Chesterton defence that doesn't stand up
Antisemitism is an evil, not a writerly idiosyncrasy. That’s a mere truism. It needs to be stated, however, because the Catholic Church is examining the case for canonising G K Chesterton, author of the Father Brown detective stories.
I argued on this page last month that Chesterton, a Catholic convert and prolific Christian apologist, was an unsuitable candidate for sainthood. His writings express hoary prejudices about the Jews’ purportedly alien character.
Since then, Geoffrey Alderman in this newspaper and a JC leading article have also condemned the notion of canonising Chesterton. Even so, as my colleague Ruth Gledhill has since reported in The Times, the Bishop of Northampton, the Right Rev Peter Doyle, has appointed a priest, Canon John Udris, to assess the facts relevant to opening a “cause” for Chesterton.
I can give Canon Udris one fact that disposes of a pillar of the case argued by Chesterton’s supporters. The American Chesterton Society, among many other advocates of the cause, vigorously maintains that the Wiener Library in London, the invaluable archive on the Holocaust, has exonerated Chesterton from the charge of antisemitism. You will find the same assertion in the Wikipedia page about Chesterton.
The Wiener Library says it did not defend G K Chesterton against claims of antisemitism
That claim is false and it should be retired from public debate. The genesis of the myth is the biography Gilbert: The Man Who Was G K Chesterton by Michael Coren (1989). Coren quotes a five-sentence defence of Chesterton against the charge of being “seriously antisemitic” and attributes it to the Wiener Library. The statement concludes: “[Chesterton] was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on.”
Coren gives no source or date for this statement, and doesn’t name his interlocutor. He merely acknowledges the Wiener Library in his bibliography and acknowledgments.
It’s from this book that the Library has found its authority used by Chesterton’s supporters in an illegitimate cause. Joseph Pearce, a Catholic convert and former National Front activist, quoted the statement in his biography Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G K Chesterton, attributing it to “an archivist”.
The trouble is that the Wiener Library denies having said it. Professor Walter Laqueur, who was its director at the time, confirms that he authorised no such statement to be made in the Library’s name. Ben Barkow, the current director, notes in a letter to me that it is regrettable that Coren has been unable to name his source.
“The position of the Library,” says Barkow, “is that people should review the available evidence for and against Chesterton’s being antisemitic for themselves and make up their own minds.”
I wrote to Coren last month asking if he could give any information about the statement, and if he would put it in a form that he would not object to my quoting. He replied immediately, regretting that he could not recall the name of the librarian with whom he spoke and that his records from this pre-digital age had not all travelled with him to his current home in Canada.
He concluded: “I think people anxious to defend Chesterton have given those few words in an entire chapter in an entire book more weight than they deserve.”
I will be sending this article to Canon Udris. Beyond argument is that Chesterton’s defenders have made claims about his attitude to Jews that do not stand up to scrutiny.
Oliver Kamm is a Times leader writer