SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 47-57
[Access article in PDF]
The Chesterton-Shaw Debates
Daniel H. Strait
Part of the intellectual drama between Chesterton and Shaw has always arisen from a sense of their differences. Chesterton was a cheerful and robust man, large in girth, an avowed journalist, a former Socialist turned passionate defender of Christianity, and, with an almost Falstaffian charm, a loyal patron of the English tavern, the place, he thought, where true friendliness begins with fire and food and drink. Shaw, Chesterton's antithesis, was remarkably fit and agile, a dedicated playwright, a "disarmingly orthodox and shockingly radical religious thinker," as William Sylvester Smith says, 1 a committed but nondoctrinaire Socialist, a teetotaler, and a vegetarian. Given these differences, it is not hard to imagine why Chesterton and Shaw were such fierce intellectual foes. It is much harder indeed to imagine how their differences helped them to be such good friends.
Chesterton speaks to this paradox in his Autobiography, published posthumously in 1936. He writes, "It is necessary to disagree with him [Shaw] as much as I do in order to admire him as much as I do." 2 Twenty-eight years earlier, in his article "The Chesterbelloc," printed in the New Age in February 1908, Shaw, with his characteristically good humor, describes Chesterton with the eye of a portrait painter but the sentiment of a friend: "Now Chesterton," he says, "might be trusted anywhere without a policeman. He might knock at a door and run away—perhaps even lie down across the threshold to trip up the emergent householder; but his crimes would be hyperbolic crimes of the imagination and humor, not of malice. He is friendly, easy-going, unaffected, gentle, magnanimous, and genuinely democratic." 3 It is worth returning to these remarks if for no other reason than to remember the warm generosity and sharp wit of both writers, and perhaps there is no better time than now, "after the fall" into theory, 4 to borrow David Richter's phrase, to think about how humanely Chesterton and Shaw treated each other. But one should not allow their mutual good will to obscure the fact that they had to learn how to be foes before they could be [End Page 47] friends. The real value of their debates, formal and informal, lies in how their fierce opposition led them to discover a space of true dialogue, deeply humanizing and creative in its tensions.
The Space of Difference
Mary Lefkowitz has recently written that "as the university has become more politicized, the notion of dialogue has disappeared, and been replaced by speechifying and the kind of pronouncements that are intended to end discussion rather than to stimulate it." 5 It is hard to miss Lefkowitz's implication that literary politics has resulted in more heat than light in recent years. She goes on to say, "Gone is the notion that one should show respect for the persons with whom we might disagree." 6 That the notion of respect is "gone" entirely seems unlikely. But Jane Tompkins's picture of violent, murderous "academic shootouts," in her epilogue to West of Everything, suggests that such concerns about literary politics are legitimate and deserving of more attention. 7
It is precisely this concern about literary politics that warrants another look at the Chesterton-Shaw debates in the broad context of their roughly thirty-year friendship, one created and even sustained by sharp differences. Above all, Chesterton and Shaw recognized their common humanity as a first principle in intellectual life. "If there were those who believed that neither could have very deep convictions and remain on such good terms," wrote Vincent Brome in 1958, "[then] they overlooked not merely the common humanity of both, but their ability to convince one another of this deeper identity." 8 This insight speaks more loudly now than it did when it was first penned, not just for what it says about Chesterton and Shaw but for what it says about how they transformed the space of difference.
A short passage from...