- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

By Joseph Pearce
Ignatius Press, $24.95, 318 pages

"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. This influence, writes Mr. Pearce, "was matched by an even more uncanny ability to inspire a sense of discipleship in a younger generation of aspiring writers" including Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Evelyn Waugh, and a host of others.
The portrait that emerges is far from the cartoonish figure portrayed by some mid-20th-century critics, such as Wilfred Sheed, who saw Belloc as a red-faced bully who shouted down opponents and filled the role of an "Edwardian poet whose esthetics owed nothing to the period, a novelist occupying no place at all in the history of the novel, a prose stylist whose very century would be hard to guess," and a would-be historian who "proceeded to pour out a ream of unsound, under researched history books blatantly taking the Catholic side of everything."
Such a talentless popinjay would never have achieved the high reputation Belloc realized in the world of English letters from the mid-1890s through roughly 1930, as Mr. Pearce convincingly demonstrates.
Any writer who takes Belloc as his subject must address the issue of his alleged anti-Semitism, a frequent accusation from early in his career. On this score, much has been made by numerous modern critics who have in large part taken the sour-grapes slanging of Belloc's hostile contemporaries, bested in debate with "Old Thunder," as the final word on this issue.
In contrast, Mr. Pearce is altogether balanced and fair, demonstrating that despite displaying the ingrained (and to modern ears, cringe-making) anti-Jewish sentiments of his day, Belloc was an outspoken enemy of those who hate Jews on principle and even long for their destruction as a people.
Here, Mr. Pearce pays special attention to Belloc's deliberate distancing himself from several otherwise-close friends, themselves journalists who engaged in near-ritual anti-Semitic rhetoric; and to Belloc's own 1922 volume "The Jews," which is an earnest defense of Europe's Jews and a call for tolerance in an age of growing anti-Semitism. Not surprisingly, Belloc despised Adolf Hitler for his racial theories and considered Nazi anti-Semitism a form of certifiable lunacy (though one largely peculiar to the hateful "Prussians").
Not a true anti-Semite, Belloc was a hater to be sure; but only in the sense articulated by Edmund Burke, "They will never love where they ought to love who do not hate where they ought to hate."
Belloc hated the sham and deceptions of his age: the smug anti-Catholicism of Edwardian England, the movements within politics (whether of the left or of the right) toward viewing man as primarily an economic creature, the claims of creeping statism, the growth of the various "isms" that made much of the globe a charnel-house during the 20th century.
To hate such things is no vice. Belloc loved the humble, the traditional, the faithful and the old: the thousand-and-one homely customs, conventions, and rituals of continuity that affirm human life as a miracle. Russell Kirk once wrote, "With Belloc, as with Don Quixote, one can pardon a great deal of eccentricity for the sake of the transcendent vision which inspired his life and work."
Just so. Mr. Pearce, who has in the past contributed valuable studies of Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien has skillfully illuminated the life of a most intriguing writer whose works reflect a rural world that lives mostly in memory today but who possessed a faith that is quick still.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of "Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind " (1999).

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