Dale Ahlquist is the President of the American Chesterton Society. The G.K. Chesterton Conference will be at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, July 27-29. For more information: https://www.chesterton.org/36th-annual-chesterton-conference
Here are three questions:
1. Why was G.K. Chesterton once so popular?
2. Why did he stop being popular?
3. Why is becoming popular again?
Now the answers:
1. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English author of books, poems, plays, and essays, who wrote about everything and did so with great wit and verve and insight. People bought newspapers just to read his columns and bought radios just to hear his voice. Immensely quotable (“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”) and immensely immense (300 pounds), he stirred the literary world with his paradoxes (“A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.”) and his puns (“The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.”) and both (“Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.”). Even though he was not a Catholic, he created a beloved character in detective fiction who happened to be a Catholic priest: Father Brown. He wrote one of the last great epic poems in the English language: The Ballad of the White Horse. He debated some of the leading intellectuals of his day: George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and Clarence Darrow. He conducted two extended speaking tours of the U.S., and every one of his lectures was front page news and was sold out. And he had the same success in Spain, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, and the Holy Land.
2. He stirred the literary world again in 1922 when he was received into the Catholic Church. His conversion was world wide news, but in some people’s minds he went from being a writer to being a Catholic writer. Though he had always pointed to God (“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”), he was now pointing to Rome. After his death, he naturally disappeared from the newspapers, but then he disappeared from the classroom, where his books were once taught. The world became a more depressing place after World War II, and Chesterton’s message of hope and joy was not what a jaded and despairing world wanted to hear. His battle against fads and fashions gave way to… fads and fashions. His writing, which dealt with the big questions, fell out of favor in a climate that wanted to deal with the small questions.
3. After two generations grew up with no exposure to Chesterton, a new generation started to rediscover him. They found him to be prophetic (“The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality: and especially on sexual morality.”) and timely (“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”) and profound (“The most ignorant of humanity know by the very look of earth that they have forgotten heaven.”) He speaks the truth plainly (“Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it.”) but also poignantly (“When people begin to ignore human dignity, it will not be long before they begin to ignore human rights.”). And he’s still refreshingly funny. (“It is a the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)
The American Chesterton Society has played a role in the Chesterton revival. Gilbert magazine and “The Apostle of Common Sense,” a well-watched series on EWTN helped popularize Chesterton. We have also hosted a major conference that has been held in a different city every year. This year we are going to be in Colorado Springs. The three day event features outstanding speakers on a wide range of topics from literature, history, philosophy, economics, and faith and reason. But in a Chestertonian spirit, the conference is filled with much laughter and convivial debate. It is an event like nothing else on earth.
It is open to everyone, from the novice to the well-read. Everyone will find something to fascinate them and inspire them.