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Chesterton’s Jews: Update [May 2016]

There have been some interesting developments in the months and years since Chesterton’s Jews was first published (in August 2013). For example, in chapter five of Chesterton’s Jews, I introduced the myth that the Wiener Library defends G. K. Chesterton from the charge of “antisemitism,” noting that the resilience of the myth, which received its genesis in the late 1980s, is demonstrated by the fact that there are still numerous internet pages that refer to it. However, since the book was published, the myth has been at least partially uprooted (link for more information). Michael Coren had originally stated that it was the “Wiener Institute, the best monitors of anti-semitism in Britain,” that defended Chesterton from the charge of antisemitism (Michael Coren, “Just bad friends,” New Statesman, 8 August 1986, 30). Three years later, it was “the Wiener Library, the archives of anti-Semitism and Holocaust history in London,” that regarded Chesterton as “a friend, not an enemy” (Michael Coren, Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton, 1989, 209-210). The implication was that the institution itself defended and regarded Chesterton as a friend. However, in September 2013, Coren clarified that it was not the institution, but rather just one of the many librarians (whose name he does not remember) that have worked there over the years. According to Oliver Kamm in the Jewish Chronicle (online edition, 10 October 2013; print edition, 11 October 2013), when he asked Coren about this, he quickly replied, “regretting that he could not recall the name of the librarian with whom he spoke and that his records from this pre-digital age had not all travelled with him to his current home in Canada.”

A more significant development relates to the movement for the canonisation of Chesterton. When Chesterton’s Jews was published, it was possible to discuss (in chapter six) how Chesterton had been represented as a saint by a number of his admirers, and how a movement that called for the canonisation of Chesterton was growing. If I had waited one more month before publication, I would have also been able to report that Peter Doyle, the bishop of the diocese of Northampton, had appointed a priest, Canon John Udris, to start an investigation into whether Chesterton’s Cause should be formally opened. If I had waited a few months, I would have been able to discuss how this had played out in various newspapers, such as the Catholic Herald (in which Francis Phillips suggested that Chesterton was a “genius,” a “prophet,” who should be canonised and made the patron saint of journalists), the Tablet (in which Richard Ingrams suggested that Chesterton’s writing evinced an “undeniable anti-Semitism,” and that he “shut his eyes to too many nasty things and a saint cannot do that”), and the Jewish Chronicle (in which Oliver Kamm suggested that Chesterton was a writer unfit to be a saint, and Geoffrey Alderman expressed amazement at the lengths that people will go to excuse the “antisemitism” of public figures such as Chesterton), to mention but a few. Since then, Canon Udris has given talks and interviews on Chesterton, suggesting that Chesterton was innocent of “anti-Semitism,” and should be beatified. For example, in an interview in the Catholic Herald (3 March 2014), it was reported that Canon Udris had stated that Chesterton said some “daft things,” such as that the Jews should wear distinctive dress to indicate they were outsiders. According to Udris, “you can understand why people make the assumption that he is anti-Semitic. But I would want to make the opposite case.” And in a talk delivered at Beaconsfield in 2014 (YouTube link), he stated that “the holiness of Chesterton is something that’s infectious.” It will certainly be interesting to see if the investigation initiated by the bishop of Northampton concludes with the Cause of Chesterton being formerly opened. [Link for news reports on the investigation]