G.K. CHESTERTON: Radical Populist by Margaret Canovan

G.K. CHESTERTON: Radical Populist

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Next, it'll be G.K.C., Democracy's Tot. This prodigious essayist, novelist, critic, and polemicist--this flagrant wit and self-made image--was, the author opines, a populist: by her definition, one who has ""a faith in the common sense of ordinary, hard-working people, especially country people, and an intense suspicion of metropolitan society, plutocrats, bureaucrats, and intellectuals."" Now, as any Chestertonian knows, G.K. held decided political views, embodied in his various works and construable as populist in the broad sense of favoring individual choice and diversity over centralized authority and uniformity. So, with discrimination, Trilling placed him between Cobbett and Orwell as a social critic, Wilfrid Sheed sees the visionary Napoleon of Notting Hill realized in Norman Mailer's New York mayoralty campaign, and Garry Wills (in Chesterton, Man and Mask) remarks on his prescient warning against ""the hypnotic omnipresence of advertising."" But Wills also notes that ""When dealing with Chesterton, the approach through politics is misleading in almost every instance,"" a problem Canovan compounds: not only does she focus on Chesterton's politics, she extracts his politics from the body of his work and thought to make him a prophet of small, beautiful self-determination. And while Chesterton can be respected for recognizing that, for instance, ""The education of the poor by contrast [with that of the rich] was explicitly directed against the views and attitudes of the parents,"" he must also be considered in terms of his medievalism and Catholicism, and held responsible for his anti-feminism and anti-Semitism. Re the latter, we are asked to imagine that some disaster befell America: then ""the radical rhetoric of anti-Americanism would seem as unspeakably indecent as do the casual anti-Semitic jokes of Chesterton after the Nazi holocaust,"" Chesterton, as amply documented in Dudley Barker's 1973 biography, was a lifelong anti-Semite. Far from being city-shy, he was a gregarious boulevardier. His ideas were impractical and contradictory, he was inconsistent. Pared down and scrubbed up, he won't do--and needn't, not with all those life-size models at hand.

Pub Date: Sept. 12th, 1977
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich