The Magazine

On Becoming G.K.

The invention of Chesterton was a complicated process.

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By JOHN C. CHALBERG
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Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy

The Making of GKC,
1874-1908

by William Oddie

Oxford, 416 pp., $50

Somewhere on virtually everyone's list of the 100 most important books of the last century is G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. A "sort of slovenly autobiography" by its author's own reckoning, this thin volume packed a huge wallop when it first appeared in 1908. It still does today, whether it's being read for the first or fifth time.

Now we have a companion volume of sorts in William Oddie's thoroughly disciplined biography of the young Chesterton. It is a biography that challenges what Oddie terms an "academic embargo" against a writer who has been alternately and unfairly dismissed as a right-wing Roman Catholic, raging anti-Semite, fascist sympathizer, loopy dreamer, and bumbling jokester.

More specifically, it's a story of Chesterton's "mental growth," a story at once powerful and unconventional, because it records the embrace (rather than rejection) of religious dogma. If modern notions of intellectual progress have dwelt on breaking bonds, Chesterton decided to break with modernity instead. But not right away: Since man is "an animal that makes dogmas," he set out to do just that, only to discover truths that had long preceded him.

More than anything else, Chesterton reasoned his way to belief. But he did not do so in a vacuum, as Oddie carefully documents. Orthodoxy may well be a timeless book, but it was rooted in a specific time, conceived in a brilliant mind's reaction to that time, and born out of the willingness of the man behind the mind to confront, both in print and in public debate, what he deemed to be the reigning heresies of his day.

While Chesterton would not convert to Roman Catholicism until 1922, it is Oddie's contention that he had arrived at an essentially orthodox Catholic worldview well before Orthodoxy.

That he was there at all surely stunned the London literary scene at the time. As Oddie puts it, Chesterton's persona was taken for an act, and his faith was assumed to be "a pose." Each mistake was easy enough to make. Swordstick in hand, slouch hat perched overhead, Chesterton prowled the streets and pubs of London in a flowing cape that did little to hide his 300-pound self. He truly was a show, and not just on the street, but in print as well.

Who is GKC? Along about 1900, London readers began to ask that very question, as reviews, essays, poems, novels, and biographies began to pour forth. One by one, each offered tantalizing hints of the vintage Chesterton, he of the marvelous epigrams, the biting humor, and the curious yet telling use of paradox. But it is Oddie's point that his early writings pointed to what Chesterton himself called the "full horror" of it all, namely the "disgraceful truth that I thought the thing [Christianity] was true."

In its broadest outline, Chesterton's conversion story was quite ordinary. Born into a Victorian family of much affection and minimal belief, he went through a stretch of teenage atheism before dabbling with the late Victorian version of liberal Christianity. It might have ended there had Chesterton's brain actually been the "lump of white fat" that one of his frustrated teachers dismissed it as being, and had the 1890s not been what they were.

Youthful atheist or no, his schoolboy friends remembered him as "looking for God." Such a search was not an easy one to undertake, much less complete, in a turn-of-the-century London given over to secularism, relativism, modernism, skepticism, Impressionism, and hyper-rationalism. It was, in Oddie's phrase, a time "much more like our own than we imagine." And yet, paradoxically, it was a perfect time for someone of Chesterton's cast of mind.

His starting point was not what he dubbed the "supernormal world" but the material world that seemed to point to the existence of a spiritual world, which in turn seemed to imply a creator. At the same time, those who denied the existence of a creator played an inadvertent role in his thinking as well: As the "isms" of the 1890s began to take hold, Chesterton began to observe that unbelievers were ceasing to believe even in "normal things." Without the supernatural, he concluded, man was left with the "unnatural." To put matters a bit differently, "We are all agnostics until we discover that agnosticism doesn't work." And for G. K. Chesterton, unbelief ultimately failed to work, both as a theological system and as a recipe for daily life.