I was pleasantly surprised a few days ago when I spotted this book in a store. I've read dozens of G.K. Chesterton's books, including his Autobiography, but had never read an actual biography of the man before. When I saw that the author was Kevin Belmonte, a name I was familiar with from the Christian Encounters series of short biographies, I snapped the book up. I'm sad to say it wasn't good. A passage from H.L. Mencken, quoted by Belmonte, is perhaps the best summary of what's wrong with Defiant Joy: "If you approach [this book] as biography, you will find it amazing in the things it contains and irritating beyond measure in the things it doesn't contain."
When I think of what the book does contain, the first thing that jumps to mind is block quotations. I remember many admonitions in college writing courses to use block quotations sparingly--if you must. I never questioned this advice but never knew how bad they could make a book, and this book is packed with them. There is almost one per page. I'd guess that fully one third of the entire text is made of up block quotations from other works, some of them running over a page in length. By the end of the book there are even block quotations within block quotations. Belmonte didn't write Defiant Joy, he constructed it around huge, undigested chunks of his source material. The result is that his book feels like a flimsy skeleton hung with flesh from other sources. There's hardly an original thought or sentence in the book, just connecting tissue.
The book also contains an incredible amount of redundancy. Belmonte repeats himself more times than I thought possible in a single book--and by "repeats himself," I mean he uses the same block quotations more than once, sometimes within a few pages of each other.
The other major thing the book contains is information on Chesterton's books. In fact, this is virtually all that the book contains (more on that later). Despite Defiant Joy's subtitle--"The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton"--this book is really more of a literary biography than a life story. With a handful of exceptions, each chapter deals, in chronological order, with a different book by Chesterton rather than an era of his life. Combine this trait with the extensive block quotations and the book becomes an absolute chore to read.
For example, nearly every chapter in the the book follows this outline:
1--Belmonte introduces the book in question, usually giving the precise date of its publication and its publisher.
2--Belmonte summarizes the book's contents.
3--Belmonte quotes gigantic chunks of the book to highlight the book's major points.
4--Belmonte quotes the New York Times review of the book.
5--Belmonte quotes someone who praised the book--usually C.S. Lewis, Garry Wills, J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip Yancey, or all of the above.
6--And, in the first half of Defiant Joy, Belmonte almost always comments with astonishment at how young Chesterton was when he published the book in question.
After a dozen chapters of this precise arrangement, over and over, it became clear to me that the research behind this book was superficial at best. Belmonte quotes from the same sources--Wills's Why I am a Catholic, Lewis's Surprised by Joy, Maisie Ward's biography of GKC--over and over again, never ranging far enough afield to really convince me--a Chesterton fan!--of Chesterton's vast influence. The poor research is especially evident in that every single chapter quotes the New York Times--usually more than once--but rarely ever from any other periodical. It seems a search for "Chesterton" in the New York Times's complete online archive was the most intense research put into this book.
These tendencies merge at the end of the book, when Belmonte devotes a chapter to Chesterton's autobiography. I suddenly found myself reading a summary of a book by Chesterton summarizing the events I'd already read at the beginning of a book by Belmonte. At that point, Defiant Joy became surreal.
But I can forgive a sparely-researched, poorly written biography if it at least gives me some idea of what the subject's life was like. Here's where we see the deeper, more serious problems with Defiant Joy--the things this book doesn't contain.
Unfortunately, this biography doesn't contain a biography. Like I said, the book skips from one Chesterton work to another, only rarely alighting on some biographical fact in between. For just one example, Belmonte skips from The Everlasting Man in 1925 to Chaucer in 1932 and describes nothing that happened in the interim. In all the lengthy quotations, New York Times reviews, and appreciations from Lewis and Wills, I can remember a few events from Chesterton's life--he dabbled in the occult, he met his wife, he got sick, he got better, his brother died, he visited America, and he died. As it happens, these are things I already knew about.
I did not read this book to find out what the New York Times was writing about Chesterton during his lifetime (or to be reminded, every time, how huge Chesterton's stature must have been to be featured in the New York Times). I read it to get some idea of what Chesterton's life was like as he lived it--the stuff that came between his publication dates. What was his relationship with his wife like? Belmonte only really describes her at the very beginning of their relationship and at his death. What about that dark period of his life in which he experimented with ouija boards and lost almost all hope? I really wanted to know more about that than the oblique references in his Autobiography. And what about his friendships? We learn a little about his friendly rivalry with George Bernard Shaw, but little else of that ilk. I was astonished to find only two mentions in the entire book of Hilaire Belloc, a friend so close to Chesterton that Shaw referred to the pair as "the Chesterbelloc." This book doesn't just miss the mark of biography, it missed the target.
I'll end with one other major feature of Chesterton's life that is almost wholly missing from Defiant Joy. Having read a huge amount of Chesterton's work, I recognize that there are two major events in his life that he regarded as the most important: his conversion to orthodox Christianity, and from there his conversion to Roman Catholic Christianity. Chesterton was very fervently Catholic and wrote several long books about this important aspect of his life, but Belmonte sidesteps nearly all of it. There is no chapter-length treatment, for instance, of The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, Where All Roads Lead, or The Well and the Shallows. Belmonte mentions only in passing that Chesterton converted to Catholicism, that it comforted him, and that Catholic priests gave him the last rites.
I don't know how much someone unfamiliar with Chesterton would appreciate this book. It covered nothing biographical that cannot be found on Wikipedia, and it isn't really satisfactory as an introduction to Chesterton's work, incomplete and derivative as it is. The best thing I can say about it--and I've tried very hard to find something to praise--is that it pointed me toward Maisie Ward's biography Gilbert Keith Chesterton. I'll be reading that sometime soon.