Gilbert Keith Chesterton was an English writer. He published works on philosophy, ontology, poetry, plays, journalism, public lectures and debates, literary and art criticism, biography, Christian apologetics, and fiction, including 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 "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 some of 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 progressivism 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 more and more with Catholicism, eventually converting to Roman Catholicism from High Church Anglicanism. George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton's "friendly enemy" according to Time, said of him, "He was a man of colossal genius". Biographers have identified him as a successor to such Victorian authors as Matthew Arnold
, Thomas Carlyle
, John Henry Newman Cardinal
, and John Ruskin
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 early showed a great interest and talent in art. He had planned to become an artist and his writing shows a vision that clothed abstract ideas in concrete and memorable images. Even his fiction seemed to be carefully concealed parables. Father Brown is perpetually correcting the incorrect vision of the bewildered folks at the scene of the crime and wandering off at the end with the criminal to exercise his priestly role of recognition and repentance. For example, in the story The Flying Stars, Father Brown entreats the character Flambeau to give up his life of crime: "There is still youth and honour and humour in you; don't fancy they will last in that trade. Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down. The kind man drinks and turns cruel; the frank man kills and lies about it. Many a man I've known started like you to be an honest outlaw, a merry robber of the rich, and ended stamped into slime."
Chesterton was a large man, standing 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) and weighing around 21 stone (130 kg; 290 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 a famine had struck England". Shaw retorted, "To look at you, anyone would think you have caused it". P. G. Wodehouse once described a very loud crash as "a sound like Chesterton falling onto a sheet of tin."
Chesterton usually wore a cape and a crumpled hat, with a swordstick in hand, and a cigar hanging out of his mouth. Chesterton had a tendency to forget where he was supposed to be going and 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 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." As a result of these memory problems and of Chesterton being extremely clumsy as a child, there has been speculation 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 of congestive heart failure on the morning of 14 June 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. His last known words were a greeting spoken to his wife. The homily at Chesterton's Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral, London, was delivered by Ronald Knox on June 27, 1936. Knox said, "All of this generation has grown up under Chesterton's influence so completely that we do not even know when we are thinking Chesterton." He is buried in Beaconsfield in the Catholic Cemetery. Chesterton's estate was probated at £28,389, approximately equivalent to £1.3 million in 2005.
Near the end of his life he was invested by Pope Pius XI as Knight Commander with Star of the Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great (KC*SG). The Chesterton Society has proposed that he be beatified.
Chesterton wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 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 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.
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.
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 philosophers 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." In the middle of his epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse he famously states:
For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.
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. Chesterton was also godfather to Bentley's son, Nicolas, and opened his novel The Man Who Was Thursday with a poem written to Bentley.
Chesterton faced accusations of anti-Semitism during his lifetime, as well as posthumously. In a work of 1917, titled “A Short History of England,” Chesterton considers the year of 1290, when by royal decree, Edward I expelled Jews from England, an edict not rescinded until 1655. In writing of the official expulsion and banishment of 1290, Chesterton writes that Edward I was “just and conscientious” a monarch never more truly representative of his people than when he expelled the Jews, “as powerful as they are unpopular.” Chesterton writes Jews were “capitalists of their age” so that when Edward “flung the alien financiers out of the land,” he acted as “knight errant,” and “tender father of his people.” 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.
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, like Belloc, openly expressed his abhorrence of Hitler's rule almost as soon as it started.
Chesterton is often associated with his close friend, the poet and essayist Hillaire 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 15 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.
Chesterton's The Everlasting Man contributed to C.S. Lewis'
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 10 books that "most shaped his vocational attitude and philosophy of life."
Chesterton's 1906 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 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."
Etienne Gilson praised Chesterton's Aquinas volume as follows: "I consider it as being, without possible comparison, the best book ever written on Saint Thomas...the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called 'wit' of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame."
Chesterton's column in the Illustrated London News on September 18, 1909 had a profound effect on Mahatma Gandhi. P. N. Furbank asserts that Gandhi was "thunderstruck" when he read it, while Martin Green notes that "Gandhi was so delighted with this that he told Indian Opinion to reprint it."
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, author of seventy books, identified Chesterton as the stylist who had the greatest impact on his own writing, stating in his autobiography Treasure in Clay "The greatest influence in writing was G.K. Chesterton who never used a useless word, who saw the value of a paradox, and avoided what was trite."
Canadian Media Guru Marshall McLuhan was heavily influenced by Chesterton; McLuhan said the book What's Wrong with the World changed his life in terms of ideas and religion.
The author Neil Gaiman has stated that The Napoleon of Notting Hill was an important influence on his own book Neverwhere, and used a quote from it as an epigraph to that novel. Gaiman also based the character Gilbert, from the comic book The Sandman, on Chesterton.
Argentine author and essayist Jorge Luis Borges cited Chesterton as a major influence on his own fiction. In an interview with Richard Burgin during the late 1960s, Borges said, "Chesterton knew how to make the most of a detective story."