Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Stuart Pratt Sherman (1881–1926)
GILBERT KEITH CHESTERTON, poet, humorist, journalist, essayist, critic, biographer, romancer, theologian, and so forth, was born into this most interesting of all possible worlds on May 29th, 1874, in London, the city of his soul and the center of his universe. To St. Paul’s School and to the Slade School of Art he was indebted for his formal education. To his marriage in 1901 may be traced his enthusiasm for English family life. In 1900 he embraced journalism, and journalism returned his embrace. His chief connection was with the London Daily News, on which he served from 1900 to 1913, when he transferred his allegiance to the Daily Herald. He has also been a frequent contributor to the Bookman, the Nation, and the Illustrated London News. Ten years after his irruption into Fleet Street he was one of the half-dozen writers of his generation with whom it was fairly safe to assume that England and America were acquainted. Every week he produced a pungent signed article or more; and almost every year, gathering up his variegated productions, he published from one to six books. He made himself an unavoidable author, and, till he had uttered his opinions once or twice on everything in earth and heaven, he passed generally for a fresh and exhilarating author. In the reaction which has followed his excessive stimulation of his readers—by 1916 he had put forth some thirty-four volumes—there are certain indications that the public is relaxing its curiosity as to what he will say next; there is some disposition to dismiss him as “merely a journalist.”  1
  If he had been content merely to reflect the color and character of the passing days, he might perhaps be dismissed as “merely a journalist”; but as a matter of fact he has been constantly animated with the passion of the reformer and the artist for modifying the days as they passed by stamping indelibly upon them his own highly individual character and color. He has made his resonant personal note one of the dominant elements in the noise and music of contemporary life. He has toiled and spread himself abroad like a man of letters harboring an ambition to make future historians inquire whether the early years of the twentieth century should not be called the Age of G. K. Chesterton. Inspired by a sense that his mental response matches in unusually adequate fashion the complexity and marvelousness of the world he lives in, he has offered for our consideration a novel and ingenious state of mind. His humor is like that of Jacques in one respect—it is compounded of many simples. He aspires to be as romantic as Don Quixote and as practical as Sancho Panza; as nonsensical as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll and as purposeful as Thomas Carlyle; as exciting to the intelligence as G. B. Shaw and as sensible as the Book of Proverbs; as paradoxical as Oscar Wilde and as moral as Lord Macaulay; as mystical as William Blake and as stout and dogmatic as Samuel Johnson; as original as Browning and as conventional as Tennyson; as thoroughly in touch with the moving world as H. G. Wells and as orthodox and traditional as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Chestertonian idea is, in short, to cast a shimmering and iridescent veil over common sense, and to reinvest in glory the traditional Anglo-Saxon Englishman, honest, prejudiced, virile, humorous, pious, and violent. In order to win for the hero of his heart a place in the sun Mr. Chesterton has felt obliged to make two campaigns: one against the æsthetic decadence of the immediate past, and one against the scientific radicalism threatening to occupy the immediate future. The complexion of the proposed Chestertonian reign or interregnum we shall consider.  2
  Apparently he vowed himself the champion of common sense and the central English traditions in a powerful feeling of revulsion from that tract of English life and letters sometimes designated as the Yellow ’Nineties, in which a confluence of forces had made fashionable the languor of Pater, the dandyism of Whistler and Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley’s sinister attenuations of evil, the drab realism of Gissing and George Moore, Russian pessimism, Parisian Orientalism, the dreary, sad-eyed singing of Ernest Dowson, the spiritual impotence of Arthur Symons, and every shade of the venomous melancholia which infests the airs of Swinburne’s ‘Garden of Proserpine.’ Through this memorable yellow season, the yellowest since the days of Charles II., Mr. Chesterton was waxing towards his twenty-fifth year; but at a time of life so subject to the seduction of novelties—nenuphars, catafalques, and vampires, for example—something, perhaps the fairies whom he has praised so ingratiatingly, perhaps simply a hearty unspoiled appetite, withheld him from the corrupt and pallid festivals of the fin de siècle. While the world-weary and death-bitten æsthetes were sipping their absinthe and reading their Gautier and growing thin and refined and sad and apathetic, he was drinking his beer and reading his Dickens and growing burly and vulgar and jolly and bellicose. At the turn of the century with fire in his eyes under broad shaggy brows of a massive head merged in a great bulk of shoulder he snorted with disgust and derision and the joy of battle, and charged through the blue china shop of the Yellow ’Nineties like a bison, with results enlivening to all beholders. The bodies of the æsthetes he burned, metaphorically speaking, as a living sacrifice to the memory of the genuine Anglo-Saxon Englishman; but their arms and munitions he preserved for use in his second campaign.  3
  Mr. Chesterton made war against the æsthetic decadents because of their absurd hopelessness. He made war against the scientific radicals because of their absurd hopefulness. Extremes meet and become allies: decadents and radicals are alike in their dull indifference to the tangible and proffered satisfactions of life. Mr. Chesterton, for one, would not swap fifty years of his own Merry England for a cycle in any Utopia constructible by a scientific reformer. He is sure that going further he should fare worse to wake in a “Burbanked” world—without the inedible pit, perhaps, but certainly without the delightful tang of the fruit ripened in the wild Eden of, say, Mr. Pickwick’s time. His criticism of Mr. Sidney Webb, Mr. G. B. Shaw, Mr. H. G. Wells, and the other gentlemen who, for remolding purposes, propose to shatter the universe to bits is twofold: first, that these gentlemen greatly exaggerate the frangibility of the universe; second, that they are quite inadequately acquainted with the “heart’s desire.” In the strength of his own insight into the wants of that mysterious organ, and in the strength of his faith in something immutable in rerum natura, he has struck out right and left, sometimes blindly, sometimes with victorious vision, at almost every radicalism stirring in these days: rationalism, cosmopolitanism, imperialism, Prussianism, pacifism, socialism, feminism, eugenics, free-love, teetotalism, and vegetarianism.  4
  According to his creed, beef, beer, marriage, romantic mating, domestic women, property, fighting, liberty, democracy, and a mystical religion are “the things of a man.” Whether this bundle of passionately defended prejudices is entitled to be called, as he calls it, Liberalism, is another matter. Liberalism is a relative term; in the days of Mr. Pickwick Liberalism might have been satisfied with Mr. Chesterton’s large praise of democracy, vulgarity, and doing as one likes. For a Liberal of the twentieth century Mr. Chesterton has been too thoroughly in opposition. He has shown himself too much indisposed to what is known as “thinking socially.” He has displayed a reprehensible indulgence to the antique world. He has praised too many “classical” institutions and things: the Church, Christmas, the Victorians, English inns, brown oak, old wine, English buns, Dr. Johnson, Fielding, Pope, fairy tales, King Alfred. In the opinion of the present writer he has betrayed on the whole the temperament of a Tory. He is a very sophisticated and agile Conservative, formidable because he meets all adversaries with their own weapons of latest device and wields them with the accomplished ease of the cleverest young Radical.  5
  One may strike into his works anywhere with a certainty of finding within a page unmistakable marks of his thought and style; and one may know by that token that he possesses an original literary talent. The reader who desires to form a notion of his range and versatility without going through all his volumes may be recommended to look into each of the following more or less arbitrary divisions of his writing: Poetry and Drama; Romances and Mystery Stories; Miscellaneous Essays; Biography and Criticism; Religion.  6
  Mr. Chesterton made his first appearance with an illustrated book of nonsense verse, ‘Greybeards at Play,’ 1900—a fling at the decadents. He followed this up in the same year with ‘The Wild Knight,’ a book of verse in which he attempted to express his seriousness and his chivalry. In ‘The Ballad of the White Horse,’ 1911, he celebrates with good intention but without much narrative skill the heroic days of King Alfred. In 1913 he published ‘Magic,’ a little play with a supernatural motive, which derives its chief interest from its relation to his defense of fairies and of Christianity. ‘Poems,’ 1915, of miscellaneous contents, is perhaps the most readable volume in this group; the most savory pieces in it are the satirical balades. Mr. Chesterton’s verses are generally “not bad,” but one is a little disposed to wonder why he writes them. He is a good phrase-maker, conceives bold images, has an ear for a thumping measure, abounds in alliteration, and can make a joke in rhyme; but he uses all these powers and artifices with much greater effect in prose. He uses them in verse as if he had learned them in prose—though it must also be said that he frequently uses alliteration in prose as if he had saturated himself in the most alliterative verse of Swinburne.  7
  In the riot of his imagination, which at its height is too unruly for verse, he has invented a form of long romance, curiously blending a Quixotic chivalry with Pickwickian farce, Stevensonian romance, and Stocktonian extravaganza. It seems to have originated as an answer to the question more or less definitely formulated in the author’s mind: “What would happen if my acts were as unexpected and unconventional as my words—if I put sack coats and trousers upon my leading ideas, and released them in London?” Thus in ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill,’ 1904, he releases in King Auberon his own supreme levity and in Adam Wayne his own supreme seriousness, with consequences disturbing to the realm of Albion. In ‘The Man Who Was Thursday,’ 1908, he shows what melodramatic events would occur if he should translate his detestation of philosophical anarchists into deeds. Catholicism and atheism, spiritedly incarnate in ‘The Ball and the Cross,’ 1910, fight a running duel from end to end of England. “Manalive,” 1912, presents the apparition, in a sufficiently commonplace household, of one Smith, who has a magnificent time by simply behaving like a roaring schoolboy. Finally, in ‘The Flying Inn,’ 1912 he shows the sort of law-abiding revolt that he might lead if ever the teetotalers had their way, and drink and taverns were abolished. All these books have pages of ebullient humor, bits of brilliant description, abundance of epigrams, occasional passages of intense poetic sentiment, notes of fine morality, and withal a certain broad symbolical value. And yet, with the exception of ‘The Flying Inn,’ their winding bouts of disjointed nonsense are far too long drawn out; before the end, unless one has a Gargantuan appetite for hodgepodge, one is likely to become maudlin or weary. The books of mystery stories—‘The Club of Queer Trades,’ 1905; ‘The Innocence of Father Brown,’ 1911; and ‘The Wisdom of Father Brown,’ 1914—remind one inevitably of Stevenson’s ‘Suicide Club,’ and the exploits of Sherlock Holmes. They are without the roystering mirth and energy of his romances, yet they preserve most of the flavor of Chestertonian fiction, and they have compensating advantages of brevity and form. Of all his characters and caricatures Father Brown in the detective stories and Delroy in ‘The Flying Inn’ seem most breathed upon by the creative spirit.  8
  Under miscellaneous essays we may bring together the following volumes: ‘The Defendant,’ 1901; ‘All Things Considered,’ 1908; ‘Tremendous Trifles,’ 1909; ‘Alarms and Discursions’ and ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ 1910; ‘A Miscellany of Men,’ 1912; and ‘Letters to an Old Garibaldian,’ 1915. Though ‘What’s Wrong with the World,’ bears some marks of premeditation, this collection of books may be considered, in the main, as the “bag” of a journalistic sportsman who has been shooting contemporary follies as they fly. We have already sufficiently described the shooting station and the nature of the game—everything obnoxious or ridiculous to a highly individualistic Tory-Democrat from the Boer War to the War of 1914. All that can be said against the preservation of these periodical essays Mr. Chesterton has himself said in ‘The Case for the Ephemeral’ which prefaces the thirty-four other little essays in ‘All Things Considered’:
          “I cannot understand the people who take literature seriously; but I can love them, and I do. Out of my love for them I warn them to keep clear of this book. It is a collection of crude and shapeless papers upon current or rather flying subjects; and they must be published pretty much as they stand. They were written, as a rule, at the last moment; they were handed in the moment before it was too late, and I do not think the commonwealth would have been shaken to its foundations if they had been handed in the moment after…. Their chief vice is that so many of them are very serious; because I had no time to make them flippant…. The last indictment against this book is the worst of all. It is simply this: that if all goes well this book will be unintelligible gibberish.”
What then is the case for the ephemeral? Well, as our author puts it, his book “may last just twenty minutes longer than most of the philosophies that it attacks”—and they are not dead yet!
  A certain journalistic militancy lends vivacity to Mr. Chesterton’s entertaining, suggestive, and essentially thoughtful criticism of authors and artists. Far from taking literature lightly, he brings his whole character and his convictions to bear upon it. With cool academic exposition and appraisal he has nothing to do; whatever he thinks worth talking about he thinks worth fighting about. He enters into violent relations with men of letters, and he returns to his readers with emphatic admirations and hot detestations, supported by a continuous sparkling argument, which sharply defines the relations of the subject of debate to the Chestertonian philosophy. His heart responds with a livelier beat to an exuberant genius than to a fine talent. If the genius has the further merit of being quite soundly “English,” he is perfectly happy. He is fertile in striking and often penetrating generalizations, in compact formulations and summaries of the spirit and form of men and their periods. Even when he paints a hero he is constantly urged to the verge of caricature by his taste for dazzling contrasts and by his habit of excessive emphasis. In his ‘Twelve Types,’ 1902, he gave promise of the intensity and the gusto which reached their maximum in his celebration of Dickens. In the same year he interpreted, with comparative sobriety, G. F. Watts as a good Englishman and a great Victorian painter. In 1903 he published his ‘Robert Browning,’ the most unconventional and not the least valuable study in the English Men of Letters Series. With ‘Heretics’ in 1905 he made a spirited raid upon Mr. Kipling, Mr. Wells, Mr. George Moore, and other antipathetic spokesmen of the hour. His ‘Charles Dickens,’ 1906, was the first broadside to announce his “personally conducted” Dickens revival. A defender of mystics—when he can distinguish them from madmen and from the disciples of Mr. Yeats—he produced in 1910 a delightful little book on William Blake. In 1910, also, stimulated by his most dangerous competitor with sword or foils, he delivered a brilliant and damaging attack on George Bernard Shaw. In 1911 he gathered his prefaces to volumes in the Everyman Library into a second book on Dickens. In 1913 he made a remarkable condensation of all his passions and prejudices and opinions about the England of his fathers in ‘The Victorian Age in Literature.’  10
  All Mr. Chesterton’s writings are pervaded by a certain inspiriting emotion which he would probably describe as religious joy. His religious experiences and convictions he has explicitly set forth in ‘Orthodoxy,’ 1908, a book which contains in the most translucent form the quintessence of the Chestertonian philosophy. Daily engaged as a brisk modern journalist in the thick of popular intellectual libertinism and vaunting his familiarity with the latest moral and religious heresies, Mr. Chesterton, overhauling his fundamental beliefs, discovers here with a shock of surprise that he is body and soul a Christian, and plunges into Christian apologetics. His point of departure is what he regards as the “actual fact that the central Christian theology is the best root of energy and sound ethics.” To adopt the familiar style of the Pragmatists, Christianity, which cannot be called a failure, because it has never been tried, is obviously the only peg that fits the hole in the human heart. Various neologies have had their innings; they have failed to comfort, guide, and inspire. One has abolished heaven and hell; another, vice and virtue; a third, everything but the ego. They have made men sentimental, paralytic, anarchical, and mad. The age of interrogation has accomplished its mission: modern thought lies in apathy and despair under the gray evening twilight of philosophic freedom. In this awful juncture Mr. Chesterton rediscovers Christianity, restores God to his heaven and the devil to hell. The lost values and contrasts of life return; at a flash the grass which was gray grows green again, and mute birds sing. Christianity, with its vivid sense of sin, gives the basis for the violent loves and hates that make a man know he is living. Christianity, with its emphasis upon free will, gives the basis for the militant courage that sends a man on his course like a thunderbolt. Christianity, with its sharp distinction between flesh and spirit, lifts a man out from his animal self. The right Christian is neither pessimist nor optimist but both at once in the highest degree of each. His predominant mood, however, is a kind of loyalty to this miraculous universe; he is a “cosmic patriot.” The theology of the book is defended with the mirth and bravado of an eighth pragmatic Champion of Christendom; the morality needs no defense—it is as sound as Moses.  11

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