It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Chesterton and his writing. I devoured The Man Who Was Thursday at age fourteen; probably not the ideal place to start – the story blew my mind so completely I’m still picking up the fragments four years later – but even though I didn’t “get” half of what I read, I knew I’d found something special, and I was eager to get more of it.
I know for a fact that some of my readers are also GKC fans, so it pleases me to be able to recommend a book I think they will thoroughly enjoy: Kevin Belmonte’s Defiant Joy. If you love Chesterton the writer, but want to know more about Chesterton the man, this respectable little biography is a good place to start.
Belmonte traces Chesterton’s life – from his early childhood to his death in 1936 – with care and an obvious affection for the man. Well deserved affection, I might add. Equally adept as a journalist, literary critic, poet, and novelist, this jovial and corpulent “prince of paradox” still looms large in our imaginations today, with hair askew and a joke on his lips.
Chesterton’s joie de vivre – which bubbles up in his writing like shaken Coca-Cola – is one of the things I’ve always most admired about him. The “defiant joy” with which he faced the skeptics and pessimists of his day is both thrilling and inspiring to consider. To me, he is the Jolly Crusader, and if his careful arguments do not slay thee, by my troth, his sense of humor will.
Belmonte’s book has received a heavy amount of criticism for not being more detailed and exhaustive as a biography. On one level, I can understand this complaint; anyone looking for a thorough examination of Chesterton’s life and works will be disappointed here. Having said that, I think the criticism is somewhat unfair, since Belmonte makes it clear from the get-go that Defiant Joy is not intended to be a comprehensive study:
I’ve always admired G.K. Chesterton’s gift for the simple declarative sentence. Few knew better than he how to nail one’s colors to the mast. So we find him writing in the introduction to his classic study St. Thomas Aquinas (1933): “This books makes no pretense to be anything but a popular sketch of a great historical character who ought to be more popular. Its aim will be achieved, if it leads those who have hardly even heard of St. Thomas Aquinas to read about him in better books.”
Such is the aspiration of this book: to introduce a life and legacy that should be better known. It does not in any way aspire to be a comprehensive or definitive study. (p. xi)
There you have it. If nothing else, consider this book a helpful springboard to loftier and more challenging things.
This isn’t to say I have no quibbles with Belmonte myself. For one thing, his writing can get rather repetitive (I lost count of the times he spoke of this or that work showcasing “some of Chesterton’s finest writing”). For another, I was disappointed with his glib and flippant handling of Chesterton’s later conversion to Roman Catholicism – a bigger and more problematic leap than Belmonte seems willing to acknowledge. It is here that I’m tempted to expound on a variation of Boromir’s quip (“One does not simply apostatize…”), but that’s another discussion for another day.