The Many Identities of GKC

A review of Ian Ker's G.K. Chesterton: A Biography
By Chene Richard Heady

"English Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was considered, in his own lifetime, a major writer, a literary virtuoso able to compose effortlessly in seemingly any form. He was noteworthy particularly for his contributions to the essay, detective-fiction, and comic-verse genres. His reputation did not outlive him, however. By the 1950s, enthusiasm for his works persisted only in Catholic quarters and then, as Catholic universities sought to distance themselves from the so-called Catholic ghetto, it faded even there. Fortunately, over the past four decades Chesterton has slowly begun to accumulate a major author’s scholarly apparatus. He now possesses an academic journal devoted exclusively to his work (The Chesterton Review), a carefully edited Collected Works (Ignatius Press), titles in the major classics lines (Oxford World Classics, Penguin, Everyman), and even a collection of literary criticism on his writing edited by the living voice of the literary canon himself, Harold Bloom. Chesterton’s work is also presently undergoing something of a popular renaissance: Million-selling alt-rockers like Marcus Mumford and evangelical Protestant hipsters like Donald Miller cite him as a major influence, and the BBC has just renewed its Father Brown television series for a third season. The time is ripe for Ian Ker to give Chesterton the primary hallmark of literary significance he previously lacked: a scholarly biography published by a major university press.

"For serious Catholics, Chesterton’s accomplishments as one of the greatest modern apologists (Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, The Thing) might be sufficient to justify a biography. Some of his central arguments — faith as the precondition for reason, tradition as the democracy of the dead, orthodoxy as an exciting adventure, dogmatic belief as the source of all meaningful social reform, etc. — are still commonly employed as defenses of the faith. But even viewed simply as an entertaining story, Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s life is well worth the telling. His rise to fame is richly improbable: In about six years he metamorphosed from an unimpressive college dropout working as an entry-level editor for a minor press to one of England’s better known literary figures. His composition process — scribbling brilliant articles in pubs just under deadline, simultaneously dictating an essay on one subject while handwriting an essay on another, tossing off some of the best light verse of the century as a contribution to a local charity bazaar — is the stuff of legend. His religious transformations are also dramatic, as he moved from an essentially Unitarian childhood to art-school flirtations with nihilism to an eccentric Anglo-Catholicism and finally to Roman Catholicism. Even his physical appearance was striking: six-foot-four-inches tall, over three hundred pounds, wrapped in a dramatic cape, dragging a deliberately quixotic sword cane across urban London. Even among the generally flamboyant Edwardian generation of authors, Chesterton possesses an unusually entertaining story, and up until now his story has never been properly told."

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