Courage and honesty are the finest virtues, that is, of the active kind. Belloc has had them to a great degree and will live because of them. —Carl Schmitt, c. 1930
Carl Schmitt first wrote to the Catholic French-born English author Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) in February 1913. By the time Schmitt first encountered Belloc’s works as a seventeen-year-old in 1906, the acclaimed author had already penned two works that would make him famous, The Path to Rome and The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts. Belloc’s career spanned over fifty years and more than one hundred books, encompassing literary and social criticism, history, poetry, travel, biography, and fiction.
Schmitt was probably introduced to Belloc by his friend Patrick Keohane, an avid book collector from Schmitt’s hometown of Warren, Ohio. Schmitt’s first mention of Belloc in his correspondence with Keohane was in connection with another famous English Catholic writer of the time and one closely linked with Belloc, G. K. Chesterton. “My neglect of that good man, Chesterton, will soon be at an end, so you can rest easy,” Schmitt wrote his friend in 1912. “A week ago I ordered some books from Dublin and included a few of his among the number. Belloc—I have his “First and Last”—came in for similar honour.” Writing to Belloc the following year, Schmitt admits that he has read relatively little of the author’s work and has been attracted mainly by his “tone.” Yet the twenty-four-year-old artist confesses: “my god Chesterton totters on his throne.”
Schmitt would come to admire Belloc immensely both personally and as a writer. After corresponding for a quarter century, the two planned to meet while Schmitt was living in Italy in 1939. Upon missing him there, Schmitt sent him a note: “Sorry I cannot be in Rome. However my sincerest greetings to the greatest living writer.”
Shortly after Belloc’s death Schmitt would recall, “I was more sympathetic with . . . Belloc, more than any of the [other contemporary writers]: in 1912 I immediately responded to his intuitions.” Later he would write simply: “I subscribe to his primary effort of keeping alive the traditional values of European Mediaeval civilization.”
Reproduced below are Schmitt’s first letter to Belloc and the reply he received from the eminent writer a few months later. It was the opening exchange in a correspondence that would endure for almost twenty-five years.
My dear Mr. Belloc:
I want to thanks you for your kindness in making Catholics who love the arts feel rich. As I passed Duttons today I noticed that they were retailing your “Avis” at twenty-five cents a volume. I cannot read French but that hasn’t mattered much. I have intensely enjoyed reading and re-reading the essays and even fingering the paper. I love the tone – the atmosphere of the few things of yours I have so far read.
But my god Chesterton totters on his throne: not long since I had the audacity to send him some of my verses. There were returned by his secretary with a very kind note. Since then I am a harmless lunatic.
I thank you again sincerely. May you have a long life of steady production.
423 W. 21st St. New York
February 16th 1913
At the time he wrote this letter, Schmitt had recently moved into a studio in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The book he refers to is entitled Avril: Being Essays on the Poetry of the French Renaissance, first published by Dutton in 1906. Belloc responded a few weeks later from Kings Land, his home in Sussex.
April 8th., 1913
My dear Sir,
It is very kind of you to write to me as you have done, and I must thank you very much for it. You have no idea what a help it is to writers when they find that their writings give any pleasure to their public. “Avril” was just a book for scholars and naturally did not have a wide circulation. I am glad to see that it has reached America. I hope they put in the American edition the frontispiece, to which I am much attached. It is a statue in the Chapel Brou in France.
I take the liberty of sending you another book of mine, which you may not have seen, and which is also written for the limited class of scholarly readers. It is about North Africa. It will reach you, I hope, by this post.
Very sincerely yours,
The book Belloc sent to Schmitt was the fruit of his travels to the Maghreb region of North Africa in 1905: Esto Perpetua: Algerian Studies and Impressions. Its potent evocation of the long-lost Roman and Christian patrimony of the area—once the home of St. Augustine of Hippo—inspired Schmitt’s later painting of the same name.