette
And sought some other social set
Where, in some other knots or rings,
People were doing cultured things,
— Miss Zwilt’s Humane Vivarium
— The little men that paint on gum
— The exquisite Gorilla Girl. . . .
He sometimes, in this giddy whirl
(Not being really bad at heart),
Remembered Shakespeare with a start —
But not with that grand constancy
Of Clement Shorter, Herbert Tree,
Lord Rosebery and Comyns Carr
And all the other names there are;
Who stuck like limpets to the spot,
Lest they forgot, lest they forgot.

Lord Lilac was of slighter stuff;
Lord Lilac had had quite enough.


originally from New Jersey 02.24.10 at 7:40 pm

I recall great excitement reading Orthodoxy and delight with The Coloured Lands, forty years ago. I had just come from a Catholic boarding school (the one that Christopher Buckley sometimes pokes fun at) where Chesterton, Belloc, and Lewis were commonly assigned or cited, and one of the memorable (and packed) Christian Doctrine courses centered on “Lewis, Tolkien, and The Inklings”. Somehow I never read TMWWT.

Meanwhile, I’m sure that many folks here also read Adam Gopnik’s appreciation in the The New Yorker, but anyway:

This year is the hundredth anniversary of G. K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday,” one of the hidden hinges in twentieth-century writing, the place where the nonsense-fantastical tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear pivots and becomes the nightmare-fantastical tradition of Kafka and Borges. Chesterton is an easy writer to love. His aphorisms alone are worth the price of admission. But he is a difficult writer to defend. …

[That’s from the NYer abstract, but I think it’s quoting Gopnik directly.]


bob mcmanus 02.24.10 at 7:58 pm

“But although these appearances accurately represent the truth about [GF Watts], though he is in reality modest and even fantastically modest, there is another element in him…and it is something which many in these days would call a splendid and inspired impudence. It is that wonderful if simple power of preaching, of claiming to be heard…it is the audacious faculty of mounting a pulpit.

It is of course the very element of confidence which has in our day become least common and least possible. We know we are brilliant and distinguished, but we do not know we are right. We swagger in fantastic artistic costumes; we praise ourselves; we fling epigrams right and left; we have the courage to play the egoist and the courage to play the fool, but we have not the courage to preach.”

From G. F. Watts at the Internet Archive.

From same, paraphrased, the three qualities of the great Victorians: 1) skeptical idealism, 2) didactic simplicity, 3) cosmic utilitarianism.


bob mcmanus 02.24.10 at 8:12 pm

More from work cited in 68:

“It is difficult to know whether [the Victorian atmosphere] should be called doubt or faith. For if, on the one hand, real faith would have been more confident, real doubt, on the other hand, would have been more indifferent. The attitude of that age of which the middle and best parts of Watts’ work is most typical, was an attitude of devouring and concentrated interest in things which were, by their own system, impossible or unknowable. Men were, in the main, agnostics: they said, “We do not know” but not one of them ever ventured to say, “We do not care.”


Vance Maverick 02.24.10 at 8:46 pm

John H (up there — I don’t trust the stability of the comment numbers): when I click that link I see a hand turning the pages.

Unrelatedly, your own blog is gathering spam.


mor 02.25.10 at 9:34 am

@67, Anderson:
It is a terrible thing to be politically suspect but a much worse fate to be both political and suspicious, to doubt whether any piece of fine writing which is not approved might not be the thin edge of some wedge. A wedge is a good thing to stay a door but it is unlikely to be supplanted by a subjunctive.

‘Orthodoxy’, as the Irish say, does not dig with the right foot or in this case jerk with the left knee. There are all manners of genuflexion none more tiresome than the ‘Young Socialists guide to Correctness’.

The problem with ‘Orthodoxy’ is that GKC cannot find the switch that toggles the paradox generator. We all love surprises and proceeding by lateral lunges but less is more in this case. Two Belgian chocs with your coffee is a treat, 6 will leave you sickened.


ajay 02.25.10 at 10:20 am

45: Okay, whoever wrote that, I am willing to read more by him.

I too. But Google is powerless.


Jeet Heer 02.25.10 at 8:12 pm

I belong to the one of the smallest clubs in the world: leftists who like G.K. Chesterton. Zizek is also a member of this club.

A bit more should be said about Chesterton the literary critic. His writings on Dickens are superb, and he has interesting insights into most of his contemporaries. In Othodoxy, GKC destroyed Kipling’s power-worshiping pseudo-patriotism.

Chesterton’s politics were mostly silly and/or bad. But to his credit he did oppose eugenics and imperialism.


Greg 02.26.10 at 8:10 am

A reluctant Chesterton admirer, I was taken aback by The Man Who Was Thursday, an audacious box of tricks dampened only by some soppy rhetoric. Hoping it was a flash in the pan, I went on to The Napoleon, which was initially promisingly unpromising but turned out to be a sort of proto-Ballardian narrative along the lines of Cocaine Nights, crime lubricating society out of moral stasis. I had found Ballard oddly at odds with Borges, citing the Argentine daedalian’s love of Chesterton as a big turn-off on the occasion of their meeting; I suspect that now I know why … It seems as though I’m doomed to read a few Father Brown tales too. (But Stevenson wipes the floor with Fat Gilbert.)


SamChevre 03.01.10 at 5:35 pm

Also, The Ballad of Saint Barbara is not to be missed.

They are firing, we are falling, and the red skies rend and shiver us,
Barbara, Barbara, we dare not loose a breath–
Be at the bursting doors of doom, and in the dark deliver us,
Who loosen the last window on the sun of sudden death.

Obviously, a WWI poem.
*Saint Barbara–the patron saint of artillery.

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