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The Life and Theme of G.K. Chesterton | Randall Paine | An Introduction to The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton

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The prospect of a humble man setting out to write an autobiography suggests an enterprise blighted with potential frustrations–for both author and reader. Being humble, the author will hardly regard himself as sterling material for a book. The reader, already poising the book in his lap, obviously disagrees. Thus the two may find themselves standing at this ambiguous frontier, staring blankly at each other and comparing their complementary frustrations. But this is a gamble one must be willing to take, for there is many a modest soul with a magnificent tale to tell.

In the case of The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton, we do have a book that both falls short of and carelessly oversteps the usual framework of an autobiography. It is with this dilemma we must begin. Here is a self that reveals by effacing. Indeed, the very depth of Chesterton's humility and the very extravagance of his intellectual hospitality join forces to lay open a landscape at once vast and various, and yet so full of the man's unmistakable presence that both author and reader promptly forget their frustrations and glue their eyes to a quite unexpected genre of self-revelation.

In the last years of Chesterton's life, when he was visibly failing but still prodigiously active, the inevitable request for an autobiography was repeatedly made. Finally, he obligingly turned to the task, probably overcoming a natural modesty with an even stronger sense of humour at the book's prospects, and began dictating. We are tempted to picture the book's genesis in somewhat the following pattern: The aging and ailing G.K.C. would settle back into a chair in his studio, light up a cigar, and begin a long and misty reflection on "the story of my life and development". His dozens of books all on display in a large circle around his likewise large and circular body, our author would proceed to cap these prolific literary labours with a pleasant reminiscence–a kind of crowning occupation in the leisure of life's evening.

Well, everyone knows that Chesterton never had that kind of leisure. Even in these later years, as a recent anthologist commented, "He must have been composing sentences in his head, when he was not actually writing them, most of his waking hours. The jolly, bibulous journalist that Chesterton was happy to be considered had become almost pure mind." [1] Still occupied full-time with G. K's Weekly and its excessive demands on his health and meager organizing talents, Chesterton dictated his Autobiography with the same spontaneous volubility as his other books. One finds none of the shadows of fatuous self-contemplation so easily cast over a man's review of his life. But again, this very absence of self-contemplation may make one wonder if the book is really about the man at all.

Turning to the Autobiography from any other of Chesterton's nonfiction works, even the avid Chestertonian might venture the hope that here, for a change, our author may be expected to stick to his topic. Who would want to digress from a topic that happened to coincide with one's own ego? And moreover such an entertaining ego! But suddenly the landscape we spoke of is beginning to slip into the picture. A frequent complaint regarding Chesterton's biographies of other men, Robert Browning, for instance, is that one gets a lot of Chesterton and very little of Browning. It is no accident, however, that just the converse criticism has been levelled at his Autobiography. One looks forward to 300-some pages dominated by the figure of the great and lovable man, and finds instead pages on end full of everyone and everything else. He warns us early on. "Having littered the world with thousands of essays for a living, I am doubtless prone to let this story stray into a sort of essay." Stray it does, but whither it strays tells us more about Chesterton than any quantity of biographical details.

Whatever his immediate subject, even if it be himself, Chesterton's eye remains trained on some larger theme that seems to have a secret hold on the subject itself Many a reader will be puzzled by the resulting mental itinerary. Again and again, he turns to this larger family of ideas that seem to encompass the universe. In his book on Rome, he writes:
I know it will be the general impression about this book that I cannot talk about anything without talking about everything. It is a risk that I must accept, because it is a method I defend. If I am asked to say seriously and honestly what I think of a thing ... I must think about [it] and not merely stare at [it]. [2]
Chesterton's close friend Hilaire Belloc put it like this:
Truth had for him the immediate attraction of an appetite. He was hungry for reality. But what is much more, he could not conceive of himself except as satisfying that hunger; it was not possible for him to hesitate in the acceptance of each new parcel of truth; it was not possible for him to hold anything worth holding that was not connected with the truth as a whole. [3]

It is only because this larger theme of Chesterton bears in a most intimate way upon any subject whatsoever that his many digressions are not really distractions at all–providing, of course, you know the theme. It is of the very nature of a digression to be off the subject and on the theme. The uniqueness of this autobiography is that the dominant theme in the work and life of G. K. Chesterton is stated just as energetically by his neglect of himself as by his ardent appreciation of everything else.

The theme to which Chesterton is forever returning is the world. Reality! Again, Belloc: "The whole meaning of his life was the discovery, the appreciation of reality. But his work was made up of bequeathing to others the treasure of knowledge and certitude upon which he had come." [4] Chesterton never really got over the fact that God created the world, and he somehow pities the rest of us because we have. His writing is therapy for us in our handicap. Whatever he says, whatever he writes, rebounds off this sense of astonishment that refuses to grow stale. He invites us to follow him on this quest of the real and see where it leads us. He looks at his reader across the pages with a twinkle in his eye and promises adventure. In his essay "The Wooden Post", Chesterton gives us two sentences we could take as his "Manifesto of Wonder":

All my mental doors open outwards into a world that I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. [5]
Offering a kind of commentary on this manifesto, he writes in an essay in The Common Man:
Human beings are happy so long as they retain the receptive power and the power of reaction in surprise and gratitude to something outside. So long as they have this they have, as the greatest minds have always declared, a something that is present in childhood and which can still preserve and invigorate manhood. The moment the self within is consciously felt as something superior to any of the gifts that can be brought to it, or any of the adventures that it may enjoy, there has appeared a sort of self-devouring fastidiousness and a disenchantment in advance, which fulfills all the Tartarean emblems of thirst and of despair. [6]
Chesterton was ever in pursuit of that "meat of the mind", as he termed reality, and he sought it out in all his poems, novels, essays, biographies, detective stories, and even in his Autobiography. All things he looked at, even his own huge self, excited this vibrant wonder and proffered a further commentary on the permanent Chestertonian theme of appreciation. And though it seemed to take him far afield of the demanding details of his many topics, more often than not it brought him back with a vengeance to plumb a new depth that seems to surprise the subject matter itself. The casual reader thinks the author is only climbing into the clouds, but in fact he is climbing to a higher platform to dive for a deeper pearl.

Chesterton did not equivocate about his approach. Though it brought him the opprobrium of myopic critics, it won the encomiums of those who understood. He seems to be baiting the former when he casually refers to his book on Browning:
I will not say that I wrote a book on Browning; but I wrote a book on love, liberty, poetry, my own views on God and religion. (highly undeveloped), and various theories of my own about optimism and pessimism and the hope of the world; a book in which the name of Browning was introduced from time to time, I might almost say with considerable art, or at any rate with some decent appearance of regularity. [7]
This tongue-in-cheek confession. was made late in his life. When the book on Browning first appeared in 1903, young Alfred Noyes judged it to contain "not only the most thorough interpretation of Browning that has yet been written, but also a remarkable exposition of criticism in general, and a number of exquisite surfaces and symbols of a very profound philosophy of life". [8] The experts grudgingly admitted that he often happened onto the matrix of a man's genius and the seat of life of his literary production, disclosures strangely eluding everyone else.

T. S. Eliot was hardly sympathetic to the style and even the humour of Chesterton. The former he found "exasperating to the last point of endurance", and the latter reminded him of "a 'busman slapping himself on a frosty day". Well, all right. But even such an unsympathetic and exacting critic as this found Chesterton's 1908 study of Charles Dickens to be "the best essay on that author that has ever been written". [9]

The literary and intellectual leap from the Pickwick Papers to the Summa Theologica is sufficiently wide to activate a university full of academic competencies. Our sportive journalist, without an academic degree to his name, ventured the bound unaccompanied. Or was it a bounce? For what Eliot said of his book on the greatest English novelist, the eminent Thomist Éttienne Gilson (let it be repeated for the thousandth time) echoed almost verbatim about Chesterton's rapidly composed book on the greatest Catholic theologian: "I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas." [10]

What, then, are we to expect from such a man's autobiography? The best book ever written on Chesterton? Certainly not, if what you want is the best book on the subject of Chesterton. Maisie Ward's biography will give you much more Chesterton per page. The Autobiography tells you next to nothing about his wife, his relations, his house, his health, his chronology, and a score of other details–all crucial to the subject. But if it is the theme of G. K. Chesterton you seek, this book is the best. He was careless about the details of his other topics, but instinctively thought his way through to their hearts. He saw no reason to change his method just because his own inelegant self was now under discussion.

For thirty years, Chesterton had tried in his many kinds of books to open the doors of our perception so that we might learn to exercise that "most wild and soaring sort of imagination: the imagination that can see what is there". [11] The books infuse us with an imaginative appreciation of and a discerning gratitude for the world God freely created, and might very well have never created at all. They haunt us with the riddle of the universe and acquaint us with the adamantine lock of its mystery. They dispatch us on the quest of its key. But more than anything else, they teach us how to look at the world in a way that makes it possible for us actually to see it.

All the great man's books offer us lessons in appreciative humility. But the Autobiography is different, and the difference lies in the dilemma we began with. Here, as elsewhere, Chesterton peers through to the bottom and sights a paradox brimming with instruction. The other books turn to tales or poems or detective stories or essays or whatever helps us recover intellectual sanity. Here, in this book, he turns to himself And in doing so, he rears back and merrily announces his last and definitive paradox: Yes, this book really is about G. K. Chesterton–and the most central fact about G.K. Chesterton is a fact that is beyond him. All his writings point to that truth. This book shows us that the man himself pointed to it best of all.

Just weeks after penning the last pages of the Autobiography, Chesterton lay dying in Beaconsfield. Fr. Vincent McNabb, honoring his friend with a Dominican privilege, sang the Salve Regina over his expiring body; he then picked up Chesterton's pen from the bedside table and kissed it. That pen, like the long boney finger of St. John the Baptist, best told the story of its owner by pointing adamantly and awesomely at Someone Else. Ilium oportet crescere, me autem minui.


[1] P.J. Kavanagh, A Chesterton Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), Introduction.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, The Resurrection of Rome (London, 1937), p. 217; The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, 21: 407.

[3] Hilaire Belloc, Saturday Review of Literature, July 4, 1936, p. 4.

[4] Idem, quoted in Mother Loughram, Catholics in England between 1918 and 1945 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1954), p. 168.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, Colored Lands (New York, 1938), p. 160.

[6] Idem, The Common Man (London, 1950), pp. 252-53.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton, "How to Be a Lunatic", p. 103.

[8] In D.J. Conlon, G.K. Chesterton: The Critical Judgments, pt. 1 (Antwerp; 1976), p. 67.

[9] Ibid., pp. 444-45.

[10] Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (New York; 1953), p. 620.

[11] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, in Collected Works, 2: 148.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Pages:

Author page for G.K. Chesterton
The God in the Cave | G.K. Chesterton
"What Is America?" | G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton: Common Sense Apostle & Cigar Smoking Mystic | Dale Ahlquist
Hot Water and Fresh Air: On Chesterton and His Foes | Janet E. Smith
Chesterton and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce
Chesterton and the Delight of Truth | James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. Randall Paineis a priest of the Archdiocese of Brasilia, Brazil, and professor of philosophy at the University of Brasilia. He is the author of The Universe and Mr. Chesterton (Sherwood Sugden, 1999), a study of G.K. Chesterton's philosophical thought.

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