Posted in Book Lovers Community

Wisdom and Innocence

wisdom-and-innocence

Like a great wind after a night of thunder
He rocked the sodden marches of the soul
And ripped the mists of cowardice asunder
With laughter vivid as an aureole.

He does not need to knock against the Gate
Who every action like a prayer ascended
And beat upon the panels. Trumpets, wait
For a hushed instant. We love him. It is ended.

-Jewish poet Humbert Wolfe about G.K. Chesterton

Like its subject, this book is massive, jolly, and erudite. Joseph Pearce has a master work in this tome, and like David McCullough in John Adams, he has enabled me to truly fall in love with this robust Jongleur de Dieu. If you read only one work from Joseph Pearce or only one biography on Gilbert Keith Chesterton, let it be this one. Pearce’s careful scholarship really allows Chesterton to tell his own story through quotes from books, articles, and letters.

trio.jpg
George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and GKC

I have always been skeptical of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, but Pearce showed how much and why Chesterton loved them, which helped me to want to love them too. I was generally uninterested in Hilaire Belloc and totally unaware of Msgr. Ronald Knox, but thanks to this beautiful testimony of GKC’s love and admiration of these men, I feel as though I have found friends in heaven. In this nearly 500 page adventure into the wisdom and innocence of this loving, brilliant, and gentle man, Pearce has drawn such an intimate and life-like portrait that I feel as though I had really known Chesterton. Because this book is so authentic, my reading buddy and I sobbed through the last chapter and feel as though he and Frances just died again.

francis.jpg

“The writer may put himself in the position of the ordinary modern outsider and enquirer; as indeed the present writer was still largely and was once entirely in that position.” – GK Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi

This work from Pearce is being told from the vantage point of someone who was once an outsider and for whom his subject was responsible in part for his coming “in”. The genius of this work is not in the recalling of interesting facts about Chesterton’s life. It is in the careful scholarship which allowed Pearce to edit the facts and source material into a cogent retelling. As Chesterton did on so many occasions as a biographer, Pearce puts himself in the shoes of someone who knows little or nothing about one of the most famous men in England before WWII and tries to tell them a story worth hearing. Like Chesterton, Pearce has written many biographies. Like Chesterton, some of his biographies are interesting but a bit detached. Again, like Chesterton, this one is like the “modern outsider and enquirer; as indeed the present writer was still largely and was once entirely in that position.”

Race-with-the-Devil-My-Journey-from-Racial-Hatred-to-Rational-Love.jpg

Without going off on too much of a tangent, I think that it is important to know something of Pearce. In his early life Pearce was a radical white supremacist who was imprisoned twice for publishing racially charged and rebellious pamphlets, and other radical activity. During his second prison sentence, he was in solitary confinement for many months and he filled his days with reading. Along with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many other modern Christian writers, Chesterton cut through Pearce’s tough exterior and penetrated something in his soul. Through reading Chesterton, Pearce gained a rational response to the chaos of his internal world. Their shared love of Distributism (a form of economics similar to but different from Libertarianism) and journalism allowed Pearce to really listen to and trust Chesterton. Wisdom and Innocence reads like a powerful testimony given by an adoptive son about the magnificence and affability of his adoptive father. Pearce loves his subject and seems to want his readers to know and truly love Chesterton too.

Despite being a substantially sized offering, I would recommend this biography to anyone who desires to meet Chesterton for the first time or get to know him better. In many ways, Pearce has arranged this book to be a primer on the gentle soul and to help us approach his writing appropriately. There is no question that Pearce has read Chesterton extensively and understands his subject well. As he moves through GKC’s life and highlights the writing of that moment, he gives us valuable context so that we can see what was really at work. I don’t think that I am ever going to really love The Napoleon of Notting Hill, but thanks to Pearce, I believe that I will understand it well enough to appreciate the effort.

Chesterton-and-Frances.jpg

The real problem with a 450+ page biography is that the reader is so invested by the last chapter. I read The Woman Who Was Chesterton and loved it. I cried when they died. And yet, the book was so short and the description of their deaths was so brief that I could not remember who died first. In Pearce’s account, I sobbed and sobbed. I spent nearly 5 months reading this book at a rate of a chapter per week. The deaths of Gilbert and Frances haunted me as I rounded the bend towards the end. And when they came, I was like Belloc. “Hilaire Belloc was found after the funeral weeping tears of disconsolate isolation into a pint of beer outside the Railway Hotel.” (p. 483)

“Holy Father deeply grieved death Mr. Gilbert Keith Chesterton devoted son Holy Church gifted Defender of the Catholic Faith. His Holiness offers paternal sympathy people of England assures prayers dear departed, bestows Apostolic Benediction.” – A telegram from Cardinal Pacelli (future Pope Pius XII) for and on behalf of Pope Pius XI to Frances Chesterton upon the news of the death of her husband.

I want to thank Mr. Pearce. I had prayed for a way to know and understand Mr. Chesterton better. After several years of reading and searching, I found the man brilliant and funny but still a bit unknowable. Thanks to Mr. Pearce, I now feel as though I have found a kindred spirit whom I will read for the rest of my life.

gkc.jpg

Advertisements
Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton

“. . . a real life of anybody is a very difficult thing to write; and as I have failed two or three times in trying to do it to other people, I am under no illusion that I can really do it to myself.”

13918633_10154363372744941_261042429_o

And really, what he wrote isn’t in the style we have come to expect of an autobiography.  There is no timeline of events.  I didn’t keep track, but it may be the case that the date of his birth on the first page is the last date he offers.  There is very little comment on the details of his life, no juicy details of the lives of anyone else he knew.  He seems downright reluctant to air his, or anyone else’s, dirty laundry.  He doesn’t try to blame his parents or his teachers for anything.

“I am sorry if the landscape or the people appear disappointingly respectable and even reasonable, and deficient in all those unpleasant qualities that make a biography really popular.  I regret that I have no gloomy and savage father to offer to the public gaze as the true cause of all my tragic heritage; no pale-faced and partially poisoned mother whose suicidal instincts have cursed me with the temptations of the artistic temperament.  I regret that there was nothing in the range of our family much more racy than a remote and mildly impecunious uncle; and that I cannot do my duty as a true modern, by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am.  I am not clear about what that is; but I am pretty sure that most of it is my own fault.”

What did I learn about Chesterton from himself?  It seems almost by accident that he relates a bit of the thinking behind the writing of The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which would have been good information to have had before I read them.  

I get the impression that he may have been one of the few Christians who has actually considered others more important than himself.  This book is more a catalog of people he knew and who influenced him than it is about him.  He may truly have believed that the famous people who were his friends were much more interesting than he was.  Perhaps it’s just the journalist in him.  Even in his autobiography, he’s still reporting.  One chapter is devoted to his brother.  Some of the chapter titles are, “Figures in Fleet Street,” “Friendship and Foolery,” “Some Political Celebrities,” “Some Literary Celebrities,” and “Portrait of a Friend.” Six of sixteen chapters almost exclusively about people he knew rather than about himself.  It’s almost as if he sees himself more as an observer of people than as a celebrity himself.

Chesterton dearly loved a good argument, but he had the rare quality of being able to argue ideas with a man yet still consider that man his friend.

“My brother, Cecil Edward Chesterton, was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue. . . I am glad to think that through all those years we never stopped arguing; and we never once quarreled.”

13900897_10154363373719941_386445280_n

“I have always had a weakness for arguing with anybody; and this involved all that contemporary nihilism against which I was then in revolt; and for about five minutes, in a publisher’s office, I actually argued with Thomas Hardy.”

In the last chapter, Chesterton refers to, “taking a serene review of an indefensibly fortunate and happy life.”  He seems never to have stopped seeing his life as a gift and the world as place of wonder.   

“The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.”

gkc

“I have said that I had in childhood, and have partly preserved out of childhood, a certain romance of receptiveness, which has not been killed by sin or even by sorrow; for though I have not had great troubles, I have had many.  A man does not grow old without being bothered; but I have grown old without being bored.”