I talk about somebody named G. K. Chesterton quite a bit, in case you haven’t noticed. I don’t just talk about him on my blog. I talk about him in real life, too. As a result, several of my friends and relatives are wondering who this guy is. Perhaps you are too. Thus I will now do my humble best to introduce Chesterton. This will take several posts; I can’t say in advance exactly how many.
Many people, when they’re young, pick up on a certain author and decide that he (or she) is all that and that they’ll plan their life around the writings of that author. My brother went in for Orson Scott Card during his high school years, though it would be unfair to call it an obsession. Ayn Rand is a popular choice among teenagers in some circles. Joseph Heller still gets converts once in a while, as do Robert Jordan and others. I knew a girl in college who obsessed over Jacqueline Carey. The movie Little Miss Sunshine features a teenage character who takes a vow of silence because of Friedrich Nietzsche. As a college student, I, of course, knew better. Life is too complex for any one author to capture it all. True intellectualism and wisdom comes only from plunging into the works of many different authors, comparing and contrasting, filtering out the worthiness of each, etc… It was only after leaving college, in my second year of graduate school, that I discovered my author.
In addition to being an author, G. K. Chesteron was an editor and publisher at several different newspapers, a speaker, an artist, and an activist. He is rarely remembered for those things any more, however. These days, those who remember Chesterton remember his writing.
What can I say about his writing? For most authors it’s possible to at least give a broad categorization of their writing. Shakespeare was a playwright, Dickens a novelist, Thomas Paine a pamphleteer. Chesterton is tough to categorize because he wrote so much. Ignatius Press is currently publishing his complete works. They’ve been at it for over a decade and they’re nowhere close to done. When finished, Chesterton’s work will fill over fifty large volumes, most of which will contain multiple entire books.
If I had to describe his output, I’d have to begin by splitting it into fiction and non-fiction. He wrote massive amounts of both. Within fiction, he wrote prose, plays, and poetry. Within non-fiction, he wrote books, essays, newspaper columns, speeches, and more. Within prose, he wrote both novels and short stories, as well as some works that lie on the border between novel and short story, not to mention fables and fairy tales. His novels and stories cover every genre from mystery to fantasy to science fiction to literary fiction, and many simply can’t be fitted into a single genre. And so forth. You see why categorization is difficult.
Perhaps I should try a different angle of attack, that of biography. Chesterton was born in London in 1874 and died in 1936. Though he traveled a great deal, he always remained an Englishman. You can listen to him in this video and hear that he sounded extremely British:
While he was born into a middle-class family, various circumstances lead to him flirting with poverty through his adult life, especially after he married in 1901. (His wife was named Frances Blogg Chesterton, thus making him the first author to have a blogg.) He chose to make writing his career and he had no choice but to earn money by writing. This is, perhaps, the only thread that ties all of Chesterton’s writing together and separated him from his contemporaries. He had to be commercially successful in order to support his family. Unlike James Joyce, he could not devote decades to writing a single book. Unlike Martin Heidegger, he couldn’t write things that were only comprehensible to a small circle of academics. Unlike Friedrich Nietzsche, he did not have the luxury of going insane.
As I see it, this commercial pressure influence Chesterton in three important ways. First, as already noted, he had to write enormous amounts of material. Second, he had to write plainly and directly, in ways that a popular audience could understand. Third, his writing had to have actual appeal to ordinary people. He could not afford to be a snob or to treat people with contempt. This did not mean that he always caved to popular opinion or sucked up to common prejudices–far from it, as we’ll soon see. But it did mean that when he took a stance, he needed to put forth a sound basis for that stance, and he always did so with verve and flair.