Gilbert Keith Chesterton

The English author, journalist, and artist Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) dedicated his extraordinary intellect and creative power to the reform of English government and society. In 1922 he converted to Roman Catholicism and became its champion.

On May 29, 1874, G. K. Chesterton was born in London. His father, gifted in many lines of amateur creativity, exerted no pressure on the boy to distinguish himself in either scholarship or athletics. Gilbert was a day boy at St. Paul's. The masters rated him as an under-achiever, but he earned some recognition as a writer and debater. From St. Paul's he went to the Slade School of Art, where he became a proficient draftsman and caricaturist; later he took courses in English literature at City College.

From art Chesterton drifted into journalism. He was vitally concerned with the injustices of Great Britain to its dependencies. He progressed from newspaper to public debate. He used logic, laughter, paradox, and his own winning personality to show that imperialism was destroying English patriotism. In 1900 he published his first literary works, two volumes of poetry.

In 1900 he met Hilaire Belloc, and in 1901 he married Frances Blogg. These events were two of the great influences in his life. From 1904 to 1936 Chesterton published nearly a dozen novels, the most important being The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) and The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). In 1911 Chesterton created the "Father Brown" detective stories. During his literary career he published 90 books and numerous articles. He poured out a wealth of lighthearted essays, historical sketches, and metaphysical and polemical works, together with such well-known poems as "The Ballad of the White Horse," "Lepanto," and the drinking songs from The Flying Inn. Among his major critical works are studies of Robert Browning (1903) and Charles Dickens (1906). Prodigiously talented, Chesterton also illustrated a number of Belloc's light works.

Chesterton spoke of himself as primarily a journalist. He contributed to and helped edit Eye Witness and New Witness. He edited G. K.'s Weekly, which advocated distributism, the social philosophy developed by Belloc. Chesterton's overriding concern with political and social injustice is reflected in Heretics (1905) and Orthodoxy (1909), perhaps his most important work.

Throughout his life Chesterton was one of the most colorful and loved personalities of literary England. To his intellectual gifts he added gaiety, wit, and warm humanity that endeared him even to his antagonists. Shortly after his marriage he had purchased a home in Beaconsfield, where he died on June 14, 1936.

Further Reading on Gilbert Keith Chesterton

A study of Chesterton requires these three basic books: his Autobiography (1936); Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1943), the official biography; and her Return to Chesterton (1952). Also valuable are Hugh Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, with an introduction by Marshall McLuhan (1947); Christopher Hollis, G. K. Chesterton (1950; rev. ed. 1964); and Garry Wills, Chesterton: Man and Mask (1961).

Additional Biography Sources

Coren, Michael, Gilbert, the man who was G.K. Chesterton, New York: Paragon House, 1990.

Dale, Alzina Stone, The art of G.K. Chesterton, Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1985.

Dale, Alzina Stone, The outline of sanity: a biography of G.K. Chesterton, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982.

Ffinch, Michael, G.K. Chesterton, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986.

The Riddle of joy: G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1989.

Titterton, W. R. (William Richard), G. K. Chesterton: a portrait, Folcroft, Pa. Folcroft Library Editions, 1974; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.

Wahlert Memorial Library, Gilbert Keith Chesterton; an exhibition catalogue of English and American first editions on the occasion of the centenary of his birth, 1874-1974, along with appreciations and tributes to the man and his works by friends and critics, Dubuque, La., 1974.