The Life and Theme of G.K. Chesterton | Randall Paine | An Introduction
to "The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton"
The Life and Theme of G.K. Chesterton | Randall Paine | An Introduction
to The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton
The prospect of a humble man setting out to write an autobiography suggests
an enterprise blighted with potential frustrationsfor 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 reminiscencea
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."  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]. 
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. 
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 allproviding, 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.
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. 
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."  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":
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. 
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
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. 
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".  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.
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". 
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." 
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 detailsall 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".  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
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. Chestertonand 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.
 P.J. Kavanagh, A Chesterton Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius
Press, 1985), Introduction.
 G.K. Chesterton, The
Resurrection of Rome (London, 1937), p. 217; The
Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton,
 Hilaire Belloc, Saturday Review of Literature, July 4, 1936,
 Idem, quoted in Mother Loughram, Catholics in England between 1918
and 1945 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1954), p. 168.
 G.K. Chesterton, Colored Lands (New York, 1938), p. 160.
 Idem, The Common Man (London, 1950), pp. 252-53.
 G.K. Chesterton, The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton, "How to
Be a Lunatic", p. 103.
 In D.J. Conlon, G.K. Chesterton: The Critical Judgments, pt.
1 (Antwerp; 1976), p. 67.
 Ibid., pp. 444-45.
 Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (New York; 1953), p. 620.
 G.K. Chesterton, The
in Collected Works, 2: 148.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Pages:
Author page for G.K. Chesterton
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"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
and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce
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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