Friday, April 5, 2013
Reposting My Chestertonian Heresy (revised)
Over the years I've read a goodly amount of Chesterton's writings.
My tally is no where near the amount the great Dale Ahlquist has read - I suspect he has studied even Chesterton's shopping lists ("Two cigars, three pieces of chalk, brown paper, ...") - but it's more than the vast majority of people. I credit Chedsterton's biography of St. Francis with helping to restore my Catholic faith, and I followed that up with such books as his biography of Aquinas, The Everlasting Man, and Orthodoxy, a slew of his essays, and a broad selection of his poetry.
But I had read only a few of Chesterton's Father Brown stories. The ones that I had read - the ones that are regularly anthologized - I had enjoyed.
So this past Christmas I was delighted when youngest daughter gave me a first American edition of The Wisdom of Father Brown that she had found in a used bookstore.
After finishing off a few books that were on my reading list first, I started my Father Brown treasure full of anticipation.
With each story I grew more disappointed.
Mind you, I am a fan of mysteries. I've read almost all the Sherlock Holmes tales, many of the Tony Hillerman Navajo stories, a number of Parker's Spenser books (where I learned a better way to cook pasta!), all the Father Dowling books my local library had, and I even got to interview the incredible (though sadly, now late) Ed Hoch, who's stories I love.
I just didn't think the stories in this Father Brown book were particularly good as mysteries.
Then I got to "The God of the Gongs."
I was more than disappointed. I was offended.
I understand that it was a different time period and that racial names were viewed differently then, but I found the frequent use of "Nigger" jarring. If it had just been that - I've read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without freaking out - I could have understood the use of that word. But there was also an attitude of racial superiority that came through in various lines about Italians, darker races, and Blacks, and when Father Brown observed, "That negro who has just swaggered out is one of the most dangerous men on earth, for he has the brains of a European, with the instincts of a cannibal," I nearly threw the book down.
But it is a gift and a first edition and, well, a book. I am a bit of a bibliophile.
I don't think Chesterton was a racist. I think he was a product of his time. An unenlightened sometimes insensitive time.
I would not be surprised if such attitudes might be found in some of his other writings - I've only begun to mine the mother lode. But they have literary riches that outweigh such racial slag.
But as for the Father Brown tales ... I'll finish reading the book - it was a gift and I feel obligated - but it may be a while before I'll read any more Father Brown mysteries. I've lost the desire.
Pax et bonum