What is your question about G.K. Chesterton?

Dale Ahlquist is the President of the American Chesterton Society. The G.K. Chesterton Conference will be at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, July 27-29. For more information: https://www.chesterton.org/36th-annual-chesterton-conference

Here are three questions:

1. Why was G.K. Chesterton once so popular?
2. Why did he stop being popular?
3. Why is becoming popular again?

Now the answers:

1. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English author of books, poems, plays, and essays, who wrote about everything and did so with great wit and verve and insight. People bought newspapers just to read his columns and bought radios just to hear his voice. Immensely quotable (“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”) and immensely immense (300 pounds), he stirred the literary world with his paradoxes (“A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.”) and his puns (“The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.”) and both (“Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.”). Even though he was not a Catholic, he created a beloved character in detective fiction who happened to be a Catholic priest: Father Brown. He wrote one of the last great epic poems in the English language: The Ballad of the White Horse. He debated some of the leading intellectuals of his day: George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and Clarence Darrow. He conducted two extended speaking tours of the U.S., and every one of his lectures was front page news and was sold out. And he had the same success in Spain, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, and the Holy Land.

2. He stirred the literary world again in 1922 when he was received into the Catholic Church. His conversion was world wide news, but in some people’s minds he went from being a writer to being a Catholic writer. Though he had always pointed to God (“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”), he was now pointing to Rome. After his death, he naturally disappeared from the newspapers, but then he disappeared from the classroom, where his books were once taught. The world became a more depressing place after World War II, and Chesterton’s message of hope and joy was not what a jaded and despairing world wanted to hear. His battle against fads and fashions gave way to… fads and fashions. His writing, which dealt with the big questions, fell out of favor in a climate that wanted to deal with the small questions.

3. After two generations grew up with no exposure to Chesterton, a new generation started to rediscover him. They found him to be prophetic (“The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality: and especially on sexual morality.”) and timely (“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”) and profound (“The most ignorant of humanity know by the very look of earth that they have forgotten heaven.”) He speaks the truth plainly (“Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it.”) but also poignantly (“When people begin to ignore human dignity, it will not be long before they begin to ignore human rights.”). And he’s still refreshingly funny. (“It is a the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)

The American Chesterton Society has played a role in the Chesterton revival. Gilbert magazine and “The Apostle of Common Sense,” a well-watched series on EWTN helped popularize Chesterton. We have also hosted a major conference that has been held in a different city every year. This year we are going to be in Colorado Springs. The three day event features outstanding speakers on a wide range of topics from literature, history, philosophy, economics, and faith and reason. But in a Chestertonian spirit, the conference is filled with much laughter and convivial debate. It is an event like nothing else on earth.

It is open to everyone, from the novice to the well-read. Everyone will find something to fascinate them and inspire them.

 

COMING UP: A caveat on the great Tom Wolfe

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When the great Tom Wolfe died on May 14 — he of the white suits, the spats, and the prose style as exuberant as his wardrobe — I, like millions of others, remembered the many moments of pleasure I had gotten from his work.

My Wolfe-addiction began on a cross-country flight in 1979, shortly after The Right Stuff was published. Always an airplane and space nut, I was fascinated by Wolfe’s re-creation of the culture of America’s test pilots and astronauts at the height of the Cold War. And there was that extraordinarily vivid writing. At one point I burst out laughing, scaring the daylights of the elderly lady sitting next to me but not daring to show her the passage — it must have involved Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, a saloon outside Edwards Air Force Base — that set me off.

After The Right Stuff got me going on Tom Wolfe, it was impossible to stop. The first half of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers — Wolfe’s scathing account of a reception thrown for the Black Panthers by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein — remains the quintessential smack-down of political correctness among the 1% cultural elites. From Bauhaus to Our House explains why anyone with an aesthetic sense thinks something is seriously wrong with modernist architecture, and does so in a way that makes you laugh rather than cry.

Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that it was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Bonfire was also brilliant in skewering the destructiveness of New York’s race hustlers, the obtuseness of a values-free media, and the fecklessness of too many politicians.

Asked once by monks who run a prestigious prep school what they might do to disabuse parents of the notion that their sons were doomed if they didn’t get into Harvard, Duke, Stanford, and the like, I suggested giving a copy of I Am Charlotte Simmons to the parents of every incoming senior. Wolfe’s fictional tale of life on elite American university campuses in the 21st century is a sometimes-jarring exercise in the social realism practiced (a bit less brutally) by Dickens and Balzac. But Charlotte Simmons, like Wolfe’s other fiction, has a serious moral core and an important cultural message. The young innocent, the brightest girl in town who makes it to an elite university, gets corrupted by stages: and her moral corruption is preceded by intellectual corruption — the class in which she’s taught that there’s really nothing properly called “the truth.”

I do have one post-mortem caveat to register about Tom Wolfe’s oeuvre, which takes me back to The Right Stuff (and while we’re on that subject again, forget the inane movie). The central figure in Wolfe’s tale of aeronautical daring-do is Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the “sound barrier” in the Bell X-1, and did so with a couple of broken ribs, which he managed in flight with the aid of a sawed-off broom handle. Yeager was an extraordinary figure who never became a national celebrity because of the (absurd) news blackout surrounding the X-1 project, and Wolfe clearly wanted to pay tribute to him as an unsung American hero.

To do so, however, Tom Wolfe seemed to think he needed a foil, and he cast astronaut Gus Grissom in that role: “L’il Gus,” the Hoosier grit lampooned as a bumbler to make Yeager look even better. And that was a grave disservice to the memory of Virgil I. Grissom, who did not mess up the second Mercury space flight (Wolfe’s account notwithstanding), and who gave his life for his country in the launch pad fire that consumed Apollo 1 — which Grissom knew to be a deeply flawed spacecraft and had urged NASA to improve.

So now that Tom Wolfe and Gus Grissom have both crossed what Wolfe once called the Halusian Gulp, I hope these two American patriots are reconciled. Both had the right stuff.