Literary Chronicles Toward Posterity
In light of the post I put up two days ago, touching on the book Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, it occurred to me to look up what Edmund Wilson, the most astute literary critic of his day had to say. Alas, not much. He wrote to Malcolm Crowley (September, 1936), "I'm not interested in doing anything about Chesterton—though somebody ought to." A man of principle, in a later letter to Harold Ross he explained his reluctance:
I have no intention of persecuting any religion; but I am myself a complete unbeliever, and I know from experience that both the Catholics and the Christian Scientists invariably make a squawk if anything critical is said about them.... Now I know that the Catholic Church is a formidable power at the present time; but I think it is important to stand up to it. For example, I have just read the Catholic biography of G.K. Chesterton, published by Sheed and Ward. If I had been reviewing books, I should certainly have had to review it; and if I had reviewed it, I should certainly have had to say that it suffered from the intellectual squalor of the Catholic Church in America. This would have brought you indignant letters and probably some people would have stopped their subscriptions. (October, 1943)
Wilson, himself an insightful and able essayist on Charles Dickens, proposed George Gissing the "one admirable critic of Dickens."
For the rest, you have mainly G.K. Chesterton, who turned out in his books on Dickens some of the best work of which he was capable and who said some excellent things, but whose writing here as elsewhere is always melting away into that peculiar psuedo-poetic booziness which verbalizes with large conceptions and ignores the most obtrusive actualities.
. . .
Chesterton asserted that time would show that Dickens was not merely one of the Victorians, but incomparably the greatest English writer of his time; and Shaw coupled his name with that of Shakespeare. It is the conviction of the present writer that both these judgments were justified.
Taking my lead from Wilson, I thought I should skulk around the internet for some other, less religiously-oriented and more literary-centric writing by Chesterton. He would not be the first critic whose literary conceptions arrive with clarity, but whose religious speculations (or social engineering proposals) inspire merely stupefaction: as much has been asserted of T.S. Eliot by his harshest critics. Not troubling to search too exhaustively, I very quickly stumbled upon a serviceable piece entitled "The Romance of Rhyme." Very little melting occurs; his pen stays true to its line: the result is a piece which admirably conveys a sense of what sort of literary issues were deemed important in its day, useful for the literary historian perhaps if not to be taken as a prescriptive for today's tyro.
Wilson felt posterity would hold Chesterton in a class with John Galsworthy, 1932 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature: "I can't imagine that anybody in the future will take Galsworthy very seriously—or Chesterton." If Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga gains him a slightly higher rank than Father Brown (or even The Man Who Was Thursday) among the serious literary community, Wilson could not have conceived the fervid intensity with which Chesterton's writing would continue to be held in esteem by its hermetic group of devotees.
Wilson "did not much care" for the few detective stories by Chesterton which he read. (I would be curious to know if Yeats—one of the many writers of the day addicted to the genre—was a fan, or W. Somerset Maugham for that matter.) "[T]he mechanical paradoxes of Chesterton" did not impress Wilson; more than once he took occasion to deride them: "The paradoxical epigrams of Chesterton, which became so mechanical and monotonous, are mostly unreadable today" he signaled in 1963. Yet I imagine Chesterton's more serious efforts in literary criticism may be of use to critics today: "Rhythm deals with similarity, rhyme with identity" is about as clear a statement of theory as one could want: would that today's critics offered as much.