Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Defiant Joy by Kevin Belmonte

I read Defiant Joy because I wanted to know who Chesterton was. Unfortunately, this book is almost entirely about Chesterton's works and little about the man who wrote them.

Little is known of his early life. He began his formal education when he was about nine. He was “adequate” in his studies. He was involved in a Junior Debating Club. The twelve gifted young men talked about everything and they were Chesterton's lifelong friends.
Having just turned twenty one (1895), he was invited to write for the magazine Academy. He then worked for publishers, reading unsolicited manuscripts. He began to do some prose writing in the evenings (he was already composing poetry). He published two books in 1900, a book of nonsense verse and another of “unremarkable” verse. Neither launched his literary career.
In the autumn of 1896 he was smitten by Frances Blogg, who would become his wife in 1901.
His book reviews were noted and he emerged as a talented critic. He delighted in playing with language and was an artist in words.
He began writing for the Daily News in 1901. That same year he was invited to write a critical biography of Robert Browning. It was well received although he was criticized for “almost studied indifference regarding the use of dates.” (50) He seemed to quote from memory and was frequently sloppy in that memory. But he had “keen analysis and brilliant prose.” Where he had been known only as a journalist before, now he was a writer, a “man of letters.”
Belmonte goes historically through all of Chesterton's literary creations. There are long quotes from Chesterton's own biography and long quote from those who wrote about him, including biographers and critics.
Of particular interest to me was his Orthodoxy, published when Chesterton was only thirty-four (1908). Chesterton said, “It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he has personally come to believe it.'” (112) “As an account of one man's journey to faith, its power to move, challenge, and inspire remains undimmed.” (112)
The Man Who Was Thursday was published two years later. One reviewer called it “'a satirical skit'” about anarchists who set out to restore chaos and take up the bomb. (133) It contained “'wit and paradox'” and was either fantasy or a sermon. (134) (Belmonte spends 16 pages on this title.)
In The Everlasting Man (1925) Chesterton set out to give an intellectual case for Christianity. C. S. Lewis read this book and it became a catalyst for his conversion.
Chesterton's lat literary achievement was his Autobiography, published shortly after his death (1936).
Those wanting to know of Chesterton's personal life (as I did) will be disappointed. Those looking for an extensive commentary on the evaluations and impact of Chesterton's writing will find this to their liking. Belmonte did tons of research (603 footnotes, the list being 28 pages long). His quotes from other authors are frequent and long, often a page or more in length.
If you want to teach a high school literature course on Chesterton, this would make a good text book. If you want to know Chesterton, I'd look elsewhere. Of Chesterton, John Kennedy (a New York Times Correspondent) said, “The man was a paradox personified.” (271) It's too bad Belmonte didn't capture that person.
This book was provided for review by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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