Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Chesterton Revival

When I was writing a master's thesis on G. K. Chesterton's religious thought in the mid 80s, it was hard to find anyone who even knew who he was. Despite little knowledge of Chesterton's actual writing, some did recognize the name, simply because he was still commonly quoted, but beyond that, he was a largely forgotten writer. Since that time, however, there has been a steadily growing familiarity and appreciation of his work.
In a review of a new Chesterton biography by Ian Ker, Jay Parini recounts just how highly Chesterton has been regarded:

Chesterton's work includes nearly every type of writing—poetry, philosophy, literary criticism, biography, political and social argument, playwriting, detective fiction, and Christian apologetics. Yet he was, in the main, a journalist at heart, pumping out weekly columns for a variety of papers, especially The Daily Mail, on every conceivable subject, and his devoted audience included the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, who was "thunderstruck" by Chesterton's fierce independence of thought.

Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine fabulist, never failed to mention Chesterton among his favorite writers. Being a fan of detective fiction, he too adored the Father Brown stories, regarding Chesterton, with Edgar Allan Poe and Conan Doyle, as a founding father of the genre. Yet it was more than the detective fiction that interested Borges; he quoted Chesterton extensively as a linguistic philosopher, crediting him with "the most lucid words written about language."

Writers often gravitated toward Chesterton, including George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, both ardent socialists but good, if contentious, friends during his lifetime. Indeed, Chesterton debated Shaw in public on several occasions, and Chesterton's own idiosyncratic but highly suggestive history of the world (The Everlasting Man, 1925) might be considered a riposte to Wells's The Outline of History (1919). (Wells regarded human beings as a species who evolved from a highly primitive form and might one day use their intelligence to establish a peaceful and prosperous world. Chesterton thought that impossible; human beings would continue to suffer from something akin to what Christians call "original sin.") Among later writers, T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien admired him, while W.H. Auden took the trouble to edit a selection from Chesterton's nonfiction in 1970.

Read the rest here.

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