G.K.Chesterton was one of the 20th century’s most prolific writers, his range including poetry, dramas, biographies, and novels. As an essayist, however, he was no less productive, and his collected efforts in this category fill dozens of volumes. Considered by some critics to be one of the last of the great “men of letters,” Chesterton wrote essays on a wide variety of topics over a span of more than 40 years. As with any author producing such an enormous yield of literature, the quality often varied, but as T.S.Eliot noted in Chesterton’s obituary in the Tablet (20 June 1936), “it is not, I think, for any piece of writing in particular that Chesterton is of importance, but for the place that he occupied, the position that he represented, during the better part of a generation.”
When his first collection of essays, The Defendant, appeared in 1901, Chesterton had already gained something of a reputation as an essayist for his contributions to a number of English periodicals such as the Speaker, the Bookman, and the Daily News. Thus, as most reviewers were already familiar with Chesterton’s style and his sometimes paradoxical approach to his subject matter, few were disappointed in this collection of largely humorous essays on topics ranging from nonsense to ugly things. As an anonymous reviewer for the Whitehall Review (27 February 1902) wrote, “The whole book, in short, is one of the most delightful companions possible for a man to have with him, and if it does not run through two or three editions rapidly then there is no humor left in these decadent days.”
This critical observation made so early in his career notes perhaps one of the defining characteristics of many of Chesterton’s essays: his humor. While not given to writing overtly funny, rollicking essays, Chesterton was always cognizant of the fact that a little humor in an otherwise serious work could strengthen its argument and draw attention to the essay’s salient points. However, these touches of humor were to be consistently observed by critics as evidence of Chesterton’s flippancy, charges that he failed to appreciate. In the preface to Orthodoxy (1908), Chesterton—by this time the author of a
number of works—refuted his critics’ assertions of his often cavalier attitude by claiming that even if the work were dull, “dullness will, however, free me from the charge which I most lament; the charge of being flippant. Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused.”
However, even today it is difficult to read Chesterton’s literature without feeling that he is purposely making light of certain situations, leaving the reader uncertain as to whether he is actually attempting to be humorous or not. For example, in one of his most famous works, Charles Dickens (1906), Chesterton makes a typically paradoxical comment concerning Dickens’ marriage to Catherine Hogarth. Noting Dickens’ often obsessive devotion to her sisters Mary and Georgina, Chesterton claims that Dickens was overwhelmed by the attentions of all of the sisters, and “as sometimes happens in undeveloped youth, an abstract femininity simply intoxicated him. And again, I think we shall not be accused of harshness if we put the point this way: that by a kind of accident he got hold of the wrong sister.” While Dickensian purists might begrudgingly admit that there is perhaps a modicum of truth in the assertion, no doubt the statement ultimately appears to be a humorous attempt to define the reason Dickens chose what appeared to be an incompatible mate. In this and other cases, Chesterton was simply a victim of his own success: he often came across as being funny whether he intended to or not. As for Charles Dickens as a work, critics pointed out that although it purported to be a biography, it was in itself a collection of related essays, much of it literary criticism, relating to the famous author.
In addition to his humor, perhaps the other characteristic Chesterton’s work was noted for was his occasional laudatory stance on Orthodox Christianity. Then, as now, alluding to one’s religious beliefs could be literary suicide, but Chesterton never appeared to worry about offending his readers; in fact he seemed aware that his place as a man of letters provided him a unique opportunity to share his views and religious opinions.
Generally, Chesterton was able to avoid being heavyhanded, even in works that were intrinsically religious, such as Orthodoxy, St. Thomas Aquinas (1933), The Everlasting Man (1925), and St. Francis of Assisi (1923). Like many of his volume-length works, these were essentially collections of interrelated essays, and most critics recognized them as such.
Today Chesterton’s reputation as an essayist has been somewhat eclipsed by the continuing popularity of his fictional works, and he is now probably best known for his Father Brown detective stories. Yet there is still much that can be gained by reading Chesterton’s essays. Perhaps his friend Hilaire Belloc best defined how we should evaluate Chesterton’s place as an essayist when he wrote in the Observer (21 June 1936), at Chesterton’s death, that his “was a voice from which I learnt continually, from the first day I heard it until the last; acquiring its discoveries, explanations, definitions which continue to increase my possessions. Nor does it cease. Nor will it cease.”
JAMES R.SIMMONS, JR.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Born in London, 29 May 1874. Studied at St. Paul’s School, London, 1887–92, where he edited the Debater, Slade School of Art, London, 1893–96.
Worked for Redway publishers, London, 1896, and T. Fisher Unwin publishers, London, 1896–1902. Married Frances Alice Blogg, 1901. Columnist for the London Daily News, 1901–13, and the Illustrated London News, 1905–36. Moved to Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, 1909. Founder, with his brother Cecil Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and editor, with others, Eye Witness, 1911–12; contributor, London Daily Herald, 1913– 14; editor, New Witness, 1916–23, and G.K.’s Weekly, 1925–36. Leader of the Distributist movement, from 1919, and president of the Distributist League. Joined the Roman Catholic Church, 1922. Radio broadcaster, BBC, 1930s. Illustrated some of his own works and books by others.
Awards: honorary degrees from three universities.
Fellow, Royal Society of Literature; Knight Commander with Star, Order of St. Gregory the Great, 1934. Died in Beaconsfield, 14 June 1936.
Essays and Related Prose
The Defendant, 1901; revised edition, 1903
Twelve Types, 1902; enlarged edition, as Varied Types, 1903
Charles Dickens, 1906
All Things Considered, 1908
Tremendous Trifles, 1909
Alarms and Discursions, 1910
A Defence of Nonsense and Other Essays, 1911
A Miscellany of Men, 1912
The Victorian Age of Literature, 1913
The Barbarism of Berlin, 1914
Utopia of Usurers and Other Essays, 1917
The Uses of Diversity: A Book of Essays, 1920
St. Francis of Assisi, 1923
The Everlasting Man, 1925
Generally Speaking: A Book of Essays, 1928
The Thing, 1929
Come to Think of It: A Book of Essays, 1930
All Is Grist: A Book of Essays, 1931
Sidelights on New London and Newer York and Other Essays, 1932
All I Survey: A Book of Essays, 1933
St. Thomas Aquinas, 1933
Avowals and Denials: A Book of Essays, 1934
The Well and the Shallows, 1935
As I Was Saying: A Book of Essays, 1936
Essays, edited by John Guest, 1939
Selected Essays, edited by Dorothy Collins, 1949
The Common Man, 1950
Essays, edited by K.E.Whitehorn, 1953
A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books and Writers, edited by Dorothy Collins, 1953
The Glass Walking-Stick and Other Essays from the Illustrated London News, 1905– 1936, edited by Dorothy Collins, 1955
Lunacy and Letters, edited by Dorothy Collins, 1958
The Spice of Life and Other Essays, edited by Dorothy Collins, 1964
G.K.Chesterton: A Selection from His Non-Fictional Prose, edited by W.H.Auden, 1970
The Apostle and the Wild Ducks, and Other Essays, edited by Dorothy Collins, 1975
As I Was Saying: A Chesterton Reader, edited by Robert Knille, 1985
The Bodley Head Chesterton, edited by P.J.Kavanagh, 1985; as The Essential Chesterton, 1987
G.K.’s Weekly: A Sampler, edited by Lyle W.Dorsett, 1986
Other writings: several novels, Father Brown detective stories, collections of poetry, plays, and an autobiography.
Collected works edition: Collected Works, edited by D.J.Conlon, 1986–in progress).
Sullivan, John, G.K.Chesterton: A Bibliography, London: University of London, 1958; supplement, 1968; and G.K. Chesterton 3: A Bibliographical Postscript, 1980
Auden, W.H., Introduction to G.K.Chesterton: A Selection from His Non-Fictional Prose, edited by Auden, London: Faber, 1970
Boyd, Ian, The Novels of G.K.Chesterton: A Study in Art and Propaganda, New York: Barnes and Noble, and London: Elek, 1975
Cammaerts, Emile, The Laughing Prophet: The Seven Virtues and G.K.Chesterton, Folcroft, Pennsylvania: Folcroft, 1979 (original edition, 1937)
Conlon, D.J., G.K.Chesterton: The Critical judgments, Part 1:1900–1937, Antwerp: Antwerp Studies in English Literature, 1976
Conlon, D.J., editor, G.K.Chesterton: A Half Century of Views, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987
Evans, Maurice, G.K.Chesterton, New York: Haskell House, 1972 (original edition, 1939)
Kenner, Hugh, Paradox in Chesterton, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1947; London: Sheed and Ward, 1948
Ward, Maisie, Return to Chesterton, London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1952
Wills, Gary, Chesterton: Man and Mask, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961
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