EDITOR’S NOTE.—Standing out from the brilliant galaxy who are making a new literature in England to-day one figure catches the eye and holds the attention. G. K. Chesterton is a remarkable figures in literature for many reasons, the
chief of which is that he is distinctly different from anyone else who has ever essayed to put thoughts on paper. His viewpoint is new and yet old as the hills. He is teaching a new philosophy in a delightfully amusing and thrillingly sincere way
THERE are all sorts of things to see in London. The guide book will tell you to be sure and go through the Tower, and pay a visit to the British Museum, and on no account to miss Buckingham Palace, where the King lives, and the spot in Whitehall, marked by a tablet, from which a king stepped out to his death. At Westminster, if you are lucky, you may see the Cabinet in the flesh, and at Madame Tussaud’s you may see the Cabinet, in wax.
All these, and many others, are the sights of London.
But there is one view you simply must catch. If you don’t, you haven’t really “done” London. The view is that of a quaint figure who may be seen in Fleet Street, the birthplace and burial ground of literary reputation, about the time when the papers make ready to go to press. The quaint figure is that of Mr. Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Years ago, American visitors to London felt their visit incomplete unless they caught a glimpse of Disraeli, the Wizard in the House, or of Victoria, who held the reins and ruled an empire for sixty years. To-day, American visitors to London would like to see the King, but they must see Chesterton. Mr. Asquith is interesting, but Mr. Chesterton is fascinating. Mr.
Chesterton is a sight of London.
And the reason why he is one of the lions, is that he has made himself one. Nobody discovered him and boomed him and entertained him into fame. G. K. would scorn the very idea. But everything he writes is an invitation to come and see this burning bush, which is not consumed. He doesn’t entertain you alone by what he writes. The personality behind the book puzzles and attracts. You may read W. D. Howells, but you don’t care a hang whether you see him or not. You may wax enthusiastic over Marie Corelli, but you are not particularly interested in what she looks like, although perhaps in her case you might like to thank the lady who made Stratford-on-Avon famous, as the resi-
dence of one Marie Corelli, the same Stratford-on-Avon which, incidentally, quite incidentally, was also the birthplace of one William Shakespeare, now deceased. But the point is that books, more than their authors, attract the reader. Jack London is still Jack London, whether he wears long hair, or is prematurely bald. In Mr. Chesterton’s case, however, it is different. Whether you pick up “The Defendant,” which is sense, or “The Flying Inn,” which is nonsense, you wonder what this fellow looks like who dares to disprove—quite to your satisfaction, while you are reading him—what the newer thought and the higher criticism lays down as standard, and to impudently champ i o n a cause —
sane and crazy, incontrovertible and impossible.
See him as he wobbles down Fleet Street. He wobbles, he doesn’t strut, or walk, or stride. The only time he varies his gait is when he rolls from side to side down the corridor of the Daily News. A man of actual middle height, he looks short because he is stupendously fat. He wears a suit for the making of which his tailor ought to be turned out of the union, and a broad hat, which might, with equal suitability, be worn by a Mexican sharpshooter, or an Italian impresario. He would scorn to have a shave when he needs it, but he wouldn’t grow a beard, because he knows he ought to. He is so broad both ways that he would be a powerful argument against the overcrowding in the Toronto street cars, and so round that he might be taken for a geographer’s globe. A massive head crowns a massive body, and a shock of hair that is neither curly nor straight tumbles back from a fine, broad brow, indicating breadth of intellectuality. He loves to be shabby because he is quite sure that the dirty state is the happy state, being also the first state, and because he has money enough to dress like a respectable retired major, with money. Alfred Noyes may look like a prosperous stockbroker, but G. K. Chesterton — “never!" To sum him up, he is a mixture, in the proportion of one and one, of the late Doctor Johnson and Mr. Arthur Hawkes. The doctor cannot, perforce, be either flattered or offended by the comparison, and Mr. Hawkes —when I dared mention it to him—was anything but displeased. So much for a sight of Mr. Chesterton in the flesh.
It is more difficult to see the man through the mirror of his writing. Not that the mirror is cracked, but the glass reflection that is confusing.
up in the He takes it
His books may be summed phrase, “Let me reform you.” for granted that we all need reforming. His most notable book is “What’s Wrong With the World.” Note that it isn’t a question. It does not ask, “What’s
your satisfaction—-for which you know very well there should be no serious champion. G. K. C. has made a name and a fortune out of pulling the wool over the eyes of people who read his voraciously, and who know his writings to be at once
wrong?” It shows what’s wrong. And what is wrong is wrong because, in the main, it is modernism. In effect, G. K. Chesterton says to his readers, “Heterodoxy is your doxy; orthodoxy is my doxy; even though my orthodoxy is paradoxical” He cries out against the hollowness and superstition of modernism. Mr. Lloyd-George is right when he cries, “Back to the Land,” for in the beginning of things the land was the people’s and there is no denying it. Mr. Chesterton stands in front of the world which would rush on to things because they are new, and, cracking his whip of laughing seriousness, cries, “Back, back to orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has been proven. Modernism hasn’t. You would plunge into a new cosmos because it is new, but you ought to abide by the old cosmos because it is old, and has been tried, and was not found wanting.” He is tired of the new cult which must be forever running after something that is novel. For instance, in a book about Mr. Bernard Shaw, he told him that though he was a clever fellow and a charming, he was a Calvinist—a new Calvinist. He pointed out that Mr. Shaw’s Calvinism is wrong, because to the Calvinist each daily act can’t very much matter, because he is ordained to do it since the day he was born, and is therefore only filling up his time to the crack of doom. To the anticalvinist, whether he is Protestant or Catholic, each moment of life is thrilling and interesting; to the Calvinist it is, by his own confession, automatic and uninteresting. To the Arminian, the three score years and ten are the battle. To the Calvinist, they are the mere procession of the victors in laurels and the vanquished in chains.
From that, Mr. Chesterton goes on to cry down the new Eugenist cult because the Eugenist would educate the child before he exists. Says G. K., in substance, “It isn’t fair. Because the father and the mother are the parents of the children that doesn’t settle the disposition of the child. It doesn’t even settle the good looks or the ugliness of the child, since the child may get his ugliness from a mother who is beautiful, or his good looks from a father that is ugly.” So, he goes -on, the Eugenist would swear away a force which is eternal, the force which is responsible for every child being different to every other child, that came be-
fore, or comes after. He is right when he says, “You can’t make a child fit, simply by having fit parents, since the fitness or otherwise of the child depends on other influences besides parentage.” And so on.
Mr. Chesterton is out to do one thing. He is out to reform, not by bringing in new ideas, but by pointing to the virtues of the old. He wants people to see that the slightest thing is significant because of its unseverable connection with the great and glorious past, even if the great and glorious past has something shameful in it, as he would paradoxically put it. He refuses to acquiesce when folk supersede the banner of the past by the banner of the future, though he admits the modifying influence of the future. He wants no new theology, because we haven’t had time to disprove the old. He wants no new political economy, because the old—if it were faithfully practised— could not be bettered. He doesn’t want reforms because they are re-forms, but would cling to the forms that have been, slightly changed to suit the present need. He admits the new light of new circumstance, but it cannot radically alter. It only lightens, or shades. The old has been proven; the new must be proved, and more often than not, it won’t hold water when measured by the standards that have held cosmos—Chesterton’s pet word—together for so many generations. What’s wrong with the world is that it runs away from the past simply because crinolines took up more room than hobble skirts, and gallantry took up more time than boorishness.
Sometimes this philosophy of Mr. Chesterton misses fire, and there is only smoke, because it is recited with a laugh, or more fittingly, a guffaw. But then, as G. K. C. takes care to often remind you, “cosmos is, after all, very comic,” and if a philosopher is a laughing philosopher, he is none the less philosophic, necessarily. If it were otherwise, Punch and Life, which point a moral through the vehicle of a joke, would be fiascos as teachers. Yet I once met a man who told me he worshipped twice on Sunday, once at church, and once in the parlor with Punch in his hand. Mr. Chesterton is something more than funny; he is witty. And he is witty because he is wise. If his wisdom pills are fun-coated, they are none the less good medicine.
What a paradox Chesterton is! When he is most serious he laughs loudest. To say because he is laughing at you, ergo, he is insincere, is quite wrong. But he believes in laughing (perhaps that is why he is so fat) though you might not think it to look at his frowning face.
His charm as a writer is that he is so efficient a master of ceremonies. He has ideas which are his puppets, and he makes them, whenever he wants, gyrate and dance with a maximum of inanity. But underneath the inanity there is not insanity. He is more inconsistent than H. G. Wells. Indeed, he is only consistent in his inconsistency. It was G. K. C. who proved black was white, but he still believes that black is black and white is white. Everything he writes is so alive because he takes old-as-Adam ideas and common happenings, and somehow sees something fresh in all of them. And always the fresh vision is the obvious one. Most people see; Chesterton perceives. Witty epigram and daring paradox are the wheels of his Juggernaut wisdom. He takes you with him through familiar country and shows you pastures new, which are nevertheless very old. He points out what you have missed in the old, because you are digging in the earth, and sweeping the heavens for something novel. Through Crazy Highway, and Exaggerated Byway, he arrives at his journey’s end, the convincing and converting of the man he is talking to or writing for. And you find you really weren’t going anywhere at all, but the journey was intended to show you how little you knew, and how much you deceived yourself about the steadfastness of the knowledge you thought you had.
Mr. Chesterton is doing a great work. He has made religion and politics burning questions for many who thought them a heap of dead ashes. The Liberal party in general and the Daily News in particular, in Great Britain, know his power and his worth. He takes the facts of life and with them he quashes the fancies that don’t matter. He would have you believe that it isn’t such a bad old world after all. He wants you to laugh at it so that you are in the mood for improving it. His books are rare homilies, and unlike some homilies you hear in church, you can’t go to sleep during their recital.
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