Those who love G. K. Chesterton's work and imagine that he will return to a place of eminence and honour among English writers keep running into a couple of little problems. One is the aura of anti-Semitism that persistently clings to his name. Another is the whiff of fascism that rises from the page whenever the words "Chesterton" and "politics" appear in the same paragraph. No matter that together these two subjects never occupied even 1 per cent of his career as a writer; they are significant embarrassments nevertheless, and not easy to discuss.
That's one reason I was surprised to find the heading "Fascism and British Catholic Writers: A Symposium" on the cover of the current issue of The Chesterton Review. Edited by Father Ian Boyd in Saskatoon, The Chesterton Review (1437 College Dr., Saskatoon S7N 0W6) is one of the most remarkable publications in Canada. It is in every sense a labour of love, and its love flows specifically toward a single essayist, critic, novelist, poet, fantasist, editor and theologian who lived in England from 1874 to 1936. Every quarter, year after year, writers from all over the world gather in the pages of The Chesterton Review to curate his reputation.
They report on recently uncovered aspects of his biography, they analyze new books about him and his contemporaries, they ask what his work should mean to the world of today (answer: a lot), and they regularly publish articles of his that have not been seen since their first publication in some obscure paper 80 or 90 years ago. Words flowed out of Chesterton in a continuous gush, so there are many unreprinted pieces still waiting to be found, probably enough to last The Chesterton Review another century or so.
The Saskatoon Chestertonians have never ignored their hero's flaws, but it's still remarkable to see them confronting so directly the issue of fascism. In eight articles they work over the many aspects of the case and in the end produce a consensus: guilty, with a recommendation for mercy.
Chesterton was among many eminent Catholic writers in England who admired aspects of fascism as it appeared in Italy, Spain and Portugal. They had their reasons. In the 1920s and 1930s they were disillusioned with the economic and spiritual failures of democracy -- and they were terrified of communism. By comparison, fascism seemed promising.
Monsignor Ronald Knox, a priest much admired by English intellectuals, argued that General Francisco Franco was justified in plunging Spain into a war to prevent a communist dictatorship. Knox's friend Evelyn Waugh backed Franco for the same reasons, and applauded Italy's vicious invasion of Ethiopia. Waugh dismissed British opposition to that adventure as "peevish."
Chesterton, in a 1934 essay, said fascism was "in some ways a healthy reaction against the irresponsible treason of corrupt politics." He thought well of Benito Mussolini's regime in Rome. He died before the Spanish Civil War began, but his earlier comments put him on the fascist side. After all, the Spanish fascists were Catholics, like Chesterton, whereas supporters of the Republic were (in significant numbers) priest-killing, church-burning atheists. That was enough to make up his mind. "I am no Fascist," he said, but he was their sympathizer.
Writers in The Chesterton Review emphasize a historic fact that people now have trouble remembering: Prewar fascism in Italy was radically different from Nazism in Germany, even though the two joined forces in the Second World War. From the beginning, Chesterton showed no tolerance of Hitler; he understood what a Nazi dictatorship meant for everyone.
But in the years before Hitler, Chesterton was one of many articulate intellectuals who saw the Jews as a less than positive force in Europe. When he wrote of "the Jewish problem," he didn't mean the problem Jews faced in various countries; he meant that the Jews were a problem to Chesterton and his friends. He couldn't fit them into his vision of England, which might be described as proudly medieval: He imagined a society in which everyone agreed on what truly mattered, just as in the Middle Ages. But his anti-Semitism was pre-Hitler and of course pre-Holocaust. When Hitler appeared in Germany, Chesterton came to his senses and understood that this was no time to be even mildly anti-Semitic.
In 1936 The Globe put the news of Chesterton's death at age 62 in a big black headline across page one, as followers of our Century of the Millennium page noticed on Tuesday. He has not since been so eminent. His work remains valuable, but it fits no standard category and probably disappoints some readers who go to it with vague expectations they picked up at a distance.
He must infuriate neoconservatives, for instance. They have every reason to expect he'll admire the free market, particularly if they glance at minibiographies like the one in the current Columbia Encyclopedia ("conservative, even reactionary"). But they soon learn that he disliked concentrated wealth. He favoured organizing private property on a modest scale -- as in the Middle Ages, or maybe the Middle Ages as they should have been. In his heart Chesterton was, in fact, a kind of benign social engineer.
Thanks to The Chesterton Review and other generators of enthusiasm, his reputation has been growing in recent years; it is no longer considered eccentric to mention him. Eminent Chestertonians in the American mass media (Garry Wills and George F. Will, to cite two) can be seen quoting him frequently, and scores of his books are in print, perhaps more than at any time in the past few decades. He's something of a star on the Internet, where his fans maintain various home pages in his honour and on-line anthologies of his writing.
Still, in the universities he remains marginal. He has been admired by people as different as Jorge Luis Borges, W. H. Auden and Harold Bloom. And the academic literary critics of today have no reason to condescend to him -- but they do, and will continue doing so for as far into the future as anyone cares to imagine. After all, he was a Catholic, he was conservative in many ways, he was outrageously versatile, and he wrote nothing but readable prose. His chances remain slim.