The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” quipped Mark Twain upon hearing that his obituary had been mistakenly published in a newspaper. Although it must have been a strangely flattering experience for the great American writer to read of his own demise when he was still very much alive, it is even more flattering that he is still alive long after his death. Such enduring fame represents a far greater tribute than any obituary could offer. It is in this way that we mortal men, doomed to die, attain a level of immortality. And, for the faithless man, this is the only immortality there is. This was the immortality of which Hilaire Belloc wrote, with mischievous whimsy:
When I am dead,
I hope it may be said:
His sins were scarlet,
but his books were read.
There is, however, an obverse side to the coin of posterity. Many writers who live and die in a blaze of celebrity are doomed to die a second death, in the years after their passing, as their reputation, and the memory of their life and work, fades into the oblivion of public forgetfulness. C.S. Lewis, in his humility, was convinced that his books would be forgotten, along with their author, in the years following his death.
He could not have been more mistaken. According to his literary executor, Walter Hooper, “the number of Lewis’ books which are read today is far in excess of anything that happened in his own lifetime.”
It is equally heartening that G.K. Chesterton, a writer who was at least Lewis’ equal as an indefatigable defender of Christian truth, should be enjoying a similar renaissance. “Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 10 Chesterton titles in print,” says Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society. “Today there are over 70, including new collections of previously uncollected material. More titles are coming out all the time.”
Ahlquist’s enthusiastic optimism is matched by Tony Ryan, marketing director of Ignatius Press, the first of the growing number of publishing houses bringing out new editions of Chesterton’s works. “Clearly the sales of books by, and about, G. K. Chesterton have skyrocketed in the last 10 years,” says Ryan, “which is truly great news for the Church and for Catholics everywhere because Chesterton was truly a prolific writer on many topics of crucial importance for the temporal and eternal good of the human race.”
“Currently we have 13 individual books in print by Chesterton at IP,” Ryan continues, “including such classics as Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, The Well and the Shallows, and What’s Wrong with the World. These titles and his others sell very well in both the Christian and in the secular markets. G.K.C. truly has a wide appeal.” In addition, Ignatius Press publishes several outstanding works about Chesterton, including G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense and Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton, both by Dale Ahlquist. Ignatius Press is also responsible for the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, a critically acclaimed series that currently constitutes 27 multi-title volumes, with more on the way.
It was with a sense of elated surprise that I saw many volumes of the Collected Works in the private library of the great Russian writer and Nobel Prize winner, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, during a visit to Moscow to interview him.
Few would have predicted such an unlikely revival during the dark years of the 1960s and 1970s, when Chesterton’s reputation was well and truly on the wane. During those years, the flag was kept flying by a mere handful of Chesterton die-hards.
In England, the irrepressible Aidan Mackey specialized in selling used copies of long out of print Chesterton titles to a relatively small number of aficionados. In the United States, Father Ian Boyd founded the Chesterton Review in 1974, in the centenary year of Chesterton’s birth, and few imagined that such a journal could survive the rising tide of modernist indifference that characterized the dismal years which followed Vatican II. Today, a third of a century later, the Review continues to thrive under Fr. Boyd’s tireless guidance, and has established a well-earned reputation as one of the most respected and learned literary journals in the academic market.
Back in 1980, when I, as a teenager, first read Chesterton, it was easy to pick up editions of his works in used bookstores very cheaply. The generation that had enjoyed Chesterton was dying off and their children, seemingly indifferent to the literary heritage passed on to them, had sold their parents’ books to the book-dealers.
It was also not uncommon to see Chesterton titles that bore the stamp of convent libraries, seemingly sold off or given away by the religious orders in the belief that old-timers like Chesterton had no place in a Church inebriated with the “spirit of Vatican II.” It is not without a guilty sense of schadenfreude that one notes the death of these liberal congregations even as one notes the resurrection of Chesterton. First editions of Chesterton novels are now selling for more than $400 each, a far cry from the few pennies required in the 1980s.
There is another parallel between Chesterton and Lewis in the way that each was treated by dissenting theologians in the “dark ages” before the election of Pope John Paul II. In much the same way that Chesterton was rejected by liberal religious orders and modernist theologians, Lewis was increasingly rejected by the liberal ascendancy in the Anglican church. Walter Hooper recalled how even those who had been Lewis’ greatest admirers during his lifetime had turned against him in the years following his death: “I was surprised to see what used to be a very Anglo-Catholic magazine from America now saying ‘why did we ever read Lewis, he’s far too doctrinal, he’s far too Roman Catholic for us now.’ “
Again, it is hard to resist a sense of schadenfreude in the knowledge that Lewis’ star has been waxing while the falling star of Anglicanism has plummeted towards the abyss its doctrinal capitulations prepared for itself. It is, in fact, not difficult to imagine that, in the not so distant future, more people will be reading Lewis’ books than will be attending Anglican services.
And, of course, those millions of avid readers of Lewis have none other than Chesterton to thank because, as Lewis freely admitted, Chesterton played a prominent role in Lewis’ conversion. “In reading Chesterton…I did not know what I was letting myself in for,” Lewis wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere…God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
Chesterton’s influence over Lewis would continue to grow until Lewis’ atheism finally crumbled beneath the inexorable logic and inestimable charm of Chesterton’s apologia for Christianity in his masterful work, The Everlasting Man. “I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense,” he wrote. Thereafter, it was only a matter of time before Lewis’ own conversion to Christianity. It is astonishing to realize that if it had not been for Chesterton there may have been no Lewis.
It is an even more astonishing thought that if it had not been for Chesterton there might not have been a whole host of other writers who owe their conversions in some significant way to his wit and wisdom. Amongst those leading figures of the Catholic Literary Revival influenced by Chesterton on their path to Christ are Maurice Baring, Ronald Knox, Christopher Dawson, Theodore Maynard, Alfred Noyes, and Graham Greene. Dorothy L. Sayers told a friend that if it hadn’t been for Chesterton she might in her schooldays have abandoned Christianity altogether. “To the young people of my generation G.K.C. was a kind of Christian liberator,” Sayers wrote in 1952, describing his impact as being “like a beneficent bomb.”
In 1956, 20 years after Chesterton’s death, Arnold Lunn, another literary convert, lamented the way that Chesterton’s influence was waning and criticized his contemporaries for “forgetting the impact which his books made on the minds of the young men who were infected by the fallacy of Victorian rationalism.” Lunn’s fears were ultimately unfounded because reports of Chesterton’s demise were to prove greatly exaggerated. Today, half a century after Lunn’s lament, Chesterton’s resurrection is a cause for celebration and perhaps, even, a temptation to triumphalism, that most unjustly berated of counter reformation virtues.
“Besides sales being way up for Chesterton books, we are hearing about more and more conversions to Catholicism by people because they have read books by Chesterton,” enthuses Tony Ryan. “And sometimes these conversions are truly amazing. Like the story of Dawn Eden, a secular Jew living an immoral lifestyle as a hard-core rock journalist, who happened, by chance, to read the Chesterton novel, A Man Who Was Thursday. She was so stunned by the wisdom and truth in that book, that she read it two more times. Then she read everything she could get her hands on by Chesterton. The happy ending of that story is that Dawn Eden is now an on-fire Roman Catholic—thanks to the Great One, G. K. Chesterton. So not only have the works of G.K.C. dramatically increased in sales in recent years, but the visible impact of those sales is something we are very excited about at Ignatius Press.”
Dawn Eden’s book, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment while Keeping Your Clothes On, bubbles with the rambunctiousness that its author no doubt caught from the contagious charm of Chesterton himself. Her talk at the 2006 Chesterton Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, titled “The Girl Who was Thirsty: How Reading Chesterton Led to My Conversion,” was one of the highlights of a conference that has become one of the largest literary gatherings in the world.
The conference is itself a powerful witness to the Chesterton revival. In the 1980s fewer than 20 people gathered at the annual get-together of the Chesterton Society; today the conference attracts 500 people, many traveling from as far as New Zealand, Australia and Europe. They come not merely for the many talks, but for the incarnation of the Chestertonian spirit that permeates the conference. Homebrewed ales and homemade wines are in plentiful supply for the thirsty participants, at no cost, though bottled water must be bought!
One can’t help but feel that Chesterton would have approved. He was, after all, famous for declaiming that he didn’t care where the water went if it didn’t get into the wine! Such is the effervescence of the event that one senses the ghost of Chesterton presiding benevolently over the proceedings, invisible but nonetheless present, chuckling at Dawn Eden’s jokes and toasting the bibbers of wine and ale with the ambrosial fare that he now imbibes as the reward for his earthly labors.
The annual conference is organized by the American Chesterton Society, an organization that is at the very hub of the Chesterton revival. Apart from the burgeoning size of the conferences, its Web site has also seen a huge increase in traffic. Established 10 years ago, the site (www.chesterton.org) received 100,000 visitors in its first six years; in the four years since then the number of visitors has exceeded half a million. This is a phenomenal increase of more than 800 percent.
The American Chesterton Society also publishes Gilbert Magazine, a populist journal that serves as a counterpoint to the more academically rigorous Chesterton Review, and the society’s president, Dale Ahlquist, presents a regular series, “G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense” on EWTN, the global Catholic television network. Presented with such an abundance of activity, one wonders whether there is another literary society anywhere in the world that can boast as many achievements in the past decade.
In the wake of this popular groundswell of interest in Chesterton’s work, it is amusing to see the denizens of the miasma of (post)modernity seeking to hold back the emerging wave of academic interest in Chesterton. “I am contacted by students all over the country and all over the world, both at the graduate and undergraduate level, who want to do theses or dissertations on Chesterton,” says Ahlquist. “They’ve discovered Chesterton and the problem is that there are almost no faculty members who know anything about him, so getting an adviser is very difficult. The American Chesterton Society, of course, is one of the best resources to help these students. But here and there, even professors are starting to discover Chesterton, and even sneaking an occasional Chesterton text into a syllabus.”
The present writer is one such professor who has not only discovered Chesterton but is forever indebted to him as being the greatest influence, under grace, on his conversion to Catholicism. I also teach Chesterton regularly in my class on 20th-century literature, though at Ave Maria University it is scarcely necessary to “sneak” it onto the syllabus. The Man Who was Thursday is always the text with which I start the semester and we also study Chesterton’s “Lepanto.” In 2006, a “special topics” course on “Chesterton and Belloc” proved one of the most popular electives ever offered at AMU.
Chesterton is, without doubt, a huge hit with the new generation of undergraduates and this bodes well for the future. “An older generation that remembers studying Chesterton a long time ago is very pleased with this revival,” says Ahlquist. “A young generation is very excited at the discovery of this astonishing writer. But the in-between generation is still quite mystified by it all.”
If the revival of interest in Chesterton is cause for celebration and, indeed, cause for optimism about the future, dare one hope that even Hollywood might fall under his infectious influence? It’s been more than 50 years since Sir Alec Guinness graced the movie theaters with his unforgettable portrayal of Chesterton’s Father Brown, and more than 30 years since Kenneth More brought the priestly detective to British television screens.
The subsequent cinematographic and televisual silence is, from a Chestertonian perspective, positively deafening. Perhaps, however, there is hope that he may be resurrected in these media also. The huge success of Peter Jackson’s stunning, if flawed, film adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and the more recent success of Disney’s dabbling with C.S. Lewis’ Narnian Chronicles might prove portentous.
Clearly, at the very least, Hollywood is now alive to the fact that Christian literature, and Christian morality, make money at the box office; and since, like Oscar Wilde’s cynic, movie-moguls know the price of everything and the value of nothing, there is indeed hope for Chesterton’s return to the silver screen. Certainly the surreal brilliance of The Man Who was Thursday or The Ball and the Cross would benefit greatly from the special effects now available to filmmakers, and an adventurous producer/director could work wonders with the fruits of Chesterton’s luridly lucid imagination.
Is this wishful thinking? Quite possibly it is. But whether or not such an ascension ever happens in the future, we can rest, for the present, in the safe assumption that Chesterton is alive and well in the 21st century. Like the Master whom he served, Chesterton is not to be found in the tomb. His place is not in the sepulcher reserved for the forgottenliterati whose reputation is fading with the fads and fashions they followed. His place is on the honor roll of the living. Do not seek for him in the grave of the dead men of letters. He is not there. He is risen from the dead.
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