Cartoonists That Never Were: G.K. Chesterton


Wednesday, March 2, 2011


G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) is a bit of a shadowy figure in contemporary cultural memory. There is, to be a sure, a Chesterton cult which cherishes him as a sage but most people have only a small glimmer of his various achievements as a novelist (The Man Who Was Thursday), detective story writer (creator of the Father Brown stories), intellectual sparring partner of G.B. Shaw and H.G. Wells, religious apologist (The Everlasting Man), and literary critic (The Victorian Age in Literature and other books).  

Chesterton was also a cartoonist, as I was recently reminded while reading an essay by Wilfrid Sheed. Chesterton had studied art as a young man and worked as an illustrator before becoming a full-time writer. His cartoons are a bit hard to come by. I’ve seen some here and there in The Chesterton Review and a few of the books, but could only find one online. (The image pasted above.)

Sheed, a fine essayist who died recently, was Chesterton’s godson (Sheed’s parents were publishers who specialized in Catholic books and Chesterton was one of their prize authors.) In an essay in the collection The Morning After, Sheed takes up the nettlesome problem of Chesterton’s anti-Semitism, which the critic interestingly relates to Chesteron’s background as a cartoonist.

Here’s a key paragraph:

Chesterton was a cartoonist both in words and pictures, and race was one of his occasional comic properties. I have seen an unpublished drawing of his that might, in these tenser times, seem to be jeering at the blacks. Cartooning is the most extreme form of cruelty allowed in civilized countries. But his basic gag, as for any cartoonist, was humanity itself; and to look for consistent prejudice in his work is like looking for it in David Levine’s.


Obviously Sheed’s generalization here is a bit too large to hold water, but it’s an interesting thought and not unrelated to recent discussions about race and comics sparked by this Matt Seneca article (see also here and here).

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12 Responses to “Cartoonists That Never Were: G.K. Chesterton”
  1. Uland says:

    Chesterton was a genius. I’ve read a number of his books and never encountered anything I’d call anti-Semitic.

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    “Slowly I turn … step by step … inch by inch…”

    Okay, I’ll refer readers to Adam Gopnick’s essay “The Back of the World:
    The troubling genius of G. K. Chesterton” (The New Yorker, July 7, 2008), which deals with Chesterton’s anti-Semitism extensively. Readers might also want to check out chapter chapter 13 of Chesterton’s book, The New Jerusalem (1920), where Chesterton dicusses his views of Jews and offers a curious argument on behalf of Zionism (that it will, if done properly, rid Europe of an alien presence that can never be assimilated).

    Among other things, Chesterton argues that Jews cannot every be fully patriotic in their commitment to nations like France and England:

    “Patriotism is not merely dying for the nation. It is dying with the nation. It is regarding the fatherland not merely as a real resting-place like an inn, but as a final resting-place, like a house or even a grave. Even the most Jingo of the Jews do not feel like this about their adopted country; and I doubt if the most intelligent of the Jews would pretend that they did. Even if we can bring ourselves to believe that Disraeli lived for England, we cannot think that he would have died with her. If England had sunk in the Atlantic he would not have sunk with her, but easily floated over to America to stand for the Presidency. Even if we are profoundly convinced that Mr. Beit or Mr. Eckstein had patriotic tears in his eyes when he obtained a gold concession from Queen Victoria, we cannot believe that in her absence he would have refused a similar concession from the German Emperor. When the Jew in France or in England says he is a good patriot he only means that he is a good citizen, and he would put it more truly if he said he was a good exile. Sometimes indeed he is an abominably bad citizen, and a most exasperating and execrable exile, but I am not talking of that side of the case. I am assuming that a man like Disraeli did really make a romance of England, that a man like Dernburg did really make a romance of Germany, and it is still true that though it was a romance, they would not have allowed it to be a tragedy. They would have seen that the story had a happy ending, especially for themselves. These Jews would not have died with any Christian nation.”

    Chesterton also raises the idea in this chapter for a law to require every Jew in England to dress like an Arab, so that the English will know who the aliens are in their midst:

    “This is a mere symbol, but it is so suitable a symbol that I have often offered it symbolically as a solution of the Jewish problem. I have felt disposed to say: let all liberal legislation stand, let all literal and legal civic equality stand; let a Jew occupy any political or social position which he can gain in open competition; let us not listen for a moment to any suggestions of reactionary restrictions or racial privilege. Let a Jew be Lord Chief justice, if his exceptional veracity and reliability have clearly marked him out for that post. Let a Jew be Archbishop of Canterbury, if our national religion has attained to that receptive breadth that would render such a transition unobjectionable and even unconscious. But let there be one single-clause bill; one simple and sweeping law about Jews, and no other. Be it enacted, by the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the Commons in Parliament assembled, that every Jew must be dressed like an Arab. Let him sit on the Woolsack, but let him sit there dressed as an Arab. Let him preach in St. Paul’s Cathedral, but let him preach there dressed as an Arab. It is not my point at present to dwell on the pleasing if flippant fancy of how much this would transform the political scene; of the dapper figure of Sir Herbert Samuel swathed as a Bedouin, or Sir Alfred Mond gaining a yet greater grandeur from the gorgeous and trailing robes of the East. If my image is quaint my intention is quite serious; and the point of it is not personal to any particular Jew. The point applies to any Jew, and to our own recovery of healthier relations with him. The point is that we should know where we are; and he would know where he is, which is in a foreign land.”

    The text of The New Jerusalem can be found here:

  3. Rob Clough says:

    Wow. What’s interesting about that argument is that a similar one was made when John F Kennedy was running for president. The argument was that because he was a Catholic, he owed his real allegiance to Rome, and so wasn’t American enough to be President. The idea that Chesterton pushes forward, that the Jew is likely to sell their services to the highest bidder, is so amazingly ass-backwards. Jews left their countries not because they wanted to, but because they were either being treated as second-class citizens or outright persecuted. The bit about dressing up as an Arab is uncomfortably close to jewish people having to wear the Star of David on their arms a few years later in Germany, by the way.

    None of this takes away from the fact that Chesterton was a great writer. Someday, Sparkplug will publish the comics version of The Man Who Was Thursday and it will be amazing.

  4. NoahB says:

    I love Chesterton…and don’t really doubt he was anti-Semitic. He had fairly unpleasant things to say about the Japanese too. (Compared them to monkeys.) Brilliant, wise, and wonderful writer in many other respects though.

    I believe he did some cartoons for E.C. Bentley’s clerihews. There’s a book of them (the clerihews, with the illustrations by Chesterton and others) somewhere about….

  5. NoahB says:

    Oh..and Slavoj Zizek is a huge Chesterton fan, and quotes from him extensively in several of his books. As a result, I think Chesterton is probably closer to the mainstream of philosophical conversation now than he’s been in decades.

  6. NoahB says:

    Sorry; can’t stop talking about Chesterton….

    I’d say his racism (expressed in various ways) is closely related to his philosophy and thought. He was a strong proponent of community and tradition, seen in the context especially (for him) of rural Englishness and high Anglican/Catholicism. That shaded pretty naturally into a denigration of those who were religiously or racially other.

    Andrew Sullivan blames him as the intelellectual creator of today’s hard right theoconservatives, which I think is kind of confused — he wasn’t an evangelical, he had strong reservations about capitalism, he didn’t have the mistrust of intellectuals that characterizes that sort of thinking. But I think, as you say, blaming his prejudices on his cartooning, or suggesting that they’re comparable to David Levine’s is not very convincing.

  7. Jeet Heer says:

    Yes, Chesterton was a genius, although to some degree he squandered his talent on journalism and rarely wrote to the top of his ability (living up to his own adage that “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”)

    I think Sullivan is all wrong about Chesterton and the theoconservatives. There were some Chestertonians among American conservatives of the original National Review generation (Hugh Kenner, Garry Wills); Joseph Sobran was the last of this breed. But even then they were oddities (Wills of course stopped being a conventional conservative, Kenner himself was unorthodox on many matters and Sobran eventually kicked out of National Review). Part of the issue is, as Noah mentions Chesterton’s “reservations about capitalism.” I’d go further and say that Chesterton, although no socialist, was anti-capitalist. His whole scheme of distributionism was an attempt to have a non-socialist, anti-capitalist politics. And of course Chesterton was an anti-imperialist, so he had very little to offer the American right. It’s true that the occasional theocon like the late Richard John Neuhaus would quote Chesterton, but merely as an ornament. There’s not indication that Neuhaus had any deep affinity with GKC. The best book on Chesterton’s peculiar politics — his little England populism — is Margaret Canovan’s G.K.Chesterton: Radical Populist. (Sullivan, I’ll add, doesn’t really understand American intellectual history very well….)

    One of the paradoxes of Chesterton’s reputation is that although he was a fierce “little England” patriot, to a large extent he’s taken much more seriously outside of England (and the English-speaking world) than in it. In England he’s seen as a detective story writer and an eccentric Catholic. In Europe and and Latin America he’s taken seriously as a philosopher and precursor to modernism: hence the praise he’s received from Kafka, Borges, Hannah Arendt, and Zizek.

  8. Jeet Heer says:

    Interestingly Hugh Kenner also linked GKC’s anti-semitism with his tendencies as a “caricaturist”:

    Notably, he handles the Marconi scandal of 1912 more deftly than anyone before him. Here he’s helped by the theme’s current familiarity: insiders buying shares they know will appreciate, being privy to matters the rest of us won’t hear about just yet. The insiders of 1912 included Rufus Isaacs, Attorney General of Britain; Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer; even the Master of Elibank, Government Chief Whip. Gilbert Chesterton’s pugnacious brother, Cecil, attacked the Isaacs clan in his paper, The Eye-Witness, was sued and lost, and, dying a soldier in France, left G.K.C. feeling a lifelong obligation to carry a torch. The Eye-Witness became The New Witness, which became G.K.’s Weekly, and being editor as well as totem helped wear G.K.C. out. Never was a man less fitted for a post he wouldn’t vacate.

    The shares in question had to do with Government-sponsored wireless stations, and the Marconi connection was Attorney General Isaacs’ brother Godfrey. That they were Jewish introduced a complication that still bedevils the story. In those years middle-class Englishmen were wary of intrusions into a social system as sensitive as a Calder mobile, and could be anti-Semitic the way they’re still often anti-American. If we must be swindled, let the swindler be one of us! Though G.K.C. late in life was denouncing Hitler’s rhetoric and expecting to die ”defending the last Jew in Europe,” the caricaturist in him hadn’t been immune to racial saliences in the Isaacs affair, and Mr. Ffinch feels obligated to commit some dreary pages. He really needn’t assure us that he knows this or that phrasing would be unacceptable now. IN providing a before-and-after climax the Marconi scandal is a biographer’s godsend, lacking which he’d simply be chronicling books and jobs.

  9. NoahB says:

    Thanks Jeet; I hadn’t really keyed into Chesterton’s anti-imperialism — or else I’d forgotten it….

  10. NoahB says:

    Sullivan’s pronouncements on Chesterton are always bizarre. I wonder if Oakshott had some special thing against Chesterton or something.

    The main intellectual heir of Chesterton is of course C.S. Lewis, who has a much higher public profile (in England and elsewhere) but who hasn’t ever gotten the same kind of serious intellectual cred…wrongly in my view….

  11. Jeet Heer says:

    I think part of what’s going on with Sullivan’s antipathy towards Chesterton is the tension between a cradle Catholic (Sullivan) and a convert (Chesterton). Cradle Catholics often see converts as interlopers who over-emphasize the dogma of the church while missing out on the cultural meaning of Catholicism.

  12. Nancy Brown says: Scroll down, and download a free copy of Gilbert Magazine dedicated to the question of Gilbert Chesterton and the Jews.

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