Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

July 6, 2008

GK Chesterton

Filed under: GK Chesterton — Jon @ 10:02 pm

The current NEW YORKER has a very interesting article on G. K. > > Chesterton, including his anti-semitism. Father Brown is mentioned > > only briefly, but the article is filled with interesting insights. > > I’ll be interested in what GADers think of it.

Doug Greene


  1. I’ve only read the on-line abstract – will have to look up the whole article at the public library (don’t subscribe to the New Yorker). One can see some problems with the statements in the abstract. Chesterton has always had a big audience of Catholic religious readers, who mainly read his numerous religious non-fiction books, plus his religious novel “The Man Who Was Thursday”. But the abstract is wrong, in that it suggests Chesterton’s audience as a whole is mainly Catholic. The most prominent Chestertonian here in the United States, for example, is Martin Gardner, the math, science and philosophy writer who is a Theist of Protestant background. And the readership for Chesterton’s fiction comes from a diverse background. The abstract mentions Borges; it could have included Ellery Queen, a Chestertonian of deepest dye. Both Borges and Queen are Jewish.

    The abstract is also misleading about Chesterton and bigotry. Chesterton was not only anti-Semitic; he also hated blacks, Asians and gays, and lambasted them in his worst fiction. Also, the record shows that Chesterton’s bigotry did not begin with his conversion to Catholicism in the early 1920’s. Already, in the first Father Brown tales around 1910, there are negative depictions of Jews. In “The Queer Feet”, we see Jews as toadies of the wealthy, pandering to their corruption for financial gain; in “The Flying Stars”, swindling Jews is seen as fun; in “The Duel of Dr. Hirsch”, Chesterton is still suggesting that Dreyfuss could be a traitor, long after he was rehabilitated by the French Government and the civilized world.

    When I read “The Man Who Was Thursday” as a teenager, I did not like it. I was not offended. But I found the book to be thin, diffuse, dull, and of little cogency or relevancy to any pressing concern. This judgment probably needs revisiting. So many people admire “The Man Who Was Thursday” that it is possible that the novel has virtues that my teenage self just did not get.

    The abstract is typical of accounts by mainstream critics, in that it sees “The Man Who Was Thursday” as Chesterton’s most important work of fiction, and Chesterton’s chief claim to literary fame. By contrast, my enthusiasm for Chesterton is mainly based on his mystery short stories. Chesterton wrote nearly fifty mystery short tales, that are classics of the genre. They have great puzzle plots and landmark impossible crimes; they are wonderfully written in terms of prose style, description, paradox and imagery; they were hugely influential of the Big Three of Christie Carr and Queen, as well as Borges and Hoch. Mainstream literary critics have strong ideas. They regard novels as better than short stories; literary fiction as superior to puzzle plot mysteries. The conviction of many mainstream critics that “The Man Who Was Thursday” is major, and the Father Brown tales are minor, probably reflects these core principles – or are they prejudices? – common in the literary world.

    Mike Grost

    Comment by jonjermey — July 6, 2008 @ 10:03 pm | Reply

  2. I read the entire article in the New Yorker last night. It really doesn’t say a lot about the Father Brown stories, but does have quite a bit about ‘The Man Who Was Thursday.’ It also gives him much credit for his aphorisms and essays, and mentions Martin Gardner as a fan. It also traces his anti-Semitism back to a lawsuit between the two Chesterton brothers and two brothers named Isaacs; I can’t recall the whole story right now but evidently Chesterton’s brother lost. If anyone really wants the entire story I’d be glad to reproduce it here in more detail.

    Carole Shmurak

    Comment by jonjermey — July 6, 2008 @ 10:04 pm | Reply

  3. Even though I didn’t care for the story, I’ll always remember the following quote from “The Blue Cross”:

    “… another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren’t a priest.”

    “What?” asked the thief, almost gaping.

    “You attacked reason,” said Father Brown. “It’s bad theology.”


    Comment by jonjermey — July 6, 2008 @ 10:04 pm | Reply

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