Every good name dropper has a vested interest in how his names are doing, their current exchange value, and the likely quotation when memoir time comes around. My own best coins, Chesterton and Belloc, have, alas, devalued steadily. Strictly speaking, I didn’t see that much of either of them in the flesh—Chesterton just once at my christening when I disappeared into his lap (sorry to sound like an English lady diarist, but that’s the way I heard it)—but they filled my childhood like Mardi gras balloons. I dimly remember Belloc advancing for Sunday dinner, behind a barrage of telegrams: “Belloc five miles away,” “Belloc getting closer”; finally turning up with a ham under one arm and a lettuce under the other, his diet of the moment; lustily polishing off both and eating the meal we were serving as well; all the while rolling his r’s ferociously, like a stage Frenchman. I’m told I later chased him around the garden with the branch of a chestnut tree, and I can almost believe it: he provoked that kind of response in many people.
My meetings with Chesterton were more spectral. My mother was working on his biography from roughly my seventh to thirteenth years, a strange way to encounter someone. I knew his letters and unpublished drawings before I exactly knew who he was: a bit like knowing a man’s galoshes and the smell of his pipe tobacco, but never quite seeing his face. Chesterton, I understood, was simply what the word genius meant: a spirit so huge and fertile that it could grow poetry, novels, detective stories, turnips and mimosa all at once. I’ll swear I grew up thinking that physical fatness had something to do with it.
At fifteen or so, I waded through his books on my own and found to my surprise that the estimate held up pretty well. It seemed to me that any writer combining imagination and good sense at that level of intensity could accomplish anything he wanted. So, when Lionel Trilling placed Chesterton’s social criticism on a line between Cobbett and Orwell, I agreed; when Jacques Maritain, the Thomist, called G. K. a better natural metaphysician than himself, I only wondered at the understatement. I even thought that a short essay of his on dreams knocked Jung out of the ballpark.
Larger than life, I suppose. No one is that good. Taking the lowest possible consensus, Chesterton was a brilliant philosophical journalist, who wasted too much time cutting up other journalists and journalistic ideas, and an inspired dabbler in other forms; Hilaire Belloc was a grand master of language, so willfully cranky in its use that he seemed to demand a minor place in letters. Still, they towered over the hedge at our place; and to write about them now, with all the fake judiciousness that follows, seems dizzily unreal, as well as something of…
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Copyright © 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed.