Like a great wind after a night of thunder
He rocked the sodden marches of the soul
And ripped the mists of cowardice asunder
With laughter vivid as an aureole.
He does not need to knock against the Gate
Who every action like a prayer ascended
And beat upon the panels. Trumpets, wait
For a hushed instant. We love him. It is ended.
-Jewish poet Humbert Wolfe about G.K. Chesterton
Like its subject, this book is massive, jolly, and erudite. Joseph Pearce has a master work in this tome, and like David McCullough in John Adams, he has enabled me to truly fall in love with this robust Jongleur de Dieu. If you read only one work from Joseph Pearce or only one biography on Gilbert Keith Chesterton, let it be this one. Pearce’s careful scholarship really allows Chesterton to tell his own story through quotes from books, articles, and letters.
I have always been skeptical of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, but Pearce showed how much and why Chesterton loved them, which helped me to want to love them too. I was generally uninterested in Hilaire Belloc and totally unaware of Msgr. Ronald Knox, but thanks to this beautiful testimony of GKC’s love and admiration of these men, I feel as though I have found friends in heaven. In this nearly 500 page adventure into the wisdom and innocence of this loving, brilliant, and gentle man, Pearce has drawn such an intimate and life-like portrait that I feel as though I had really known Chesterton. Because this book is so authentic, my reading buddy and I sobbed through the last chapter and feel as though he and Frances just died again.
“The writer may put himself in the position of the ordinary modern outsider and enquirer; as indeed the present writer was still largely and was once entirely in that position.” – GK Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi
This work from Pearce is being told from the vantage point of someone who was once an outsider and for whom his subject was responsible in part for his coming “in”. The genius of this work is not in the recalling of interesting facts about Chesterton’s life. It is in the careful scholarship which allowed Pearce to edit the facts and source material into a cogent retelling. As Chesterton did on so many occasions as a biographer, Pearce puts himself in the shoes of someone who knows little or nothing about one of the most famous men in England before WWII and tries to tell them a story worth hearing. Like Chesterton, Pearce has written many biographies. Like Chesterton, some of his biographies are interesting but a bit detached. Again, like Chesterton, this one is like the “modern outsider and enquirer; as indeed the present writer was still largely and was once entirely in that position.”
Without going off on too much of a tangent, I think that it is important to know something of Pearce. In his early life Pearce was a radical white supremacist who was imprisoned twice for publishing racially charged and rebellious pamphlets, and other radical activity. During his second prison sentence, he was in solitary confinement for many months and he filled his days with reading. Along with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many other modern Christian writers, Chesterton cut through Pearce’s tough exterior and penetrated something in his soul. Through reading Chesterton, Pearce gained a rational response to the chaos of his internal world. Their shared love of Distributism (a form of economics similar to but different from Libertarianism) and journalism allowed Pearce to really listen to and trust Chesterton. Wisdom and Innocence reads like a powerful testimony given by an adoptive son about the magnificence and affability of his adoptive father. Pearce loves his subject and seems to want his readers to know and truly love Chesterton too.
Despite being a substantially sized offering, I would recommend this biography to anyone who desires to meet Chesterton for the first time or get to know him better. In many ways, Pearce has arranged this book to be a primer on the gentle soul and to help us approach his writing appropriately. There is no question that Pearce has read Chesterton extensively and understands his subject well. As he moves through GKC’s life and highlights the writing of that moment, he gives us valuable context so that we can see what was really at work. I don’t think that I am ever going to really love The Napoleon of Notting Hill, but thanks to Pearce, I believe that I will understand it well enough to appreciate the effort.
The real problem with a 450+ page biography is that the reader is so invested by the last chapter. I read The Woman Who Was Chesterton and loved it. I cried when they died. And yet, the book was so short and the description of their deaths was so brief that I could not remember who died first. In Pearce’s account, I sobbed and sobbed. I spent nearly 5 months reading this book at a rate of a chapter per week. The deaths of Gilbert and Frances haunted me as I rounded the bend towards the end. And when they came, I was like Belloc. “Hilaire Belloc was found after the funeral weeping tears of disconsolate isolation into a pint of beer outside the Railway Hotel.” (p. 483)
“Holy Father deeply grieved death Mr. Gilbert Keith Chesterton devoted son Holy Church gifted Defender of the Catholic Faith. His Holiness offers paternal sympathy people of England assures prayers dear departed, bestows Apostolic Benediction.” – A telegram from Cardinal Pacelli (future Pope Pius XII) for and on behalf of Pope Pius XI to Frances Chesterton upon the news of the death of her husband.
I want to thank Mr. Pearce. I had prayed for a way to know and understand Mr. Chesterton better. After several years of reading and searching, I found the man brilliant and funny but still a bit unknowable. Thanks to Mr. Pearce, I now feel as though I have found a kindred spirit whom I will read for the rest of my life.