This review earlier in Gilbert Magazine
On: Orestes Brownson: Sign of Contradiction By R. A. Herrera
There was a man born in the nineteenth century. He converted to Catholicism in middle age and became one of his country’s leading apologists. He wrote prolifically and was one of the leading intellects of his age. He was a huge man, standing over six feet tall and crushing the scales with hundreds of pounds.
This same man once walked into a room and heard a guy vilifying him for becoming a Catholic. After unsuccessfully warning him to curb his tongue, he grabbed the guy by the coat-collar and seat of his pants and threw him over a stovepipe.
Okay, it’s not Chesterton.
It’s Orestes Brownson, a man every bit as colorful as Chesterton but for different reasons.
In Orestes Brownson: Sign of Contradiction, R. A. Herrera provides a compact biography of Brownson’s life, his era, and his philosophical bent.
In less than 140 pages, Herrera covers Brownson’s 1803 birth in Vermont to a family of Ethan Allen supporters to his 1876 death at his son’s house in Detroit. The quick-reading yet scholarly pages pack pounds of information. Herrera covers Brownson’s religious wanderings (Presbyterianism to Universalism to skepticism to Unitarianism to Roman Catholicism), his collaboration with early feminist radical Fanny Wright, his involvement with the New England Transcendentalists, and his role as a Northern literary leader during the Civil War.
Perhaps most importantly, Herrera provides a broad overview of Brownson’s writings and a detailed assessment of them. This is no small task (indeed, after the initial 140 pages of text, Herrera adds forty more, largely devoted to a scholarly review of his writings). Brownson’s collected writings fill twenty thick volumes, and the writings don’t come in neatly-arranged books (of which Brownson wrote few). Brownson primarily wrote for Brownson’s Quarterly Review, a journal he published for over twenty years and for which he provided most of the script for each 20,000-plus word issue.
The surface similarities between Brownson and Chesterton, as already noted, are remarkable, but it’s difficult to imagine two men more different in their literary approach. In his writings, Brownson was always uncompromising, frequently slashing, and sometimes downright mean when dealing with his opponents. According to Herrera, Brownson had an “inclination to use a battle ax to crush a butterfly.” Another recent biographer wrote: “There is in Brownson’s style a rhetorical habit of using the harsh blow of a miner’s sledge when the tap of a carpenter’s hammer would be more effective.” Brownson made many enemies in his career as a writer and, though he was the intellectual gemstone of Catholic America, he was repeatedly a source of embarrassment as well. A man more distant than Chesterton can’t be imagined.
But if you dig yet deeper and get past the writings, similarities between the men crop up again. Brownson was a kind man, his made-for-public-consumption polemics notwithstanding. He was tenderly affectionate toward his wife and children and had many friends. He was deeply devoted to God; after his conversion, always writing with a crucifix in front of him and a statue of the Virgin Mary at his side.
He was also an untiring philosopher. All biographers have agreed that Brownson was an unflagging pursuer of truth. In his efforts, he mastered foreign languages and read volumes of the best thinkers in Western Civilization, from Plato to Kant, in their native tongues. Wherever the truth took him, he went.
His pursuit eventually took him into the Catholic Church, an extremely odd journey for an intellectual in nineteenth-century Protestant America. Catholicism was exotic. Brownson had never even seen a Catholic church until his early twenties and, true to the temperament of the age, gave Catholicism little thought. He was probably a little taken back when his friend, Daniel Webster, saw him idly glancing at some Catholic works in a used bookstore and warned him, “Take care how you examine the Catholic Church, unless you are willing to become a Catholic, for Catholic doctrines are logical.”
It is telling that, when he was already highly-Catholic in his ideas and writings, Brownson was totally unaware of it until a Catholic journal re-produced one of his articles. He was somewhat stunned as he suddenly realized that his studies and ideas had unwittingly brought him to the threshold of “Catholicity” (his word). After he realized this, he investigated the possibility of conversion, but got cold feet and delayed his entry for a year.
The reason for the delay? A very Chestertonian one and a reason that contributed to Chesterton’s prolonged delay: he didn’t want to ostracize or hurt his non-Catholic friends.
It’s not surprising and it illustrates the deepest layer of Brownson. Underneath Brownson’s intellectual pursuits, underlying the argumentative writings, stronger than his occasional flares of temper, ran a consistent theme: Love for his fellow men and a desire to see them happy and saved. And in this most important though often hidden trait, this large man was most like Chesterton.
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