Echoes: When G.K. came to Notre Dame

Author: Dale Ahlquist

I have seen, where a strange country
Opened its secret plains about me,
One great golden dome stand lonely with its golden image, one
Seen afar, in strange fulfillment,
Through the sunlit Indian summer
That Apocalyptic portent that has clothed her with the Sun.

— from “The Arena” by G.K. Chesterton

October 1930 marked a big event on the Notre Dame campus: the opening of the new football stadium. Knute Rockne gave a speech. A Navy admiral gave a speech. The University president, Rev. Charles O’Donnell, CSC, gave a speech and told the emotional story about George Gipp.

Then a special guest was introduced, and an uproarious standing ovation welcomed G.K. Chesterton, who had just arrived from England and had never seen a football game. According to one report, thousands of “lusty voices shouted the name of one of the world’s leading literary lights.” The University considered it a good omen.

When Gilbert Keith Chesterton came to Notre Dame as a visiting professor, he was the most famous Catholic writer in the world. The prolific author had by that time written dozens of books on all subjects, hundreds of poems and many popular detective stories featuring the immortal priest-sleuth Father Brown — who would inspire a similar character named Father Dowling, created by Notre Dame’s own Professor Ralph McInerny. Chesterton was in constant demand as a speaker in England, but he had never been invited anywhere as a visiting professor.

Perhaps that is because he never went to college. He made his living as a journalist, yet his books, poems and essays were standard reading in English-speaking schools across the globe. Notre Dame had invited him for six weeks to deliver 18 lectures on Victorian literature and another 18 on Victorian history and politics. Students could attend one series or the other but not both, and needed a ticket for admission into Washington Hall, where the lectures were given. Faculty members also could attend.

At least 500 students showed up each night, but The Scholastic lamented that the hall was not full to its estimated standing-room capacity of 900. The editorial decried the “warped sense of values” on campus, which was always in a fever about football and “distinctly secondary college activities” while “very little thought is given to things intellectual and cultural.”

Nevertheless, Chesterton ascended the stage every evening, digging through his pockets for his notes and finally producing a scrap of paper from which he would lecture for an hour. It turns out there was almost nothing written on these supposed lecture notes. “What I like about notes,” he would later say, “is that once you begin you can completely disregard them.”

Richard Baker ’31, ’41Ph.D., a future professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton, was a senior at the time. He recalled that Chesterton’s speaking style and mannerisms were at first distracting. The high, thin voice did not match the huge body. Chesterton laughed at his own jokes, sometimes long before he told them, as his thoughts raced far ahead of what he was saying. But it was what he actually said that held the students spellbound.

Unfortunately, the only record of these lectures exists in a few student notes preserved in the University Archives. Here are a few Chestertonian sound bites, gleaned from five different sets:

On Mary Queen of Scots, rival to England’s Queen Elizabeth: “She was executed for being in good health.”

On the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle: “His beliefs were all make-beliefs.”

On Edward Bulwer-Lytton (he of the “It was a dark and stormy night” fame): “He was quite successfully modern, which is the reason why he is almost forgotten.”

On the poet Robert Browning: “He could pass quickly from the ridiculous to the sublime without seeming ridiculous.”

On Oscar Wilde: “He worshipped beauty to the neglect of truth and morality. As a result, poetry became artificial.”

On George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells: “They tried to fulfill Victorian ideals which were never meant to be fulfilled.”

“Poetry is the flower of civilization,” said Chesterton in one lecture. “Romanticism has worked itself out in our time in nonsense and dirt. We should remind the humanists that if poetry has become too personal, it has also become unpoetic.”

Chesterton was no mere critic; he also knew how to appreciate the poets he criticized, reciting long passages of their poetry from memory. One evening, he recited 300 lines of Algernon Swinburne. His command, vast as it was, astonished everyone.

But what about his contemporaries? A long-time Notre Dame English professor, Rufus William Rauch, was only 26 when Chesterton came to campus. One night, Rauch brought a few students with him to discuss modern poetry with Chesterton at the home where the author was staying. Was Mr. Chesterton familiar with T.S. Eliot? the young instructor asked timidly. Chesterton proceeded to quote the long opening passage from “Ash Wednesday,” which had just been published. “Quite dizzying. I suppose that’s one way to conversion,” he mused. Rauch was amazed, at that moment and ever after.

Chesterton was himself a poet whose “Lepanto” and “The Ballad of the White Horse” are considered great literary achievements. He also graced his hosts with “The Arena,” a poem about Notre Dame Stadium that contrasts the gladiators of old with the young Catholic football players. The modern athletes represent “Youth untroubled; youth untortured; hateless war and harmless mirth” and partake of “a holier bread” in “a happier circus.” One professor said it was the most mystical approach to football ever taken.

A few weeks later in the New York press, Chesterton defended Notre Dame against critics who said the school cared only about football: “They excel in many things, but you cannot write headlines over the fact that . . . a certain young professor has made interesting discoveries in the study of medieval philosophy. The world is interested in football, and because a school excels in that sport the world gives no other credit.”

Despite his demanding schedule, it was not all work and no play for the Englishman in South Bend. Prohibition was in effect, so he insisted on being taken to a speakeasy. He also said Prohibition wasn’t all bad since many Notre Dame professors had shown their resourcefulness by building stills in their basements and brewing their own beer. One night after lecturing, Chesterton visited the rooms of Professor Charles Phillips on the top floor of Sorin Hall, with some 20 students and staff hauling Chesterton and a keg of ale up three flights of stairs. The author talked till long after midnight and “his stein was never empty for more than a minute.” According to legend, getting him back down the stairs was a monumental task.

Of course, just getting him out of a car was a challenge. Johnnie Mangan, the University’s chauffeur, claimed Chesterton weighed almost 400 pounds, and was the first to tell the tale of suggesting his passenger try getting out sideways. “I have no sideways,” was the response. Thus Chesterton viewed the Grotto from the car.

Accompanying Chesterton from England was his wife, Frances, and his secretary, Dorothy Collins. Traveling alone was not an option for the absent-minded genius. Mangan observed that the women “had that man by the neck.” He would do anything they’d say, Mangan added, “but they took wonderful care of him.”

At the end of his stay, during a special convocation in Washington Hall, Chesterton received a LL.D. from Father O’Donnell, the first honorary Notre Dame degree conferred outside of commencement. The event was national news.

Notre Dame paid him a lecturer’s fee of $5,000. All of the money went to G.K.’s Weekly, a newspaper devoted to social justice. When Chesterton died six years later, Pope Pius XI named him a Defender of the Faith for his writings on Catholic doctrine. He had especially championed Catholic social teaching, to the distress of those on both ends of the political spectrum, as he was a stinging critic of both big government and big business.

Chesterton died in 1936. Though enormously popular and influential in his lifetime, his fame receded after World War II, leaving it to a new generation to rediscover him in the 1980s. Today the Chesterton revival is in full swing.

Eighty years after his visit to Notre Dame, a Chesterton Society now meets on campus, one of dozens of local societies found across the country. Almost all of his 100 books are back in print. His social criticism seems timelier than ever. His economic ideas, known as Distributism, promote widespread property ownership, small businesses and locally based commerce and government. Once dismissed, they are now being re-evaluated in light of the latest economic collapse. He also has regained his reputation as a great controversialist with his warnings about the decline of the arts, education and culture, of the family and morality, and of the Christian faith.

Though his prophesies have proven impressive, it is not his doom-saying that attracts new readers but his graceful language and nimble wit, his abundant joy and generous spirit. G.K. Chesterton can still keep the conversation going all night. He can still astonish. And his stein never appears to be empty.

Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society and the author of G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense.