Mr. Chesterton (and Stevenson). A review of Robert Louis Stevenson, by G. K. Chesterton
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[ 315 Mr. Chesterton (and Stevenson) A review of Robert Louis Stevenson, by G. K. Chesterton London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927. Pp. 259. The Nation and Athenaeum, 42 (31 Dec 1927) 516 I admit that I have always found Mr. Chesterton’s style exasperating to the last point of endurance, though I am aware that there must be many people who like it.1 In a chapter in this book, on “The Style of Stevenson,” Mr. Chesterton remarks: “I am one of those humble characters for whom the main matter of style is concerned with making a statement” [139]. To which one might reply that the matter is concerned with the statement, but that the style is concerned with making it clearly, simply, and in good taste. In his matter Mr. Chesterton is apt to make too many statements; in his style he is concerned rather to agitate than to clarify, to impress rather than to persuade. And readers like myself find his manner rather offensive to their vanity. For he seems always to assume that what his reader has previously believed is exactly the opposite of what Mr. Chesterton knows to be true. Readers who like an easy formula may find this attitude delightful; for they have only to stand on their heads to find themselves in agreement with Mr. Chesterton. But we are not all so completely immersed in ignorance, prejudice ,andheresyasMr.Chestertonassumes.Toassumethatone’sreadersarein total spiritual and intellectual darkness is easy, and dispenses the author from any great intellectual effort himself: as Mr. Wells thinks that we are all quite ignorant of Evolution, and Mr. Belloc is convinced of our total ignorance of European history, so Mr. Chesterton believes that we have never heard of Catholicism except possibly through Kingsley’s Westward Ho!2 It would not so much matter if it did not mean that able writers, who might produce work of enduring value, become ephemeral. If they wrote primarily for themselves, theywouldbeatthesametimewritingforthebestpeopleeverywhere,people known and people obscure, without distinction of class or set. Inthisdiffuse,dissipated,butnotatallstupidbookMr.Chestertonwastes a good deal of time. He is concerned in part with attacking misconceptions which we had not heard of and in which we are not interested; and in the process supplies some new misconceptions of his own. He wastes a good 1927 316 ] deal of time in protesting that Stevenson was not as the “’Nineties” were: they were decadent and morbid, whilst Stevenson was out and out for the culture of health and happiness. Having assumed a misunderstanding that we are not likely to labour under, Mr. Chesterton proceeds to assume that we are in 1927 still very much interested in the ’Nineties, and somewhat like them, only worse. Mr. Chesterton’s chief allusion to contemporary literature is The Green Hat.3 It is not unkind to suggest that Mr. Chesterton might read something better – and even newer. If Mr. Chesterton does not seem to make the most of Stevenson’s “cheerfulness ,” it is, I suspect, in my own case, due largely to the fact that I find Mr. Chesterton’s own cheerfulness so depressing. He appears less like a saint radiating spiritual vision than like a ’busman slapping himself on a frosty day. He makes a great deal of Stevenson’s restoration of the child’s point of view. After Mr. Wyndham Lewis’s recent fulminations against the childactors , this policy requires rather more bolstering up than Mr. Chesterton has given it.4 He says, for instance, that in our “characteristic contemporary literature there is an almost complete absence of joy. And I think it would be true to say, in a general fashion, that it is not childish enough to be cheerful ” [247]. Mr. Chesterton’s fashion is too general. The modern world is, in another general fashion, childish, and, like childhood, is rather anarchistic. There is something very childish about Chicago, and I dare say Chicago is also joyful. I should be very glad to be joyful, but I should not care for any joy to be obtained at the price of surrendering my life’s experience. Of course, Mr. Chesterton is wrong in supposing that one can speak about such matters “inageneralfashion”[247].Thereisoneauthoritativesense,toberespected, in which we are admonished to be like little children.5 Mr. Chesterton seems to think that we must execute these instructions by a romp. Hence his regular outbursts of heavy-weight Peter-Pantheism.6 What we should have liked would have been a critical essay showing that Stevenson is...


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