Robert Graves called Chesterton “the elephantine paradoxist.” Like the man, the body of Chesterton’s literature is enormous. A versatile and prolific writer, like his hero Samuel Johnson, he wrote plays, biographies, novels, and detective stories, nonfiction in such areas as anthropology, archaeology, ancient and recent history, national and international politics, theology, philosophy, art, and literary criticism; and he was also a renowned lecturer. The scope of his interests embraced almost every aspect of contemporary life. Although he was an eminent man of letters, he preferred to call himself a journalist. Beginning in 1901, he contributed regularly to two leading newspapers; in 1918, he became editor of G. K.’s Weekly. For thirty-five years, he regularly wrote informal essays to the exacting space limitations of the newspaper column form. That he welcomed such limitations is evident in many of the essays; one of his favorite paradoxes was that restraint, externally imposed by social necessity, internally dictated by a self-disciplined conscience, offered the only freedom worth striving to achieve. Chesterton’s informal essays provide a comprehensive presentation of his views.
Never as light as his contemporary, Max Beerbohm, Chesterton was seldom overtly serious. Occasionally he conveyed his serious points through fantasy. Though his most common tone was mildly satirical, his essays were seldom sustained satires. While he showed that pure reason has severe limitations and imposes certain penalties, it was clear thinking that enabled him to recognize the importance of nonsense. He feigned lunacy momentarily as a lever for insight into the nature and practice of sanity; in his views a sane man was one who, in a single moment, could have “tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head.” The seeming lightness of his essays makes his insights more bearable and lasting.
Because his technique is transparent, perhaps, Chesterton’s use of rhetorical devices appears even more impressive. He makes us aware of certain devices only to capture us with others that operate simultaneously. For instance, he appears to end a thought in his characteristically epigrammatic way, but a few sentences later he startles us with a brilliant paradox or thrust of wit that he planted, parenthetically, in the epigram. His paradoxes are often inverted truisms. Each essay is a necklace of such paradoxes, used to choke or adorn the reader, depending on his doctrinal affinities. If his paradoxes are sometimes shallow, one must remember that deep ones are not so easy to dredge up that one can fill hundreds of essays, line by line, with them.
The informal essay is to prose what the lyric is to poetry, and it is most fascinating when the practitioner conveys a sense of himself. Chesterton’s commanding “I", always felt, is overwhelming. He is constantly setting the reader straight, advising, scolding, cautioning him, balancing this aggression with an amiably ironical attitude toward himself. His exuberance, frank enthusiasm, vigor, robustness, and masculine high spirits reveal a strong man, an antidote to the whiners, weaklings, and victim mentalities of his time and ours. But he was a man of fine feeling. In “The Secret of a Train,” upon discovering that he and a dead man are the sole passengers, he throws away his cigar, and thus understands the meaning of ritual. The mainspring of most of his essays is a personal experience, in the relating of which his facility for descriptive writing is apparent. Perhaps his most appealing characteristic is his belief, paradoxical for a conservative, in the importance of a romantic attitude. Most of the best things in the universe cost nothing; the others cost only a halfpenny. The source of man’s major perplexity, he felt, ought to be the realization that there are so many interesting things in life that one cannot be sufficiently interested in any of them. In “On Running After One’s Hat” and “The Romantic in the Rain” he argues that one should joyously and poetically transform the irritations of everyday life. With one leg temporarily maimed, he saw “The Advantages of Having One Leg”: one could see the beauty of both legs and thus God’s image in man more clearly. Lacking white chalk with which to sketch, he used a piece of the rock he was sitting on and thus realized that England was “A Piece of Chalk.”
One of his most famous paradoxes was that ordinary, everyday things are the strangest, most fascinating, and wondrous of all. He...
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