Tag Archives: Early 20th century

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Rating: ★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Overview:

Like its more famous cousin The Man Who Was Thursday, The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a tale of paradoxes and dichotomies. It was published in 1904 (his first novel) and set in semi-utopian future, and the tale arcs around two central characters.

The first central character is Auberon Quin, described in the following way:

When he entered a room of strangers, they mistook him for a small boy, and wanted to take him on their knees, until he spoke, when they perceived that a boy would have been more intelligent.

Auberon is selected by a kind of hyper-democratic lottery as the King of England while he is ludicrously babbling about Nicaragua. This plot device—the selecting of monarchs at random—was not a mere gimmick for Chesterton, but was his actual explanation of dynastic monarchy, as he had stated in his chapter of Robert Browning’s philosophy:

The great compliment which monarchy paid to mankind [is] the compliment of selecting from it almost at random. (Robert Browning, p. 94)

The second central character (to whom the title alludes) is Adam Wayne, who lives his whole life in Notting Hill, and grows an obsessive patriotic loyalty for the London borough that he calls his home.

He still retained his feeling about the town of Notting Hill . . . He was a genuine natural mystic, one of those who live on the border of fairyland. But he was perhaps the first to realise how often the boundary of fairyland runs through a crowded city. Twenty feet from him (for he was very short-sighted) the red and white and yellow suns of the gas-lights [i.e. street lamps] thronged and melted into each other like an orchard of fiery trees, the beginning of the wood of elf-land.

The playful competition and opposition of these two characters comprises the whole plot of this novel.

Meat:

Without spoiling the plot, there are some themes worth mentioning. One is the nearness of fairyland. “Fairyland” or “Elfland” in Chesterton (and the Inklings who read him) refer to a hypothetical land visited by imagination. The theme is the precise precursor to Lewis’ Narnia and functions like another dimension, visited in vision by the most childlike characters. In Napoleon of Notting Hill, the narrator references “fairyland” quite a few times through the course of the novel (for example, see the above quotation). This is important because these are some of his earliest published references to an idea that became integral to Chesterton’s view of life. “Fairyland” figures most prominently in Chesterton’s works Magic: A Fantastic Comedy and Orthodoxy, but I have yet to find a book in which it is not mentioned.

Another theme is the vindication of humor. (See also “A Defence of Nonsense”!) Auberon Quin seems to take nothing seriously, and Adam Wayne seems to take everything seriously. As the novel proceeds, positive and negative judgments are given on both characters, and the reader is left wondering who is the hero.

“Madmen are always serious; they go mad from lack of humour. You are looking serious yourself, James.” (Auberon Quin)

Chesterton also has an interesting take on patriotism, which I give here at length, since it does not in any way spoil the novel, and is a characteristic sample:

Upwards from his abstracted childhood, Adam Wayne had grown strongly and silently in a certain quality or capacity which is in modern cities almost entirely artificial, but which can be natural, and was primarily almost brutally natural in him, the quality or capacity of patriotism. . . . He knew that in proper names themselves is half the poetry of all national poems. Above all, he knew . . . that the patriot never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it.

All this he knew, not because he was a philosopher or a genius, but because he was a child. Any one who cares to walk up a side slum like Pump Street, can see a little Adam claiming to be king of a paving-stone. And he will always be proudest if the stone is almost too narrow for him to keep his feet inside it.

It is almost impossible to convey to any ordinary imagination the degree to which he had transmitted the leaden London landscape to a romantic gold. . . . To this man, at any rate, the inconceivable had happened. The artificial city had become to him nature, and he felt the curbstones and gas-lamps as things as ancient as the sky. (p. 134-136)

Political themes are also important to Napoleon of Notting Hill, but there is nothing there I haven’t written about in my review of What I Saw in America. His stance on “internationalism” is obvious in Napoleon from the semi-utopian setting of the book; ultimately, he sees efforts to unite the world in peace to be idealistic and misguided. He also mocks pure democracy in the setup to the novel (again, he wrote about this in his writings on America).

Bones:

This novel is not as fast-moving as The Man Who Was Thursday. Admittedly, during the first few chapters, I was quite lost as to where the novel was going, or who the “Napoleon of Notting Hill” could be. The first chapter is essentially an essay. But the novel does start to get interesting after “The Charter of the Cities,” and it does have its fair share of action in the second half. Take heart; patience is rewarded in this one.

When I saw how the plot turned in this novel, I was inclined to think that it could have been a short story. The short story usually turns on one key dilemma or plot device (in this case, a monarch selected at random), and so far that has been true of Chesterton’s novels. At least they are interesting, and Chesterton’s narration has many intriguing asides.

Review: What I Saw in America

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Non-fiction, travel, essays.

Overview:

What I Saw in America (1922) is a long book of essays, first published in 1922, mostly about America and English-American relations in the wake of World War I. They were written during and after a lecture tour in the United States. Chesterton includes a few funny anecdotes from his travel but otherwise avoids any details concerning his trip—that is to say, this is by no means a travelogue; it is a book of essays reflecting on his time in America.

To cover this rather lengthy book, I will have to divide the themes into headings. There are four topics in What I Saw in America: 1) American culture; 2) understanding foreign cultures in general (and what is today known as “culture shock”); 3) American politics; and 4) international unity efforts (then called “internationalism”)


Chesterton on American Culture

The first chapter (“What Is America?”) sets the tone for the whole book and is probably its most important chapter. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t enjoy the rest of the book. In its title, Chesterton hearkens back to Crevecoeur’s famous Letters from an American Farmer, published in 1782, in which he asks the question, “What Is an American?” Crevecoeur’s conclusion:

The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence.—This is an American.

Chesterton’s conclusion in this chapter is not far off:

America invites all men to become citizens. (p. 8) . . . [America] is making a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles. (p. 14)

Chesterton continues along this line in two important later chapters, “The Spirit of America” and “The Future of Democracy.”

He makes many other general statements about American culture and work ethic. Here is another (from “The Spirit of England”):

The Englishman is moody. . . . In America there are no moods, or there is only one mood. It is the same whether it is called hustle or uplift. American sociability is . . . like Niagara. It never stops, under the silent stars or the rolling storms. (p. 288-289)

And there are, in the book, many, many other amusing notes about the differences between the Englishman and the American.


Chesterton on Culture Shock

Chesterton has a refreshing way of discussing culture shock in this book. He points out the discomfort that is inevitable in travelling.

A foreigner is a man who laughs at everything except jokes. (p. 163)

He also argues that as long as we think we understand a people or nation, we will be unable to learn anything new about them. He illustrates this by a strange anecdote in the chapter “The Extraordinary American,” which is about an inexplicable meeting in Oklahoma. His apt summary:

We have never even begun to understand a people until we have found something that we do not understand. (p. 182, emphasis mine)


Chesterton on American Politics

The modern Briton sees American politics from afar as a circus. Chesterton calls it—along with his own nation—a plutocracy (rule by the rich), a term which has only grown in relevance.

Vulgar plutocracy is almost omnipotent in both countries; but I think there is now more kick of reaction against it in America than in England. (p. 264-265)

Political representation in democracy, for Chesterton, is a sleight-of-hand trick: we go to pains to elect whomever we want, and then spend their term criticizing them. He writes that the King of England is a popular figure, and that “pure democracy” leads inevitably to tyranny. (He first said this, I believe, in his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill.) This agrees somewhat with statements made by James Madison in Federalist Paper no. 10, written in 1787.

Along with many British believers or young American Christians, Chesterton would be considered conservative on moral issues but liberal on social issues. Firstly, he sees the American republic as having a theological foundation:

America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. (p. 7, emphasis mine)

This rings true, of course, with most conservative Christians; but his other opinions may raise some feathers—especially his view of economics, which is definitely not capitalist, but not exactly socialist either.

A wise man’s attitude towards industrial capitalism will be very like Lincoln’s attitude towards slavery. That is, he will manage to endure capitalism; but he will not endure a defence of capitalism. (p. 226)

Politically moderate Christians, who are today called “politically homeless,” will definitely be interested in Chesterton’s views.


Chesterton on Internationalism

The League of Nations, which was later replaced by the United Nations, was the first worldwide intergovernmental organization, founded in 1920. Although we may have forgotten it after the disillusionment of World War II, the original goal was to maintain world peace and international unity. Novelist H. G. Wells had written that if we could not maintain such a peace, then only war is possible.

This kind of thinking Chesterton consistently and utterly rejects. In numerous places in his writings, he shows outrage at the idea of a neutral assimilation along any lines, whether moral, political, denominational, linguistic, or cultural. He says twice that this is the main contention of the entire book:

I would insist everywhere in this book . . . that the remedy is to be found in disentangling the two and not in entangling them further. (p. 233)

The safest path for Anglo-American relations, he says, is for the English to be more English, not more American; and for the English to learn to appreciate America as American, and the American to appreciate England as English. In this way, he makes a great argument for diversity (as elsewhere). One of the characters in his early novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill makes a similar argument:

Do you really mean to say that at the moment when the Esquimaux has learnt to vote for a County Council, you will have learnt to spear a walrus? (Napoleon of Notting Hill, p. 41)

Chesterton’s objection to “internationalism” is summarized thus:

The objection to spreading anything all over the world is that, among other things, you have to spread it very thin. (p. 244)


Other Themes in What I Saw in America

As in any book of essays, numerous themes are discussed and couldn’t possibly fit into a review. Some other themes addressed prominently in this book are given here:

  • American humor
  • American journalism
  • American politics
  • American individualism
  • Political representation
  • Capitalism and work ethic
  • Egalitarianism vs. capitalism
  • The moral influence of new technologies
  • The fruitlessness of the Prohibition (1920-1933)

Quotes:

“The devil can quote Scripture for his purpose; and the text of Scripture which he now most commonly quotes is, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” That text has served to identify self-satisfaction with “the peace that passes all understanding.” And the text to be quoted in answer to it is that which declares that no man can receive the kingdom except as a little child. What we are to have inside is the childlike spirit; but the childlike spirit is not entirely concerned about what is inside. It is the first mark of possessing it that one is interested in what is outside. The most childlike thing about a child is his curiosity and his appetite and his power of wonder at the world. We might almost say that the whole advantage of having the kingdom within is that we look for it somewhere else.” (p. 279)

Prohibition:

“The first thing to be said about it is that it does not exist. . . . Prohibition never prohibits. It never has in history; not even in Moslem history; and it never will.” (p. 145)

American Culture:

“Americans are very unpunctual.” (p. 113)

“Individualism is the death of individuality.” (p. 169)

Read for Free: LibriVox (audiobook), Internet Archive (pdf), Project Gutenberg (epub & rtf), Kindle Store (mobi),

 

Review: The Ballad of the White Horse

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Overview:

The Ballad of the White Horse (1911) is an epic poem—here referring to content rather than length—named for one of many ancient English petroglyphs (the “Westbury white horse”); the stone symbol is attributed to the early English King Alfred, whom the poem idealizes. (In the introduction, Chesterton adroitly states that this is not a work of researched historical fiction.) White Horse offers a romantic vision of Christian virtue through the eyes of the English past. While Chesterton’s other poems (Poems, The Wild Knight) are scattered in theme and method, this is his only long poem.

Some quick facts on this little book:

  • It is considered one of the last true “epics” of the English language.
  • Like many Classical poets, Chesterton uses the glories of past victory as a kind of metaphor or prophecy of today’s enemies—which, in his view, in the Britain of 1911, were intellectual and not military.
  • Some think, not without reason, that this poem was among the chief inspirations for The Lord of the Rings, in its imagery, conventions of epic, and recall of obsolete vocabulary.

Meat:

White Horse incorporates a lot of philosophy into its story. The chief value is in Chesterton’s glory in the underdog, in the cross, in the servant:

“And well may God with the serving-folk
Cast in His dreadful lot;
Is not He too a servant,
And is not He forgot?”
(Book IV, loc. 449)

” . . . Verily
Man shall not taste of victory
Till he throws his sword away.”
(Book V, loc. 626)

Bones:

Whatever it may seem to be, this is not a poem for children. Chesterton’s poetry tends towards archaic language that can be a little confusing; and in today’s political climate, the message of this book and could be twisted into brazen nationalism—though I think that would be an abuse of the author’s intent, which so often involves the cross.

Quotes:

“The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.”
(p. 11, loc. 158)

“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord.
(p. 43, loc. 389)

“And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart.

“The meanest man in grey fields gone
Behind the set of sun,
Heareth between star and other star,
Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
The council, eldest of things that are,
The talk of the Three in One.”
(p. 11, loc. 151)

Read: You can read this book for free on Project Gutenberg, or in the Kindle Store, or listen to the audiobook for free on LibriVox.

Psst—nearly all of Chesterton’s works are available for free online. Click here to see more of what’s out there.

 

 

 

Review: Orthodoxy

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Overview:

Orthodoxy (1908) is Chesterton’s vision of the world, and it is a vision that does not shy away from paradox. Chesterton unapologetically challenges the zeitgeist as he sees it—he sees an age being overrun by philosophical materialism and biblical criticism. Almost every chapter turns a stereotype on its head: “The Maniac” (ch. 2) challenges the idolatry of logic; “The Flag of the World” (ch. 5) fuses optimism and pessimism and finds the Christian doctrine of the Fall to be the perfect synthesis; “The Romance of Orthodoxy” (ch. 8) challenges the cliche that holiness is necessarily boring.

As an economic liberal and a theological conservative, Chesterton constantly spins around the idea that conservative theology is somehow connected to niggardliness, lifeless moralism, or unsociableness.

Meat: Perhaps the best thing about this book is that few theologically interesting books are such a pleasure to read. Chesterton is always entertaining, but this book is remarkably readable. I went through it in only a few days, and immediately decided that I must re-read it as soon as I can.

I could not possibly summarize here what was profound in this book, but I could note two things:

First, his statement, that “you must love someone for them to be lovable,” has had a tremendous impact on the way we do evangelism in my organization. It frees us from looking for a certain type of people to minister to; it pairs with Schaeffer’s universal statement, “There are no little people. There are no little places.”

Second, the chapter on “The Paradoxes of Christianity” has only grown in relevance as we now live in an information economy, where every passing generation is technology-native. Academics positively fidget at the concept of paradox; it is like trying to swallow a bundle of firewood sideways. Because so many worship information on weekdays but Jesus on Sundays, we struggle intensely at the Bible’s statements about lions and lambs. If Chesterton is right, finding not a balance, but violent synthesis between such paradoxes, may be an important key for building our faith in an age that is, if anything, even more subservient at the altar of reason.

Orthodoxy is, in a way, a culmination of Chesterton’s non-literary essays (The Defendant, All Things Considered, Triumphant Trifles, Alarms and Discursions, etc.), which likewise often involve humor, modern metaphors, parables, paradoxes, and the artful breaking of dichotomies and stereotypes. All of these books are good, but Orthodoxy is by far the best.

Bones: The one struggle of this book is the references. Chesterton played the part of journalist and critic as well as lay theologian, so he often references current trends which are dated, or peculiarly British. I would like to see an edition of this book that uses endnotes to make the reading a little smoother.

Quotes: “I did try to found a little heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”

“The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.”

“Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Read: You can read this book for free over at Amazon, Online-Literature, Internet Archive, or Project Gutenberg—better yet, listen to it for free at LibriVox.

Related: The Lion and the Lamb by Gerald Kennedy.

Review: The Resurrection (E. M. Bounds)

Rating: ★★★★

Alternate title: The Ineffable Glory: Thoughts on the Resurrection (1921)

Who: E. M. Bounds (1835-1913) was a chaplain in the Confederate Army and held a pastorate in Franklin, Tennessee. During his time in Tennessee, he led a spiritual revival and eventually began an itinerant ministry. He only published two books during his lifetime (The Resurrection (1907) being one of them), but nine others were arranged from manuscripts and published after his death—most of them on prayer. He spent three hours a day in prayer and emphasizes a life of prayer as the one essential of the Christian life.

Overview: The Resurrection is not about the Resurrection of Christ, as readers might expect, but about the bodily resurrection of the dead at the end of time, which is hinted at in the Old Testament but confirmed and prefigured in Christ’s resurrection. This important Scriptural topic is often neglected but provides a wealth of understanding and comfort for believers.

Meat: Bounds shines here as an expositor of the Word in a way not seen in his books on prayer. He writes in the same poetic, forceful style used in his beloved books on prayer. He defends the bodily resurrection of Christ, and of the dead in Christ, mostly on theological grounds within an assumption of biblical authority. This is meant to arm believers against liberal arguments current in his day (for instance, Swedenborgianism) which sought to deny the bodily resurrection and spiritualize the afterlife.

Bounds handles key Scriptures, especially 1 Corinthians 15, by expositing, comparing scripture to scripture, and giving key quotes from commentators.

For those wanting a biblical view of the afterlife, I would point out this little book by Bounds and another title similar in length and content called The Christian After Death by Robert Ervin Hough.

Bones: Especially towards the end of the book, Bounds has a theological axe to grind against the modernism of the day. He loses his biblical thread somewhat in his passion to defend the faith. Nevertheless, I would highly recommend this book as a whole for its unique subject matter and accessibility.

Quotes: 

“The deathless nature of the soul has been taught in the philosophies of earth, pagan and Christian, but the resurrection of the body is distinctively a Christian doctrine. It belongs to the revelation of God’s Word. It is found in the Bible, and nowhere else.” (loc. 86)

“The resurrection of the same bodies which we put in the grave is the doctrine which pervades the Bible through and through.” (loc. 572)

“With another sweep of that terrible scimitar He broke death’s scepter, smashed his crown, captured his keys, then plunging through the ashes of damnation and lunging on the gates of hell, tore them from their sockets, cutting the bars of iron in pieces and ascending the throne of his imperial majesty the devil, He hurled him into the burning marl and sulphurous flame, then placing His right foot upon the neck of the devil and His left foot upon the jaws of death, He lifted his hand to heaven and shouted through the gloom of eternal night ‘I am He that liveth and was dead; and behold I am alive forevermore and have the keys of death and hell.'” (loc. 1168)

Review: To Die Is Gain (Morgan)

Rating: ★★★

Who: G. Campbell Morgan, prolific English expository preacher, known as the Prince of Expositors.

To Die Is Gain is a scarce booklet made from a conference address by G. Campbell Morgan in 1908.

Overview: The first half of the sermon was a straightforward explanation of Paul’s words, showing why death is in fact “gain.” This part was interesting: Jesus (and Peter) call death a “departure,” implying that it is in no sense a completion, but more of a beginning. Morgan compares several interesting poems and hymns with opposing views of death.

Later in the booklet, Morgan begins discussing what it means that believers will “serve the Lord” day and night in heaven. He speculates for several pages on this topic; however, the Greek word for “serving” in that passage seems to imply a kind of worship, and not that believers in heaven could in any way do what we might call “Kingdom” ministry or earthly ministry.

Bones: I was surprised, first of all, that an expository preacher like Morgan would waste time on such a topic, and secondly, that someone cared to publish it. Morgan has dozens and dozens of sermons much better than this one, preached near the beginning of his pastoral ministry.

Review: Whyte’s Bible Characters

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Alexander Whyte (1836-1921), Scottish preacher and prolific author. He published a variety of sermons and biographies, but his most famous books since his death have been his Bible Characters.

Overview: Each of these sermons is usually a brief and balanced treatments of a biblical character; for some characters—such as Moses or Paul—there are several sermons, dealing with the chapters of Scripture in which that person is found. If the character is controversial, he will weigh the positives and negatives before expressing his conviction and the lesson that he gains from the character’s life.

Meat: Whyte is an excellent writer. Like F. W. Boreham and A. J. Gossip, he drew on the best English and Classical literature, not just to pepper his sermons, but to illustrate biblical truth in the most meaningful way. He held many prestigious positions and was no mean scholar.

Many of these sermons were cited by scholars as authority for many decades after Whyte’s death. If you found a biblical character confounding, it was always a helpful plan to visit Whyte and see, first, what was his opinion of the character, and second, what lesson did he glean from their story. On a controversial character like Jephthah, for instance, he will weigh the interpretations and then pursue a definite course, which you may or may not agree with.

His sermons have value as a pastor’s resource, but they are also great devotional reading. I really enjoy being able to pick it up on a whim and have a solid sermon on almost any prominent Bible character, whether from the Old or the New Testament.

Bones: I enjoyed many of these sermons, but some of them were absolute duds. The sermon on Eve, while it was interesting, seemed to quote line after line of John Milton. While I love Milton, I was much more interested in understanding the basics of Eve’s story. A few were dull and moralistic; the sermon on Esau, for instance, takes on the sin of gluttony—an unexpected turn, to say the least. I will, however, continue to consult this set of sermons when I am studying Bible characters, because it is unmatched in that regard.

Related: Herbert Lockyer has similar works like All the Men of the Bible, All the Women of the Bible, etc. These works are exhaustive in their inclusion of characters. The individual entries are usually brief, but still directed towards a devotional application.

Whyte’s sermons on Bible Characters were originally published in six volumes, but they are now available cheaply in one large volume, or free as an PDF (in separate volumes).