The death of our Editor is an event of such national magnitude that it is impossible to set down in a brief word the meaning of it and the meaning of the man who has gone. Yet the word must be brief because it is written just as the paper over which he presided for so long goes to press.
I have known him, and still know him, not only as a most intimate friend from the days when I first came up to London from Oxford nearly 40 years ago, still more as one in whose expression of thought I continually lived. His was the one expression of thought in England which could convey to his fellow-citizens those things they most needed to know and from which they are most debarred, and therefore men such as I, for whom those things are vital, sought the expression of them continually as hungry men seek for food. During all those years - it is the whole of an active lifetime - there was no other pen writing thus and no other voice speaking thus. And the first movement of the mind provoked by the hearing of such news is a question - and an unanswered one - "Will that great effort bear fruit?"
That is should do so in any society not moribund is self-evident; that it should bear ample fruit in any society not sterilised is a thing with which all men of culture throughout Europe will agree. But what fruit it will bear, even whether it will bear fruit, is something veiled from us. It is customary, I know, to take for granted the success of energy directed towards those objects which we most desire. It is thought, through some confusion of mind, an actual duty to prophesy success. But indeed there is no duty in these matters save that of telling the truth - and the truth is that we do not know.
The effect of Gilbert Chesterton's focussed and exact appreciation of reality, of his vivid untiring stream of exposition, will certainly be great in the United States. It will more slowly be felt, but certainly be felt, in Europe; every patriot will hope that it may be sufficiently felt also at last here. The special character of his work was a triumph in journalism; and he was the first to welcome that despised word and to give it its full and real value. He was proud to say, "I am a journalist," and he was indubitably the chief of that trade; our trade. He was not only the chief of that trade but the most complete representative of it; for the journalist is the man who discovers the truth about important happenings affecting his country in the world, even as they happen, and who, having discovered the truth, proclaims it in such fashion that his fellows shall know it too. Now the journalist to act thus must be a free man. No one working under the orders of another is fully free in that sense. Gilbert Chesterton remained free of his own will and through his own action, all his life. That is even a greater thing to say of such a man than to say how great his genius was.
Not so long ago in England we had some dozens of such men, not of his stature indeed, but free. The capital which furnished the printing of their words, which for that matter paid them their salaries, was commonly the capital of others, but they were not the servants of those others. Today they are nearly all of them servants. What they say is not of themselves, they are not telling truths that they have discovered, they do not make personal comment upon affairs vitally affecting their fellow citizens, rather do they write what a master pays them to write and omit what that master desires to have omitted. So that it is often said abroad and increasingly said that here in England we have no true journalism left.
But in Gilbert Chesterton England had such a man. It is the fullest commentary I know on the condition into which we have fallen, the social and intellectual level to which we have sunk, that such a man should not have been seen at his full stature and should not have been acclaimed upon the level of what he was. One other free man in his own profession, the late Mr. Orage, said of him as exactly true a thing as was said anywhre; he said it many years ago, before the War, and the truth of it stands out enormously today. He said that Gilbert Chesterton was the most typically English man in England: not Englishman, but English man. He was for our generation what Dr. Johnson was for his. But Dr. Johnson telling some truth was heard by all the England of his time, all the England which counted, in the sense of that word "heard" when we use it to mean understood and taken for what he was in full. We have no longer the social machinery for such appreciation.
"The Times," which men still talk of as though it were particularly national, published upon hearing the news an obituary so utterly beneath the level of its subject as to be negligible, and I take that pronouncement to be typical of that tragic truth which I am announcing here. A great Englishman has left England, and that English-man who was most English. Buy the knowledge of his fellow Englishmen may have of such truth, by the measure with which they measure that truth, they may be politically judged.