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Monday, March 4, 2024

The Cowboy Career of G.K. Chesterton

(Left to right) Lord Howard de Walden, William Archer, J.M. Barrie, G.K. Chesterton and Bernard Shaw, in the middle of making the cowboy film How Men Love. From Peter Whitebrook, William Archer: A Biography

My curiosity over Chesterton continually leads me into highways, biways, and labyrinthian detours. I presented at one of our monthly Chesterton bookclub meetings on Saturday and chose a unique format which hadn't been done before. Not having time to do any serious research, I suggested that, since Chesterton had so many eclectic interests, why not have the book club members share about whatever they happened to be reading. No doubt Chesterton would have been interested in it, since he was interested in just about everything! They could choose anything at all: any genre, any author, whatever. It could even be something they were reading to their children. I love picture books as a matter of fact and, with his love for children and his childlike enthusiasm, I know Chesterton probably did too. After all, his favorite book was The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. Not only that, but he wrote a book for children called Coloured Lands with stories, poems, and his own drawings.

As part of my intro at the meeting, I shared some of my rabbit-hole pursuits. Often when I'm reading about someone who lived around the time of Chesterton, I wonder if he ended up in an essay. I decided to look up Ghandi. It certainly would be unsurprising to find something about India among Chesterton's opus since the British Empire spent so many years in the country. Sure enough, Chesterton wrote an essay on India for the Indians. What was particularly interesting, however, was that Ghandi happened to be in London at the time and read the article. He responded with a commentary in his own newspaper, Indian Opinion:

“Mr. G.K. Chesterton is one of the great writers here. He is an Englishman of a liberal temper. Such is the perfection of his style that his writings are read by millions with great avidity. To "The Illustrated London News" of September 18, 1909 he has contributed an article on Indian awakening, which is worth studying. I believe that what he has said is reasonable." [2b] from Indian Opinion (January 1910) was that Ghandi acknowledged it.

I happen to be a big Will Rogers fan, so my next rabbit-hole pursuit was the man known as the Indian Cowboy. Sure enough I got another hit. In her biography about her husband, Betty Rogers described a dinner in London attended by Chesterton among others:

One of the most entertaining things arranged for Will that summer (She was loose about dates but I'm guessing it was around 1926) was a stag dinner in the Pinafore Room of the Savoy Hotel. We saved a clipping of the event which said:
"Never before have so many wits sat around a table. Epigrams, jokes, jests, satire and a volley of witticism and repartee ought to have taken the shine off the silver and the bubbles out of the champagne, which, fortunately, they didn't. These were the guests who were invited to meet Mr. Rogers, and the list shows, it might be added, who are considered to be the wittiest, smartest, funniest men in England today. They included:
"George Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton, Sir James Barrie, Lord Dewar , of whiskey fame, Lord Derby, Sir Harry Lauder, Sir Thomas Lipton and Michael Arlen- who came over especially from Paris."

 -Will Rogers by Betty Roger(1941)

Betty Rogers also described the friendship between Rogers and James Barrie (author of Peter Pan). So I next looked up Chesterton and Barrie and hit the jackpot. Barrie, an amateur movie maker decided to do a silent short cowboy film featuring a number of his friends including Chesterton and Shaw. [See the photo above.] It was never released, but was shown at a charity event in 1916 with the title How Men Love. There is apparently no surviving copy of the film, but Chesterton left this amusing description:

We went down to the waste land in Essex and found our Wild West equipment. But considerable indignation was felt against William Archer; who, with true Scottish foresight, arrived there first and put on the best pair of trousers … We … were rolled in barrels, roped over fake precipices and eventually turned loose in a field to lasso wild ponies, which were so tame that they ran after us instead of our running after them, and nosed in our pockets for pieces of sugar. Whatever may be the strain on credulity, it is also a fact that we all got on the same motor-bicycle; the wheels of which were spun round under us to produce the illusion of hurtling like a thunderbolt down the mountain-pass. When the rest finally vanished over the cliffs, clinging to the rope, they left me behind as a necessary weight to secure it; and Granville-Barker kept on calling out to me to Register Self-Sacrifice and Register Resignation, which I did with such wild and sweeping gestures as occurred to me; not, I am proud to say, without general applause. And all this time Barrie, with his little figure behind his large pipe, was standing about in an impenetrable manner; and nothing could extract from him the faintest indication of why we were being put through these ordeals. [See more here and here]

Well, hey, cowboys got a hit, so I next tried Wyatt Earp. No luck there, but all the data I collected made for an interesting intro to the meeting and the group sharing time was interesting and enlightening. One thing I can say about our Chesterton book club for sure -- There is always plenty of input from the members and lots of laughter. How can you lose when Chesterton is the drawing card? I'm looking forward to next month when one of our younger members, a recent college graduate, will talk about Chesterton and Plato. And then in April, one of newest members will talk about The Man Who Was Thursday. I haven't figured out yet what that's about, but it's a romp!

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