Authors: G. K. Chesterton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

English author

May 29, 1874

London, England

June 14, 1936

Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England

Biography

The English essayist, novelist, and poet Gilbert Keith Chesterton was educated at St. Paul’s School, which he left in 1891 to study art before following his natural bent toward literature by producing his first book of poems, The Wild Knight, in 1900. In 1901, he married Frances Blogg and became a regular contributor to two leading newspapers. Chesterton regarded himself as a journalist, and nothing that was in the news of the day failed to get into his writing. From 1918 on, he edited G. K.’s Weekly.

Although Chesterton became famous for his ardent apologies on orthodox Anglican and Roman Catholic dogma and he himself converted to Roman Catholicism in 1922, he was a very tolerant man; two of his closest friends, H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, were nonbelievers. The general Christian truths he preached in Orthodoxy in 1908 he later also expounded in St. Thomas Aquinas in 1933. He was a controversial thinker whose “chief idea of life” was the awakening of wonder, or of an awareness of a thing as being seen for the first time. He became a master of paradox. He declared, for example, that “nothing succeeds like failure,” but he was referring to the “failure” of Christ's crucifixion.

G. K. Chesterton

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(Library of Congress)

A prolific writer, Chesterton will be remembered longest, in all probability, for his literary criticisms (Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Chaucer) and for his penetrating religious analyses (St. Francis of Assisi, The Everlasting Man, and The Thing). A delightful light verse writer and illustrator, he was also a fine rhetorical poet. As a writer of fiction, he was perhaps most successful in the five volumes of his Father Brown detective stories, in which Father Brown relies on keen intuition and theological insights to solve crimes that baffle professional detectives. In all of his works, however, including three plays and innumerable essays, he hammers home Christian truths. Through his sociological books, What’s Wrong with the World and The Outline of Sanity, he became with Hilaire Belloc a leading exponent of the policy of economic and political decentralization known as “Distributism.”

Possessing a brilliant mind and a huge hulk of a body, this Christian humorist endeared himself to thousands through his writings and extensive lecture tours in Europe, America, and Palestine. His much-touted absent-mindedness and shaggy appearance lent themselves for the subject of innumerable cartoons and anecdotes.

Author Works Nonfiction: Basil Howe: A Story of Young Love, wr. 1894, pb. 2001 The Defendant, 1901 Twelve Types, 1902 (revised as Varied Types, 1903 also known as Simplicity and Tolstoy) Thomas Carlyle, 1902 Robert Louis Stevenson, 1902 (with W. Robertson Nicoll) Leo Tolstoy, 1903 (with G. H. Perris and Edward Garnett) Charles Dickens, 1903 (with F. G. Kitton) Robert Browning, 1903 Tennyson, 1903 (with Richard Garnett) Thackeray, 1903 (with Lewis Melville) G. F. Watts, 1904 Heretics, 1905 Charles Dickens: A Critical Study, 1906 All Things Considered, 1908 Orthodoxy, 1908 George Bernard Shaw, 1909, revised 1935 Tremendous Trifles, 1909 What’s Wrong with the World, 1910 Alarms and Discursions, 1910 William Blake, 1910 The Ultimate Lie, 1910 Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, 1911 A Defence of Nonsense, and Other Essays, 1911 The Future of Religion: Mr. G. K. Chesterton’s Reply to Mr. Bernard Shaw, 1911 The Conversion of an Anarchist, 1912 A Miscellany of Men, 1912 The Victorian Age in Literature, 1913 Thoughts from Chesterton, 1913 The Barbarism of Berlin, 1914 London, 1914 (with Alvin Langdon Coburn) Prussian Versus Belgian Culture, 1914 The Crimes of England, 1915 Letters to an Old Garibaldian, 1915 The So-Called Belgian Bargain, 1915 Divorce Versus Democracy, 1916 Temperance and the Great Alliance, 1916 A Shilling for My Thoughts, 1916 Lord Kitchener, 1917 A Short History of England, 1917 Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays, 1917 How to Help Annexation, 1918 Irish Impressions, 1920 The Superstition of Divorce, 1920 Charles Dickens Fifty Years After, 1920 The Uses of Diversity, 1920 The New Jerusalem, 1920 Eugenics and Other Evils, 1922 What I Saw in America, 1922 Fancies Versus Fads, 1923 St. Francis of Assisi, 1923 The End of the Roman Road: A Pageant of Wayfarers, 1924 The Superstitions of the Sceptic, 1924 The Everlasting Man, 1925 William Cobbett, 1925 The Outline of Sanity, 1926 The Catholic Church and Conversion, 1926 A Gleaming Cohort, Being from the Words of G. K. Chesterton, 1926 Social Reform Versus Birth Control, 1927 Culture and the Coming Peril, 1927 Robert Louis Stevenson, 1927 Generally Speaking, 1928 (essays) Do We Agree? A Debate, 1928 (with George Bernard Shaw) The Thing, 1929 G. K. C. as M. C., Being a Collection of Thirty-seven Introductions, 1929 The Resurrection of Rome, 1930 Come to Think of It, 1930 The Turkey and the Turk, 1930 At the Sign of the World’s End, 1930 Is There a Return to Religion?, 1931 (with E. Haldeman-Julius) All Is Grist, 1931 Chaucer, 1932 Sidelights on New London and Newer York, and Other Essays, 1932 Christendom in Dublin, 1932 All I Survey, 1933 St. Thomas Aquinas, 1933 G. K. Chesterton, 1933 (also known as Running After One’s Hat, and Other Whimsies) Avowals and Denials, 1934 The Well and the Shallows, 1935 Explaining the English, 1935 As I Was Saying, 1936 Autobiography, 1936 The Man Who Was Chesterton, 1937 The End of the Armistice, 1940 The Common Man, 1950 The Glass Walking-Stick, and Other Essays from the “Illustrated London News,” 1905-1936, 1955 Lunacy and Letters, 1958 Where All Roads Lead, 1961 The Man Who Was Orthodox: A Selection from the Uncollected Writings of G. K. Chesterton, 1963 The Spice of Life, and Other Essays, 1964 Chesterton on Shakespeare, 1971 G. K. Chesterton at the Daily News: Literature, Liberalism, and Revolution, 1901-1913, Columns, Reviews, and Letters, 2012 Long Fiction: The Napoleon of Notting Hill, 1904 The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, 1908 The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911 Manalive, 1912 The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1914 The Flying Inn, 1914 The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926 The Secret of Father Brown, 1927 The Floating Admiral, 1931 (with others) The Scandal of Father Brown, 1935 The Vampire of the Village, 1947 Short Fiction: The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown, 1903 The Club of Queer Trades, 1905 The Perishing of the Pendragons, 1914 The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Other Stories, 1922 Tales of the Long Bow, 1925 Stories, 1928 The Sword of Wood, 1928 The Moderate Murder and the Honest Quack, 1929 The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale, 1929 Four Faultless Felons, 1930 The Ecstatic Thief, 1930 The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, 1936 Poetry: Greybeards at Play: Literature and Art for Old Gentlemen—Rhymes and Sketches, 1900 The Wild Knight, and Other Poems, 1900, revised 1914 The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911 A Poem, 1915 Poems, 1915 Wine, Water, and Song, 1915 Old King Cole, 1920 The Ballad of St. Barbara, and Other Verses, 1922 Poems, 1925 The Queen of Seven Swords, 1926 Gloria in Profundis, 1927 Ubi Ecclesia, 1929 The Grave of Arthur, 1930 G. K. Chesterton's Early Poetry: Greybeards at Play, The White Knight and Other Poems, The Ballad of the White Horse, 2004 Edited Texts: Thackeray, 1909 Samuel Johnson, 1911 (with Alice Meynell) Essays by Divers Hands, 1926 Miscellaneous: Stories, Essays, and Poems, 1935 The Coloured Lands, 1938 The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, 1986–1999 (35 volumes) Bibliography Accardo, Pasquale J., John Peterson, and Geir Hasnes, eds. Sherlock Holmes Meets Father Brown. Shelburne, Ont.: Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2000. Collection of criticism and related work that attempts to gain for scholars of Chesterton’s Father Brown character the same prestige and critical energy that has been enjoyed for decades by scholars of Sherlock Holmes. Ahlquist, Dale. G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense. San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 2003. Provides an introductory overview of Chesterton’s life and work designed for general readers, with analyses of some of Chesterton’s novels, including books in the Father Brown series. Designed to complement a television series of the same title created by Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society. Bloom, Harold, ed. G. K. Chesterton. New York: Chelsea House, 2006. Collection of essays analyzes various aspects of Chesterton’s work, including the author’s view of the grotesque and “terror and play” in his imagination. Editor’s introduction provides an overview to Chesterton’s life and work. Boyd, Ian. The Novels of G. K. Chesterton: A Study in Art and Propaganda. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975. Good study examines Chesterton’s major novels as well as his collections of short stories. Discusses the novels chronologically, with a chapter each about novels in his early years, pre-World War I, postwar, and later years. Buechner, Frederick. Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Discusses Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday. Carol, Sister M. G. K. Chesterton: The Dynamic Classicist. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsi Dass, 1971. Contains a chapter on Chesterton as a short story writer as well as an insightful chapter analyzing his novels. Chesterton, G. K. The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006. Contains his 1936 autobiography with an introduction by Randall Paine. Describes his identification with his character Father Brown. “Chesterton, G. K.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1998. Clipper, Lawrence J. G. K. Chesterton. New York: Twayne, 1974. Useful introduction to the works of Chesterton does a fine job of describing the recurring themes in his fictional and nonfictional writings. Includes informative analysis also of Chesterton’s poetry and literary criticism. Contains an excellent annotated bibliography. Coates, John D. G. K. Chesterton as Controversialist, Essayist, Novelist, and Critic. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002. Refutes Chesterton’s reputation as a minor writer, maintaining that his detective novels remain important and relevant works. Places Chesterton’s fiction within the context of modernism and the Edwardian novel of ideas. Conlon, D. J., ed. Chesterton: A Half Century of Views. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Contains numerous short essays on Chesterton published during the first fifty years after his death. The wide diversity of positive critical reactions shows that not only his popular fiction but also his writings on literature and religion continue to fascinate readers. Correu, Michael. Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton. New York: Paragon House, 1990. Biography of Chesterton focusing on the more controversial aspects of his personality. Crowe, Marian E. “G. K. Chesterton and the Orthodox Romance of Pride and Prejudice.” Renascence 49 (Spring, 1997): 209-221. Argues that Chesterton used the word “romance” to refer to three different concepts: erotic love, adventure stories, and orthodox faith. Crowther, Ian. G. K. Chesterton. Lexington, Ga.: Claridge Press, 1991. Dale, Alzina Stone. The Outline of Sanity: A Biography of G. K. Chesterton. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982. Fagerberg, David W. The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998. Analyzes Chesterton’s apologetic works for the Catholic Church. Hollis, Christopher. The Mind of Chesterton. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1970. Especially thoughtful study explores above all Chesterton’s evolution as a writer before his conversion to Catholicism in 1922. Final chapter, titled “Chesterton and His Survival,” explains why Chesterton’s work continues to fascinate readers who do not share his religious beliefs. Horst, Mark. “Sin, Psychopathology and Father Brown.” The Christian Century 104 (January 21, 1987): 46-47. Compares Chesterton’s detective Father Brown to Will Graham, a character in Michael Mann’s film Manhunt. Argues that although both sleuths use introspection to pursue criminals, when Father Brown looks within himself, he sees sin, a universal reality, whereas when Will Graham looks within, he sees psychopathology, an aberration. Kestner, Joseph A. The Edwardian Detective, 1901-1915. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. Chesterton is compared to his fellow Edwardians in this tightly focused study of the British detective genre. Lauer, Quentin. G. K. Chesterton: Philosopher Without Portfolio. New York: Fordham University Press, 1988. Thought-provoking study addresses Chesterton’s philosophical reflections on the uses and limitations of reason, Christian humanism, religious tolerance, and moral values. Pearce, Joseph. Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton. San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 1996. Scholarly, well-written biography examines Chesterton’s life and provides interesting analysis of many quotations from his works. Royal, Robert. “Our Curious Contemporary, G. K. Chesterton.” The Wilson Quarterly 16 (Autumn, 1992): 92-102. Notes that although his works were once highly popular, Chesterton’s reputation has fallen since his death; argues that postmodern consciousness could give today’s readers a new and better appreciation of Chesterton, for his work anticipates such postmodern obsessions as the fragmentation of meaning and language, the dissolution of identity, and the attempt to construct a humane society. Schwartz, Adam. “G. K. C.’s Methodical Madness: Sanity and Social Control in Chesterton.” Renascence 49 (Fall, 1996): 23-40. Part of a special issue on G. K. Chesterton. Argues that his view shifts from focus on mental condition of an individual to the way societies define sanity and make “insanity” a means of bourgeois class control. Tadie, Andrew A., and Michael H. Macdonald, eds. Permanent Things: Toward the Recovery of a More Human Scale at the End of the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1995. This volume includes a fairly thorough discussion of Chesterton’s writing, along with works of T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis, looking primarily at its ethical and religious components. Ward, Maisie. Gilbert Keith Chesterton. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943. Well-researched biography remains the essential resource concerning Chesterton. Ward had full access to Chesterton’s manuscripts and spoke with many people who had known him personally. Reveals much about his evolution as a writer and the importance of friendship in his life. Wills, Garry. Chesterton. New York: Doubleday, 2001. Biography is an updated edition of Wills’s Chesterton, Man and Mask (1961), with a new introduction. Wills is a Catholic intellectual and best-selling author who has written several books about religion in the United States.

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