OLD THUNDER: A Life of Hilaire Belloc
by Joseph Pearce
(Ignatius Press, 2002, 320 pages, $49.95. Available from AD Books)
What Hilaire Belloc once said about Catholic history and the Church applies just as well to Belloc the writer: you have to see them from the inside in order to appreciate them. Although Belloc is thought to be one of the great writers of the last 100 years (by Fr James Schall SJ, Frederick Wilhelmsen and A.N. Wilson, to name a few), he remains largely ignored.
At the time of his death in 1953, Belloc's reputation was high because his contribution to apologetics and humane letters had been recognised by men like Msgr Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Rupert Brooke, G.B. Shaw, Maurice Baring, Rev Vincent McNabb and Belloc's godson, G.K. Chesterton.
They all knew Belloc and celebrated not only the man but what he stood for: an integrated culture that taught the ability to know a good poem, song, story, or essay from bad ones.
With his insistence on truth and classical literary standards, Belloc made people uncomfortable. In our time, he has been seen by neo-conservatives as hopelessly old Church. Belloc was never respectable in academia, but in recent times he has even been attacked in Catholic journals. While C.S. Lewis's stock soared with Catholics, Belloc's plummeted.
It seemed the mob wanted to demythologise at least one-half of the great juggernaut of 20th-century Catholicism, the "Chesterbelloc". Belloc is an affront to the modern academy and its obsession with scientific measurement and specialisation. Belloc does not talk about his subjects as an "expert," but as a lover who looks beyond blemishes to what is good and beautiful.
Those who still wish to bury Belloc look with the eyes, not of lovers but of experts, of those who "murder to dissect," in Wordsworth's colorful phrase. The attack was and is largely on a straw Belloc, and today as in his own lifetime most of the great man's detractors do not really know or understand him.
The only way to rescue him from obscurity and caricature is to read his books and learn about the stories behind them. Happily, we now have two new books - Joseph Pearce's biography, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc, and a reprint of Belloc's essay The Free Press - to help a new generation of readers do just that.
Like Belloc's other biographers (Speiaght, Morton, Wilhelmsen), Pearce knows too much about his subject to subscribe to the common view that whatever is Belloc must be either antiquated, inaccurate, or not quite respectable. Pearce zeroes in on Belloc's literary standing as a 20th century Doctor Johnson: an essayist par excellence and a trenchant critic of social and political trends. Pearce shows us the greatness of Belloc through those who knew and admired him, men like Evelyn Waugh, Rupert Brooke and Maurice Baring, friends who attributed their conversions to Belloc's lifelong siege against the unbelieving world.
Pearce sizes up Belloc's critics and readily defuses the old slanders. He deftly distinguishes Belloc's cultural prejudices from hatred of any race, and he backs his arguments up with many examples. Pearce understands Belloc as intensely human: "As many of Belloc's and Chesterton's essays and poems would testify, love and laughter were linked in a mystical unity. Beyond the mere love of laughter was to be found the laughter of love."
This is something for which Belloc was always admired, even by his intellectual foes. He inspired conviviality and hospitality in his writings, his debates, his lectures, his poetry on wine and fellowship, and his earthy songs. Pearce does a fine job of capturing his subject's charisma: "It is a well worn and worn out cliché to say that a man is larger than life. 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 minimise the literature but to magnify the man."
But does Pearce actually succeed in magnifying the man? Pierce writes well, and he certainly covers all the major episodes in Belloc's life and work. At 320 pages, Old Thunder moves quickly, and yet it leaves one wanting. If this were a dissertation, I would give it the highest marks possible and recommend its publication.
This biography has higher ambitions, however, and these may not have been realised. Pearce waxes eloquent about Belloc's great poems but does not quote many of them. He does render The Path to Rome vividly. This is arguably Belloc's most famous work, a literary tour de force that has survived the test of time. It made Belloc famous because it gave readers Belloc himself - the swashbuckler of Catholicism who bounces over the Alps and into our imagination.
But Pearce devotes too much space to the aspects of Belloc's personality that have led to misunderstandings, accentuating his stern manner and other legendary eccentricities. Robert Speiaght's authorised biography delivers a fuller picture of Belloc as a maddening but divinely inspired genius. Pearce's book falls short of achieving that. Despite these limitations, though, Old Thunder deserves to be read; it is a sympathetic introduction to this monumental figure of literature and the Church militant.
Scott J. Bloch works as an attorney in Washington, DC, and is secretary to the Hilaire Belloc Society. His review first appeared in 'Crisis' magazine which is recommended to readers of 'AD2000'.