Chesterton: Man & Mask, by Garry Wills

If ever I cross the sea and stray
To the city of Maryland,
I will sit on a stone and watch or pray
For a stranger’s child that was there one day:
And the child will never come back to play,
And no one will understand.
–“Memory,” G.K. Chesterton

This is an early book by Wills in his National Review days. It’s both a bio of sorts and a tour through Chesterton’s major writings. It’s an all-out apologia for the big fellow as a major English author–few flaws are found. Wills even adopts Chesterton’s style. This may be only the result of close discussion of the texts–the voice of Wills is lost in Chesterton’s roar.

The book covers the poems, essays, novels, plays, and political writings.

In the Introduction, Wills asks:

If Chesterton was the laughing prophet and saint, why did his religious quest mark time between his entrance into the Anglican communion and his transfer of allegiance to Catholicism? How could he ignore the practice of his Anglican faith, and all but the minimal action of a ‘practicing Catholic’? How could asceticism and vocation be so absent from his life?

If he was an apologist for orthodoxy, how could he ignore sin and the need for penance? Did he know what original sin really is, or was an ignorance of it at the root of his optimism, his glorification of the common man, his utopian politics?

If he was a philosopher, why did he never speak except in symbols and highly colored language? If he lacked emotional depth, why did he use the heightened rhetoric of passion? Are his poems and prose not merely aesthetically negligible, but empty bombast incapable of any justification at all? In short, if he is a philosopher, he chants his meditation to rather hysterical rhythms.

Why did he channel most of his professional efforts, against the wishes and advice of those nearest him, into political commentary?

Was he a monster of innocence and insight, or a neurotic with a defensive smile and desperate gaiety? Did his gaiety surmount evil, or simply ignore it?

As noted, Wills hews closely to the texts themselves, so you have to like this kind of thing. The suave cisalpinism of Wills’s later writings is not on evidence.

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