Gilbert Keith Chesterton (29 May 1874 — 14 June 1936) was an English writer. His prolific and diverse output included philosophy, ontology, poetry, play writing, journalism, public lecturing and debating, biography, Christian apologetics, 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 liberalism 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 with Catholicism more and more, eventually converting to Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism. George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton's "friendly enemy" according to Time, said of him, "He was a man of colossal genius".
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.
Chesterton was a large man, standing and weighing around . His girth gave rise to a famous anecdote. During World War I a lady in London asked why he wasn't '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 had a cigar hanging out of his mouth. He would sometimes carry a knife and a loaded revolver.
Chesterton often forgot where he was supposed to be going and would 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 Blogg, 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." Due to these memory problems and the fact Chesterton was extremely clumsy as a child, some people have speculated 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 on 14 June 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. The homily at Chesterton's Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral, London, was delivered by Ronald Knox. He is buried in Beaconsfield in the Catholic Cemetery. Chesterton's estate was probated at £28,389, approximately equivalent to £1.3 million in modern terms.
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.
Much of his poetry is little known, though well reflecting his beliefs and opinions. The best written is probably Lepanto, with The Rolling English Road the most familiar, and The Secret People perhaps the most quoted ("we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet"). Two other much admired poems are A Ballade of Suicide and The Ballad of the White Horse.
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. When The Times invited several eminent authors to write essays on the theme "What's Wrong with the World?" Chesterton's contribution took the form of a letter:
G. K. Chesterton
Chesterton here combined wit with a serious point — that of fallen human nature and humility.
Much of Chesterton's work remains in print, including collections of the Father Brown detective stories. Ignatius Press is currently in the process of publishing a Complete Works.
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.
Incisive comments and observations occurred almost impulsively in Chesterton's writing. In the middle of his epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse he famously states:
For the great Gaels of IrelandAre 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. He was also godfather to Bentley's son, Nicolas.
"Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." — Orthodoxy, Chapter III: The Suicide of Thought, 1909
"All the terms used in the science books, 'law,' 'necessity,' 'order,' 'tendency,' and so on, are really unintellectual .... The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, 'charm,' 'spell,' 'enchantment.' They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched. I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical. We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic." — Orthodoxy, Chapter IV: The Ethics of Elfland, 1909
Chesterton is often associated with his close friend, the poet and essayist Hilaire 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.
Both Chesterton and Belloc faced accusations of anti-Semitism during their lifetimes and subsequently. 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."
The Chesterton Society has proposed him to be beatified.
Chesterton's The Everlasting Man contributed to C. S. Lewis's 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 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 writings have been praised by such authors as Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Harold Bloom, Frederick Buechner, Evelyn Waugh, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Karel ?apek, Alan Watts, David Dark, Paul Claudel, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Andrew Greeley, Sigrid Undset, Ronald Knox, Kingsley Amis, W. H. Auden, Anthony Burgess, E. F. Schumacher, Orson Welles, Dorothy Day, Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers, John Shirley, Garry Wills, H.L. Mencken, David D. Friedman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Crichton and Franz Kafka.
Philip Yancey said that if he were "stranded on a desert island and could choose only one book apart from the Bible, I may well select Chesterton's own spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy."
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.'
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."
His physical appearance and apparently some of his mannerisms were a direct inspiration for the character of Dr. Gideon Fell, a well-known fictional detective created in the early 1930s by the Anglo-American mystery writer John Dickson Carr.
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, as well as featuring a quotation from The Man who was Thursday, a book Chesterton wrote "only in dreams", at the end of Season of Mists. In his short story October in the Chair, Gaiman's description of the anthropomorphized titular month is modeled on Chesterton. Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's novel Good Omens is dedicated "to the memory of G.K. Chesterton: A man who knew what was going on." In a prescript to his novel, Coraline, Gaiman quotes Chesterton: "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."
Ingmar Bergman considered Chesterton's little known play Magic to be one of his favourites and even staged a production in Swedish. Later he reworked Magic into his movie The Magician in 1958.
The Third Way campaigns for the widespread ownership of property are inspired by the economic system Chesterton espoused: Distributism.
The Innocence of Father Brown is cited by Guillermo Martinez as one of the inspirations for his thriller The Oxford Murders.
Extracts from The Man Who Was Thursday appear throughout the computer game Deus Ex in books the player character can read from.
The Chesterton Society has proposed him to be beatified.
Braybrooke, Patrick, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1922.
Cooney, A., G.K. Chesterton, One Sword at Least, Third Way Publications, London, 1999. ISBN 0-9535077-1-8
Coren, M., Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton, Paragon House, New York, 1990.
ffinch, M., G. K. Chesterton, 1986
Kenner, H., Paradox in Chesterton, 1947.
Paine, R., The Universe and Mr. Chesterton, Sherwood Sugden, 1999. ISBN 0893855111
Pearce, J, Wisdom and Innocence — A Life of G.K.Chesterton, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1996. ISBN 0-340-67132-7
Ward, M., Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Sheed & Ward, 1944.
Marshall McLuhan wrote an article on G.K. Chesterton, titled "G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic" (Dalhousie Review 15 (4), 1936).
EWTN features a television series, G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, that focuses on Chesterton and his works.
Works by G. K. Chesterton in audio format from LibriVox
Works by G. K. Chesterton at Internet Archive
Works by G. K. Chesterton at Wikilivres (Warning: Works written after 1923 are copyright protected in the United States.)
Works by G. K. Chesterton at the Online Books Page
Essays by G. K. Chesterton at Quotidiana.org
Martin Ward An extensive collection of e-text links
G. K. Chesterton's introduction to Creatures that Once were Men, a collection of stories by Maxim Gorky in English translation (1905)
Portraits of G. K. Chesterton in the National Portrait Gallery .
Gilbert Keith Chesterton by Patrick Braybrooke
G. K. Chesterton, A Critical Study by Julius West
A teenaged GK Chesterton is the hero in The Young Chesterton Chronicles, Volume I: The Tripods Attack!, a science fiction/ alternative history adventure series, written by John McNichol and published by Imagio Catholic Fiction, an imprint of Sophia Institute Press
The American Chesterton Society
Gilbert Magazine: a magazine about Chesterton and topics of interest
G.K. Chesterton Discussion Forum: An independent arena for discussing Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chesterton.ru G. K. Chesterton in Russian
The Section on G. K. Chesterton at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Bibliography of detective fiction 1st Editions
Chesterton House: A Center for Christian Studies at Cornell University
The Chesterton Review: published by the Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture at Seton Hall University
His Parish Church in Beaconsfield where he is buried
Chesterton and Friends, a little blog dedicated to Chesterton
The Hebdomadal Chesterton, a weekly blog of excerpts from Chesterton's writings
G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense Produced by EWTN — MP3 Audio Archives include 28 Episodes with an overview of Chesterton
Brief Chesterton biography & bibliography
Index entry for G.K. Chesterton at Poets' Corner
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