Chesterton, G. K.
G. K. Chesterton
Full name Gilbert Keith Chesterton; born May 28, 1874, in London, Campden Hill, Kensington, England; died of complications resulting from an edematous condition, aggravated by heart and kidney trouble, June 14, 1936, in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England; son of Edward (a house agent) and Mary Louise (Grosjean) Chesterton; married Francis Blogg, June 28, 1901. Education: Attended Colet Court School, London; St. Paul's School, London, 1887-92; Slade School of Art, London, 1893-96. Religion: Converted to Roman Catholicism, 1922.
Author, social and literary critic, poet and illustrator. Worked for Redway (publisher), 1896, and T. Fisher Unwin, 1896-1902. Leader of the Distributist movement, and president of Distributist League. Lecturer at Notre Dame University, 1930; radio broadcaster during the 1930s.
Royal Society of Literature (fellow), Detection Club (president, 1928-36).
Knight Commander with Star, Order of St. Gregory the Great, 1934.
Basil Howe (Chesterton's first novel, written in 1893, discovered in 1989), New City (London, England), 2001.
The Napoleon of Notting Hill (also see below), John Lane/Bodley Head (London, England), 1904.
The Ball and the Cross, John Lane (London, England), 1909, Dover (New York, NY), 1995.
Manalive, Nelson, 1912.
The Flying Inn (also see below), John Lane (London, England), 1914, Dover (Mineola, NY), 2001.
The Return of Don Quixote, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1926.
A G. K. Chesterton Omnibus (includes The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Flying Inn), Methuen (London, England), 1936.
The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown, Shurmer Sibthorp, 1903.
The Club of Queer Trades, Harper (New York, NY), 1905.
The Innocence of Father Brown, Cassell (London, England), 1911, annotated edition published as The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown, edited by Martin Gardner, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1987.
The Wisdom of Father Brown, Cassell (London, England), 1914.
The Perishing of the Pendragons, Paget, 1914.
The Man Who Knew Too Much and Other Stories, Cassell (London, England), 1922, abridged edition published as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Harper (New York, NY), 1922, Dover (Mineola, NY), 2003.
Tales of the Long Bow, Cassell (London, England), 1925, selections published as The Exclusive Luxury of Enoch Oates [and] The Unthinkable Theory of Professor Green, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1925, and The Unprecedented Architecture of Commander Blair, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1925.
The Incredulity of Father Brown, Cassell (London, England), 1926.
The Secret of Father Brown, Cassell (London, England), 1927.
The Sword of Wood, Elkin Mathews, 1928.
Stories, Harrap, 1928.
The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1929.
The Moderate Murderer [and] The Honest Quack (also see below), Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1929.
The Father Brown Stories, Cassell (London, England), 1929, 12th edition, 1974, published as The Father Brown Omnibus, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1933, new and revised edition, 1951.
The Ecstatic Thief (also see below), Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1930.
Four Faultless Felons (includes The Moderate Murderer, The Honest Quack, The Ecstatic Thief, and The Loyal Traitor), Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1930.
The Scandal of Father Brown, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1935.
The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1937.
The Pocket Book of Father Brown, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1943.
The Vampire of the Village, privately printed, 1947.
Father Brown: Selected Stories, edited and with an introduction by Ronald Knox, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1955.
The Amazing Adventures of Father Brown, Dell (New York, NY), 1961.
Father Brown Mystery Stories, selected and edited by Raymond T. Bond, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1962.
G. K. Chesterton: Selected Stories, edited by Kingsley Amis, Faber (London, England), 1972.
Daylight and Nightmare: Uncollected Stories and Fables, edited by Marie Smith, Xanadu, 1987.
Thirteen Detectives: Classic Mystery Stories, edited by Marie Smith, Xanadu, 1987.
Father Brown—a Selection, edited by W. W. Robson, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Father Brown of the Church of Rome: Selected Mystery Stories, Ignatius Press (San Francisco, CA), 1996.
Greybeards at Play: Literature and Art for Old Gentlemen, Rhymes and Sketches (also see below), Johnson, 1900.
The Wild Knight and Other Poems, Richards, 1900, 4th revised edition, Dutton (New York, NY), 1914.
The Ballad of the White Horse, John Lane (London, England), 1911, Ignatius Press (San Francisco, CA), 2001.
Poems, John Lane (London, England), 1915.
Wine, Water and Song, Methuen (London, England), 1915.
A Poem, privately printed, 1915.
Old King Cole, privately printed, 1920.
The Ballad of St. Barbara and Other Verses, Palmer, 1922.
Poems, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1922.
G. K. Chesterton (collected verse), E. Benn, 1925.
The Queen of Seven Swords, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1926.
The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton, Palmer, 1927, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1932, revised edition, Methuen (London, England), 1933, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1966.
Gloria in Profundis, Rudge, 1927.
Ubi Ecclesia, Faber (London, England), 1929.
Lepanto, Federal Advertising Agency, 1929.
The Grave of Arthur, Faber (New York, NY), 1930.
Graybeards at Play and Other Comic Verse, edited by John Sullivan, Elek, 1974.
LITERARY CRITICISM AND ESSAYS
The Defendant (essays), Johnson, 1901, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1902.
(With J. E. Hodder Williams) Thomas Carlyle, Hodder and Stoughton (London, England), 1902.
Twelve Types, Humphreys, 1902, enlarged edition published as Varied Types, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1908, abridged edition published as Five Types: A Book of Essays, Humphreys, 1910, Holt (New York, NY), 1911, new abridged edition published as Simplicity and Tolstoy, Humphreys, 1912, published as Twelve Types: A Collection of mini-biographies, IHS Press (Norfolk, VA), 2002.
(With W. Robertson Nicoll) Robert Louis Stevenson (also see below), Pott, 1903.
(With G. H. Perris and Edward Garnett) Leo Tolstoy, Pott, 1903.
(With F. G. Kitton) Charles Dickens, Pott, 1903.
Robert Browning, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1903.
(With Richard Garnett) Tennyson, Hodder and Stoughton (London, England), 1903.
(With Lewis Melville) Thackeray, Pott, 1903.
G. F. Watts, Dutton (New York, NY), 1904.
Heretics (essays), John Lane (London, England), 1905.
Charles Dickens: A Critical Study, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1906, new edition, with a foreword by Alexander Woolcott, published as Charles Dickens: The Last of the Great Men, Readers Club Press, 1942.
All Things Considered (essays), John Lane (London, England), 1908.
George Bernard Shaw, John Lane/Bodley Head (London, England), 1909, revised edition, Devin-Adair (New York, NY), 1950.
Orthodoxy (essays), John Lane/Bodley Head (London, England), 1909.
Alarms and Discussions (essays), Methuen (London, England), 1910, enlarged edition, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1911.
William Blake, Dutton (New York, NY), 1910.
What's Wrong with the World (essays), Cassell (London, England), 1910.
Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, Dutton (New York, NY), 1911.
A Defence of Nonsense and Other Essays, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1911.
The Victorian Age in Literature, Williams and Norgate, 1913.
Utopia of Usurers and Other Essays, Boni and Liveright (New York, NY), 1917, published as Utopia of Usurers, IHS Press (Norfolk, VA), 2002.
Charles Dickens Fifty Years After, privately published, 1920.
The Uses of Diversity: A Book of Essays, Methuen (London, England), 1920, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1921.
Eugenics and Other Evils (essays), Cassell (London, England), 1922.
William Cobbett, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1925.
The Everlasting Man (essays), Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1925.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Hodder and Stoughton (London, England), 1927, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1928.
Generally Speaking: A Book of Essays, Methuen (London, England), 1928.
Essays, Harrap, 1928.
Come to Think of It …: A Collection of Essays, Methuen (London, England), 1930.
All Is Grist: A Book of Essays, Methuen (London, England), 1931, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1932.
Chaucer, Farrar and Rinehart (New York, NY), 1932.
Sidelights on London and Newer York and Other Essays, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1932.
All I Survey: A Book of Essays, Methuen (London, England), 1933.
Avowals and Denials: A Book of Essays, Methuen (London, England), 1934, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1935.
The Well and the Shallows (essays), Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1935.
As I Was Saying: A Book of Essays, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1936.
Essays, edited by John Guest, Collins (London, England), 1939.
Selected Essays, edited by Dorothy Collins, Methuen (London, England), 1949.
Essays, edited by K. E. Whitehorn, Methuen (London, England), 1953.
A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books and Writers, edited by Dorothy Collins, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1953.
The Glass Walking-Stick and Other Essays from the Illustrated London News, 1905-1936, edited by Dorothy Collins, Methuen (London, England), 1955.
Lunacy and Letters (essays) edited by Dorothy Collins, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1958.
The Spice of Life and Other Essays, edited by Dorothy Collins, Finlayson, 1964, Dufour, 1966.
Chesterton on Shakespeare, edited by Dorothy Collins, Dufour, 1971.
The Apostle and the Wild Ducks and Other Essays, edited by Dorothy Collins, Elek, 1975.
Tremendous Trifles, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1909.
(Editor) Thackeray (selections), Bell, 1909.
The Ultimate Lie, privately printed, 1910.
(Editor, with Alice Meynell) Samuel Johnson (selections), Herbert and Daniel, 1911.
A Chesterton Calendar, Kegan Paul, 1911, published as Wit and Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1911, published as Chesterton Day by Day, Kegan Paul, 1912.
The Future of Religion: Mr. G. K. Chesterton's Reply to Mr. Bernard Shaw, privately printed, 1911.
The Conversion of an Anarchist, Paget, 1912.
A Miscellany of Men, Methuen (London, England), 1912, enlarged edition, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1912, IHS Press (Norfolk, VA), 2003.
Magic: A Fantastic Comedy (play; first produced November 7, 1913, at Little Theatre, London; produced in New York, 1917), Putnam (New York, NY), 1913.
Thoughts from Chesterton, edited by Elsie E. Morton, Harrap, 1913.
The Barbarism of Berlin, Cassell (London, England), 1914, published as The Appetite of Tyranny, Including Letters to an Old Garibaldian, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1915.
London, photographs by Alvin Langdon Coburn, privately printed, 1914.
Prussian versus Belgian Culture, Belgian Relief and Reconstruction Fund, 1914.
Letters to an Old Garibaldian, John Lane (London, England), 1915.
The So-Called Belgian Bargain, National War Aims Committee, 1915.
The Crimes of England, Palmer and Hayward, 1915, John Lane (London, England), 1916.
Divorce versus Democracy, Society of SS. Peter and Paul, 1916.
Temperance and the Great Alliance, True Temperance Association, 1916.
A Shilling for My Thoughts, edited by E. V. Lucas, Methuen (London, England), 1916.
A Short History of England, John Lane (London, England), 1917.
Lord Kitchener, privately printed, 1917.
How to Help Annexation, Hayman Christy and Lilly, 1918.
Irish Impressions, Collins, 1919, John Lane (London, England), 1920, HIS Press (Norfolk, VA), 2002.
(Editor, with Holbrook Jackson and R. Brimley Johnson) Charles Dickens, The Personal History of David Copperfield, C. Chivers, 1919.
The Superstition of Divorce, Chatto and Windus (London, England), 1920.
The New Jerusalem, Hodder and Stoughton (London, England), 1920, Doran, 1921.
What I Saw in America, Hodder and Stoughton (London, England), 1922.
Fancies versus Fads, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1923.
St. Francis of Assisi (biography), Hodder and Stoughton (London, England), 1923, Doran, 1924.
The End of the Roman Road: A Pageant of Wayfarers, Classic Press, 1924.
The Superstitions of the Sceptic (lecture), Herder, 1925.
A Gleaming Cohort, Being Selections from the Works of G. K. Chesterton, edited by E. V. Lucas, Methuen (London, England), 1926.
(Editor) Essays by Divers Hands 6, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1926.
The Outline of Sanity, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1926.
The Catholic Church and Conversion, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1926.
Selected Works, nine volumes, Methuen (London, England), 1926.
Social Reform versus Birth Control, Simpkin Marshall, 1927.
The Judgement of Dr. Johnson: A Comedy in Three Acts (play; first produced January 20, 1932, at Arts Theatre Club, London), Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1927.
Culture and the Coming Peril (lecture), University of London Press (London, England), 1927.
A Chesterton Catholic Anthology, edited by Patrick Braybrooke, Burn Oates & Washburn (London, England), 1928.
The Thing, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1929, published as The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1930.
G. K. C. as M. C., Being a Collection of Thirty-Seven Introductions, selected and edited by J. P. de Foneska, Methuen (London, England), 1929.
The Turkey and the Turk, St. Dominic's Press, 1930.
At the Sign of the World's End, Harvest Press, 1930.
The Resurrection of Rome, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1930.
(With E. Haldeman-Julius) Is There a Return to Religion?, Haldeman-Julius, 1931.
(Contributor) The Floating Admiral, Hodder and Stoughton (London, England), 1931, Doubleday, Doran, 1932.
Christendom in Dublin, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1932.
St. Thomas Aquinas (biography), Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1933, introduction by Ralph McInerny, Ignatius Press (San Francisco, CA), 2002.
G. K. Chesterton (selected humor), edited by E. V. Knox, Methuen (London, England), 1933, published as Running after One's Hat and Other Whimsies, McBride, 1933.
(Editor) G. K.'s (miscellany from G. K.'s Weekly), Rich and Cowan, 1934.
Explaining the English, British Council, 1935.
Stories, Essays, and Poems, Dent (London, England), 1935, Dutton (New York, NY), 1957.
Autobiography, Hutchinson (London, England), 1936, published as The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1936.
The Man Who Was Chesterton: The Best Essays, Stories, Poems and Other Writings of G. K. Chesterton, compiled and edited by Raymond T. Bond, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1937.
The Coloured Lands, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1938.
The End of the Armistice, compiled by F. J. Sheed, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1940.
(Contributor) Ellery Queen, editor, To the Queen's Taste, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1946.
The Common Man, compiled by F. J. Sheed, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1950.
The Surprise (play; first produced June 5, 1953, at University College Assembly Hall, Hull, England), preface by Dorothy L. Sayers, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1952.
G. K. Chesterton: An Anthology, edited and with an introduction by D. B. Wyndham Lewis, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1957.
Essays and Poems, edited by Wilfrid Sheed, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1958.
Where All Roads Lead, Catholic Truth Society, 1961.
The Man Who Was Orthodox: A Selection from the Uncollected Writings of G. K. Chesterton, edited by A. L. Maycock, Dobson, 1963.
G. K. Chesterton: A Selection from His Non-Fictional Prose, edited by W. H. Auden, Faber (London, England), 1970.
G. K.'s Weekly: A Sampler, edited by Lyle W. Dorsett, Loyola University Press (Chicago, IL), 1986.
Collected Nonsense and Light Verse, edited by Marie Smith, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1987.
As I Was Saying …: A Chesterton Reader, edited by Robert Knille, Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI), 1987.
The Essential G. K. Chesterton, edited by P. J. Kavanagh, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1987.
Essential Writings, edited by William Griffin, Orbis Books (Maryknoll, NY), 1987.
Contributor to Daily News (London, England), 1901-13, Illustrated London News, 1905-36, and Daily Herald (London, England), 1913-14. Editor, The Debater (St. Paul's School publication), 1891-93; coeditor, Eye Witness, 1911-12; editor, New Witness, 1912-23; editor, G. K.'s Weekly, 1925-36. Editor, with H. Jackson and R. B. Johnson, "Readers' Classics" series, 1922. Many of Chesterton's papers are held in the Robert John Bayer Memorial Chesterton Collection, John Carroll University Library, Cleveland, Ohio; other materials are at Columbia University, Marquette University, and the British Library.
"G. K. Chesterton," declared William B. Furlong in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "was a legend in London literary circles even during his lifetime. George Bernard Shaw called him 'a man of colossal genius,' and as a young man Chesterton was hailed as Fleet Street's reincarnation of Samuel Johnson." Dabbling in genres including journalism, social activism, politics, literary criticism, poetry, drama, and mystery fiction, this huge (over three hundred pounds) genial man dominated British letters during the first decades of the twentieth century. Ian Boyd explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "He belonged to that category of writer which used to be called the man of letters, and like the typical man of letters he wrote journalism which included a wide variety of literary forms and literature which possessed many of the characteristics of journalism." Chesterton is best remembered for his detective character Father Brown, a Catholic priest who solves crimes.
Chesterton, Boyd stated, was "very much in the tradition of the Victorian sage"—a litterateur prepared to comment on almost any subject. Thomas M. Leitch asserted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that Chesterton "seemed from his early years to combine the disposition of a determined amateur, the imagination of a fantasist, and the temperament of a gadfly." "His pride in his amateur status," Leitch continued, "as philosopher, historian, and economist; his willingness to debate the most unlikely opponents on the most trivial subjects—gave him a reputation as a heroic crank."
"Chesterton was born on May 29, 1874, in London to Edward Chesterton and Marie Louise Grosjean Chesterton," W. P. Kenney recounted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "He was the second of three children. A sister, five years older than Gilbert, died at the age of eight. A brother, Cecil, five years younger than Gilbert, remained his close companion and debating partner throughout Cecil's life. Chesterton would look back on his childhood as a time of almost unshadowed happiness. Especially strong and positive memories focused on a toy theater he was given by his father. The unapologetic artifice of the theater, the hard-edged clarity of its figures, and the worlds of romance, adventure, and fundamental moral conflict that could be represented there may have shaped some of Chesterton's lasting views on the powers and functions of art. Chesterton enjoyed a largely undistinguished academic career, first at Saint Paul's School and later at University College, London, where from 1893 to 1895 he attended classes in English, French, Latin, and fine arts, without ever sitting for an examination or taking a degree. His fine arts classes were conducted at the Slade School of Art, then entering one of its great periods; Chesterton was asked to leave after a year. His study of art, though quickly terminated, confirmed in him a distaste for the aestheticism and impressionism that he saw as dominating the art world of the time. He viewed aestheticism as related to a severing of the ties between art and the ordinary world; impressionism, to a drift toward solipsism, which seemed to him the great philosophical temptation of the age, a temptation he found especially repugnant because he himself felt some of its attraction. After leaving University College in 1895, Chesterton found work at Redway's, a small publishing house; within months he moved to T. Fisher Unwin, a larger house, with whom he would stay until 1901. During this period he was regularly contributing articles and reviews to periodicals."
Began as a Journalist
Although best known for his detective fiction, Chesterton first gained public attention as a journalist and social philosopher. "Like his close friends G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells," Boyd explained, "he preferred the role of teacher and prophet to that of literary man, but unlike them his vision of life was fundamentally Christian and even mystical, and the influence he sought to exercise through his writings was directed toward a social change which would be thoroughly religious." His book What's Wrong with the World advocated Distributism, a social philosophy that advocates small communities of property holders. Chesterton viewed Distributism as a counter to Socialism and Capitalism, ideologies that, he felt, reduced people to inhuman units. Stephen Metcalf, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, pointed out that this philosophy, also expounded in the 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, more accurately reflects modern society's problems than does George Orwell's classic 1984: "It is not only … that Chesterton cared passionately for what ordinary humanity feels and thinks," Metcalf stated. "It is also that he had particular convictions about how one should understand humanity."
Much of Chesterton's work reflected his social concern. Using literary devices such as parable and allegory, he sought to bring about social changes that embodied his religious and political beliefs. Boyd commented on "the close connection between his poetry and his everyday journalism," and concluded, "In this sense, T. S. Eliot's description of Chesterton's poetry as 'first-rate journalistic balladry' turns out to have been particularly perceptive, since it is a reminder about the essential character of all Chesterton's work. In his verse, as in all his writings, his first aim was to comment on the political and social questions of the day." His novels, reported Brian Murray in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "are as frequently called romances, extravaganzas, fantasies, parables, or allegories. For while they are thick with the details of everyday life, Chesterton's hastily written book-length fictions are outlandishly plotted and, in the main, unabashedly didactic."
In his many essays, usually written for weekly magazines and newspapers and concerned with contemporary topics, Chesterton also furthered his political and religious ideas. Peter Hunt of the Dictionary of Literary Biography believed that "Chesterton is numbered among the great essayists of the English language. His essays so far collected total almost forty volumes, and although most of them were newspaper or magazine articles, they have established Chesterton in the tradition of the fine art of the essay." Hunt described how Chesterton wrote an essay: "Because many essays are written with a desire to entertain and to be topical does not mean that they are ephemeral or shallow.… Often the essays open rather than close a topic, leaving the reader wondering, and wandering about the field of a topic to see more in it, thus fulfilling Chesterton's purpose."
While they often deal with political or religious topics, Chesterton's fictional writings often employ fantasy and whimsy. Kyle W. Friedow of the Dictionary of Literary Biography described Chesterton's collection The Club of Queer Trades as "a collection of short philosophical mysteries that are only explained when interpreted by Basil Grant. Rather than drawn-out logical conclusions, Basil relies on his intuition and his ability to distinguish between good and evil."
Among Chesterton's most successful book-length works is the 1908 work The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, a novel that also challenges a reader's assumptions about the world. Set in London, the novel follows an episode in the life of Gabriel Syme, a Scotland Yard detective, formerly a poet, who is hired by a mysterious, cloaked figure to expose a group of seven anarchists who plan to destroy the world. Each member of the group, the Central Anarchist Council, is named for a day of the week, with Syme, working undercover to infiltrate the organization, receiving the name Thursday. They are headed by the powerful and enigmatic figure named Sunday. The anarchical philosophies they expound reveal Chesterton's thematic intent: to show the barrenness of the pessimism and nihilism that was a popular mode of thought during the early twentieth century. Through a series of revelations, the supposed anarchists learn that they are all in fact Scotland Yard detectives, hired by the mysterious Sunday. They pursue him in a chase sequence that is both bizarre and humorous, eventually tracking him to his mansion, where they are treated as honored guests, given refreshment and entertainment. Perplexed, they ask their host the reason behind his scheme. The detectives are shown a vision of the world in chaos, in "topsy-turvydom," which, although it doesn't clarify their experience, leaves them with a profound sense of mystery. The story is enigmatic and elliptical in meaning: the detectives are left in a state of wonder and awe at their encounter with Sunday, who some critics saw as a God-figure. Friedow stated that The Man Who Was Thursday is "Chesterton's most popular and most critically acclaimed book.…Ultimately, the reason this novel may be Chesterton's most successful is that it focuses on one hero, and the reader is able to follow closely his evolution to the self-that-ought-to-be."
The "Father Brown" Mysteries
Despite the prolific writing he did in so many different genres, Chesterton's detective stories remain his most popular works. Chesterton himself was very fond of the detective story: "Virtually all of his fiction," Leitch stated, "contains such typical detective elements as the posing of a riddle and its logical solution; many of his stories have the structure of formal detective stories without the presence of a detective; and in his novel The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) detectives appear in wild profusion." Loosely based upon Chesterton's friend, the Roman Catholic priest John O'Connor, Father Brown "drops typical Chestertonian quips as he solves ghastly transgressions not with Holmes-sharp logic but by 'getting inside' the criminal mind," according to Murray. Rather than using deductive methods to discover the perpetrator of a crime, Father Brown—whom Chesterton depicted in his Autobiography as "shabby and shapeless [in appearance], his face round and expressionless, his manners clumsy"—bases his conclusions on his knowledge of human nature. This knowledge is drawn in part from his experience in the confessional box, but also from his recognition of his own capacity for evil. "The little priest could see," stated Ronald Knox in his introduction to Father Brown: Selected Stories, "not as a psychologist, but as a moralist, into the dark places of the human heart; could guess, therefore, at what point envy, or fear, or resentment would pass the bounds of the normal, and the cords of convention would snap, so that a man was hurried into crime." "To Father Brown," wrote Eric Routley in The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story: A Personal Monograph, "any criminal is a good man gone wrong. He is not an evil man who has cut himself off from the comprehension or sympathy of those who labour to be good."
Father Brown remains, in the minds of most readers, Chesterton's greatest creation, although his contribution to the art of mystery writing is also recognized. "If Chesterton had not created Father Brown," Leitch declared, "his detective fiction would rarely be read today, but his place in the historical development of the genre would still be secure." "Long before he published his last Father Brown stories," the contributor continued, "Chesterton was widely regarded as the father of the modern English detective story. When Anthony Berkeley founded the Detection Club in 1928, it was Chesterton, not Conan Doyle [creator of Sherlock Holmes], who became its first president and served in this capacity until his death." In addition, Leitch asserted, Chesterton "was the first habitual writer of detective stories … to insist on the conceptual unity of the form, a criterion he expounded at length in several essays on the subject."
If you enjoy the works of G. K. Chesterton
you might want to check out the following books:
Agatha Christie, Murder at the Vicarage, 1930.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1943.
Under the influence of Chesterton's Father Brown, the mystery story became less a portrait of the detective's personality, and more a puzzle that the detective and the reader could both solve. "Chesterton's determination to provide his audience with all the clues available to his detectives," stated Leitch, "has been so widely imitated as to become the defining characteristic of the formal or golden age period (roughly 1920-1940) in detective fiction.…Modern readers, for whom the term whodunit has become synonymous with detective story, forget that the concealment of the criminal's identity as the central mystery of the story is a relatively modern convention." He continued, "Chesterton's Father Brown stories, many of which present murder puzzles in which the murderer's identity constitutes the climactic revelation, are the most orthodox of his stories in the context of the succeeding golden age, whose conventions they so largely established." In the end, H. R. F. Keating (himself a prominent mystery writer) concluded in Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, "Chesterton's fame rests on the priest with 'the harmless, human name of Brown' and it will endure." "Chesterton's fame," wrote W. P. Kenney in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "has never been eclipsed; he continues to find enthusiastic new readers; he holds the admiration of a critically demanding minority; and a 'Chesterton revival' has come to seem almost a biennial event."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Barker, Dudley, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, Stein and Day (New York, NY), 1973.
Belloc, Hilaire, The Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1940.
Bogaerts, Anthony Mattheus Adrianus, Chesterton and the Victorian Age, Rozenbeek en Venemans, 1940.
Boyd, Ian, The Novels of G. K. Chesterton: A Study in Art and Propaganda, Barnes and Noble (New York, NY), 1975.
Canovan, Margaret, G. K. Chesterton: Radical Populist, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1977.
Carol, Sister M., G. K. Chesterton: The Dynamic Classicist, Morilal Banarsidass, 1971.
Chesterton, Cecil, Gilbert K. Chesterton: A Criticism, John Lane (London, England), 1909.
Chesterton, G. K., Autobiography, Hutchinson (London, England), 1936, published as The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1936.
Clemens, Cyril, Chesterton as Seen by His Contemporaries, Mark Twain Society, 1939.
Clipper, Lawrence J., G. K. Chesterton, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1974.
Coates, John, Chesterton and the Edwardian Cultural Crisis, Hull University Press, 1984.
Coates, John D., G. K. Chesterton as Controversialist, Essayist, Novelist, and Critic, Edwin Mellon Press (Lewiston, ME), 2002.
Conlon, D. J., editor, G. K. Chesterton: A Half Century of Views, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1987.
Coren, Michael, Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton, Paragon House (New York, NY), 1990.
Dale, Alzina Stone, The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G. K. Chesterton, Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI), 1982.
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Fagerberg, David W., The Size of Chesterton's Catholicism, University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, IN), 1998.
Ffinch, Michael, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, Harper (New York, NY), 1986.
Hollis, Christopher, The Mind of Chesterton, Hollis and Carter, 1970.
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Kenner, Hugh, Paradox in Chesterton, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY), 1947.
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Sullivan, John, G. K. Chesterton: A Bibliography, University of London Press (London, England), 1958.
Sullivan, John, Chesterton Continued: A Bibliographic Supplement, University of London Press (London, England), 1968.
Tadie, Andrew A. and Michael H. MacDonald, Permanent Things: Toward the Recovery of a More Human Scale at the End of the Twentieth Century, Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI), 1995.
Titterton, W. R., G. K. Chesterton: A Portrait, Organ, 1936.
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Times Literary Supplement, December 25-31, 1987.*
Chesterton, G. K.
G. K. Chesterton
BORN: 1874, London, England
DIED: 1936, Buckinghamshire, England
GENRE: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction
The Wild Knight and Other Poems (1900)
The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
The Innocence of Father Brown (1911)
Regarded as one of England's premier men of letters during the first third of the twentieth century, Chesterton is best known today as a colorful character who created the Father Brown mysteries and the fantasy novel The Man Who Was Thursday. His witty essays have also provided delight and inspiration to generations of readers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Joyous Childhood in Kensington Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in the London borough of Kensington to Edward Chesterton, who owned a real estate business, and Marie Louise Grosjean Chesterton. The religious atmosphere of his middle-class family was more liberal and Unitarian than Anglican, and religion seems to have played no important part in his early life. At the same time, Chesterton's childhood was a time of intense happiness, and he always claimed that this happiness provided him with an essential religious insight into the meaning of adult life.
His early schooling and his years at St. Paul's School (1887–1892) seem to have been in general a continuation of the undisturbed happiness of childhood. He was not regarded as a good student, but he made friends at school and did a good deal of writing for a school paper called the Debater, the journal of a debating club he had organized. But his real talent was believed to be his ability to draw. Consequently, instead of following the rest of his friends to university, he went to a drawing school, first at St. John's Wood and then in 1893 to the Slade School of Art.
From Pictures to Letters: A London Career When he left the Slade School in 1895, Chesterton worked as a publisher's reader for two different companies and contributed an occasional poem, article, or art criticism to journals such as the Clarion, the Speaker, and the Academy.
Chesterton was first noticed in 1899 for his contributions to the Speaker, a radical liberal magazine. By early 1901 Chesterton was also established as a regular Saturday columnist for another liberal journal, the Daily News, where his weekly article quickly became a feature of Edwardian journalism. The enormously popular “Notebook” articles in the Illustrated London News began to appear soon afterward and continued almost without interruption from September of 1905 until his death in June of 1936. At the same time, he began to produce biographies, novels, and books of literary and theological criticism that consolidated his reputation as a literary journalist and religious teacher.
Christianity and Chesterton's World of Fiction The best known works of this time were his 1908 fantasy novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, and the very popular series of short stories involving a ministerial sleuth, the “Father Brown” mysteries, first introduced in 1910. Both were reflections of Chesterton's own experiences with religion and spirituality. In The Man Who Was Thursday, a man secretly working for Scotland Yard infiltrates a group of anarchist masterminds in an effort to destroy the organization. Though the book is superficially about anarchists—those who reject laws and governments in favor of complete free will—the book relies heavily on Christian symbolism and imagery. This same preoccupation with Christianity is found in Chesterton's most famous character, Father Brown. The clever priest who uses his reasoning and intuition to solve crimes was based on an actual priest Chesterton knew named Father John O'Connor. O'Connor ultimately convinced Chesterton to convert to Catholicism in 1922.
Witnessing and Politics Although he met his friend and colleague Hilaire Belloc in 1900 and was married to Francis Blogg in 1901, the years immediately prior to World War I were a time of political crisis and personal strain for Chesterton. In 1913 his brother Cecil was convicted of the criminal libel of Godfrey Isaacs in connection with a press campaign waged by the New Witness magazine against various politicians and stockbrokers involved in the Marconi insider trading scandal. As Maisie Ward points out in her biography of Chesterton, the case became almost an obsession with him for the rest of his life. His disillusionment with official English political life was now complete, and the tone of his political writing became increasingly bitter and acrimonious.
A good example of this is “A Song of Strange Drinks” (1913), which first appeared in the New Witness. Although this poem is usually read as an example of pure nonsense verse, in fact it is sharply satirical, and its publication led to Chesterton's dismissal from the Daily News.
A Decline in Health and England's March Toward War The bitterness of these years also affected Chesterton in other ways. His health began to deteriorate rapidly. Many events contributed to this breakdown. He became more and more alarmed at events in Ireland, where a situation close to civil war
had been developing. In 1913 he began writing a series of articles for the Daily Herald, which are among the most violent articles he ever wrote. The outbreak of war in August added even more serious worries. By late autumn of 1914, under the double burden of anxiety and overwork, his health began to fail. The last of the Daily Herald articles appeared in September of 1914, and by November he was critically ill. The collapse of his health was both physical and mental. By the end of November he had fallen into a coma, which seems to have been caused by some form of kidney and heart trouble. He did not begin to recover until Easter of 1915.
Chesterton's return to health was very gradual. His illness marks a great division in his life as a writer and an even greater division in his life as a poet. From 1915 onward, he devoted himself more and more to a different kind of journalism that left him little time for imaginative writing. Almost as soon as Chesterton fully recovered from his illness in 1916, his brother Cecil joined the army. In his absence, Chesterton took over the editorship of the New Witness, and he continued to edit this magazine and others until his death in 1936.
Although he did not participate directly in World War I himself, Chesterton bore witness to a generation of young men returning from mainland Europe spiritually and physically broken. His own life ended suddenly on June 14, 1936. He had again gradually fallen ill during the preceding years, even though there had been few signs of any slackening of his literary activity during that period.
Works in Literary Context
As a literary journalist, Chesterton was very much in the tradition of the Victorian sage. He was at once a teacher and a literary artist. He sought to change society through his teaching, using symbol, parable, and religious allegory as the most effective way of doing so. Chesterton's verse, therefore, must be read as part of the vast journalistic effort whereby he sought to influence the thinking and the feeling of his age. At the same time, it is important to understand the special character of this influence.
A Spiritual Literary Figure Like his close friends George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, he preferred the role of teacher and prophet to that of literary man, but unlike them his vision of life was fundamentally Christian and even mystical, and the influence he sought to exercise through his writings was directed toward a social change that would be thoroughly religious. In this sense, he may be more aptly compared to the tradition of spiritually oriented literary journalism later represented by C. S. Lewis. Hence, the themes of many of his most characteristic poems are religious; likewise, his religious verse also has a strongly political tone.
In his poetry, as in his other writings, Chesterton saw himself as a spokesman for the poor and the exploited, whom he regarded as the mystical symbols of God's presence in the world. The purpose of his verse and of all his writings was to help create a society that would have a deep religious respect for ordinary people.
Distributism A centerpiece of this purpose was the social philosophy that Chesterton called Distributism. Economically, distributism meant a property-owning democracy in which private property would be divided into the smallest possible units. Socially, distributism aimed at creating a feeling of community and neighborliness among ordinary people, in contrast to the feeling of alienation created by huge impersonal systems such as state socialism and monopoly capitalism (to be succeeded by modern corporate capitalism). Such systems, in Chesterton's view, treated ordinary people as interchangeable units. Chesterton's perspective on such matters anticipated the sort of Catholic socialism that would become particularly prevalent in Latin America over the course of the twentieth century.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Chesterton's famous contemporaries include:
Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953): This English poet was a good friend and collaborator of Chesterton's.
Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965): Schweitzer, a French theologian and Nobel Peace Prize winner, put his “Reverence for Life” philosophy to work by building a hospital in Gabon, Africa.
Carl Jung (1875–1961): Drawing heavily on the work of Sigmund Freud and of anthropologists looking at social symbol systems and mythologies, this Swiss psychiatrist was the founder of analytical psychology.
Clarence Darrow (1857–1938): An American lawyer and civil rights advocate best known for his work with unions and his defense of Tennessee teacher John Scopes at the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial of 1925, in which Scopes was brought up on charges for teaching the theory of evolution in his classroom.
Irreverent Paradox Chesterton is recognized as a master of the irreverent paradox, and a recognition of this is crucial to understanding his work. Through paradox, the seemingly self-evident is turned upside down, causing readers to view their initial beliefs in a different light. The shedding of a different light was part of Chesterton's purpose, and the irreverent or humble paradox was, he said, his “chief idea of life.” His essay “A Defense of Nonsense” perhaps best summarizes his views on this
method: “Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.” In this, Chesterton finds himself in the very good company of philosophers ranging from Erasmus to Søren Kierkegaard.
Works in Critical Context
Despite Chesterton's lasting popularity, critics generally agree that between his wide spectrum of subjects, his self-proclaimed role as a “mere journalist,” and his tendency toward irreverence, Chesterton is a “master who left no masterpiece.”
Something of a Poet, but Perhaps Not Much W. H. Auden argued that Chesterton was by natural gift a comic poet and that none of his serious poems is as good as his comic verse. “I cannot think of a single comic poem by Chesterton,” Auden wrote, “that is not a triumphant success.” Auden particularly praised Greybeards at Play, writing, “I have no hesitation in saying that it contains some of the best pure nonsense verse in English, and the author's illustrations are equally good.”
Auden notwithstanding, Chesterton's reputation as a poet, which never rose particularly high during his lifetime, declined still further after his death. The conventional view of him as a poet has been that he wrote a few exquisite lyrics; helped popularize, through his satirical ballads, an effective kind of comic verse; and in his most important narrative poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, wrote an imperfect but partly successful English epic poem. The revival of critical interest in Chesterton during recent years has also made it possible to view his verse in a new light, revealing the close connection between his poetry and his everyday journalism.
The Father Brown Mysteries Father Brown remains, in the minds of most readers, Chesterton's greatest creation, although his other contributions to the art of mystery writing are also recognized. “If Chesterton had not created Father Brown,” scholar Thomas Leitch declares, “his detective fiction would rarely be read today, but his place in the historical development of the genre would still be secure.” “Long before he published his last Father Brown stories,” Leitch continues, “Chesterton was widely regarded as the father of the modern English detective story. When Anthony Berkeley founded the Detection Club in 1928, it was Chesterton, not [Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur] Conan Doyle, who became its first president and served in this capacity until his death.” In addition, Leitch asserts, Chesterton “was the first habitual writer of detective stories…to insist on the conceptual unity of the form, a criterion he expounded at length in several essays on the subject.”
Under the influence of Chesterton's Father Brown, the mystery story became less a portrait of the detective's personality, and more a puzzle that the detective and the reader could both solve. “Chesterton's determination to provide his audience with all the clues available to his detectives,” observes Leitch, “has been so widely imitated as to become the defining characteristic of the formal or golden age period (roughly 1920–1940) in detective fiction.….Modern readers, for whom the term whodunit has become synonymous with detective story, forget that the concealment of the criminal's identity as the central mystery of the story is a relatively modern convention.” Chesterton was, however, much more than “merely” a mystery writers. As American Chesteron Society president Dale Ahlquist notes, “Chesterton wrote about everything.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
One of Chesterton'ss defining characteristics was his use of paradox to illustrate his point. Here are a few other works that use irreverent, sometimes even silly paradoxes to communicate and explore important points about life.
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), a play by Sir Oscar Wilde. Rhetorical and situational paradoxes abound in this drawing-room comedy by the great Irish wit.
“The Library of Babel,” (1941), a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. In this fantastical story, a library contains every possible variation of a single 410-page book. In the same vein, Borges writes elsewhere about a map so large that it covers precisely, in 1:1 detail, everything it attempts to represent, so that it lays like a gigantic carpet over the land.
Gargantua (1534), a novel by Francois Rabelais. This novel by French writer Rabelais satirizes monasteries as places of leisure rather than spirituality.
Responses to Literature
- Much of Chesterton's work was either implicitly or explicitly political. “A Song of Strange Drinks” is one example of personal politics inspiring what appears to be a work of silliness. Examine any of his light verse for political statement. Do you think the underlying messages in Chesterton's light verse diminish or strengthen its importance as poetry? Why?
- Chesterton has been called “the master who left no masterpiece.” Does the lack of a “masterpiece” detract from his stature as a writer? Should it? Why or why not?
- Chesteron often employed the literary device of paradox in his work. What is paradox and how is it used in Chesterton's work?
- The Father Brown character is Chesterton's most beloved creation. In what ways is he similar to and different from his near contemporary, Sherlock Holmes?
Ahlquist, Dale. Common Sense 101: Lessons from G. K. Chesterton. Fort Collins, CO: Ignatius Press, 2006.
Barker, Dudley. G. K. Chesterton: A Biography. London: Constable, 1973.
Clipper, Lawrence J. G. K. Chesterton. New York.: Twayne, 1974.
Coren, Michael. Gilbert: the Main Who Was G. K. Chesterton. New York: Paragon House, 1990.
Tolkien, J. R. R. Tree and Leaf. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1965.
Wills, Garry. Chesterton: Man and Mask. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1952.
Eliot, T. S. Obituary for Chesterton in Tablet, 20 (June 1936).
White, Gertrude M. “Different Worlds in Verse.” Chesterton Review, 4 (Spring–Summer 1978).
The American Chesterton Society website. Retrieved March 25, 2008, from http://www.chesterton.org/.