Chesterton, Gilbert Keith
CHESTERTON, GILBERT KEITH
Writer, journalist, apologist, and illustrator; b. London, May 29, 1874; d. Beaconsfield, June 14, 1936. The Chestertons were of the middle class, "liberal" in politics and religion, and reasonably well to do. From their father, Edward, who "knew all his English literature backwards" and who "never made a vulgar success of all the thousand things he did so successfully," Gilbert and his brother Cecil (1879–1918) learned a love of literature. The Chestertons, in the noblest and most literal sense, were amateurs. From St. Paul's School, where he had been chairman of the junior debating club, and edited its journal (called, significantly, the Debater ), Chesterton
went (1891) to the London Slade School of Art, and, somewhat later, to lectures in English literature at University College, London.
First Three Periods. Chesterton's career falls into four periods. Before 1900 his work was sporadic, intuitive, and romantic. Swayed by idealism, he rebelled against decadent fin de siècle pessimism by adopting a Whitmanian optimism. He had not yet learned to distinguish rationalism (which he continued to abhor) from reason (which he came to rely upon in all judgments less than de fide ); he had not become, as he labeled himself in his St. Thomas, a "moderate realist." Realizing that his work of these years was often unbalanced and antirational, Chesterton destroyed many early MSS and left "an absolute command" that his solipsistic juvenilia never be published.
In 1900 Chesterton emerged from obscurity. His periodical essays, collections of verse, and fantasies transformed him from publisher's reader to a Fleet Street legend. He had published his first poem in 1891, but it was not until 1901, the year of his marriage to Frances Blogg, that he settled in "the Street" for good and began his 12–year long weekly column in the Daily News. The first of his approximately 1,500 essays in the Illustrated London News appeared in 1905. The Chesterton of these years—a huge man, equipped with a sombrero, a swordstick, a cape, and attended by an ever-waiting hansom cab—remained the public's image of "G. K. C. "
The forerunner of Chesterton's third period (1908–21) was Heretics (1905). A critic's challenge led to Chesterton's rebuttal, and his career as a Christian, but not yet Catholic, apologist opened in 1908 with Orthodoxy. These were the years when the two Chestertons, Hilaire belloc, H. G. Wells, and G. B. Shaw were influencing each other and England. The debate leading up to and following World War I hit Chesterton hard: the Marconi scandal of 1912–13, a nearly fatal physical and emotional breakdown in 1914, and the death of his brother Cecil in 1918 were the crises he faced.
The Final Period. Chesterton entered his final period by being received into the Catholic Church in 1922. His conversion, at 48, had been gradual, carefully reasoned, and deeply felt. His work in these last years was less gay and more polemic, perhaps less imaginative, but more serious and lasting than much of his earlier writing. Although his illustrations and prefaces became less numerous in the 1920s and 1930s, his contributions to journals were virtually innumerable. As one of the most prolific writers in modern times (especially in this last period), he wrote more than 3,000 prose and verse pieces for G. K.'s Weekly alone—sometimes as many as 10,000 words a week. His social, economic, and political propaganda became more searching, and in order to find an even wider audience for "orthodoxy," he turned to weekly broadcasts over the BBC. It was partly his lifelong success in finding new audiences that led Pius XI to bestow upon him (1936) the title of Defender of the Catholic Faith.
His Unique Achievement. Chesterton was neither conventional nor reactionary. He was, to put it bluntly, a rebel. His very reliance upon tradition was original and creative. Almost alone in the midst of the pessimists, agnostics, materialists, and aesthetes of the earliest years of the 20th century, Chesterton "came home." He rediscovered England, Rome—and the Occident. The Thomism latent in his early writings became manifest. (see thomism.) He taught the primacy of idea and a teleology of limits, and his religious teaching attacked doubt with commitment. He sought to undermine secularism with an apologia that took religion as the guide and goal of all thought and action. The core of Chesterton's moral thought was the vow; of his social thought, the family. The enemies were eleutheromania and slavery. He fought capitalism and socialism with distributed ownership (see distributism); industrialism and the "servile state" (the phrase is Belloc's) with the concept of the craftsman; imperialism and cosmopolitanism with nationalism; the expert and the misanthrope with the Common Man. He found sanity and creativity in a God-centered, not mancentered, universe; in an informed heart, not in rationalism or irrationalism.
Chesterton's aesthetics stressed art as a rational craft, as meaning. His literary theory was intellectual and antiromantic: literature is secondary—and never "autotelic." Chesterton might be called a metaphysical-moral critic: art is inseparable from creation and from morality. His styles followed his dogmas as conclusions follow premises.
In later life Chesterton's judgments became firmer. He attacked unreason and irrationalism with a style of topsy-turvy that was wholly conscious and wholly controlled. His was not an intuitive, but an individuating synthesizing mind. The essence of Chesterton and his thought is balance, a balance seen in his dynamic syntheses of reason and faith, the real and the ideal, optimism and pessimism, the urgent and the absurd, the prose and the poetry of life. Because he related the ephemeral to the eternal, issue to principle, few of his writings will date. Not a few thinkers, among them C. S. lewis and Ronald knox, have acknowledged their intellectual and spiritual debt to this man, whom Étienne Gilson has called "one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed."
A selection of Chesterton's most significant works includes: poetry—The Wild Knight (1900), The Ballad of the White Horse (1911), The Queen of the Seven Swords (1926), Collected Poems (1927); novels and fantasies— The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), Manalive (1912), The Flying Inn (1912); essays—The Defendant (1901), Twelve Types (1902), Heretics (1905), Tremendous Trifles (1909), What's Wrong with the World (1910), Fancies versus Fads (1923), The Thing (1929), The Well and the Shallows (1935); criticism and biography—Robert Browning (1903), Charles Dickens (1906), George Bernard Shaw (1909), William Blake (1910), The Victorian Age in Literature (1913), William Cobbett (1925), Robert Louis Stevenson (1927), Chaucer (1932); Christian apologetics and religious biography—Orthodoxy (1908), St. Francis of Assisi (1923), The Everlasting Man (1925), The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926), St. Thomas Aquinas (1933); plays—Magic (1913), The Judgement of Dr. Johnson (1927), The Surprise (1952); shorter fiction— The Father Brown Stories (omnibus ed. 1929), The Poet and the Lunatics (1929); travel, memoirs—The New Jerusalem (1921), What I Saw in America (1922), The Resurrection of Rome (1930), Autobiography (1936).
Bibliography: j. sullivan, G. K. Chesterton: A Bibliography (London 1958). m. ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (London 1944). c. e. chesterton, G. K. Chesterton: A Criticism (London 1908). r. arocena, El sembrado de Chesterton (Montevideo 1934). e. cammaerts, The Laughing Prophet: The Seven Virtues and G. K. Chesterton (London 1937). h. belloc, On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters (New York 1940). r. a. knox, Captive Flames (New York 1941). v. j. mcnabb, The Father McNabb Reader (New York 1954) 82–93. g. wills, Chesterton: Man and Mask (New York 1961). G. K. Chesterton: The Man Who Was Orthodox, ed. a. l. maycock (London 1963). j. sullivan, ed., G. K. Chesterton: A Centenary Appraisal (London 1974). m. coren, Gilbert: The Man Who Was Chesterton (London 1989). j. pearce, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (San Francisco 1996).
Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Gilbert Keith Chesterton
The English author, journalist, and artist Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) dedicated his extraordinary intellect and creative power to the reform of English government and society. In 1922 he converted to Roman Catholicism and became its champion.
On May 29, 1874, G. K. Chesterton was born in London. His father, gifted in many lines of amateur creativity, exerted no pressure on the boy to distinguish himself in either scholarship or athletics. Gilbert was a day boy at St. Paul's. The masters rated him as an under-achiever, but he earned some recognition as a writer and debater. From St. Paul's he went to the Slade School of Art, where he became a proficient draftsman and caricaturist; later he took courses in English literature at City College.
From art Chesterton drifted into journalism. He was vitally concerned with the injustices of Great Britain to its dependencies. He progressed from newspaper to public debate. He used logic, laughter, paradox, and his own winning personality to show that imperialism was destroying English patriotism. In 1900 he published his first literary works, two volumes of poetry.
In 1900 he met Hilaire Belloc, and in 1901 he married Frances Blogg. These events were two of the great influences in his life. From 1904 to 1936 Chesterton published nearly a dozen novels, the most important being The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) and The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). In 1911 Chesterton created the "Father Brown" detective stories. During his literary career he published 90 books and numerous articles. He poured out a wealth of lighthearted essays, historical sketches, and metaphysical and polemical works, together with such well-known poems as "The Ballad of the White Horse," "Lepanto," and the drinking songs from The Flying Inn. Among his major critical works are studies of Robert Browning (1903) and Charles Dickens (1906). Prodigiously talented, Chesterton also illustrated a number of Belloc's light works.
Chesterton spoke of himself as primarily a journalist. He contributed to and helped edit Eye Witness and New Witness. He edited G. K.'s Weekly, which advocated distributism, the social philosophy developed by Belloc. Chesterton's overriding concern with political and social injustice is reflected in Heretics (1905) and Orthodoxy (1909), perhaps his most important work.
Throughout his life Chesterton was one of the most colorful and loved personalities of literary England. To his intellectual gifts he added gaiety, wit, and warm humanity that endeared him even to his antagonists. Shortly after his marriage he had purchased a home in Beaconsfield, where he died on June 14, 1936.
A study of Chesterton requires these three basic books: his Autobiography (1936); Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1943), the official biography; and her Return to Chesterton (1952). Also valuable are Hugh Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, with an introduction by Marshall McLuhan (1947); Christopher Hollis, G. K. Chesterton (1950; rev. ed. 1964); and Garry Wills, Chesterton: Man and Mask (1961).
Dale, Alzina Stone, The art of G.K. Chesterton, Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1985.
Dale, Alzina Stone, The outline of sanity: a biography of G.K. Chesterton, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982.
Ffinch, Michael, G.K. Chesterton, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986.
Titterton, W. R. (William Richard), G. K. Chesterton: a portrait, Folcroft, Pa. Folcroft Library Editions, 1974; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.
Wahlert Memorial Library, Gilbert Keith Chesterton; an exhibition catalogue of English and American first editions on the occasion of the centenary of his birth, 1874-1974, along with appreciations and tributes to the man and his works by friends and critics, Dubuque, La., 1974. □
Chesterton, Gilbert Keith
J. A. Cannon