Gilbert Keith Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936) was one of the most influential English writers of the 20th century. His prolific and diverse output included philosophy, ontology, poetry, journalism, biography, Christian apologetics, fantasy and detective fiction.
Chesterton has been called the "prince of paradox". Time magazine, in a review of a biography of Chesterton, observed of his writing style: "Whenever possible Chesterton made his points with popular sayings, proverbs, allegories—first carefully turning them inside out." For example, Chesterton wrote the following:
Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.
Chesterton is well known for his reasoned apologetics and even those who disagree with him have recognized the universal appeal of such works as Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. Chesterton, as a political thinker, cast aspersions on both liberalism and conservatism, saying:
The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.
Chesterton routinely referred to himself as an "orthodox" Christian, and came to identify such a position with Catholicism more and more, eventually converting to Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism. George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton's "friendly enemy" according to Time, said of him, "He was a man of colossal genius".
Born in Campden Hill in Kensington, London, Chesterton was educated at St Paul's School. He attended the Slade School of Art in order to become an illustrator and also took literature classes at University College London but did not complete a degree at either. In 1896 Chesterton began working for the London publisher Redway, and T. Fisher Unwin, where he remained until 1902. During this period he also undertook his first journalistic work as a freelance art and literary critic. In 1901 he married Frances Blogg, to whom he remained married for the rest of his life. In 1902 he was given a weekly opinion column in the Daily News, followed in 1905 by a weekly column in The Illustrated London News, for which he would continue to write for the next thirty years.
According to Chesterton, as a young man he became fascinated with the occult and, along with his brother Cecil, experimented with Ouija boards. However, as he grew older, he became an increasingly orthodox Christian, culminating in his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.
Chesterton was a large man, standing 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) and weighing around 21 stone (134 kg or 294 lb). His girth gave rise to a famous anecdote. During World War I a lady in London asked why he was not 'out at the Front'; he replied, 'If you go round to the side, you will see that I am.' On another occasion he remarked to his friend George Bernard Shaw, 'To look at you, anyone would think there was a famine in England.' Shaw retorted, 'To look at you, anyone would think you caused it.' P. G. Wodehouse once described a very loud crash as "a sound like Chesterton falling onto a sheet of tin."
He usually wore a cape and a crumpled hat, with a swordstick in hand, and had a cigar hanging out of his mouth. He would sometimes carry a knife and a loaded revolver. Chesterton often forgot where he was supposed to be going and would miss the train that was supposed to take him there. It is reported that on several occasions he sent a telegram to his wife, Frances Blogg, from some distant (and incorrect) location, writing such things as "Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?" to which she would reply, "Home." Due to these memory problems and the fact Chesterton was extremely clumsy as a child, some people have speculated that Chesterton had undiagnosed developmental dyspraxia.
Chesterton loved to debate, often engaging in friendly public disputes with such men as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell and Clarence Darrow. According to his autobiography, he and Shaw played cowboys in a silent movie that was never released. Chesterton died on 14 June 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. The homily at Chesterton's Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral, London, was delivered by Ronald Knox. He is buried in Beaconsfield in the Catholic Cemetery. Chesterton's estate was probated at 28,389 pounds sterling, approximately equivalent to £1.3 million in modern terms.
Chesterton wrote around eighty books, several hundred poems, some two hundred short stories, four thousand essays, and several plays. He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer. He was a columnist for the Daily News, the Illustrated London News, and his own paper, G. K.'s Weekly; he also wrote articles for the Encyclopædia Britannica, including the entry on Charles Dickens and part of the entry on Humour in the 14th edition (1929). His best-known character is the priest-detective Father Brown, who appeared only in short stories, while The Man Who Was Thursday is arguably his best-known novel. He was a convinced Christian long before he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and Christian themes and symbolism appear in much of his writing. In the United States, his writings on distributism were popularized through The American Review, published by Seward Collins in New York.
Much of his poetry is little known, though well reflecting his beliefs and opinions. The best written is probably Lepanto, with The Rolling English Road the most familiar, and The Secret People perhaps the most quoted ("we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet"). Two other much admired poems are A Ballade of Suicide and The Ballad of the White Horse.
Of his nonfiction, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906) has received some of the broadest-based praise. According to Ian Ker (The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, 2003), "In Chesterton's eyes Dickens belongs to Merry, not Puritan, England" ; Ker treats Chesterton's thought in Chapter 4 of that book as largely growing out of his true appreciation of Dickens, a somewhat shop-soiled property in the view of other literary opinions of the time.
Chesterton's writings consistently displayed wit and a sense of humour. He employed paradox, while making serious comments on the world, government, politics, economics, philosophy, theology and many other topics. When The Times invited several eminent authors to write essays on the theme "What's Wrong with the World?" Chesterton's contribution took the form of a letter:
G. K. Chesterton
Chesterton here combined wit with a serious point - that of fallen human nature and humility.
Much of Chesterton's work remains in print, including collections of the Father Brown detective stories. Ignatius Press is currently in the process of publishing a Complete Works.
Views and contemporaries
Chesterton's writing has been seen by some analysts as combining two earlier strands in English literature. Dickens' approach is one of these. Another is represented by Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, whom Chesterton knew well: satirists and social commentators following in the tradition of Samuel Butler, vigorously wielding paradox as a weapon against complacent acceptance of the conventional view of things.
Chesterton's style and thinking were all his own, however, and his conclusions were often opposed to those of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. In his book Heretics, Chesterton has this to say of Wilde:
The same lesson [of the pessimistic pleasure-seeker] was taught by the very powerful and very desolate philosophy of Oscar Wilde. It is the carpe diem religion; but the carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people. Great joy does not gather the rosebuds while it may; its eyes are fixed on the immortal rose which Dante saw.
More briefly, and with a closer approximation of Wilde's own style, he writes in Orthodoxy concerning the necessity of making symbolic sacrifices for the gift of creation:
Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.
Chesterton and Shaw were famous friends and enjoyed their arguments and discussions. Although rarely in agreement, they both maintained good-will toward and respect for each other. However, in his writing, Chesterton expressed himself very plainly on where they differed and why. In Heretics he writes of Shaw:
After belabouring a great many people for a great many years for being unprogressive, Mr. Shaw has discovered, with characteristic sense, that it is very doubtful whether any existing human being with two legs can be progressive at all. Having come to doubt whether humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased, would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity. Mr. Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw over humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake. If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby.
Shaw represented the new school of thought, modernism, which was rising at the time. Chesterton's views, on the other hand, became increasingly more focused towards the church. In Orthodoxy he writes:
The worship of will is the negation of will. . . If Mr. Bernard Shaw comes up to me and says, "Will something", that is tantamount to saying, "I do not mind what you will", and that is tantamount to saying, "I have no will in the matter." You cannot admire will in general, because the essence of will is that it is particular.
This style of argumentation is what Chesterton refers to as using 'Uncommon Sense' — that is, that the thinkers and popular [[philosopher]s of the day, though very clever, were saying things that were nonsensical. This is illustrated again in Orthodoxy:
Thus when Mr. H. G. Wells says (as he did somewhere), "All chairs are quite different", he utters not merely a misstatement, but a contradiction in terms. If all chairs were quite different, you could not call them "all chairs."
Or, again from Orthodoxy:
The wild worship of lawlessness and the materialist worship of law end in the same void. Nietzsche scales staggering mountains, but he turns up ultimately in Tibet. He sits down beside Tolstoy in the land of nothing and Nirvana. They are both helpless — one because he must not grasp anything, and the other because he must not let go of anything. The Tolstoyan's will is frozen by a Buddhist instinct that all special actions are evil. But the Nietzscheite's will is quite equally frozen by his view that all special actions are good; for if all special actions are good, none of them are special. They stand at the crossroads, and one hates all the roads and the other likes all the roads. The result is — well, some things are not hard to calculate. They stand at the cross-roads.
All healthy men, ancient and modern, Western and Eastern, hold that there is in sex a fury that we cannot afford to inflame; and that a certain mystery must attach to the instinct if it is to continue delicate and sane.
Incisive comments and observations occurred almost impulsively in Chesterton's writing. In the middle of his epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse he famously states:
For the great Gaels of Ireland
Another contemporary and friend from schooldays was Edmund Bentley, inventor of the clerihew. Chesterton himself wrote clerihews and illustrated his friend's first published collection of poetry, Biography for Beginners (1905), which popularized the clerihew form. He was also godfather to Bentley's son, Nicolas.
Chesterton is famous for his ontology which says that fairy tales are more real than the alleged laws of science.
"Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." -- Orthodoxy, Chapter III: The Suicide of Thought, 1909
"It is the reality that is often a fraud." -- Orthodoxy, Chapter IV: The Ethics of Elfland, 1909
"I would always trust the old wives' fables against the old maids' facts." -- Orthodoxy, Chapter IV: The Ethics of Elfland, 1909
"My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. ... The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things that are fantastic. ... Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense." -- Orthodoxy, Chapter IV: The Ethics of Elfland, 1909
"In fairy land we avoid the word 'law'; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it." -- Orthodoxy, Chapter IV: The Ethics of Elfland, 1909
"Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the 'Laws of Nature.' When we are asked why eggs turn into birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned into horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o'clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a 'law,' for we do not understand it's general formula." -- Orthodoxy, Chapter IV: The Ethics of Elfland, 1909
"All the terms used in the science books, 'law,' 'necessity,' 'order,' 'tendency,' and so on, are really unintellectual .... The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, 'charm,' 'spell,' 'enchantment.' They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched. I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical. We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic." -- Orthodoxy, Chapter IV: The Ethics of Elfland, 1909
"But the cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why, in the abstract, the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips; it sometimes does in his country." -- Orthodoxy, Chapter IV: The Ethics of Elfland, 1909
Chesterton is often associated with his close friend, the poet and essayist Hilaire Belloc. George Bernard Shaw coined the name Chesterbelloc for their partnership, and this stuck. Though they were very different men, they shared many beliefs; Chesterton eventually joined Belloc in his natal Catholicism, and both voiced criticisms towards capitalism and socialism. They instead espoused a third way: distributism.
G. K.'s Weekly, which occupied much of Chesterton's energy in the last fifteen years of his life, was the successor to Belloc's New Witness, taken over from Cecil Chesterton, Gilbert's brother who died in World War I.
Accusations of Anti-Semitism
Both Chesterton and Belloc faced accusations of anti-Semitism during their lifetimes and subsequently. Their criticisms of the "international Jewish banking families" are some of the most important reasons for these accusations. For example, Chesterton, Belloc, and Chesterton's brother Cecil, were vehement critics of the Isaacs, who were involved in the Marconi scandal in the years before World War I. George Orwell accused Chesterton of being guilty of "endless tirades against Jews, which he thrust into stories and essays upon the flimsiest pretexts."
In The New Jerusalem, Chesterton made it clear that he believed that there was a "Jewish Problem" in Europe, in the sense that he believed that Jewish culture (not Jewish ethnicity) separated itself from the nationalities of Europe. He suggested the formation of a Jewish homeland as a solution, and was later invited to Palestine by Jewish Zionists who saw him as an ally in their cause. In 1934, after the Nazi Party took power in Germany he wrote that:
In our early days Hilaire Belloc and myself were accused of being uncompromising Anti-Semites. Today, although I still think there is a Jewish problem, I am appalled by the Hitlerite atrocities. They have absolutely no reason or logic behind them. It is quite obviously the expedient of a man who has been driven to seeking a scapegoat, and has found with relief the most famous scapegoat in European history, the Jewish people.
The Wiener Library (London's archive on anti-semitism and Holocaust history) has defended Chesterton against the charge of anti-Semitism: "he was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on."
Chesterton condemned the Nuremberg Laws when they were promulgated in Germany in 1935.
List of major works
- The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) text
- Heretics (1905) ISBN 978-0-766-17476-4
- Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906)
- The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) text
- Orthodoxy (1908) Doubleday, 1991. ISBN 978-0-385-01536-3
- The Ballad Of The White Horse (1911) poetry
- Manalive (1912)
- Father Brown short stories (detective fiction)
- Eugenics and Other Evils (1922)
- The Everlasting Man (1925)
- Saint Thomas Aquinas: "The Dumb Ox", Doubleday, 1974. ISBN 978-0-385-09002-5
- Saint Francis of Assisi, Doubleday, 1987. ISBN 978-0-385-02900-1
- Chesterton's The Everlasting Man contributed to C. S. Lewis's conversion to Christianity. In a letter to Sheldon Vanauken (14 December 1950) Lewis calls the book "the best popular apologetic I know", and to Rhonda Bodle he wrote (31 December 1947) "the [very] best popular defence of the full Christian position I know is G. K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man." The book was also cited in a list of ten books that "most shaped his vocational attitude and philosophy of life."
- Chesterton's biography of Charles Dickens was largely responsible for creating a popular revival for Dickens's work as well as a serious reconsideration of Dickens by scholars.
- Chesterton's writings have been praised by such authors as Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Harold Bloom, Frederick Buechner, Evelyn Waugh, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Karel Čapek, David Dark, Paul Claudel, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Andrew Greeley, Sigrid Undset, Ronald Knox, Kingsley Amis, W. H. Auden, Anthony Burgess, E. F. Schumacher, Orson Welles, Dorothy Day, Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers, Garry Wills, David D. Friedman, Neil Gaiman and Franz Kafka.
- Philip Yancey said that if he were "stranded on a desert island … and could choose only one book apart from the Bible, I may well select Chesterton's own spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy."
- Chesterton's novel The Man Who Was Thursday inspired the Irish Republican leader Michael Collins with the idea: 'if you didn't seem to be hiding nobody hunted you out.'
- His physical appearance and apparently some of his mannerisms were a direct inspiration for the character of Dr. Gideon Fell, a well-known fictional detective created in the early 1930s by the Anglo-American mystery writer John Dickson Carr.
- The author Neil Gaiman has stated that The Napoleon of Notting Hill was an important influence on his own book Neverwhere. Gaiman also based the character Gilbert, from the comic book The Sandman, on Chesterton, as well as featuring a quotation from The Man who was October, a book Chesterton wrote "only in dreams", at the end of Season of Mists. In his short story October in the Chair, Gaiman's description of the anthropomorphized titular month is modeled on Chesterton. Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's novel Good Omens is dedicated "to the memory of G.K. Chesterton: A man who knew what was going on." In a prescript to his novel, Coraline, Gaiman quotes Chesterton: "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."
- Ingmar Bergman considered Chesterton's little known play Magic to be one of his favourites and even staged a production in Swedish. Later he reworked Magic into his movie The Magician in 1958.
- The Third Way (UK) campaigns for the widespread ownership of property are inspired by the economic system Chesterton espoused: Distributism.
- The Innocence of Father Brown is cited by Guillermo Martinez as one of the inspirations for his thriller The Oxford Murders.
- Extracts from The Man Who Was Thursday appear throughout the computer game Deus Ex in books the player character can read from.
- Christian apologetics (field of study concerned with the defence of Christianity)
Literature and biographies on Chesterton
- Cooney, A., G.K. Chesterton, One Sword at Least, Third Way Publications, London, 1999. ISBN 0-9535077-1-8
- Coren, M., Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton, Paragon House, New York, 1990.
- ffinch, M., G. K. Chesterton, 1986
- Kenner, H., Paradox in Chesterton, 1947.
- Paine, R., The Universe and Mr. Chesterton, Sherwood Sugden, 1999. ISBN 0893855111
- Pearce, J., Wisdom and Innocence - A Life of G.K.Chesterton, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1996. ISBN 0-340-67132-7
- Ward, M., Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Sheed & Ward, 1944.
- Marshall McLuhan wrote an article on G.K. Chesterton, titled "G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic" (Dalhousie Review 15 (4), 1936).
- EWTN features a television series, G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, that focuses on Chesterton and his works.
- Douglas, J.D.G.K. Chesterton, the Eccentric Prince of Paradox, 24 May 1974.
- Orthodoxologist Time October 11th, 1943 retrieved 10-24-2008
- The Man Who Was Thursday/Chapter IVThe|Man Who was Thursday, ChapterIV
- Douglas, J.D.G.K. Chesterton, the Eccentric Prince of Paradox, 24 May 1974. "Like his friend Ronald Knox he was both entertainer and Christian apologist. The world never fails to appreciate the combination when it is well done; even evangelicals sometimes give the impression of bestowing a waiver on deviations if a man is enough of a genius."
- Illustrated London News (1924-04-19)
- Autobiography, Chapter IV
- G.K. Chesterton's Conversion Story
- A. N. Wilson, Hilaire Belloc, Penguin Books. 1984.
- THE WORLD OF MR. MULLINER, by P. G. Wodehouse
- Ward, Maisie. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Chapter XV. Sheed & Ward. 1944.
- Biggs, Victoria "Caged in Chaos" Chapter I Jessica Kingsley 2005
- cited in Yancey, Philip. 2001. Soul Survivor p. 58.
- Chesterton. G.K. Heretics, Chapter 7.
- Chesterton, G.K. Heretics, Chapter 4.
- Chesterton, G.K. Heretics, Chapter 20.
- Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy, Chapter 3.
- Chesterton, G.K. The Common Man, Rabelaisian Regrets.
- Chesterton, G.K. The Ballad of the White Horse, Book 2.
- Last orders,The Guardian, 9 April 2005.
- Ward, Maisie. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Sheed & Ward. 1944.
- Orwell, George: "Anti-Semitism in Britain"
- Chesterton, G.K. The New Jerusalem, Chapter 12.
- Coren, M. Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton, p.216.
- A Message from the President, Introduction to The Chesterton Review’s New Issue: Vol. XXXII, Nos. 3&4, Fall / Winter 2006
- Found in A Severe Mercy
- Found in C. S. Lewis: The Collected Letters, Vol. 2
- The Christian Century 6 June 1962
- Yancey, Philip. 2001. Soul Survivor, p. 45.
- Margery Forester, Michael Collins - The Lost Leader, p.35.
- Works by G. K. Chesteron on Wikisource.
- Works by or about G. K. Chesterton in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
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