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Wednesday, 01 January 2014 00:00

The remaking of a learned writer

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bookThe new year is a time when many people, dissatisfied with some condition of their lives, resolve to make changes. Often these attempted transformations involve shedding weight or unwanted habits like smoking or drinking. Depending on all sorts of variables — the will power of the individual, support given or denied, circumstances beyond our control — we either keep the resolution and make an adjustment to our style of living, or we fail in our attempts and fall flat on our faces.

 

These are remodeling jobs, efforts made to improve some corner of ourselves, yet occasionally we make changes — or we are changed — in ways that amount to a major job of reconstruction in which our old selves, like dilapidated buildings, are demolished and a new structure is painfully and painstakingly erected.

In Race With The Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love (Saint Benedict Press, ISBN 978-1-61890-065-4, 2013, $22.95), Joseph Pearce, renowned Catholic biographer and a leading expert on J.R.R. Tolkien, takes readers back to his days as a young man, when he was a leading light in the National Front, a British white-supremacist group. Though some of Pearces’s readers may have known of his early history of writing fascist screeds, street fighting, and serving jail time for race baiting, Race With The Devil will doubtless come as a major shock to those who know Pearce as the creator of fine literary biographies on figures ranging from Oscar Wilde to Alexander Solzhenitzyn. 

Pearce credits his father, Albert Arthur Pearce, to whom he has dedicated the book, with having the greatest influence on him in his younger days. His father, a carpenter and autodidact, loved his country — he could quote reams of Shakespeare and other English poets — and lamented both the decline of the British Empire and the tide of immigrants that swept into Britain beginning in the 1950s. Arthur Pearce was the sort of man who could love individual Irishmen while loathing the Irish as a whole, and he passed this point of view to his son.

As he moved beyond adolescence, Pearce became more involved in various protests against immigrants. He founded a magazine for young Britains of similar ilk, The Bulldog, and so began what seemed at the time a career as a radical right-winger. He was arrested for fighting in pitched battles and counter-demonstrations, rose in the ranks of the National Front as a spokesman for their nationalistic ideas, and organized various rock concerts involving skinheads and punk bands to raise money and to protest Britain’s left-wing politicians. Eventually, Pearce was arrested and jailed twice for exacerbating racism in Britain.

In his first stint in jail in 1982, Pearce remained defiant in his stance toward multiculturalism. He writes that “I was at war with Britain’s multi-racial society, working tirelessly to bring it to its knees through the incitement of a race war from which the National Front would emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes.” Both then and on his release, he saw himself as a “political soldier” and a “political prisoner.”

In 1985, when he was again sentenced to jail, Pearce began to undergo that massive transformation of the heart and mind which would eventually lead him into the Catholic Church and a vocation for writing spiritual biographies. 

Even before entering prison this second time, Pearce, like so many others who have undergone spiritual conversions, fell under the spell of books and writers. He began reading G.K. Chesterton’s essays on “distributism,” which advocates an economy based on many small businesses rather than on corporations. As he read more, Pearce realized that this idea was in harmony with another economic idea found in the Catholic Church, the idea of subsidiary which links distributism with the importance of the family. Intrigued, Pearce proceeded to pick up other Chesterton books, and found there a man of wit and wisdom who had found joy in his faith. Like C.S. Lewis, who once wrote of Chesterton that “a young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading,” Pearce found himself drawn closer and closer to Christian beliefs.

The final third of Race With The Devil outlines Pearce’s time in prison and his break with the National Front in the year after his release. He continued his reading — Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien were some of his favorites — and deepened his prayer life. After years of struggle, he gained a foothold as a Catholic biographer. He also met his wife, an American, Susannah, and began teaching at various Catholic colleges to make the money needed for children and a marriage.

Today Pearce is a highly-respected author and teacher living near Greenville, S.C. He serves as guest lecturer at various schools — his courses on Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings are especially popular — continues to write books, and has created a series of televised talks for mass distribution. He has gained a good amount of renown for his biographies of authors like Belloc, Shakespeare, Chesterton, and Tolkien. 

But perhaps his best biography and great gift to the world is the one he wrote about himself.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher who lives in Asheville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

Race With The Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love by Joseph Pearce. Saint Benedict Press, 2013. 264 pages.

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