“An Oft Overlooked Genius”
A review of
The Remarkable Life and Impact of G. K. Chesterton.
By Kevin Belmonte.
Reviewed by Jonathan Schindler.
The Remarkable Life and Impact of G. K. Chesterton.
By Kevin Belmonte.
Paperback: Thomas Nelson, 2011.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
I had always considered G. K. Chesterton a bridge. I knew him as the man who wrote the book that served as a catalyst to C. S. Lewis’s conversion. Beyond that, despite his imposing bulk and vast literary output, he remained for me a figure in obscurity, a Monica to Lewis’s Augustine.
Still, when college was over and I had more freedom to choose my own reading, I decided to give Chesterton a try. I started with his most readily available book, Orthodoxy, and I hated it. His “logic” was dizzying, everything turned on paradoxes, and I found it inscrutable. Two years later, however, my opinion changed when I discovered the genius behind The Man Who Was Thursday, which served as the key and doorway into the rest of Chesterton’s works. Even Orthodoxy made sense to me after Thursday, and I have since come to see Chesterton’s merits on his own, apart from the host of others he has influenced. He is no longer a bridge for me but an author worthy of contemplation in his own right.
Because of this, I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Kevin Belmonte’s Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life and Impact of G. K. Chesterton, not only because it gave me an excuse to delve deeper into the corpus of one of my favorite authors, but also because it marks a widespread resurgence of interest in a man whose works are more timely than ever.
Belmonte’s book begins with a statement I very much agree with: “I have always admired G. K. Chesterton’s gift for the simple declarative sentence.” From this auspicious beginning, the author provides a satisfying, albeit quirky, introduction to Chesterton’s works. It is satisfying in that if you turn to almost any page in the book, you will see block quotes set off from the main flow of the text. Any book about Chesterton is best served when it lets him speak for himself, and Defiant Joy amply lets him have his say. Belmonte avoids the temptation to quote only Chesterton’s aphorisms (of which there are many); instead, he quotes liberally and at length, which allows the reader to get a sense of whatever work is being discussed without prior knowledge of it. But Defiant Joy is quirky in that what is highlighted and what is left out are puzzling at times. However, as Belmonte states in his author’s note, “To survey all of Chesterton’s important books is a task well beyond the scope of any one volume.” This is true, and as Belmonte’s book comes in at under 300 pages (before many pages of his generous and helpful endnotes), any exclusions are readily forgiven.
Defiant Joy discusses fifteen or so of Chesterton’s works in depth, as well as many others in passing. Belmonte discusses them on their own terms as well as using reviews from Chesterton’s time to reveal how they were originally received. I appreciated this approach as it gave me information beyond a simple summary or biography. Even if I go on to read the works that Belmonte featured (which I probably will, so engaging was the discussion of them), I won’t feel as though my time was wasted with Defiant Joy, and for the books that I already had read, I enjoyed Belmonte’s researched perspective. There are enough primary sources outside of Chesterton’s works—reviews from the New York Times, personal correspondence to and from G. K. and Frances Chesterton, among other things—that the author is able to paint a compelling portrait of “the remarkable . . . impact” of Chesterton promised in the subtitle.
Though many of Chesterton’s works are nearly a hundred years old, they are strikingly timely and fresh. Belmonte devotes two chapters to Chesterton’s Heretics, the book that later resulted in Orthodoxy. In Heretics Chesterton critiqued ideas of his day that were accepted as fact but which he staunchly disagreed with. What is remarkable about these ideas is that, if we switch out the names of their proponents with more modern ones, they are quite similar to ideas being peddled today that orthodox Christianity is still battling. What is also remarkable is that Chesterton’s critiques are convincing these many years later. His defense of the faith in Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man has retained its potency as well, as Belmonte demonstrates in citing its impact on modern writers Philip Yancey and Gary Wills. Belmonte also points out that C. S. Lewis, who is more frequently remembered in our day as an apologist, even called The Everlasting Man “the best popular apologetic I know.”
Belmonte’s book, in addition to exploring Chesterton’s work, considers Chesterton the man. Beyond Chesterton’s ideas being timely, it seems our modern society could benefit from implementing some of Chesterton’s virtues and attitudes. For example, Chesterton was known for his outspoken opinions coupled with his seemingly inexhaustible charity. Some of Chesterton’s closest friends were also the targets of his sharpest barbs. George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells were both sternly critiqued in Heretics, and Chesterton’s Everlasting Man was written in direct response and opposition to Wells’s Outline of History. Despite this, Chesterton remained close friends with both men until his death in 1936. He was able simultaneously to disagree with the idea and to love the person expressing it, a rare combination to find in today’s public discourse.
Chesterton was also consistently exuberant and, related to this, grateful. Before Chesterton converted to Christianity, he experienced a time of deep despair, and what brought him out of it (and ultimately to God) was gratitude: he felt thankful but had no one to thank. Belmonte quotes Chesterton: “No man knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything.” And again, as Chesterton says in Orthodoxy, “The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?” Chesterton’s defining characteristics—his telling the truth in love, his charity, his gratitude, his defiant joy—are virtues we would do well to recover.
Defiant Joy is an excellent primer to Chesterton’s writing and ideas. There were times while reading it that I wished I were reading Chesterton instead, but this is one of the book’s strongest points. In his author’s note to Defiant Joy, Belmonte says, “If this book spurs some to delve more deeply into Chesterton’s life and writings by way of these earlier works, I will count myself fortunate.” In this respect, Belmonte’s book is a huge success: not only has the author renewed my interest in an oft overlooked genius of twentieth-century letters, he has provided me with a guide for which books to place next on my reading list.