Chesterton Wakes Up in Ponchatoula


G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) commented on what he saw as “The Paradoxes of Christianity” in his 1908 book Orthodoxy. “The real trouble with this world of ours,” he wrote, “is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite.” Surely the famous English author of the Fr. Brown detective stories and Roman Catholic convert wasn’t referring to the peculiar convergence of Catholicism, economic development, and the personal devotion of a medical doctor turned entrepreneur in the sleepy town of Ponchatoula, Louisiana.

Located near the northwestern shore of Lake Pontchartrain about an hour away from New Orleans, Ponchatoula takes its name from a Choctaw word for “flowing hair” and claims to be the Strawberry Capital of the World (to go along with the Crawfish, Rice, Frog, Dog Trot, Buggy, Zydeco, and around twenty other “Capitals of the World” that dot the south Louisiana landscape.) Now it seems that the 5000+ inhabitants of this old railroad town have another claim to fame: the erection of the first statue of G. K. Chesterton in the United States. Robert Benson, a local dermatologist and self-described product of “area Catholic schools,” plans to unveil the statue later this year upon the opening of the Chesterton Centre, a commerical multiplex that will include stores, restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, and the doctor’s own medical spa. In an interview with the Ponchatoula Times, Benson hopes that the depiction of Chesterton will look “as if he fell asleep on the train, which he often did, and just got off in Ponchatoula.”

Of course, Chesterton never set foot off a train in Ponchatoula, though he did go on speaking tours of the United States in 1919 and 1930. What I Saw in America (1923) was the product of Chesterton’s first visit to the country that he famously stated “is founded on a creed.” Before you make plans to go where no Chesterton has gone before, keep in mind the dated advice of the man himself. “Travel ought to combine amusement with instruction; but most travellers are so much amused that they refuse to be instructed. I do not blame them for being amused; it is perfectly natural to be amused at a Dutchman for being Dutch or a Chinaman for being Chinese. Where they are wrong is that they take their own amusement seriously. They base it on their serious ideas of international instruction.” The same might be said of those (or one person) who travel to the past and pluck an image of a man out of a book and plant him in a time and place a world away from Victorian England.  It's not that similar things haven't been done before; think the Lost Cause of the South.  It's just that such occurrences raise so many questions.  Is there a nostalgic movement to reclaim so-called Roman Catholic "orthodoxy" afoot in America?  You bet.


Brett said…
Good post. Does this mean there are no truly hometown Catholic heroes that Benson must appropriate Chesterton as a transplant local boy?