Intriguing Man Who Was 'Larger' Than the Books He produced.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 13, 2002 | Go to article overview

Intriguing Man Who Was 'Larger' Than the Books He produced.(BOOKS)


Byline: James E. Person Jr., SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"It is a well-worn and worn-out cliche to say that a man is larger than life," writes Joseph Pearce in "Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc." He adds, "No man is larger than life. Some men are, however, larger than the literature they produce and Belloc was such a man. To say as much is not to minimize the literature but to magnify the man."

Who indeed reads Belloc today, and who was this man, likened by his contemporaries to thunder? The son of a French father and an English mother, Belloc was born in France amid a literal thunderstorm in 1870, shortly before his father's estate was overrun and desecrated by the advancing Prussian army. The facts of this event, recalled throughout his life, compelled Belloc to keep alive the memory of a catastrophe he had not experienced and to honor the faith and ways of his ancestors - and to do so loudly.

Left fatherless at an early age and raised in England, he became one of the true giants in English letters during the early-20th century and a signal figure in the Catholic Literary Revival. He teamed with G. K. Chesterton to champion Catholicism, life as lived close to the soil (especially the soil of his adopted home, rural Sussex), and small ownership as against the socialist nostrums of H. G. Wells, Bernard Shaw and the other Fabian spokesmen of the day.

He was both hailed as a champion of tradition and despised as a throwback, becoming a lightning rod of controversy during a time when the genteel Age of Discussion gave way with a vengeance to the Age of Ideology.

Though widely forgotten today, Belloc was at one time revered as a past master of the familiar essay, a matchless orator, the greatest master of light verse since Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, a social critic of marked distinction, an insightful writer on military matters, and a bold Catholic apologist of the take-no-prisoners variety.

His essay collection "The Hills and the Sea," his travel narrative "The Path to Rome," his lively farrago entitled "The Four Men," his book of social criticism called "The Servile State" and his one on sailing "The Cruise of the Nona" (not to mention several collections of nonsense verse for children and his volume of Catholic apologetics "Survivals and New Arrivals") are works that live still.

After reading Mr. Pearce's well researched, eloquently written biography, the reader is likely to wonder why Belloc is not better known. (If there is any flaw that can be detected in this otherwise well informed and informative volume, it concerns a matter of omission. That is, while Mr. Pearce repeatedly praises certain of Belloc's poems in near-superlatives, he includes no excerpts from these poems to at least give the reader a taste of their excellence.

It may have been helpful to include at least a representative stanza from such poems as "Ha'nacker Mill," "Tarantella," and "Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine," as well as a selection or two from the cautionary poems for children.

Was the man indeed far more imposing than his work? Yes, for as Mr. Pearce acknowledges, the prolific Belloc - he published 120 books during his life - wrote too much, too fast, churning out a steady stream of work in nearly every literary genre. His family's fortune having been lost through financial mismanagement before he came of age, Belloc wrote out of necessity, never in his life being entirely free from the specter of genteel poverty.

"I have been compelled to take to writing from early youth as a drowning dog with a brick round its neck is compelled to treading water; but I was never born for it," he wrote toward the end of his career. But the above-given list of books belies Belloc's harsh self-assessment.

The figure that arises in Mr. Pearce's biography is an earnest, compelling, quirky individual who exercised an "unconscious and uncanny influence" upon his friends and contemporaries, notably Chesterton and novelist-diplomat Maurice Baring. …

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