In Memory of an American Chestertonian

Two years have passed since Gerald Russello died at the early age of 50 in New York City.

Gerald Russello

Gerald was, by profession, a corporate lawyer in a New York firm, but his broader reputation was as a ‘man of letters’. He contributed to various journals, including the Chesterton Review (published by the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University, of which he was a Fellow).

A special achievement was his editorship of the Russell Kirk Center’s book review journal, The University Bookman. I had the good fortune of publishing in the Bookman at different times, sending reviews of mainly Australian books, including the beautiful autobiography of Les Murray’s wife, Valerie, Flight from the Brothers Grimm: A European-Australian Memoir (2016), to which Gerald gave the evocative heading, “From Hungary to the Outback”.

We met in New York in 2018. Our conversation brought home to me the deep connection Gerald had with Chesterton, as well as with the cultural historian Christopher Dawson (a selection of whose writings he brought together in the book, Christianity and European Culture, 1998). He realised why Chesterton and Dawson stressed the cultural importance of spiritual roots, and the ways in which a people’s inner life finds expression and embodiment in a particular place.

For Christians – and Gerald was a man of deep and learned Catholic faith – God consecrates the material realities of ordinary life, including particular places. As a native New Yorker, born and raised in the working-class borough of Brooklyn, across from the cosmopolitan centre of the city, Manhattan, he did not think he lived in “God’s country” (as he liked to call Brooklyn). He knew it.

At that time Brooklyn was made up of close-knit ethnic neighbourhoods – in Gerald’s case, Irish and Italian Catholic families and a small Jewish community. In a recent tribute on the second anniversary of Gerald’s death, a boyhood friend, Gerard T. Mundy, captured the significance of their shared upbringing in a cherished place, and how it had formed their identity:

Being from the neighbourhood meant mutual bonding, protection, and an unspoken understanding of one another’s experiences… a certain sort of kinship… Saying that he was… from Brooklyn, and from the City of New York, were not verbal demarcations of some arbitrary markers or boundaries – for Gerald, it was saying ‘here is who I am..

Kirk Center, November 5, 2023

As James Matthew Wilson has written about the memories of his home state of Michigan, the good things there are precious, “not because they are universally great but because they are particularly ours.” He sees his native Michigan as “eternal”, in the same way as the French Catholic poet Charles Péguy saw his beloved France – as “the historical place where the eternal was made manifest.

All this testifies to what Chesterton called the “mystery of locality”.

But that mystery has now dissipated in the 21st century. As Gerard Mundy points out, identities now largely reside elsewhere. In an age of identity politics, they relate to race and gender rather than place.

This represents a decisive shift in self understanding – away from physical roots and recognisable connections and, incidentally, less alive to social class that has usually been linked with place as a definer of identity. It marks the growing rootlessness of Western culture, which has become spiritually disconnected and socially fragmented, and is now in a state of continuing upheaval – lurching from one form of self-definition to another.

The Infinite in the Finite

Chesterton emphasised place as where infinity finds expression in the finite. A place, he wrote, is “some strange spot where the sky touches the earth, or where eternity contrives to live on the borderland of time and space (“Concerning a Strange City,” The Common Man, 1950)

The Australian’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, noticed this English Heritage plaque marking Chesterton’s family home, when he was walking through the suburb of Kensington on a visit to London in 2019.

While spiritual longings may be “vague and universal,” spiritual events are specific and parochial. They occur in definite spaces and at particular times – as, in the Catholic tradition, in the apparitions of Mary at places like Lourdes (1858) and Fatima (1917) and Czestochowa (1920), proclaiming anew Christ’s abiding message of repentance and hope.

In 1920, Chesterton and his wife Frances made a three- month visit to the Holy Land. In a subsequent book, The New Jerusalem, he dwelt more fully on the spiritual meaning of place – of the mystery of the infinite finding a home in the finite.

What can seem an abstraction becomes an actuality. Chesterton thought that ordinary people quietly realised that “holy things could have a habitation and that divinity need not disdain the limits of time and space.” (The Everlasting Man, 1925).

For this reason, he was uneasy with what is now termed in our online age the global citizen, who identifies with many places but belongs nowhere; engaging in a life of perpetual travel – at least virtually – where mere movement can be mistaken for progress.

As early as 1905, Chesterton criticised the fellow writer, Rudyard Kipling, as a cosmopolitan, a “philanderer of the nations”, as it meant a lack of attachment to any community or cause.

Kipling, wrote Chesterton, was “a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet.” He can admire many places but baulks at loving any of them – for, in Chesterton’s mind, “we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons.”

Pantheism and particularism – a place to call home

The global citizen might be seen as the social equivalent of the philosophy of pantheism.

Pantheism identifies God with everything – but nothing in particular. The paradox of the theory of pantheism, as Chesterton noted, is that it yearns for particularism: “people everywhere are beginning to wish they were somewhere.”

The global citizen, bereft of roots, is beset by longings for a place he can call home.

Gerald Russello regretted that this paradoxical condition marked present-day Brooklyn. It had ceased to be the working-class district of his youth, and had become the haven of a mobile upper middle class – “full of hipsters, bond traders, and actors, as well as actors and hipsters who are the children of bond traders, all searching for an ‘authentic’ place to replace the Midwestern suburbs and rural towns they came to Brooklyn to escape.” (“Leaving Brooklyn,” First Things, April 2013)

A similar pattern has become characteristic of our Australian cities. Traditional working-class suburbs, such as Balmain and Glebe in Sydney, or Carlton and Footscray in Melbourne, are now gentrified. They are accessible only to those on high incomes who enjoy high salaries and guaranteed employment, usually government-employed or else dependent on government contracts – in law or health or education or IT. These areas have ceased to be a home for the ordinary working-class and for families, who have been banished to the outer suburbs, often remote from their workplace.

Gerald Russello’s intellectual outlook was informed by a profound sense of place and its importance in forming the life of communities. He brought this outlook to bear in his family, and in his vocation as a writer and editor. In the touching and true words of Gerard Mundy:

In a dark world, there are small lights; those small lights
try to keep the good alive for others so that others may
have a chance to seek it. Gerald was one of those lights
in this world.