Gilbert Keith Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton, by E. H. Mills, 1909.

G. K. Chesterton, by E. H. Mills, 1909.

G. K. Chesterton was one of the dominating figures of the London literary scene in the early twentieth century. Not only did he get into lively discussions with anyone who would debate him, including his friend, frequent verbal sparring partner, and noted Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, but he wrote about seemingly every topic, in every genre, from journalism to plays, poetry to crime novels. “He said something about everything and he said it better than anyone else,” declared Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chester Society, on the society’s Web site. Most of Chesterton’s literary output was nonfiction, including thousands of columns for various periodicals, but today he is best remembered for his fictional work–a mystery series about Father Brown, a Catholic priest and amateur detective.

Chesterton began his literary career as a manuscript reader for a London publishing house, but he soon moved into writing art criticism. When his friends formed a journal, the Speaker, Chesterton contributed a series of articles, and soon began writing for the London Daily News and Bookman as well. Before long, people were taking notice of his work. Ian Boyd explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “He belonged to that category of writer which used to be called the man of letters, and like the typical man of letters he wrote journalism which included a wide variety of literary forms and literature which possessed many of the characteristics of journalism.”

Chesterton’s first published books were of poetry, seemingly a far cry from his column-writing. But Boyd noticed a “close connection between his poetry and his everyday journalism.” Boyd concluded: “In this sense, T. S. Eliot‘s description of Chesterton’s poetry as ‘first-rate journalistic balladry’ turns out to have been particularly perceptive, since it is a reminder about the essential character of all Chesterton’s work. In his verse, as in all his writings, his first aim was to comment on the political and social questions of the day.”

Chesterton’s first novel, the manuscript of which was discovered in a steamer trunk in 1989, was published for the first time in 2001. Basil Howe was written in 1893, shortly after Chesterton graduated from school. Although, as critics noted, the book is clearly the work of an inexperienced, unformed writer, it shows hints of Chesterton’s future style–including the witticisms for which he would later become famous–and provides insights into his frame of mind during this stage in his life. It has long been known that Chesterton underwent a period of philosophical soul-searching during his young adulthood that was so intense that some of his friends thought he was losing his mind, and Basil Howe is assumed to have been written during that time. “Those familiar with Chesterton’s teenage years will see much of the author in” the book, Mark Knight commented in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, although he cautioned against reading the book as autobiography rather than as a novel.

Although best known nowadays for his detective fiction, Chesterton first gained public attention as a journalist and social philosopher; he actually wrote the popular, lucrative Father Brown mysteries in part to bankroll his less financially rewarding work. Questions of religion and morality were prominent in his writings. His book What’s Wrong with the World advocated Distributism, a social philosophy that divided property holders into small communities, trying to foster neighborliness. Chesterton viewed Distributism as a counter to Socialism and Capitalism, ideologies that, he felt, reduced people to inhumane units. Stephen Metcalf, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, pointed out that this philosophy, also expounded in the 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, more accurately reflects modern society’s problems than does George Orwell’s classic 1984: “It is not only . . . that Chesterton cared passionately for what ordinary humanity feels and thinks,” Metcalf stated. “It is also that he had particular convictions about how one should understand humanity.”

Much of Chesterton’s work reflected his social concern. Using literary devices such as parable and allegory, he sought to bring about social changes that embodied his religious and political beliefs. His novels, reported Brian Murray in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “are as frequently called romances, extravaganzas, fantasies, parables, or allegories. For while they are thick with the details of everyday life, Chesterton’s hastily written book-length fictions are outlandishly plotted and, in the main, unabashedly didactic.”

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