The Bare Bodkin

Chesterton and the Gentile Problem

In 1961, Garry Wills published his first book, a penetrating study of G.K. Chesterton.  It wasn’t a huge success, and it soon went out of print.  Later, after swinging fashionably leftward, Wills would write best-sellers and Pulitzer Prize-winners.

Now his Chesterton has been reissued, slightly revised, in paperback.  In a new introduction, Wills apologizes for the original book’s shortcomings—first among which he names his failure to deal sternly with Chesterton’s antisemitism.

As far as I know, nobody in 1961 found this to be a fault of the book.  Only later would imputed “antisemitism” become the defining trait, in the minds of liberal literati, of Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc.  Both men, in fact, regarded “the Jewish problem” as real and serious, and both tried to be fair to the Jews in their proposed solutions.  Chesterton was a Zionist; Belloc devoted much of his book on the Jews to refuting common charges of Jewish avarice, cowardice, disloyalty, and so forth.

In 1961, it was still assumed that there could be a legitimate range of opinion on ethnic issues.  “Minorities” hadn’t yet become a synonym for “victims.”  So Wills is apologizing, in effect, for not having worn today’s fashions 40 years ago.  And he now agrees to censure Chesterton for not having worn...

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