Book Recommendation: "Wisdom and Innocence," a G.K. Chesterton Biography

“There is a bumper sticker that reads: God, please save me from your followers. Just as the disciples of the Deity often present the most considerable obstacle to knowing Him, a like argument can be made for the earnest devotees of Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

This is most unfortunate, since we merely aim to be grateful to one who has offered us spiritual strength, and may have even led us to God.” Yet somewhere along the line we have been presented with a mere caricature of the man, a pompous old know-it-all who seems to have an epigram for every question posed and a grinding joviality and humour that totally obscures the man who truly suffered for every truth gained.

I am far more in debt to Garry Wills’ fine work “Chesterton Man And Mask” than to anything EWTN has ever produced and if the latter is your main image generator for this giant of twentieth century literature, well, to put it kindly, you need help.

This excellent biography would be one place to start. The best place of course is with the source itself, the man’s own books, but then you lack his place in history and the milieu in which he operated.

As you will see from the reading selections below “Pearce maintains a good balance between telling the tale of Chesterton and providing selections from his writings–poetry, essays, books, novels–which are integral to understanding the man, and which greatly increase one’s admiration of him. . Much is made, for instance, of his friendships with Hilaire Belloc and Fr. Ronald Knox, but also of those with George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, with whom he frequently disagreed. We also learn about the ways in which C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Sayers, and George Orwell–among others–were influenced by him.”

As is my custom, reading selections that I found compelling follow – a good way to get an overview of the book or see whether you’d like to read more…



Wills’ book was the third book on Chesterton I bought, when I was just beginning my colection, around 46 years ago. It is interesting, but ultimately I don’t rate it highly. Pearce is a very good bio, but does not replace the standard life, by Masie Ward (the first book on Chesterton I bought, followed by Hugh Kenner’s PARADOX IN CHESTERTON).

And by far the most important (after Ward) book I’ve ever read on Chesterton is William Oddie’s recent CHESTERTON AND THE ROMANCE OF ORTHDOXY. It clarifies a great many murky and general assumptions, about his growth and development, in his personal beliefs, from his youth, to the point in 1908 when he published ORTHODOXY. Along the way, it corrects and clarifies some of the most basic books on the man, including the seminal Ward bio, Cecil Chesterton’s study, and even some of the assertions in Chesterton’s autobio, which are shown to be, occasionally, a telescoping of the chronological events. The book is based, to a great extent, on a huge mass of material: unpublished, or unre-published work, juvenalia, personal notebooks, drafts, personal letters and such, that were known to exist since his death. These were, after Frances Chesterton’s death two years after Gilbert’s, held and controlled by his secretary, Dorothy Collins, until she died. Much use has been made of this stuff already, beginning as early as Ward’s bio, and to date, including Pearce’s fine work, but this is a totally different, thorough and systematic mining of it. The first volume of the collected poetry brought out by Ignatius Press was about half “new” stuff from this source. And the 2nd volume, which we awaited for 15 years, seems to be about the same. Oddie is a rich treasure trove, even if only looking at the new material it contains, in addition to the insights provided. Highly recommended. And we have hopes for yet more insights drawn from the same sources, now that they have been professionally cataloged.

And I suspect you might remember hearing this recommendation before. It’s for those who haven’t.


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