"G.K. Chesterton, the Eccentric Prince of Paradox"
(This article originally appeared in the May 24, 1974, issue of Christianity Today.)
Somehow it would seem an affront to Gilbert Keith Chesterton, born one hundred years ago this month, to attempt anything but a cheerful salute to his memory.
Son of a Kensington estate agent, Gilbert contrived for himself a deprived background: "I regret that I have no gloomy and savage father to offer to the public gaze as the true cause of all my tragic heritage … and that I cannot do my duty as a true modern, by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am."
On the second page of his Autobiography he tells of the maternal influence upon him. His father mentioned that he had been asked to go on The Vestry (parish council). "At this my mother uttered something like a cry of pain; she said, 'Oh, Edward, don't! … We never have been respectable yet; don't let's begin now.'"
In 1887 Gilbert went to St. Paul's School, where, apart from a certain talent in handling the English language, he did not distinguish himself. He left in 1892 and for three years studied art at the famous Slade School and English literature at London University. The writer in him won (he remained a competent artist), and a toehold was established in the world of words—reviewing, publisher's dogsbody, freelance reporting. In 1900 he was on his way with publication of The Wild Knight and Other Poems. In 1901, to family misgiving, he married on a small income and boundless optimism.
Chesterton early discovered the value of paradox as "truth standing on its head to gain attention," and exploited it to such good purpose that Fleet Street and Edwardian England took notice of the young man who had strong views on literary and social criticism and a whimsical way with words. He called himself a Socialist because the only alternative was not being a Socialist, but in fact he was stubbornly unclassifiable as much in politics as in other areas.
Chesterton disliked injustice and shiftiness, his onslaught on them being the more telling because he came at them from unlikely angles. Always, however, his animus was directed against policies and ideas, not against people. He produced works on Browning, Dickens, Shaw, Blake, Cobbett, and Stevenson, and formed lasting friendships with literary giants such as Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Hilaire Belloc. With the latter he championed "Distributism," a system that combined magnificent principle and total impracticability.
A reputation for mild eccentricity is a tremendous asset, and Chesterton made the most of it. His sartorial quirks were pressed into the same service. If he made fun of others he laughed most of all at himself. This rare virtue may have saved him from summary lynching when he said about the emancipation of women, "Twenty million women rise to their feet with the cry, We will not be dictated to-and proceeded to become stenographers."
Endowed naturally with absentmindedness, he capitalized on that, too, and on the helplessness not uncommon in the truly gifted. He could not fix his necktie; his wife told friends that he did not even know how to take it out of the drawer. He never came to terms with the telephone. He detested vegetarianism and teetotalism (though spirits were almost as evil as wine and beer were good). He habitually got lost or mislaid; hence the immortal telegram to his wife: "Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be." Came the answer, "Home," Frances having reasoned that once she got him back it would be easier to point him in the right direction.