Last month, autumn sharpness in the evening air, a birthday was celebrated in London. It deserves to be celebrated everywhere. At Saint Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place, a group came together from different countries and many walks of life to acknowledge the happy fact that The Chesterton Review has just turned 30. Literary jamborees are ten a penny (the London Review of Books is just out of short trousers at 25) but this one was special. Founded in 1974 by Fr Ian Boyd, a Canadian priest of legendary scholarship, the journal is one of the small glories of our time. The novelist Barbara Lucas Wall has called it “one of the best quarterly reviews, if not the best, currently in existence”. Joseph Sobran, an American columnist with sharp elbows, has praised its “genius for bringing to life a whole age of modern prophets”. The Princeton philosopher Robert George describes it as “a rebuke to those who think that serious writing cannot be fun to read”. The plaudits are well deserved. Over the years the review has brought together writers of the calibre of Paul Johnson, Philip Jenkins, Sheridan Gille, and Garret Fitzgerald to explore not only Chesterton’s world but our own. It has devoted special issues to Cardinal Manning, Christopher Dawson, New Age movements, Chesterton and Ireland, Eastern Europe in the postcommunist era. It has launched a renewed interest in its subject from Australia to Argentina, from the Balkans to the Baltic. Here is a journal, like Chesterton himself, marvellously versatile and engaged. If you have missed it, you should give it a try.
But all of this, you might think, caters to a minority taste. Creator of a famous detective, author of some novels and plays, a poet and a philosopher, a journalist of genius, Chesterton has become, in the popular imagination, an amiable toby jug of a man, scattering aphorism and paradox wherever he went. “I see him as one riding through life scattering largesse,” Desmond McCarthy once wrote of him. “In his best poetry and prose there is the literary equivalent of that generosity of nature, of that magnanimity. I never tire of a chivalrous radiance that shines through his work.” That is true and well put. But it also medievalises a modern man. Put on a shelf, Chesterton is too often admired from a distance – cosy, unthreatening, nice. The appeal, if it still exists, is to fin de siècle types: antiquarians, nostalgiasts, browsers in second-hand bookshops. Nothing could be further from the truth. Chesterton is a strikingly contemporary figure. What preoccupies us preoccupied him: the urgency of economic justice, the need for people-sized communities, the dangers of imperialism, the tragedy of war, the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death. Returning to England nearly 70 years after his death, he would discover a world still in need of his wisdom. That is why we need to rediscover him. That is why we need The Chesterton Review.
Take economics. Long before the “Third Way” became the talk of the town, Chesterton wrote a book called The Outline of Sanity, anticipating some of its arguments but avoiding its all-too-obvious vapidity. Current politicians could read it with profit. A plea for common sense in our commercial arrangements, and a sharp attack on monopoly capitalism, the book put the case for small proprietorships, for independent businesses, for work on a human scale. The little shop, the family farm, the village co-operative: these were Chesterton’s answers to collectivism (whether capitalist or Communist) and consumerism. The latter, he knew, had the unfortunate effect of consuming even the consumer himself. There was even an awkward name for this social vision – distributism – which spawned a popular movement even now admired throughout the developing world. “I am defending property,” Chesterton said in 1933, “the essential insignia of freedom.” He deplored any system in which authentic communities – the town, the neighbourhood, the family itself – were crushed by conglomerates. He urged the importance of custom, tradition, regional memory. He reposed a wonderful and exuberant trust in the common man. He hated homogeneity, loved the local. An Ealing comedy world? Mere Passport to Pimlico? Out of touch with modern times? Hardly. The Outline of Sanity made its point in its very title and sustained it, with wit and passion, for another 200 pages. Recent professors please copy. Their new thinking is not as new as they think.
Or take imperialism and war. Chesterton had decided views on both. A child of high Victorianism, in his prime as the Edwardian summer afternoon clouded into 1914, he lived long enough to see his country at war in Ireland, in Africa, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. Does this sound familiar? No pacifist, he warned nonetheless of the folly of empire – corrupting to the conquering power, disastrous to the conquered. He preferred his nations to be autonomous and free – Belgium, Ireland, Poland, Spain. Perhaps, you might think, he simply favoured Catholic countries. Not so. He promoted Boerdom in South Africa. Perhaps, you might equally claim, his idealised nations were not so ideal in reality. But that was not an argument against the ideal but another argument in its favour. To fall short, after all, is at least to recognise a goal worthy of our grasp. Chesterton, once again, has words of warning to our own belligerent time.
Take, finally, human life itself. John Paul II has spoken powerfully of a “culture of death” eating at the very fabric of our late modern world. We see it so frequently and so graphically that, by now, we hardly see it at all. Abortion as a consumer right; mercy killing as a duty to the old and enfeebled (and then to the not-so-old, the not-so-enfeebled); embryos as genetic material to be used and abused, created and destroyed: that is our portion and our cup. At the heart of it, surely, is the notion of human persons as objects, not subjects; of people as instruments of social convenience; of the banquet of life to be hoarded, not shared. There will come a reckoning for this, and it will not be pretty. Brilliantly, though, Chesterton saw this coming and warned against it. Eugenics and Other Evils, published in 1922, was prophetic then, more so now. Read it and see the dystopia of our day. Read it and see why Chesterton leads the way. The Outline of Sanity is not the only book in which he outlined sanity. He did so every time he lifted his pen.
There is reason for joy, then, at that literary birthday last month ago. There is reason, too, for hope. For 30 years, The Chesterton Review has kept alive a man, his work, his world, above all his vision. That vision was uniquely cheerful, grateful, generous and sane. Maurice Reckitt, Chesterton’s contemporary, wrote in the opening issue of the Review that Chesterton’s main message to us is that “what is most dangerous today is a surrender to the belief that life is not meaningful and hardly worth fighting for.” Reginald Jebb, Hilaire Belloc’s son-in-law, echoed the idea. Commanding the first page of the first issue, he spoke of Chesterton’s “fierce denunciation of injustice, his immense imaginative scope, his illuminating appreciation of everyday sights and experiences, his deep absorption in the small things of life.” That was a good motto for 30 years of work. It is a good motto for our world today.
Dermot Quinn is Professor of History at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, the United States.
The Chesterton Review is published by the Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture. For editorial or subscription information, contact Stratford Caldecott, Chesterton Institute, 6a King Street, Oxford OX2 6DF. Tel. 01865 552154 or e-mail [email protected]