It could be argued—in fact, I will argue it right now—that G.K. Chesterton got his start in journalism writing for The Speaker, a Liberal weekly with a literary bent. It was the first major publication to publish anything by Chesterton, a poem called “The Song of Labour,” in December of 1892, when GKC was only 18 years old. He would get six more poems published in The Speaker over the next seven years. In October of 1899, he started submitting book reviews to the paper, but they were rejected by the book editor, F.Y. Eccles, who concluded, on the basis of GKC’s distinctive italic handwriting, that he was Jewish. At the behest of his college classmate, Ernest Hodder-Williams, Chesterton began writing reviews of art books for The Bookman, which were immediately published (thanks perhaps to the fact that Ernest’s father was the publisher). It was then that Chesterton decided he wanted to be a journalist.
It would be a few more months before Eccles determined that Chesterton was not Jewish and began publishing his book reviews. Here the world got its first real look at Chesterton’s creative mind, at how insightful and sagacious he was, but also how amusing. And quotable. It was a collection of these essays that made up Chesterton’s first book of prose: The Defendant. But the uncollected pieces from The Speaker would fill another book. And the book could be called The Defendant, Volume II, because Chesterton continues his theme that all precious things are “in perpetual and incurable peril.”
He defends little things: “The mystic is not a man who reverences large things so much as a man who reverences small ones, who reduces himself to a point, without parts or magnitude, so that to him the grass is really a forest and the grasshopper a dragon. Little things please great minds.”
He defends basic morality against the hedonist: “Nature is one of the worst guides conceivable in all matters of peace, war, government, industry and the ordinary relations between man and man. Why in the name of common-sense should she be any better guide on the relations of the sexes? The New Hedonism . . . amounts apparently to this, that Nature is detestable when she commands us to be strong, but infallible when she commands us to be weak.”
He defends basic faith against the atheist: “To assert a universal negative is a far more undemonstrable dogma than the vision of a million angels.”
He defends the Sabbath against the Sabbatarians who empty it of its joy by denying normal pleasure: “The Sabbath is the Festival of Creation on which the world is made over again. The universe presents the cryptogramic wonder of a detective story; but with this difference, that the secret is not a hidden crime, but a hidden kindness.”
He defends the use of humor in his writing: “I could never understand why it should be considered as anything against the truth of an idea that it was funny: to me it appears that its funniness should be rather in its favour.”
One thing he does not defend is John Milton. He calls his religion “frigid and repellent.” He argues against the idea that the theories of Paradise Lost are Hebraic and Scriptural. So, I suppose we could say he is defending the Old Testament against Milton.
The God of the Old Testament never explains himself intellectually; the God of Milton never does anything else. The much-quoted object “to justify the ways of God to men” would have appeared mere ridiculous blasphemy to Isaiah. This sublime Jewish sentiment of the loneliness of God (“I have trodden the wine-press alone and of the peoples there was no man with me”) is perpetually violated in Milton, whose Deity is always clearing Himself from charges as if He were at the Old Bailey. The least superstitious of us can feel the thrill of the elemental faith of the Jews, can imagine a voice thundering out of the sky in mysterious wrath or more mysterious benediction. But who can help laughing at the idea of a voice out of the midnight sky suddenly beginning to explain itself and set right an unfortunate misunderstanding?
This early whack of Milton would lead to many more over the next three decades, which is one of the many things that endears Chesterton to me and to every other person who suffered through English Literature 101 being told how great Paradise Lost is. I always knew there was something wrong with it.
And though Chesterton defends tradition, he does not necessarily uphold philosophic Conservatism per se: “A clock that has stopped is at least right twice a day; the real philosophic Conservative is right with the same regularity as a clock that has stopped.” (In case you were wondering about the source of this oft-repeated line, it comes from The Speaker, October 19,1901.)
The amazing thing about these essays that laid the foundation for Chesterton’s career as a journalist is that they are all book reviews: books such as Grant Allen’s memoirs, a biography of Edward Dowden, the poetry of William Watson. Though the books and their authors are forgotten, the journalist’s reviews live on. How many journalists can make the same claim?