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G. K. Chesterton

May 29 is the birthday of one of the most versatile authors in history, novelist and essayist Gilbert Keith Chesterton.  Born in London, England, in 1874, he is lauded today for his detective novels about the bumbling, fumbling, crime-solving priest Father Brown, but during his lifetime he was even better known as an essayist.  As the conscience of a nation, he wrote constantly about politics, society, literature, and religion.  A prolific writer, he often dictated one article to a secretary while working on another at his own desk.

Chesterton was born in London into a middle-class family.  His father, Edward, was a member of the well-known Kensington auctioneer and estate agents business of Chesterton, and his mother, Marie-Louise, was of Franco-Scottish ancestry.  Young Gilbert couldn't read until he was more than eight years old, and once one of his teachers told him, "If we opened your head, we should not find brains but only a lump of white fat."  Nevertheless, Chesterton went on to study at University College and the Slade School of Art (1893-96).  At 16 years of age,  he published a magazine called The Debater.

Around 1893, Chesterton slipped into a downward spiral of depression and overall skepticism about life.  He began experimenting with the occult and often played with a Ouija board.  He became obsessed with diabolic behavior.  In 1895, he left University College without a degree and went to work for London publisher Redway and for T. Fisher Unwin (1896-1902).  Many of his works were first introduced in publications such as The Speaker, Daily News, Illustrated London News, Eye Witness, New Witness, and in his own G. K.'s Weekly

Chesterton found renewed hope for life in his Christian faith.  He also found Frances Blogg, his future wife, whom he married in 1901 and who helped him pull himself out of his spiritual and emotional crisis.

One of the first twentieth-century critics to argue that Charles Dickens was a great novelist during the author's declining reputation, Chesterton also supported the theory that the influence of religion on public life would in time be replaced by the power of promotion.  He said that what drove him as a writer was "the problem of how men could be made to realize the wonder and splendor of being alive."

In 1900, Chesterton published Greybeards at Play, his first collection of poems.  He followed that with two literary biographies, Robert Browning (1903) and Charles Dickens (1906).  His first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), was a political fantasy, and in The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), he depicted the ultimate decadence. 

The protagonist of the book, Syme, is a poet-turned-Scotland Yard employee who reveals a vast conspiracy against civilization.  The members of his secret anarchist gang are named for days of the week.  Sunday is the most mysterious character, who said that since "the beginning of the world, all men have hunted me like a wolf--kings and sages, and poets and law-givers, all the churches, and all the philosophers.  But I have never been caught yet."

Sunday, who is president of the Central Anarchist Council, gives simple advice about disguise: "You want a safe disguise, do you?  You want a dress which will guarantee you harmless, a dress in which no one would ever look for a bomb?  Why then, dress up as an anarchist, you fool!  Nobody will ever expect you to do anything dangerous then."

In his A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls, Chesterton critiques society, relying on his wit and wisdom to relay his thoughts to the common man.

"The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.  There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just as there are a large number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists." - A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls, 1901

In 1922, Chesterton converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and wrote several theologically oriented works, including biographies of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas.  He received honorary degrees from Edinburgh, Dublin, and Notre Dame universities.  In 1934, he was made Knight Commander with Star, Order of St. Gregory the Great.

G. K. Chesterton died on June 14, 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield.  His coffin, too large to be carried down the staircase, had to be lowered from the window to the ground.  Dorothy Collins, Chesterton's secretary, managed his literary estate until her death in 1988.

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