Lecture 88: A Chesterton Reader

A few years ago Frank Petta of happy memory sent me a box full of papers. I don’t know if he mistook me for a wastebasket or what. Frank was notorious with a photocopier, and a lot of what he sent arrived in triplicate or worse. It was mostly a bunch jokes and copies of clippings and pages of Chesterton excerpts that I already had. But there was one very interesting file containing correspondence between him and Robert Knille of Rochester, New York. It was an almost breathless comparing of notes as they were helping each other track down Chesterton’s uncollected writings, puzzling over the fact that almost no one shared their enthusiasm for Chesterton and trying to figure out how to make him better known. Although the letters were addressed to each other, I felt like they were both talking to me.

Robert Knille was an executive from Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, but in his spare time, he was Geir Hasnes before there was a Geir Hasnes. He was an passionate collector of Chesterton material who put together a bibliography that had never been done before: all of Chesterton writings in American publications. He thoroughly researched Chesterton’s two trips to the United States, including recreating the itinerary for the 1921 tour, and finding newspaper accounts of his each of his visits to U.S. cities. He was the one who uncovered the live Chesterton quote from the Cleveland Press: “It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged.”

As Father Leo Hetzler pointed out, Knille felt he had a debt he wanted to repay to Chesterton. The wondrous writer had utterly changed his life, and he was going to show his gratitude by finding a way to disseminate Chesterton’s writings as widely as possible. To that end, his greatest accomplishment was creating the book As I Was Saying – A Chesterton Reader, which was first published in 1984.

Although most of the material in the book is previously collected, Knille threw in a sprinkle of quotes and excerpts, long hidden, that appear here for the first time in book form. Such as:

“The real argument against aristocracy is that it always means the rule of the ignorant. For the most dangerous of all forms of ignorance is the ignorance of work.”

“Most men now are not so much rushing to extremes as merely sliding to extremes; and even reaching the most violent extremes by being almost entirely passive.”

“The only argument against losing faith is that you also lose hope – and generally charity.”

Thus it earns its place on the list of books by Chesterton, and not as a mere anthology. But even if it had been only an anthology, this one would stand apart from the others published over the years. The selections are not just excellent, they are laid out in a perfect pattern, so that the Chesterton simply unfolds like a time-elapsed blooming rose before our eyes. It starts with a passage from the autobiography and then proceeds with essays, excerpts, poems, fiction, Father Brown, and quotations, all tightly woven together. One faithful Chestertonian, trying to explain exactly how good this collection is, praised it as “the cheapest way to buy a Chesterton library.” Not a bad accomplishment to condense 18 million words into 314 pages.

There is also a section called “Chesterton for Today.” It sounds like somebody might have stolen that heading for a regular quote block in Gilbert. Maybe. But in Knille’s book the section is filled with excerpts from works of other writers in praise of Chesterton. Such as:

He crashes in upon the orderly scheme and the accepted wisdom and scatters them to the winds. The attitude of the child is restored, wonderland returns to the earth and the age of perpetual marvel. We are shown as still living in the atmosphere of miracle, in the visible presence of God.

That’s C.F.G. Masterman…writing in 1903!

Knille accomplished his goal in part, as the book proved to enjoy some popularity, being welcomed by a wide variety of reviewers, including George Will. It also played a role in inspiring Ignatius Press to move forward with The Collected Works project. But the sad part of the story is that Robert Knille never saw his book published in print. He died suddenly of a heart attack just before it was released.

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