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G. K. Chesterton: "Who is this guy and why haven’t I heard of him?"
A pithy bio of G.K. Chesterton by Dale Ahlquist, President, American Chesterton Society
I’ve heard the question more than once. It is asked by people who have just started to discover G.K. Chesterton. They have begun reading a Chesterton book, or perhaps have seen an issue of Gilbert! Magazine, or maybe they’ve only encountered a series of pithy quotations that marvelously articulate some forgotten bit of common sense. They ask the question with a mixture of wonder, gratitude and . . . resentment. They are amazed by what they have discovered. They are thankful to have discovered it. And they are almost angry that it has taken so long for them to make the discovery.
"Who is this guy. . .?"
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) cannot be summed up in one sentence. Nor in one paragraph. In fact, in spite of the fine biographies that have been written of him, (and his Autobiography) he has never been captured between the covers of one book. But rather than waiting to separate the goats from the sheep, let’s just come right out and say it: G.K. Chesterton was the best writer of the twentieth century. He said something about everything and he said it better than anybody else. But he was no mere wordsmith. He was very good at expressing himself, but more importantly, he had something very good to express. The reason he was the greatest writer of the twentieth century was because he was also the greatest thinker of the twentieth century.
Born in London, Chesterton was educated at St. Paul’s, but never went to college. He went to art school. In 1900, he was asked to contribute a few magazine articles on art criticism, and went on to become one of the most prolific writers of all time. He wrote a hundred books, contributions to 200 more, hundreds of poems, including the epic Ballad of the White Horse, five plays, five novels, and some two hundred short stories, including a popular series featuring the priest-detective, Father Brown. In spite of his literary accomplishments, he considered himself primarily a journalist. He wrote over 4000 newspaper essays, including 30 years worth of weekly columns for the Illustrated London News, and 13 years of weekly columns for the Daily News. He also edited his own newspaper, G.K.’s Weekly. (To put it into perspective, four thousand essays is the equivalent of writing an essay a day, every day, for 11 years. If you’re not impressed, try it some time. But they have to be good essays, all of them, as funny as they are serious, and as readable and rewarding a century after you’ve written them.)
Chesterton was equally at ease with literary and social criticism, history, politics, economics, philosophy, and theology. His style is unmistakable, always marked by humility, consistency, paradox, wit, and wonder. His writing remains as timely and as timeless today as when it first appeared, even though much of it was published in throw away paper.
This man who composed such profound and perfect lines as "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried," stood 6’4" and weighed about 300 pounds, usually had a cigar in his mouth, and walked around wearing a cape and a crumpled hat, tiny glasses pinched to the end of his nose, swordstick in hand, laughter blowing through his moustache. And usually had no idea where or when his next appointment was. He did much of his writing in train stations, since he usually missed the train he was supposed to catch. In one famous anecdote, he wired his wife, saying, "Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?" His faithful wife, Frances, attended to all the details of his life, since he continually proved he had no way of doing it himself. She was later assisted by a secretary, Dorothy Collins, who became the couple’s surrogate daughter, and went on to become the writer’s literary executrix, continuing to make his work available after his death.
This absent-minded, overgrown elf of a man, who laughed at his own jokes and amused children at birthday parties by catching buns in his mouth, this was the man who wrote a book called The Everlasting Man, which led a young atheist named C.S. Lewis to become a Christian. This was the man who wrote a novel called The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which inspired Michael Collins to lead a movement for Irish Independence. This was the man who wrote an essay in the Illustrated London News that inspired Mohandas Gandhi to lead a movement to end British colonial rule in India. This was a man who, when commissioned to write a book on St. Thomas Aquinas (aptly titled Saint Thomas Aquinas), had his secretary check out a stack of books on St. Thomas from the library, opened the top book on the stack, thumbed through it, closed it, and proceeded to dictate a book on St. Thomas. Not just any book. The renowned Thomistic scholar, Etienne Gilson, had this to say about it:
His writing has been praised by Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Karel Capek, Marshall McLuhan, Paul Claudel, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Sigrid Undset, Ronald Knox, Kingsley Amis, W.H. Auden, Anthony Burgess, E.F. Schumacher, Neil Gaiman, and Orson Welles. To name a few.
T.S. Eliot said that Chesterton "deserves a permanent claim on our loyalty."
". . . and why haven’t I heard of him?
There are three answers to this question:
- I don’t know.
- You’ve been cheated.
- Chesterton is the most unjustly neglected writer of our time. Perhaps it is proof that education is too important to be left to educators and that publishing is too important to be left to publishers, but there is no excuse why Chesterton is no longer taught in our schools and why his writing is not more widely reprinted and especially included in college anthologies. Well, there is an excuse. It seems that Chesterton is tough to pigeonhole, and if a writer cannot be quickly consigned to a category, or to one-word description, he risks falling through the cracks. Even if he weighs three hundred pounds.
Chesterton argued eloquently against all the trends that eventually took over the twentieth century: materialism, scientific determinism, moral relativism, and spineless agnosticism. He also argued against both socialism and capitalism and showed why they have both been the enemies of freedom and justice in modern society.
And what did he argue for? What was it he defended? He defended "the common man" and common sense. He defended the poor. He defended the family. He defended beauty. And he defended Christianity and the Catholic Faith. These don’t play well in the classroom, in the media, or in the public arena. And that is probably why he is neglected. The modern world prefers writers who are snobs, who have exotic and bizarre ideas, who glorify decadence, who scoff at Christianity, who deny the dignity of the poor, and who think freedom means no responsibility.
But even though Chesterton is no longer taught in schools, you cannot consider yourself educated until you have thoroughly read Chesterton. And furthermore, thoroughly reading Chesterton is almost a complete education in itself. Chesterton is indeed a teacher, and the best kind. He doesn’t merely astonish you. He doesn’t just perform the wonder of making you think. He goes beyond that. He makes you laugh.(Reprinted by kind permission of Dale Ahlquist and the American Chesterton Society.)
Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society.
He is the creator and host of the television series, “G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense,” on EWTN. Dale is the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, author of The Chesterton University Student Handbook, editor of The Gift of Wonder: The Many Sides of G.K. Chesterton, associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He has been called “one of the most respected Chesterton scholars in the world” and has delighted audiences around the country with his variety of talks on the great English writer. He is a graduate of Carleton College (B.A.) in Northfield, Minnesota, and Hamline University (M.A.) in St. Paul, Minnesota. He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and five children. Like Chesterton, Dale is a Catholic convert and a joyful defender of the Catholic Faith. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Excerpts and Articles
• How the Great Wind Came to Beacon House | G. K. Chesterton | Chapter One of Manalive
• G.K. Chesterton, the Poet | Denis J. Conlon
• St. Thomas More | G. K. Chesterton
• A Simple Thought | G. K. Chesterton
• The Problem of the Plantagenets | G. K. Chesterton
• Chesterton and Orthodoxy | Carl E. Olson and Dale Ahlquist
• Seeing With the Eyes of G.K. Chesterton | Dale Ahlquist
• Recovering The Lost Art of Common Sense | Dale Ahlquist
• Common Sense Apostle & Cigar Smoking Mystic | Dale Ahlquist
• Chesterton and the "Paradoxy" of Orthodoxy | Carl E. Olson
• The Attraction of Orthodoxy | Joseph Pearce
• The Emancipation of Domesticity | G.K. Chesterton
• The God in the Cave | G.K. Chesterton
• What Is America? | G.K. Chesterton
• Mary and the Convert | G.K. Chesterton
• Chesterton and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce
• Chesterton and the Delight of Truth | James V. Schall, S.J.
• The Life and Theme of G.K. Chesterton | Randall Paine | An Introduction to The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton
• Hot Water and Fresh Air: On Chesterton and His Foes | Janet E. Smith
• ChesterBelloc | Ralph McInerny
Ignatius Press Books About Chesterton's Life and Work
Classic Works by G.K. Chesterton
The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton
• Volume 1: Heretics, Orthodoxy, Blatchford Controversies (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 2: St. Francis, Everlasting Man, St. Thomas (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 3: The Catholic Church and Conversion; Where All Roads Lead; The Well and the Shallows; and others. (Softcover)
• Volume 4: What's Wrong with the World, Superstition of Divorce, Eugenics and Other Evils (Softcover)
• Volume 5: The Outline of Sanity, The End of The Armistice, The Appetite of Tyranny, Utopia of Usurers, and more (Softcover)
• Volume 6: To be published
• Volume 7: The Ball and the Cross, Manalive, The Flying Inn (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 8: The Man Who Knew Too Much, Tales of the Long Bow, The Return of Don Quixote (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 9: To be published
• Volume 10: Collected Poetry, Part 1 (Softcover)
• Volume 10: Collected Poetry, Part 2 (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 10: Collected Poetry, Part 3 (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 11: Collected Plays and Chesterton on Shaw (Softcover)
• Volume 12: Father Brown Stories, Part 1 (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 13: Father Brown Stories, Part 2 (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 14: Short Stories, Fairy Tales, Mystery Stories (Softcover)
• Volume 15: Chesterton on Dickens (Softcover)
• Volume 16: The Autobiography (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 17: To be published
• Volume 18: Robert Louis Stevenson, Chaucer, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Carlyle (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 19: To be published
• Volume 20: Christendom in Dublin, Irish Impressions, The New Jerusalem, A Short History of England (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 21: What I Saw in America, The Resurrection of Rome, Sidelights (Softcover)
• Volume 22: To be published
• Volume 23: To be published
• Volume 24: To be published
• Volume 25: To be published
• Volume 26: To be published
• Volume 27: Illustrated London News, 1905-1907 (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 28: Illustrated London News, 1908-1910 (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 29: Illustrated London News, 1911-1913 (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 30: Illustrated London News, 1914-1916 (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 31: Illustrated London News, 1917-1919 (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 32: Illustrated London News, 1920-1922 (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 33: Illustrated London News, 1923-1925 (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 34: Illustrated London News, 1926-1928 (Softcover | Hardcover)
• Volume 35: Illustrated London News, 1929-1931
• Volume 36: Illustrated London News, 1932-1934 (Softcover | Hardcover)
Taken from: http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/authors/gkchesterton.asp