G.K. Chesterton: An Overlooked Giant
February 9, 2012
“The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” - G.K. Chesterton
Like many, I somehow plowed through my years of high school and university studies without ever coming into contact with the (literally) gigantic literary genius of Englishman G.K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936). Somehow the infamously girthy “Prince of Paradox”—acknowledged even by his contemporaries as one of the great men of English letters—was omitted from my literature, philosophy and religion classes. Despite having produced a vast canon of diverse creative work celebrated widely during his lifetime, I have never heard him discussed in school or popular culture. Despite his influence on Christian apologetics (as a result of a profound conversion experience), I have never heard him referenced in a church service. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a reference to the influence of G.K. Chesterton upon C.S. Lewis’ own conversion to Christianity in the book A Severe Mercy, I still might not know of the man.
But who exactly was G.K. Chesterton, and why should we care?
Biographer Dale Ahlquist draws a portrait of Chesterton as an “absent-minded, overgrown elf of a man, who laughed at his own jokes ... [standing] 6’4″ and weigh[ing] about 300 pounds, usually ... a cigar in his mouth, and walk[ing] around wearing a cape and a crumpled hat, tiny glasses pinched to the end of his nose, sword stick in hand, laughter blowing through his mustache.” Chesterton was whimsical, a larger-than-life character who could have easily stumbled right out of one of his own fantastic stories onto the real streets of London. A brilliant orator, a master of mystery writing and well known for championing both common sense and childlike wonder, Chesterton’s literary works have influenced people as diverse as the Irish revolutionary Michael Collins, Mahatma Gandhi, filmmakers Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal), Alfred Hitchcock (who admired Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries) and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), as well as authors Neil Gaiman (Coraline and The Sandman graphic novels), Ernest Hemingway, Ian Fleming (creator and author of the James Bond books) and Harry Potter creator JK Rowling. Needless to say, Chesterton’s is a long and thriving shadow of influence stretching well into the 21st century.
I set out to learn more about the elusive G.K. Chesterton through reading selections from his prolific canon. I started first with Kevin Belmonte’s fine new biography, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton. From there I read Chesterton’s classic apologetic Orthodoxy (1908), then his sci-fi mystery novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908), then his Father Brown (1911) short stories and, finally, by reading his biography Charles Dickens (1906). After reading these books about and by Chesterton, it is clear to me why he was such an overwhelming literary force in his own lifetime (writing books, articles, essays, plays, scholarly studies, critical and comic reviews, editing journals, lecturing and debating other great minds of the day). What is not clear to me is how or why G.K. Chesterton has been so widely overlooked since his own time? How did it take so long for me to discover such a formidable mind and pen?
Mr. Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society, writes that G.K. Chesterton “is the most unjustly neglected writer of our time. ... 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.”
Along with being difficult to categorize, there is another reason that G.K.C. is, perhaps, lesser known today than many of his contemporaries: He was a strong opponent to the rising tide of secular humanistic thought at the end of the 19th century. Christianity and optimism were oddities in an age of growing pessimism (especially in Europe), where Nietzschean and Freudian thought offered no hopeful answers to the transcendental questions of a generation. Chesterton was intelligent, critical, creative and (although unfashionable then, as well as now) definitive in his philosophy. He believed that, through Christian orthodoxy, there were actual answers to life’s big questions—that though life was complex and strange and unpredictable, it could be navigated with confidence. He pushed back against cynicism and over-simplified conclusions and the shallow answers of atheism. His writing championed courage and monogamy and imagination and the power of stories to point people toward God. He believed that the purpose of all literature was much bigger and more magical than the transfer of information. He wrote:
“Nothing is important except the fate of the soul; and literature is only redeemed from an utter triviality ... by the fact that it describes not the world around us, or the things on the retina of the eye, or the enormous irrelevancy of encyclopedias, but some condition to which the human spirit can come.”
And that is, in essence, the legacy of the life and work of G.K. Chesterton—the books and stories and essays that he produced are more than just a collection of words; they are reminders that life is somehow both more fantastic and more intuitive than we give it credit for. His life’s work artfully challenged the emptiness of modernist philosophies, asked hard questions and also posited direct answers; the kind of questions and answers that had a hand in helping an atheist professor at Oxford named C.S. Lewis come to a reasonable and passionate faith in God. From there Lewis would spend his life inspiring generations with his life and works. Countless others at various stages on their spiritual journeys have come to believe, like Chesterton, through faith there is joy. As Chesterton said:
“Man is more himself, more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.”
If it’s true that legacy can be measured by the impact of one’s life and work upon future generations, then G.K. Chesterton has cast a profound shadow upon the past hundred years of writers, philosophers, humorists, Christian apologists—and regular old optimists like myself.
Want to learn more? G.K. Chesterton wrote prolifically and much of his work is still in print. I recommend that you begin by reading Heretics, Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man and The Innocence of Father Brown. Along with the books mentioned above check out: The Quotable Chesterton: The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton by Kevin Belmonte, The American Chesterton Society at www.chesterton.org and G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense by Dale Ahlquist.