Message from Fr. Ian Boyd, CSB
Introduction to The Chesterton Review
Vol. XXXXI, Nos. 3 & 4
“I say a plague on everybody’s house as far as the race business goes.” So said Flannery O’Connor about her story “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” And so one might also be tempted to say about another discussion of Chesterton and anti-Semitism. The question has been discussed endlessly in every Chesterton biography and in countless issues of our own journal. Is there, one might wonder, anything more to be said about it? In our leading article, Philip Jenkins insists that there is. He reviews a book devoted entirely to the topic and finds it full of fresh and important insights. A lengthy excerpt from the book, printed in our “News and Comments” section, confirms the truth of his praise.
The remaining pieces in the issue illustrate another theme of Philip Jenkins’s article. For him, the starting point of any discussion about Chesterton and anti-Semitism should be Chesterton’s penchant for defending every individual or group subject to persecution. How true this is! It is not a matter of resorting to the familiar and unconvincing defense that some of his best friends were Jews, although a number of his closest friendships, many of them going back to his school days at St. Paul’s, were indeed with Jewish friends such as Maurice Solomon and Waldo d’Avigdor. It is true that there is an anti-Semitic element in some of his writing, especially in 1913 at the time of the Marconi Scandal, when he felt obliged to come to the defense of his brother Cecil and his controversial editing of the New Witness magazine. More typical of him, however, is his role as one of the first English writers to defend the Jews of Germany in the early thirties, at the very beginning of the Hitlerite era. Because he died in the Spring of 1936, he never lived to see the full horrors of that persecution, but he predicted that the neo-Prussian cruelty of the Nazi regime’s treatment of Jews would be followed by their alliance with the brutal Soviet regime and the beginning of another World War. How appropriate it was therefore that Rabbi Stephen Wise, the American Zionist leader, in an obituary note written shortly after Chesterton’s death, should acknowledge that Chesterton’s true attitude towards the Jewish people was revealed at what Rabbi Wise called the testing time. and that he as a Rabbi wished to invoke a blessing on his memory.
So much for the discussion of one aspect of Chesterton as a political prophet. On a different and more cheerful note, Dermot Quinn and Duncan Rayburn write about him as great humorist. There is also a piece about the solipsistic crisis that marked a turning point in the youthful Chesterton’s life. Another article discusses the theme of suffering in his writing. There is also an article by a Baptist Pastor about the affectionate view of him and his writings among American Baptists. In the final article, Conrad Black writes about the high regard for him among contemporary journalists. Lord Black was the publisher of The London Daily and The Sunday Telegraph and The Jerusalem Post, as well as a chain of newspapers in his native Canada. He speaks therefore with authority on this subject.
As usual, the issue begins with a selection of some of Chesterton’s more neglected writings. These include an early allegorical poem about the Battle of Gibeon, in which Joshua, “The Deliverer,” is presented as a warrior who prefigures Christ. There is also an early essay about Savonarola, a reformer about whom Chesterton had planned to write a full-length book. The book, alas, was never written, even though its publication was announced in the pages of G.K.’s Weekly shortly before Chesterton’s untimely death on June 14, 1936. Pieces by members of Chesterton circle of close friends are also included in this opening section. There is, for example, a Maurice Baring letter to H.G. Wells, in which Baring complains about Wells’s failure to understand Catholicism—“the only real religion at this moment that is influencing mature humanity.” The section also includes two of Belloc’s delightful “Cautionary Poems.” They reveal a more genial side of one of the least-well understood members of Chesterton’s literary circle.
The extensive “News and Comments” and “Letters” sections defy easy summary. But the obituary of P.J. Kavanagh will be of special interest to readers who remember Mr. Kavanagh’s impressive anthology of Chesterton’s poetry and prose published in the early eighties. Another piece of special interest is Bernard Shaw’s review of Chesterton’s 1922 book Eugenics and Other Evils. No book of Chesterton was more prophetic. Long before the Eugenics movement led first to the murder of the mentally handicapped in Nazi Germany and then to the murder of European Jews in Hitler’s death camps, it had inspired proto-Nazi legislation throughout the western world. The routine sterilisation of those deemed “mentally unfit” was legalised in England before World War I by the “Mental Deficiency Act.” Although this legislation was altered as a result of the criticism of English liberals such as Chesterton and Quiller Couch, it received wide support even from other English liberals, including Winston Churchill. Eugenics legislation was also approved in America and Canada. The Nazi atrocities did discredit eugenics for a time, but in recent years the practice of killing mentally defective children—before their birth—has been revived and accepted in many countries of the western world. In that sad sense, it might be said that Hitler won the War.
The issue is illustrated by numerous pictures. These are meant to be reminders of the distributist vision of a society which achieves a balance between urban and country life. Information about the international programme of the Chesterton Institute can be found in the final pages of the issue. This international outreach of our Institute has been fostered by the publication of annual French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish editions of The Review. These issues include the text of lectures given at conferences held in these countries.