Chesterton, Mencken, and Shaw

Some critics are like chimney-sweepers; they put out the fire below, and frighten the swallows from their nests above; they scrape a long time in the chimney, cover themselves with soot, and bring nothing away but a bag of cinders, and then sing from the top of the house as if they had built it.

Among those who occasionally loosed barbs in Chesterton’s direction was H. L. Mencken—the noted literary critic and wordsmith. Brilliant, learned, and noted for his acerbic style, Mencken relished journalistic swordplay as few others did.

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton, from Chapter 14

In May of 1911, literary critic H.L. Mencken reviewed G.K. Chesterton in the journal The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness. Mencken’s wit was as pointed as it was sharp, and he delighted in wordsmith in the manner later enjoyed by the likes of Dorothy Parker and William F. Buckley. Much of his criticism of Chesterton was warranted (such as his charge of repetition), but in most cases, he was off-base, more apparently enamored with the sound of his own voice.

In Chapter 14 of Defiant Joy, Kevin Belmonte writes:

One of Mencken’s lengthier and more important critiques of Chesterton is found in his review of Chesterton’s book George Bernard Shaw (published in 1909). Mencken’s January 1910 review, “Chesterton’s Picture of Shaw,” brings together three of the more incandescent minds of the era. Mencken, Chesterton, and Shaw were also three of the most popular writers in the Anglo-American world at this time. For a start, Mencken was not enamored of Chesterton’s book inasmuch as it aspired in any way to be a biography. “If you approach Gilbert K. Chesterton’s George Bernard Shaw as serious biography,” Mencken wrote,

“you will find it amazing in the things it contains and irritating beyond measure in the things it doesn’t contain; but if you throttle your yearning for facts and look only for entertainment you will fairly wallow in it. The cleverest man in all the world, with the second cleverest as his subject, is here doing his cleverest writing. The result is a volume as diverting as Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, and as obviously unauthentic. It belongs, not to history, but to philosophic fable. I have shelved it among my more furious epics, cheek by jowl with The Estimable Life of the Great Gargantua, the Book of Revelation, Fécondité and The Story of Mary MacLane.”

Have you been a recipient of sharp criticism?

D I G  D E E P E R

Kevin Belmonte

Kevin Belmonte holds a BA in English from Gordon College, an MA in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and a second master’s degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He has twice been a finalist for the prestigious John Pollock Award for Christian Biography, and in 2003, his biography, “William Wilberforce,” won that award. On several occasions, he has served as a script consultant for the BBC, and also for the PBS documentary, “The Better Hour.” For six years, he was the lead script and historical consultant for the critically-acclaimed film, “Amazing Grace.” He has spoken in a wide array of noteworthy settings, from the Houses of Parliament in London, and gatherings of legislators in Washington, D.C., to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. For several years, his biography of Wilberforce has been required reading for a course taught by David Gergen on leadership and character formation at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Sources & Resources

H. L. Mencken, “Chesterton’s Picture of Shaw,” review in The Smart Set, January 1910.

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011).

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life