Dr. Edward Peters 

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10 jan 2013

Review of Joseph Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence: a Life of Chesterton (Ignatius, 1996) 537 pp.

Edward Peters, Review of J. Pearce, Wisdom & Innocence: A Life of Chesterton, Homiletic & Pastoral Review (Apr 1999) 78-79.





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Many years before he became a Catholic, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote that “any man who joins the Church can save his soul by it without ever opening [the Holy Bible].” This statement, not even remotely a criticism of Sacred Scripture or its study, of course, is plainly accurate. But if one really can save one’s soul without ever reading the Bible, still less could the writings of G. K. Chesterton himself be touted as indispensable reading for a Christian. Nevertheless, it remains true that any catechist who spends time studying the life and works of G. K. Chesterton (to say nothing of the catechist who makes Scripture a constant source of meditation!) will be richly rewarded for the effort.


There are two basic ways of going about the study of G. K. Chesterton, and Joseph Pearce’s new biography of the man whom many regard as England’s greatest convert since John Henry Newman is an excellent resource for both. First, one could simply take it on faith, as it were, that G. K. Chesterton’s conversion story is one of this century’s most important (Hilaire Belloc certainly thought so, as did Msgr. Ronald Knox), and sit down therefore to read a biography of such an interesting man. This approach is fine, and Pearce’s text would be an excellent choice in this regard. But before I say exactly why Pearce’s book is so good in that context, let me outline the second manner of making catechetical use of G. K. Chesterton’s story, the manner which I feel is likely to be even more fruitful than the first.


G. K. Chesterton was a man who lived life zestfully in words. Much of his time was spent in oral discussion and debate with such influential minds as Belloc, H. G. Wells, and, perhaps most vibrantly of all, George Bernard Shaw. But except for a few late-in-life BBC recordings of Chesterton’s radio addresses (very difficult to find these days) those spoken words are lost to us forever.


Fortunately, though, nearly the whole of the rest of Chesterton’s public life was spent in writing, and those published words are still with us today in a wide variety of sources. The second manner of studying Chesterton is, therefore, to read his richly varied works and, at the same time, to learn about the life of the man behind the words through a solid biography such as Pearce’s.


The more one brings to Joseph Pearce’s comprehensive life of G. K. Chesterton, of course, the more one will take away from it. So, to appreciate better the fascinating portrait which Pearce paints so well, one should first try, for example, to have read one or two of Chesterton short novels, especially The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday; the shorter of his epic poems, Lepanto (the longer and greater work being The Ballad of the White Horse); either of his two classic biographies, St. Francis of Assisi or the somewhat more demanding St. Thomas Aquinas; five or ten of Chesterton’s immensely popular Father Brown detective stories; either of his great apologiae for Christianity, Orthodoxy or The Everlasting Man; and, finally, at least one set of G. K.’s republished essays such as those collected in Generally Speaking or the more overtly Catholic The Thing. With some or all of these writings as background, one would be in a much better position to appreciate the story of Chesterton’s life that Pearce presents.


What makes Chesterton in particular such a rich store for those involved in catechetical work? Many things. Catechists, especially those working with potential converts to the Faith, know that candidates and catechumens come with many questions, real questions, questions on virtually every aspect of Christian faith and life. There was no almost no facet of modern Christianity which Chesterton did not address and write about in a very approachable, almost conversational manner. In brief, Chesterton has already developed answers to many of the most common questions encountered by modern catechists. His witticisms, always based on truth instead of mere cleverness, make him, second only perhaps to Shakespeare, the most-quoted man in English.


Chesterton was among the first, and certainly he was one of the most articulate, writers to address from a Christian perspective such modern issues as (just to scratch the surface): deception in advertising, the massive waste caused a disposable society, artificial contraception and eugenics, the inability of political parties to rule themselves, the dulling effects of suburban life, the need for a free press over a monopolistic one, the dangers of capitalism and the rights of individual workers to organize against moneyed powers, and we have not even touched his apologetic works yet.


So, Chesterton understood what catechists constantly confirm: namely, that the journey to and in Faith is different for converts than it is for so-called cradle Catholics. The latter group, Chesterton once remarked, “have all of the answers before they really know what the questions are.” But Chesterton grappled with the questions before he knew what the answers were, and he struggled with many important issues in a very personal way.


His answers to these questions reach out to us over the decades, retaining their precision, wit, and practicality to our own day. It’s only a matter of finding out where G. K. C. treated these matters in his works. A biography like Pearce’s, although not designed as a critical commentary on the writings of Chesterton, discusses nearly all of G. K. C.’s major works and fits them into an overall picture of the great man’s life.


Pearce, I need hardly say, offers an accurate picture of G. K. Chesterton. The great part of his book skillfully recounts Chesterton’s growth in Faith, his almost-exceptionless common charity, his keen social sense and growing disillusionment with politics, and his ability generally to place his mind at the service of Christian truth. I should also mention, by the way, that Ignatius Press (San Francisco, CA) is now well along in its plans to published the complete works of G. K. Chesterton in a beautiful and attractive edition, each volume edited and introduced by a leading Chesterton scholar. This will ensure that those wishing to study the works discussed by Pearce and other authors can readily find them.


For all his obvious respect for Chesterton, Pearce is not a blind adulator of the man. Indeed, where Pearce disagrees with some of Chesterton’s opinions (for example, Chesterton’s support for World War I, despite his earlier and very unpopular opposition to the Boer War, and despite the death of his own brother in the so-called “war to end all wars”), Pearce says as much. But in every such case, readers are provided with enough information upon which to base their own conclusions about Chesterton’s ideas. If, in the end, Pearce presents a G. K. Chesterton who was right on nearly every major issue he tackled, it’s only because, on nearly every significant question he addressed, Chesterton was right.


It should be noted, finally, that Joseph Pearce is a very young scholar. Having such young talent appear on the scene bodes well for the future of Chesterton studies. At the same time, some of the inexperience of youth will be spotted in this work. For example, at times, some of the information on Chesterton’s life is presented by Pearce somewhat out of chronological order. These slips, however, always minor in nature, and probably the result of Pearce knowing his subject so well that he forgets to tell his reader things in just the right sequence, do not detract from the easy readableness of Pearce’s work overall. Indeed, while nearly every Chesterton biographer recognizes the pride of place which is held by Maisie Ward’s classic 1944 biography of G. K. C., I have no hesitation in recommending Joseph Pearce’s study as an excellent first choice among Chesterton biographies for readers wanting to know more about the life and work of this brilliant convert.


Another review

by Dr. Peters

Gilbert Keith Chesterton once half-hopefully remarked that historians would have a hard time finding any trace of him after his death. Doubtless he squirms in his grave every time a new biography of him comes out. The man who tolerated only one published picture of himself (and that, because it made him look fatter than he was) must count it as new purgatory each time a book-length study his life and work appears. But we of the Church militant, still slogging it out in this Valley of Tears, count it as a fore-taste of heaven to be treated to a new biography of G. K. C., especially when it is done as well Joseph Pearce’s.


It is common in any review of a Chesterton biography to doff one’s cap first to Maise Ward’s classic study of the great man, first published in 1944. I certainly do, and so, I imagine, does Joseph Pearce. That said, and despite my admiration for several of the Chesterton biographies subsequent to Ward’s, and nothwithstanding a few weakness I think there are in Pearce’s, I am firmly of the opinion that Pearce’s work should be reckoned alongside Ward’s in importance for the modern student of G. K. C.


Joseph Pearce is a very young scholar. Cause for rejoicing, that. He writes with obvious respect for his subject, but he has refrained (as I think most Chesterton biographers do) from uncritically signing onto everything Chesterton ever wrote or said. For example, Pearce plainly distances himself from G. K. C.’s enthusiasm for World War I. Along the way, he also takes Chesterton to task for his anti-Prussian sentiments, sentiments which admittedly were there, but which perhaps the passage of time and the recent rise of “political correctness” in matters of ethnicity make appear harsher than they were. In any case, having mastered Chesterton’s life, one hopes that Pearce will now turn his obvious talents to interpreting Chesterton’s world and works, for that is where, if anywhere, I feel the short-comings in Pearce’s study are most visible.


In my opinion, Pearce exhibits an insecurity (if that’s really the word I want) in dealing with the ever-wider circles through which Chesterton moved. I think, for example, that although Pearce has a good grasp of Chesterton vis a vis Shaw, he still seems to be more tentative in his remarks vis a vis H. G. Wells, Maurice Baring, or even the indomitable Belloc. Yet, to adapt a phrase from G. K., Chesterton was the key to unlocking the incredible world of English Catholic life and letters during the first half of this century; but to appreciate that key, one simply must have a wider understanding of the lock into which it fits.


In a similar vein, it seems to me that too little about Chesterton’s youth and early manhood (admittedly difficult periods to study) is related by Pearce. And, more a matter of annoyance than criticism, I note that certain important information from Chesterton’s early days, if it is shared by Pearce, is done so only after the fact. Example: Chesterton’s working poverty (during his days as a book reviewer, no less!) was a significant concern to the Blogg family during his courtship of Frances, but Pearce doesn’t mention that serious factor until after he tells us of the engagement. Moreover, Frances, as the famous line runs, “brought the cross” to G. K. C., but Pearce does not mention Frances’ devout practice of Anglo-Catholicism until after we learn of the wedding. Indeed, although (much later, and its proper place) Pearce does an admirable job of relating Chesterton’s nervousness at informing his mother by letter about his conversion to the Church, Pearce does not even mention a similarly timorous epistle from son to mother about his intention to marry Frances Blogg.


On the other hand, several sections of Pearce’s biography explain the fascinating flow of events in Chesterton’s life quite lucidly and even entertainingly, as in, for example, the description of G. K.’s riotous run for the rectorship of Glasgow University in 1925 and the founding of the Distributist League one year later. For that matter, the whole second half of Pearce’s study reads quickly and engrossingly, and even that observation comes by way of comparison with the first half of this fine book to which, I fear, my criticisms above might have been an injustice. Finally, and although I might have underestimated the quality of the accounts in other biographies, I particularly enjoyed Pearce’s narration of Chesterton’s three later-in-life international tours (to America, Poland, and Rome).


As suggested by the title of his book, throughout his account of the life of Chesterton, Pearce tries with success to examine G. K. C.’s character using the viewpoints of “wisdom and innocence” as themes. I would only suggest that “truth and charity” could also serve well in this regard. I cannot help but to think that the appreciation of these cultivated personal virtues in G. K. C. led many, notably Belloc, to state quite frankly that Chesterton was already in Heaven, this, in an age well-removed from the instant canonization mentality into which we moderns have fallen.


By way of concluding my remarks on this excellent book, let me note that I have seen a few thoughtful criticisms of Pearce’s text on the grounds that he, as a biographer and not here as a literary critic, actually quotes too much from Chesterton in this work. To some degree this is true, but only in the sense that, because no one writes like Chesterton these days, it can be disconcerting to jump from Pearce’s straight-forward prose style to G. K. C.’s arresting alliteration and penchant for paradox, and back again. But behind Pearce’s frequent and often extended quotations from Chesterton lie, I think, not just the deference a young scholar listening to the master speak on vital questions, but --how can one put this?-- a personal affection for the man that compels friends who never met him to let him have his own great place in the conversation. March 2002.