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: Why 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore | Flickr