The Genius of G.K. Chesterton: Understanding the Heart of the Enduring Story

Editor's Note: Kevin Belmonte's 'Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton' is available now. He has also published a companion work, 'The Quotable Chesterton'.

The story runs thus: in the 1920s, Lawrence of Arabia wrote a letter in reply to friend. He had recently seen much of George Bernard Shaw, but had not as yet made the acquaintance of Shaw's great friend and occasional foe in debate, G.K. Chesterton. Still, Lawrence was intrigued: "I have not met G.K.C.," he wrote, "Shaw always calls him a man of colossal genius."
Others were no less intrigued by G.K.C., the "Man Mountain" who wielded such a noteworthy pen. Six feet two, and tipping the scales at 300 pounds, he was the knight-errant of Fleet Street -- "Sir Chesterton of Overroads," as Shaw also described him -- a journalist who went about London garbed in a slouch hat and cloak, sword stick in hand.

In the world of letters, or within the convivial setting of a tavern, he was an undeniable presence. "Chesterton's a classic," the young Ernest Hemingway wrote in "The Three-Day Blow," a short story from his expatriate years in Paris.

"I'd like to meet Chesterton," Bill said.
"I wish he was here now," Nick said. "We'd take him fishing to the 'Voix tomorrow."
"I wonder if he'd like to go fishing," Bill said.
"Sure," said Nick. "He must be about the best guy there is. Do you remember 'Flying Inn'?"

If an angel out of heaven
Gives you something else to drink,
Thank him for his kind intentions;
Go and pour them down the sink.

"That's right," said Nick. "I guess he's a better guy than Walpole."
"Oh, he's a better guy, all right," Bill said. "But Walpole's a better writer."
"I don't know," Nick said. "Chesterton's a classic."

So what were Shaw and Hemmingway on about? Who was this writer of genius and great good humor?

For a start, he was far more than a man given to eccentricities in dress and weapon-like aids to perambulation. Any one of the items on the short list of his achievements would have made for one writer's career. The Oxford Reader's Companion to Charles Dickens has described him as "the greatest of all Dickens critics." It is an opinion shared by many, including T.S. Eliot, who stated in 1927: "There is no better critic of Dickens living."

As a writer of "shamelessly beautiful prose," Chesterton's novel The Man Who Was Thursday inspired Orson Welles to craft a radio theatre adaptation which aired just two months before his unforgettable broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Jorge Luis Borges is chief among those who have noted Welles' long-standing admiration for Chesterton. In his review of Citizen Kane, Borges wrote: "In one of Chesterton's stories -- 'The Head of Caesar,' I think -- the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth without a center. This film is precisely that labyrinth."

For Borges to have linked Chesterton with Welles's cinematic masterpiece in this way is remarkable. Borges goes on to describe Citizen Kane as a metaphysical detective story -- words that could be applied with equal justice to The Man Who Was Thursday, described as "a metaphysical thriller" by the literary critic Sir Kingsley Amis.

Chesterton was no less singular for his achievements in the realm of apologetics -- and indeed, this may well be the centerpiece of his legacy.

Chesterton's writings would prove a powerful catalyst for Lewis's embrace of Christianity. "In reading Chesterton," Lewis wrote, "as in reading (George) MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere -- 'Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,' as [George] Herbert says, 'fine nets and stratagems.' God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous."

A final catalyst for Lewis to make the glad surrender to this unscrupulous God was Chesterton's book, The Everlasting Man. As he recalled:

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. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken. You will remember that I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive "apart from his Christianity." Now, I veritably believe, I thought -- I didn't of course say; words would have revealed the nonsense -- that Christianity itself was very sensible.

Another writer who admired Chesterton's writings on matters of faith was John Updike, someone I would often see around town during the first years of my marriage -- when my wife Kelly and I lived in the seaside village of Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. I never quite plucked up the courage to say hello during one of the several times I saw him at the annual book sale hosted by St. John's Episcopal Church, but I well remember how unassuming he was, helping shift boxes of books from table to table. In the wake of his passing, I wish I had said hello -- especially since I have come to have such an appreciation for one portion of an interview he gave in 2006 -- a forthright admission of how he wrestled at times with religious doubt, and ultimately opted for faith. Speaking with the Associated Press, he stated: "I remember the times when I was wrestling with these issues that I would feel crushed. I was crushed by the purely materialistic, atheistic account of the universe." Now, in the evening of life, he noted:

I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us, the truth of it, the authority of the efforts of all the men and woman spent trying to understand more about atoms and molecules. But I can't quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, 'This is it. Carpe diem, and tough luck.

Some fifty years earlier, Chesterton had helped Updike travel further on the road to belief. As he stated in an interview given in 1986:

There have been times when I read a lot of theology. The year I spent in England [after graduation from Harvard] I was very nervous and frightened, standing more or less on the threshold of my adult life and career, if any. One of the ways I assuaged my anxiety was to read a lot of Chesterton and C. S. Lewis.

To read a lot of Chesterton. For me, this gets to the heart of why Chesterton remains vital and relevant as a thinker and person of faith. If he could help, as indeed he did, a gifted young writer-yet-to-be like John Updike to find solace and strength in an uncertain time, surely that is worth something.

And Chesterton the man of letters remains a writer who deeply rewards time spent getting better acquainted with him. Reading his reflections on Dickens, or Jane Austen -- "a genius" whom he likened to Shakespeare -- has made me want to delve more deeply into the books those writers gave to the world.

Even as we live in trying times, Chesterton has helped me to see that a man may be rich in ways that have little to do with money. A person may keep company with the great souls of the past by reading what they wrote. That is within the reach of anyone who is within striking distance of a good local library.

Lastly, Chesterton's inspiration of great souls like Eliot, Lewis and Updike serves as an open invitation for us to discover what they saw in him. One thing seems certain: 75 years since his passing, Chesterton is still -- to use Hemingway's phrase, a classic. And there is no reason to think he won't continue to be, for he understood the heart of the enduring story.