The Outline of Sanity

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was acclaimed, during his long and productive career, as one of England’s most brilliant writers. He distinguished himself in fiction, literary biography, and the essay. He enjoyed popular success as a poet, and he wrote a successful play. An artist before he was a writer, he was a gifted caricaturist, and his writing reveals the artist’s eye for scenery and detail. His vision and insight are formidable, his style direct and vivid; his work sparkles with imagery, vitality, and humor. Although intensely serious about his ideas, he was never a fanatic; he always sought a rational balance, a clear perception of things as they were. He was in many ways a sane man in a mad world. His acute perception was equaled by his keen wit, and he was a master of the quotable statement. He is widely quoted still.

As is frequently the case, the esteem in which Chesterton was held did not survive him without interruption. During the years that followed his death in 1936, he was gradually forgotten by the literary world. The present generation of readers is, for the most part, unaware of him. This is their loss, for G. K. Chesterton is a writer, and a person, worth knowing.

Posthumous neglect by the literary world is a fate that virtually every writer is, in some degree, compelled to undergo, but there are more particular reasons for the comparative obscurity into which Chesterton has fallen.

Although he was a man of many talents, he viewed himself primarily as a journalist, and this may be the term that best describes him. A great deal of what he wrote consists of commentary on the issues, events, and activities of his time. Topical writing is by definition ephemeral; thus, much of Chesterton’s subject matter and opinion could be assumed to lack relevance beyond the context in which it originally appeared. Nevertheless, a reassessment of his work will indicate that he is an exception to the rule.

A further probable reason for Chesterton’s neglect is his highly original nature. He was not a specialist and was not one-sided but assumed a variety of roles and excelled in most of them. His perception of the world about him was unique in its day, as was his most unusual sense of humor, and he defies any easy classification. The world of literery criticism, like the world of science, is closely structured and largely dependent upon classification. Both are uncomfortable in the presence of anomalies and tend to ignore them until they can be dealt with more easily.

There are indications, aside from the fact that he is widely quoted, that a rediscovery and reassessment of Chesterton may be imminent. His eclipse has never been complete; several of his works have remained in print and his fictional detective, Father Brown, is still popular. Several of the latter’s cases were dramatized recently and successfully for public television. Although detective fiction is seldom recognized as literature and might therefore be considered an unpromising starting point for literary reexamination, this is not necessarily true in regard to Chesterton. Father Brown is an important key to the understanding of Chesterton himself. Although these are not strong indicators of a new interest, they are suggestive; moreover, Chesterton is not without his partisans.

Alzina Stone Dale is one who believes that the time for a fresh approach to Chesterton has come and that a solid basis for reassessment is therefore necessary. She has addressed that need by writing an outstanding new biography of him. Works of true scholarship, intensively researched, are seldom entertaining; The Outline of Sanity is one of the happy exceptions. Dale approaches her subject with warmth and enthusiasm, portraying Chesterton vividly within the context of his own time. He was a man who inspired trust and affection in those who knew him, and this special quality is transmitted in his writings. Dale has obviously responded to an author who was as lovable as he was remarkable. Although this is an affectionate study, it is by no means uncritical; it follows Chesterton’s own ideal of the rational and balanced approach. As much a study of character as it is a biography, it succeeds in giving its reader a clear portrait of the subject, his achievements, and his era. Appropriately enough, the author has borrowed the title from one of Chesterton’s own works, a volume of essays published in 1926.

Dale uses the chronological method, and through it she seeks to dispel a number of myths and assumptions that have persisted since the early years of Chesterton’s career. Many of these misconceptions are based on a biographical sketch published by Chesterton’s brother, Cecil, in 1908 and accepted uncritically by his successors. Dale refutes the contention that Chesterton burst upon the literary scene in...

(The entire section is 1977 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

America. CXLVIII, February 19, 1983, p. 135.

National Review. XXXIV, November 26, 1982, p. 1492.

The New York Review of Books. XXX, April 28, 1983, p. 23.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, November 12, 1982, p. 61.

Time. CXXI, February 14, 1983, p. 84.