Discussion with Dr. Baker –
On August 15th I had the chance to sit down with AK Chesterton’s biographer Dr. David L. Baker and ask him about his research. It is rare that you get the chance talk with another historian about their work directly. It’s like coming to face to face to the historiography in a certain sense. Over coffee Dr. Baker and I discussed Chesterton’s background and personal life. We also talked about how he constructed his biography of Chesterton. I wanted to know if Dr. Baker had left anything out in his biography of AK Chesterton, and if he was to rewrite it today what he would change. Baker wrote his dissertation 1982 and the book Ideology of Obsession: A.K. Chesterton and British Fascism was published in 1996. A substantial period of time has elapsed since the biography was released and it seems to me that Chesterton is ready for a second look by a new generation of historians.
My interest in Chesterton’s career seemed to please Dr. Baker. He told me that I was fortunate in the sense that there are many new primary sources available to historians today that were not available to him in the 1980s.
Here are a few of the questions I asked Dr. Baker: (I paraphrased these from my notes of the discussion and are not verbatim responses. I did not have the benefit of a tape recorder at the time.)
“Would you add anything to your biography if you wrote it today?”
Baker remarked that he would have liked to use more of Roger Griffin’s methodology, specifically his concept of “palingenetic ultranationalism” worked out in The Nature of Fascism (1991).
“In the Chesterton Collection there is a letter from his wife Doris to you about a recurring dream he had. He imagined himself crawling over the bodies of his comrades during the First World War. How much do you think the Great War affected Chesterton’s mental health?”
Baker said that he could not remember the letter specifically, but believes that AK’s experiences in the Great War both in Africa and on the Western Front contributed his right wing views. Chesterton championed a kind of “soldier’s socialism” that valued imperial duty and sacrifice above all else. Wartime trauma on body and mind forced him (like many others of his generation) to seek meaning in the conflict. The war forever alienated him from the rest of society. Veterans’ alienation is best illustrated through the war poetry of Sassoon and Graves. Like the war poets, Chesterton channeled his estrangement from society into his art. Unlike the war poets, Chesterton’s frustration with interwar society metastasized into fascism through his association with Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists.
“What was Chesterton’s philosophical basis for his beliefs?”
Chesterton was unique in the sense that he found his political inspiration from the great writers of English literature. An Anglophile through and through, he was enamored with the mythic quality of Shakespeare described by the scholar G. Wilson Knight. He was also drew inspiration from the writings of Shelley and Carlyle.
“What about women in the League of Empire Loyalists?”
Chesterton actively supported Rosine de Bounevialle and Leslie Green to run for political office as Loyalist candidates. He also sought women heckle prominent politicians and rival political groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Baker also pointed out that women have been historically well represented in the extreme right, providing the example of Nesta Webster, a famous conspiratorial writer and contemporary of Chesterton.
“Why was Chesterton allowed to participate in the Second World War? Why was he not detained like Oswald Mosley and their contemporaries?”
Baker was not able to answer this question for me, but he advised me to check out all the resources available through the Freedom of Information Act. At the time he wrote his biography, there were few government documents available. He suggested that I make a request for documents from the Ministry of Defence and attempt to access Chesterton’s service records from 1940 to 1943.
Since speaking to Dr. Baker earlier this month, I have filled out the necessary forms for the MoD request on Chesterton. It will be interesting to see what his files reveal in the coming weeks and months.