Many writers of poetry or novels are also critics. Fewer critics have also written poetry or novels. G.K. Chesterton, however, during the course of his various and colourful literary career, wrote poetry, plays and novels, including both fantasy and detective amongst other more traditional genres, while also criticising literature and art and writing in the fields of ontology and philosophy. Also a journalist and public lecturer, he found further room for his talents in the field of debating, simultaneously seeing work published in Christian apologetics and writing various biographies, alongside displaying a tenacity in history. He identified himself as an orthodox Christian of High Church Anglicism, though he would eventually convert to Roman Catholicism.
Referred to by playwright and ‘friendly enemy’ George Bernard Shaw as “a man of colossal genius”, his writing style, described in a Time Magazine review, is a display of profound linguistic ability, for “whenever possible Chesterton made his points with popular sayings, proverbs, allegories - first carefully turning them inside out”. His style is instantly recognisable, combining humility, wit, consistence, pith and paradox.
Chesterton was born Gilbert Keith on 29th May 1874 on Campden HIll in Kensington in London. His education was at St Paul’s Cathedral School in London, after which, seeking to become an illustrator, he attended the Slade School of Art, a department of University College London. While there he was able to take literature classes, though he never completed a degree in either illustration or literature. He undertook work for Redway, a publishing house based in London and T. Fisher Unwin in 1896, remaining there until 1902, gaining his first experience in the area of journalism as a freelance art and literary critic. Duing this period he married Frances Blogg, a marriage which lasted the rest of his life, happily. After he stopped working at Redway he achieved a position as a weekly opinion columnist for The Daily News, which he followed with a similar arrangement in The Illustrated London News, for which he wrote regularly for the following thirty years. At this still relatively young age and as a result of a crisis of skepticism and mild depression, he and his brother Cecil became interested in the occult and together they experimented with Ouija boards, though this youthful fascination would dwindle and give way to the orthodox Christianity which would see him through the rest of his life. Both his interest in and talent for art were clear, and having planned to become an artist, his writing displays a clear genius for imagining and then rendering abstract, complex ideas in a memorable, visual manner, similar to the manner in which a successful painter treats his subject and his canvas.
As a large man, Chesterton was subject to various jokes and there are two noteworthy quips made by or to him which must be included in any description. At 6 feet and 4 inches tall and 21 stone round, he was of little use in situations of an energetic physical nature. This ensured his safety during the first world war and, while he was in London, a woman asked him why he was not “out at the front”. In riposte, he assured her that if she would “go round to the side, [she would see that he was]”. Separately, he remarked to George Bernard Shaw that “to look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England”, though Shaw parried with “to look at you, anyone would think you have caused it.” These instances of wit and good nature are fine examples of his excellence literary talent and the patience and good humour which made him such a fine debater. P.G. Wodehouse would describe a loud noise in The World of Mr. Mulliner as “a sound like Chesterton falling onto a sheet of tin”.
In conjunction with his somewhat comical, at any rate remarkable, appearance, he found himself frequently lost and having forgotten the reason for his being out in the first place. Missing trains and then taking the wrong one in the vague knowledge that he had to be somewhere, though not quite sure where, he would frequently telegraph his wife Frances from wherever he ended up. An example of one of these telegrams displays the brief “Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?” This request, and those like it, would be met with the equally perfunctory “home”. Whether he returned instantly from Market Harborough or via an equally convoluted route, is unknown. Despite his casual and blasé approach to his regular memory loss, it has been suggested that he may perhaps have suffered from undiagnosed developmental dyspraxia, a condition medically unrecognised at the time. As a writer and a sufferer, he was in good company; other writers suspected to have suffered from the condition include Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. Alongside George Bernard Shaw, he would engage in frequent friendly public disputes with H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell and Clarence Darrow; fine company indeed for a man of such rapacious intellect.
In 1909, Chesterton and his wife moved to Beaconsfield, some twenty-five miles to the west of London, and from here Chesterton continued to write, lecture and travel energetically. His travels produced some of his more interesting work in analysis of human nature, an example of which can be found in his What I Saw in America, published in 1922:
I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the mind. At least a man must make a double effort of moral humility and imaginative energy to prevent it from narrowing his mind. Indeed there is something touching and even tragic about the thought of the thoughtless tourist, who might have stayed at home loving Laplanders, embracing Chinamen, and clasping Patagonians to his heart in Hampstead or Surbiton, but for his blind and suicidal impulse to go and see what they looked like.
Rather than providing a humourous, light-hearted and anecdotal account of his travels in the manner of, for example, Mark Twain, he takes a few encounters and explores them in great detail before applying them to his ideas of philosophy, politics and economics, discoursing variously on hotels, jokes, signs and machinery. The universality of his thinking is made manifest in his consideration of the nature of his discussions of national boundaries, finding the friendship between America and England to be founded on “reciprocal ridicule”, while the key to true cosmopolitanism is “really understanding jokes”. Finding every difference between countries significant and to be celebrated, his sense of humour, ferocious wit and quickness of mind is exemplified throughout the volume in his aphorisms and witticisms; he describes one of the differences between America and England, noting that “all good Americans wish to fight the representatives they have chosen. All good Englishmen wish to forget the representatives they have chosen”.
That this notion of uniqueness in distinctive qualities, customs and traditions is so fundamentally doctrinal to his writing seems somewhat contradictory to the first line of What I Saw in America, that “travel narrows the mind”. However, Chesterton manages to avoid the temptation for the traveller to think small thoughts about the many and various distractions he encounters while travelling, as opposed to the armchair traveller who visits these places only in books and in his mind, instead turning what seems initially to be a travelogue into a detailed and lengthy reflection of the identity of nations, both how they identify themselves and how they are identified by others, along with the constitutive parts which are the components of that identity. Finding, in America, a prevailing sense of positivity, a national ‘mood’, he reflects on whether it is the essence of “the historic love of comrades or the last hysteria of the herd instinct”, while noting a sense of honour and duty, even in the littlest of things.
For a man of such prodigious genius and prolific output, Chesterton is surprisingly little known. His 100 books, various contributions to 200 more, hundreds of poems, five plays, five novels, 200 short stories and 4000 newspaper essays go frequently unread, though the majority of his ideas prove relevant to societal issues faced today. Described by Ettienne Gilson, the renowned Thomistic scholar in a review of his book on St. Thomas Aquinas, he was
one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable, so he left it to those who could understand him to know that he was right, and deep; to the others, he apologised for being right, and he made up for being deep by being witty. That is all they can see of him.
The eloquence of his argument against so many of the prevailing trends which would come to dominate the twentieth century, for example its materialism, its scientific determinism, its agnosticism and its moral relativism renders it incredibly difficult to square up to him in argument. Indeed, as he debated those great men of his time, so do his arguments stand tall in the face of contemporary criticism. “To argue with Chesterton is to lose”, despite the audience’s persuasion in the matter being considered.
Perhaps, then, it is for this reason that he is so relatively unknown. His defence of freedom, the “common man” and the poor, the Catholic faith and Christianity as a whole and the clear contentions between his support of these subjects and the established curriculums of the classroom, along with the prejudices and ulterior motives of the media and so much of the capitalised public and business spheres, render his various writings obstacles to be circumnavigated rather than surmounted and assumed. As a teacher, he astonishes us, challenges our preconceptions and informs us; he dismantles the very fabric of our understanding of the societal constructs in which we exist and then rebuilds it before our very eyes, but, most importantly for a teacher, makes us laugh while he does it. As George Bernard Shaw said, “the world is not thankful enough for Chesterton”.