Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

May 18, 2008

The Sins of the Saint: Racism in GK Chesterton

I’ve been reading this topic with great interest, particularly since I was indirectly responsible for starting it! My views:  I am, like Henrique (welcome!), a committed Chestertonian. He is, as many of you are by now wearily aware, my favourite detective writer. (The Innocence ranks, in my opinion, alongside Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, Dumas’s Comte de Monte Cristo, and Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend.) Indeed, I seriously considered doing my Master’s on him.

Mike [Grost] (whose work I respect) overstates Chesterton’s bigotry. There is no doubt that GKC saw non-Caucasians as ‘different’ and ‘exotic’*, and was prejudiced, to some degree, against Jews and blacks.  [*: All cultures, whether British, Chinese or Esquimaux, see their culture as the ‘norm’, and other cultures as differing from it. For most people nowadays, happily, other cultures are ‘different but equal’, rather than ‘different and inferior’.]  However!  Chesterton’s ‘bigotry’ is complex, and has a number of different causes. He was arguably racially prejudiced against blacks (recurring imagery of savages, cannibals and apes), but vehemently against violence or discrimination (see Father Brown’s condemnation of lynching in “The God of the Gongs”).  He was not racially prejudiced against Indians, but disliked Hinduism and Buddhism, on philosophical grounds. He saw Buddhist renunciation of the world and of the will as ‘despair’, and disliked the paganism of Asia (see Everlasting Man).

His attitude to Jews is more complex. The Marconi scandal (prominent public figures, amongst them several Jews, were guilty of insider trading) and Godfrey Isaacs’s subsequent successful suit of his brother Cecil made him dislike Jews in business and politics. However, as Henrique pointed out, Chesterton strongly opposed the Nazi persecution of the Jews and supported the idea of a Jewish homeland. (See also http://www.secondspring.co.uk/spring/semitism11.htm.)

Some of the examples Mike cited are convincing, although are often not enough to mar the story. Most of them, however, are more complex than he suggests, deal with minor characters, or simply do not hold up.  Anti-black “The Man in the Passage” has a half-black actor, Isidore Bruno. The narrator compares him to ‘a barbaric god’ (p 210), and states that he looks at Aurora Rome with ‘all the appetite of a savage and a spoilt child’ (p 211). However, there are also references to English prejudice. A policeman calls him ‘a cannibal sort of chap’ (p 214), and, at the trial, the counsel for the prosecution ‘got it into his head (mostly by some ramifications of his family’s religion) that Father Brown was on the side of the prisoner, because the prisoner was wicked and foreign and even partly black’. More complex than it appears. A ‘savage’ half-black character, but also reveals English prejudice.

“The Perishing of the Pendragons” has two black servants, henchmen of the villain. Their ‘tight uniforms of yellow’ make Father Brown think of canaries (pp 263 – 64). More dubious is the climactic conflagration, where they attack the heroes with cutlasses. “In the blood-red glare, with their black faces and yellow figures, they looked like devils carrying instruments of torture” (p 267). Racial prejudice, granted – but does it really mar the story?

“The God of the Gongs” is famous for Nigger Ned, the black boxer who is also head of a Voodoo cult. There is no denying that the following passage is racist: ‘That negro who has just swaggered out is one of the most dangerous men on earth, for he has the brains of a European, with the instincts of a cannibal. He has turned what was clean, common-sense butchery among his fellow-barbarians into a very modern and scientific secret society of assassins…’ (p 280) Nor is the description of ‘the fashionable negro…, his eyeballs rolling, his silk hat still insolently tilted on his head’ and ‘his apish teeth’ (p 279) acceptable to modern audiences. However, there is more going on here. Father Brown condemns lynching as a ‘work of hell’, in sharp contrast to Flambeau’s remark ‘sometimes I’m not surprised that they lynch them’, a remark occasioned, admittedly, by ‘an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent – the cake walk’ (p 275). Father Brown comments on English prejudice, and the tendency to confuse ‘Italians’ and ‘octoroons and African half-bloods of various shades’ – ‘I fear we English think all foreigners are much the same so long as they are dark and dirty…’ (p 281). The revelation of the villain’s activities plunges England into a state of racist paranoia: Persons of a figure remotely reconcilable with his were subjected to quite extraordinary inquisitions, made to scrub their faces before going on board ship, as if each white complexion were made up like a mask of grease-paint. Every negro in England was put under special regulations and made to report himself; the outgoing ships would no more have taken a nigger than a basilisk… The Black Man meant in England almost what he once meant in Scotland. While there is racism in the treatment of the murderer, the passage also indicates contempt for racism. All the attempts, both popular and official, to catch the killer are unsuccessful (the number of people falsely questioned), and driven by an unreasoning fear, rather than by justified precaution. The remark about passengers being forced to scrub their faces is a reversal of the belief that black pigmentation will rub off. Indeed, Ned disguises himself not as a white, but as a ‘nigger minstrel’, secure in the knowledge that no one will bother to look for a black man under a black face. Since those bands were formed of white men blacked up, this could be taken as an indication that race is to some degree unimportant (as one would hope from a Catholic author who maintained that “all men matter…to God”), with whites blacking up, blacks blacking up, and whites suspected to be blacks whiting up—a rather dizzying merry-go-round of colour.  Anti-Jewish

“The Queer Feet” has a Jewish hotel proprietor. He is ‘a kind man, and had also that bad imitation of kindness, the dislike of any difficulty or scene… It is a mark of the magnificent tolerance of Mr. Lever that he permitted this holy place [the hotel] to be for about half an hour profaned by a mere priest, scribbling away on a paper’. While ironic, it is the magnificent respectability of Lever and his hotel, which tries to shut out the realities of death, rather than his race, which is being satirised. His accent thickens under stress, no doubt because his mother tongue was Yiddish or Hebrew (p 48). The object of Chesterton’s scorn in this story, however, is not the Jewish Mr. Lever, but the Establishment plutocrats, who represent ‘the combination of modern humanitarianism with the horrible modern abyss between the souls of the rich and the poor’. They ‘could not bear a poor man near to them, either as a slave or a friend. That something had gone wrong with the servants was merely a dull, hot embarrassment’ (p 47). Their souls are described as ‘a small dried pea’ (p 49). Father Brown rebukes them: ‘Odd, isn’t it, … that a thief and a vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous, and without fruit for God or man?’ (p 50). Anti-Semitism minor at worst.

“The Duel of Dr. Hirsch” is, in my opinion, not anti-Semitic. Instead, Dr. Hirsch’s plot is to create anti-Jewish sentiment, made clear by Father Brown’s reaction to Valognes’s remark: ‘I believe it’s some plot! … some plot of the Jews and Freemasons. It’s meant to work up glory for Hirsch…’ (p 204). His Jewish attributes (e.g., red hair) are make-up adopted by the villain. Not anti-Semitic.  The villain in “The Purple Wig”, Isaac Green, is a crooked lawyer, ex-moneylender and pawnbroker (both trades associated with Jews). The following passage, which condemns Green, is arguably anti-Semitic: This man used the old feudal fables – probably, in his snobbish soul, really envied and admired them. So that thousands of poor English people trembled before a mysterious chieftain with an ancient destiny and a diadem of evil stars – when they are really trembling before a guttersnipe who was a pettifogger and a pawnbroker not twelve years ago. I think it very typical of the real case against our aristocracy as it is, and as it will be till God sends us braver men. (p 254) At the same time, the story criticises a miscarriage of justice: the government has awarded the title and estate to a crook. Charge of anti-Semitism stands. Possibly influenced by Marconi scandal.

As Curt has already said, “The Curse of the Golden Cross” has a much too rosy view of Jews in mediaeval England, who were, after all, expelled by Edward I in 1290 (later readmitted by Cromwell, who wanted to hasten the Second Coming). Some anti-Semitic prejudice here. Anti-Semitism present, as well as a rather fanciful idea of history!

“The Actor and the Alibi” has a Jewish actor, but is not anti-Semitic. There are two references to his being Jewish: It contained Mandeville’s second walking gentleman, carrying on the not yet wholly vanished tradition of Charles’s Friend, a dark, curly-haired youth of somewhat Semitic profile bearing the name of Aubrey Vernon. (p 513) ‘There was that amiable Jew who calls himself Aubrey Vernon, he’s out of it…’ (p 521) Anti-Semitism not present.

“The Ghost of Gideon Wise” has two unsympathetic Jewish characters, the millionaire Stein (a monopolist) and the revolutionary Elias (described as a ‘sneering Jew’ on p 449, and later, by a policeman, as a ‘“narrow-faced rascal … a more creepy, cold-blooded, sneering devil I never saw”’ [452-53]). Anti-Semitic, but for business reasons (Marconi again?).   Anti-Oriental

“The Wrong Shape” has an Indian mystic, who longs for nihilism and the renunciation of the will (p 96) – a philosophy Chesterton loathed as despair (see The Everlasting Man). Father Brown dislikes Eastern art, because ‘the colours are intoxicatingly lovely; but the shapes are mean and bad – deliberately mean and bad’ (p 92). Philosophically based dislike of Oriental religions.  “The Red Moon of Meru” has another Indian mystic. Father Brown comments on prejudice: ‘Our prejudices seem to cut opposite ways,’ said Father Brown. ‘You excuse his being brown because he is brahminical; and I excuse his being brahminical because he is brown. Frankly, I don’t care for spiritual powers much myself. I’ve got much more sympathy with spiritual weaknesses. But I can’t see why anybody should dislike him merely because he is the same beautiful colour as copper, or coffee, or nut-brown ale, or those jolly peat-streams in the North. But then,’ he added, looking across at the lady and screwing up his eyes, ‘I suppose I’m prejudiced in favour of anything that’s called brown.’ (p 556) However, as stated above, Chesterton disliked Eastern philosophies, as the following makes clear: ‘We, whose fathers at least were Christians, who have grown up under those mediaeval arches even if we bedizen them with all the demons in Asia –we have the very opposite ambition and the very opposite shame’ (566-67). Philosophically based dislike of Oriental religions. No colour prejudice.

There is a half-caste servant in “The Three Tools of Death”. There is an unfortunate line on p 163 (‘His slits of eyes almost faded from his face in one fat Chinese sneer’), but he is a minor character. Minor character. Does it mar the story as a whole?

Norman Drage in “The Arrow of Heaven” is part Asian. ‘Something in his yellow face was almost Asiatic, even Chinese; and his conversation seemed to consist of stratified layers of irony’ (p 334). Father Brown finds him in a disreputable state in a Chinese restaurant. Charge of racism has some truth. Does it mar the story as a whole?

“The Quick One” has a Muslim, ‘a brown Asiatic in a green turban … a distinguished Moslem (one of whose names was Akbar and the rest an untranslatable ululation of Allah with attributes)’ (p 609), who tries to kill a man when Mahomet is insulted, for which his intended victim praises him and acknowledges that he was in the wrong. Far more dubious is the fact that the victim, who hates Jews (607), is described by Father Brown as a man ‘who might have saved England’ (613). Complex.

There is the threat of an Indian curse in “The Salad of Colonel Cray”, but this is really only exotic colouring, in the manner of Doyle.   Anti-native American

This accusation levelled against “The Resurrection of Father Brown” isn’t convincing. If anything, Chesterton is condemning the American reporter Saul Snaith for his prejudice (pp 319 – 21). However, there is certainly some racism in the depiction of the part-African Alvarez: Africa of the forests looked out of the eyes of Alvarez the hybrid adventurer; and Race fancied he could see suddenly that the man was after all a barbarian, who could not control himself to the end; one might guess that all his “illuminated” transcendentalism had a touch of Voodoo. (p 328) Complex. Racism in character of Alvarez, but Mike’s original charge isn’t supported – rather the reverse.  Anti-gay

“The Chief Mourner of Marne” has a David / Jonathan relationship, but I doubt whether this is homosexuality. “The Worst Crime in the World” – Is Mme Grunov a lesbian? She’s married. Neither are convincing. Certainly nothing like Josephine Bell’s genuinely homophobic Summer School Mystery.

Now, by our standards, many of Chesterton’s remarks come across as racially prejudiced. This is part of his worldview, and part of the society into which he was born. There’s less prejudice in Chesterton than, say, MacDonald’s White Crow (the eponymous villain is an albino negro, who looks just like us, and whose brain is superior to the white man’s – and who can also be identified in the dark by his smell, and who has sex with a thoroughly depraved, needless to say, white woman) or Burton Stevenson’s Gloved Hand. In this last, the murderers are wicked because they’re Hindu, and want to convert other people to Hinduism, whereas, while GKC disliked Hinduism and Buddhism from a philosophical standpoint (see The Everlasting Man), the Hindus in “The Wrong Shape” and “The Red Moon of Meru” are used by Anglo villains as scapegoats. Many writers of the time also had racist views. In Death in the Clouds, for instance, two of Agatha Christie’s characters discover that their common interests include ‘a dislike of negroes’ (a prejudice which she lost in her late works).

The Secret of Chimneys is also anti-Semitic, with “Fat Ikey”, alias “Noseystein”, but later books (3 Act Tragedy, for instance) are not.  My problem with Mike’s argument is that, while there is a racist undercurrent to Chesterton’s stories (although complex or very minor), he confuses the wickedness of a work (a moral quality) with its being badly written or constructed (an aesthetic quality). Now, for Mike, any sign of prejudice or bigotry in a work is enough to condemn it as morally unacceptable.   Now, can great art (or even a good book or play) be the work of someone who had racist views? Obviously. Until the present day, very few people saw those of different races or creeds as equal to their own. Most of the great artists of the Renaissance, for instance, would have blamed the Jews for the murder of Christ.

That does not stop their paintings of the Crucifixion from being powerful art. William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatist in the history of mankind, was demonstrably prejudiced against Jews and blacks, not to mention the Welsh and the Irish (Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V), and his history plays were used as propaganda by a dynasty whose claim to power was dubious. The Merchant of Venice could be described as doubly culpable, in that it has the Prince of Morocco and what seems the stereotypical Jew, Shylock. However, throughout the nineteenth century, the character was nearly always presented as the sympathetic victim of anti-Semitism. Certainly, Shylock is much more sympathetic than Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist has the character of Fagin, although Dickens denied prejudice against the Jews, since many of the fences in London at the time were Jews, and tried to make amends with the sympathetic Riah in Our Mutual Friend. Evelyn Waugh was famously reactionary, and disliked not merely blacks and Jews, but nearly the whole modern world – and yet his works (including Decline and Fall and Black Mischief) are among the wittiest and sharpest satires in English.

The fact that these works contain passages or sentiments which are unacceptable to modern audiences does not prevent them from being great art.  Much depends on the purpose of the work. There is a difference between the artist’s worldview, and the artist’s purpose in creating the work.  Can propaganda be art? Can a work of art be racist in purpose? A far more difficult question. A work which is meant as propaganda can be powerful, beautiful or intensely moving, or an accomplished art-work. Richard III, of course, is Tudor propaganda, and yet the murderous hunchback is a dynamic and fascinating character, and the play’s representation of the Machiavellian pursuit of power is penetrating. Many critics consider Triumph des Willens to be one of the greatest films ever made, considered purely as direction. Parsifal, which some have argued was written under the influence of Gobineau, has some of the most powerful and sublime music ever composed (amongst its mauvaises quatre heures!).

There is, however, a moral gulf between Wagner’s work, in which the racism is only part of the whole, but not the purpose of the Buhnenweihfestspiel, which is about renunciation and purification, and Riefenstahl’s film, which was propaganda for a criminal regime. The author’s purpose is crucial. That said, I feel much more comfortable listening to Lohengrin or Tannhauser, or even the Ring – and I prefer Meyerbeer (who was Jewish) to all of them.  So what am I saying? That while we should admit the existence of racism or sentiments unpalatable to a modern audience, unless they are the purpose of the work, they are no justification for denouncing a work. Even then, in certain cases, a work of propaganda, or in which racist sentiment played a large part in its conception, can have features which make it worthy of our respect, at least in form, if not in content.

Nick

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7 Comments »

  1. Since you quite rightly brought up the Marconi Scandal, let me add that this mostly forgotten scandal had a big negative impact on a number of intellectuals at the time, including Rudyard Kipling. People have the same argument about whether Kipling’s poem “Gehazi” is rightly seen as anti-semitic. Some of Chesterton’s problematic statements about Jews pre-date Marconi, but Marconi no doubt had a great influence on him.

    All I have to say, besides nice job.

    Curt

    Comment by jonjermey — May 18, 2008 @ 11:35 pm | Reply

  2. I think it was Curt who cited my comments about JDC and social classes from the biography — Carr’s attitude was what I called “aristocratic egalitarianism.” He never objected to a social system but somehow, within that, thought people should be treated equally. Thus in many of his historicals, our hero is a great fellow because he treats his servants with respect. But they are still servants . . .

    Carr was the least racist of all the GAD writers; Queen came close, though in his radio scripts he does use broken, and sometimes comic, English to differentiate characters.

    Carr’s mother was angry at him as a lad when he made friends with black children during the 2 years that his father was a congressman in Washington, DC. Carr, like many of his contemporaries, accepted atavism, but he never used it negatively — e.g. the almost-villain in THE READER IS WARNED and a black nightclub performer in one of his short stories — I think it was “Death in the Dressing Room.”

    I think I mentioned some years ago on this list that Carr once refused (in the 1940’s) to attend a Royal Audience for BBC writers and directors, because one of his friends, a director, was not invited because he was gay.

    As Curt or Xavier mentioned, Carr was not an antisemite — he had a Jewish detective in PAPA LA-BAS. The closest one can come in a JDC work is in THE MAD HATTER when one of the characters refers to a Jew as a “counter hopper” — meaning of course that he should be serving behind the counter of shops. But this was a statement by a character, not by Carr as author.

    As for Gaudan Cross in THE BURNING COURT being Jewish, I am not convinced. Yes, he has a prominent nose, but so do many goys, and his statement about superiority of his group refers, I think, to the non-dead, not to Jews — and it is one of Carr’s hints about the shock ending to come. Anyway, even if he is Jewish, the portrayal is not in any way antisemitic.

    [Xavier sent me a quote in his French edition of THE BURNING COURT, and I have found the original passage, pp. 244-245 of the first American edition — and Xavier is quite right, and I hold my head in shame — Cross is indeed Jewish, as he himself not only admits but brags. Thepassage is, however, not antisemitic.]

    Doug G

    Comment by jonjermey — May 22, 2008 @ 3:59 am | Reply

  3. Thanks for writing this very helpful analysis of Chesterton’s apparent bigotry and racism.

    In Chapter 1 of ORTHODOXY, Chesterton views landing and venturing upon the coast of South Africa as a “disgusting necessity.”

    I am currently annotating Chesterton’s text. I hope you don’t mind if I suggest your piece in the annotation.

    Comment by Jason — August 1, 2008 @ 11:41 am | Reply

  4. What an honest piece of writing about a difficult topic for lovers of GKC’s writings. Refreshing to acknowledge in a plain-faced way that by today’s “standards”, GKC’s descriptions of jews and blacks was cringe-inducing to say the least. I feel love of GKC’s writings includes an acknowledgement that he was flawed, just as we are flawed by the prejudices of our own time.

    Comment by Martin Olson — December 22, 2010 @ 11:46 pm | Reply

  5. There are distincly racist descriptions in the ” Father Brown” stories which, along with the anti-semitism, distinctly negate Chesterton’s Christian message as far as I am concerned.
    Chesterton apparently started off by dabbling in the occult, became a Christian and then became a devout Catholic.
    In other words, he went full circle: he started by believing in mumbo-jumbo and ended by believing in mumbo-jumbo.

    Comment by H — July 14, 2012 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

  6. The fact remains that G.K.Chesteron had a nasty streak of racism which rather negates his ‘ Christian’ message.

    Comment by H — July 14, 2012 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

  7. Wow. I’ve read some of these stories but I did not see some of the bigotry mentioned. Perhaps because it isn’t there (Mrs. Grunov, a lesbian? Absolutely no evidence whatsoever and even if she was, where is the bigotry?). And if there is bigotry, these are stories —— how can one determine if Chesterton himself is bigoted or if he is simply showing an element of society that was, and it’s not necessarily his personal views? You can’t.

    Chesterton is a product of his times and some of his views will reflect this. If one insists on judging him through modern eyes, I can only imagine that they same thing can happen to them and posterity will look upon some of their actions and attitudes as intolerant. This reading, including some of the comments, were full of logical holes, including judging a religion on the basis of the possibility of the attitudes of one man. Just wow!

    Comment by Cleo — March 30, 2015 @ 9:08 pm | Reply


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