Everything about G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) seems to have been oversized. He was famous for his physical size. His literary insights were recognized almost as soon as he began writing and publishing. He was considered a master of the paradox, and he was difficult to best in a debate. His interests ranged from detective fiction to Catholic saints, and he is still unsurpassed for his understanding of Charles Dickens.
I first “met” Chesterton via his Father Brown mystery stories. Beginning in 1911 and continuing until his death in 1936, Chesterton wrote 53 of the stories. Over the years, the priestly detective has been featured in numerous film, radio, and television adaptations, and even in manga. But the stories are really only an introduction to the Broader Chesterton, and they served me as a bridge to his literary studies, biographies, and other works.
His works are still widely read today, more than 80 years after his death. He was a philosophical adversary of George Bernard Shaw, but they were also close friends, and Shaw mourned his friend’s death. Chesterton has a more than significant influence on C.S. Lewis, and Lewis acknowledged that it was reading Chesterton that started him down the road to faith. A thriving Chesterton Societystill exists today, comprised of his admirers from around the world. And Chesterton still sounds contemporary; the issues he debated and confronted are similar to the issues of our own day.
Biographies have been written over the years, most notably by Garry Wills in the 1961 Chesterton. Writer Kevin Belmonte, in Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life and Impact of G.K. Chesterton, has written a literary biography that focuses less on the details of Chesterton’s life and more on his major works. It’s an excellent introduction, originally published in 2011.
Belmonte tells his story chronologically, and tells the main facts of the man’s life, but he focuses on Chesterton’s works. We’re introduced to his journalism, of which there was a prodigious amount; the literary studies that first captured the critics’ praise; his book entitled Heretics; his deep understanding of Dickens; Orthodoxy, one of his most famous books; the Father Brown mysteries; his famous poem of England, The Ballad of the White Horse; his biographies of Chaucer, St. Francis, and St. Thomas Aquinas; and his account of his travels in North America, What I Saw in America.
Belmonte provides summary of the works as well as the critical responses, setting each in its historical and literary context. He allows Chesterton and his critics (good and bad) to speak for themselves, quoting long passages of reviews and Chesterton’s responses. In short, Defiant Joy is everything you hope a literary biography to be, creating an understanding of an important literary and cultural influence who was nothing short of brilliant.
Belmonte received his B.A. degree in English from Gordon College, an M.A. degree in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and an M.A. degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He works include D.L. Moody: A Life: Innovator, Evangelist, World Changer; A Year with G.K. Chesterton: 365 Days of Wisdom, Wit and Wonder; William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity (with Charles Colson); The Quotable Chesterton; A.J. Gordon: An Epic Journey of Faith and Pioneering Vision; Miraculous: A Fascinating History of Signs, Wonders and Miracles; A Journey through the Life of William Wilberforce; John Bunyan; and Called to a Different Purpose: The Story of Robert Fulton and His Vision for Web Industries.
Defiant Joy provides great insight into the works of one of the most original minds of modern times. It’s an excellent reference, worth reading again and again, and has already inspired me to go back and reread my favorite Chesterton works.