Thursday, April 17, 2008

Chesterton's Scrapbook: A Look at G.K.'s Weekly

by Dale Ahlquist

[From a talk delivered at Christendom College, February 28, 2006, in celebration of the college’s acquisition of a rare complete set of G.K.’s Weekly 1925-1937.]

In 1911, Hilaire Belloc started a weekly newspaper called The Eye-Witness. The main goal of the paper was to expose political corruption, to demonstrate Belloc’s thesis of “The Servile State,” that unholy alliance between Big Government and Big Business. While it was mostly a political paper, it included a bit of culture as well. G.K. Chesterton contributed a poem to almost every issue. One of the poems he dashed off just before the deadline was a little ditty known as “Lepanto,”1 one of the most highly-praised poems of the 20th century.2

The paper lasted for a year. A week after it folded, Chesterton’s brother Cecil started a new weekly called the New Witness. The main goal of the paper was to expose political corruption, to demonstrate Belloc’s thesis of “The Servile State,” that unholy alliance between Big Government and Big Business. While it was mostly a political paper, it included a bit of culture as well. G.K. Chesterton contributed a poem to almost every issue. One of the many poems he dashed off just before the deadline was “A Song of Temperance Reform,” which became better known as “The Rolling English Road,” explaining how we “get to Paradise by way of Kensal Green,” a cemetery in London.3

Then, in 1916, Cecil joined the British Army to fight in the Great War. G.K. Chesterton agreed to fill in as editor in his brother’s absence. But the worst thing imaginable that could have happened, happened. Cecil never returned from the war. He died in a French military hospital just as the war ended in 1918. Gilbert Keith Chesterton was left in charge of his brother’s paper.

G.K. Chesterton was one of the most accomplished writers of the 20th century, a master at every genre in which he wrote: poetry, fiction, literary criticism, history, philosophy, theology. He was a master essayist, and as all of his essays were penned for newspapers and magazines, he considered himself a journalist. Being a journalist, however, did not make him suitable to be a newspaper editor. But out of loyalty to his brother, he continued to edit the New Witness for four more years. While Chesterton believed in his brother’s mission and certainly agreed with Belloc’s thesis, he had inherited a paper that, along with its regular contributors, had a very sharp edge to it. It was mostly known, if it was known at all, for being brash and negative. It really was not an attractive way to advance the kind social justice in which Chesterton believed. His friends and admirers began urging him to start a new paper, something to be identified with G.K. Chesterton himself, who was one of the most recognizable and likeable writers in the world. Reluctantly, he agreed. The New Witness ceased publication in 1923. Two years later, on March 21, 1925, Chesterton unveiled G.K.’s Weekly.

Even though the format of G.K.’s Weekly was much the same as the New Witness, it was a strikingly different paper. Chesterton had immediately put his own stamp on it, both literally and figuratively, with his famous initials splashed across the banner and his infectious wit filling almost every page. He made light of the latter by imagining a scholarly article written in the future speculating about what those two letters, “G.K.”, represented on a “rare and quaint old broadsheet” published in the 1920’s. The case not holding up for “German Kaiser,” a more likely solution put forth would be: “God Knows,” which was the “ritual answer” to most questions asked in the early 20th century. Also suggested but refuted are “Getting Kicked” and “General Kissing” and “Gratuitous Killing.” Since the paper was published during Prohibition, it is possible the letters stood for “Gin King.” In any case, “the notion that the personal initials of some obscure individual journalist, now forgotten, could ever have been counted sufficiently important for such a place… is too absurd for discussion.”4

Chesterton still demonstrated that he was not a very good editor, because for the first several months, he was writing almost the whole paper himself. But this did not seem to bother him. The thing that had once been a burden for him was now a pleasure. He said “every citizen ought to have a weekly paper of this sort to splash about in… every grown man ought to have this kind of scrapbook to keep him quiet.”5 This was indeed his scrapbook into which he could put anything he wanted.

His commentary on politics and culture and social issues came not only in headlines and leading articles, in long essays and short news items, but in poems and cartoons and creative bits of writing that, like Chesterton himself, defy categorization. He also included fiction – a serialized version of what would be his final novel, The Return of Don Quixote. He even personally answered letters to the editor.

Along with full-length book reviews were short-short book reviews, such as this one:

Lenin by Leon Trotsky. The publication of this book has caused the exile of Trotsky; but there are books equally bad written every week without any specific punishment being inflicted… 6

The early issues are astounding for how much Chesterton material they contain, but even a writer as prolific as Chesterton could not possibly maintain this huge literary output along with his other obligations as a writer and speaker. He soon learned how to start delegating writing and editing tasks to others, and his own contributions went from several pages worth to an average of two or three pages in each issue. Poems and essays and articles were received from a distinguished group of writers that included Fr. Vincent McNabb, Walter de la Mare, Theodore Maynard, Ronald Knox, Maurice Baring, Shane Leslie, Charles Williams, E. C. Bentley, Eric Gill, Hilaire Belloc, Arnold Lunn, Christopher Dawson, Paul Claudel, Alfred Noyes, Ezra Pound, C.C. Martindale, and George Bernard Shaw. Even Fr. John O’Connor, the priest who was the inspiration for Chesterton’s famous character, Father Brown, wrote a piece for the paper. Famed musicologist Ernst Newman became the regular music critic. Cecil’s widow, Ada Chesterton, writing under the name J.K. Prothero, was the regular theatre critic. And Chesterton’s wife Frances contributed an occasional poem or book review (discreetly signed “F.C.”) Letters to the editor came from such notable writers as Marshall McLuhan (well before his later fame), Owen Barfield, H.G. Wells, and Dr. Oscar Levy, one of Nietzsche’s first English translators. Perhaps the most interesting fact is that Chesterton published the first essay by a writer named E. A. Blair, who would become better known as George Orwell.

Like its predecessors, G.K.’s Weekly was always meant to be what would now be called an alternative paper. Chesterton was a great critic of the mainstream press and in his typical paradoxical fashion he asserted that the editors of the big papers “never forget their one great duty to the public; to prevent anything of any importance becoming public at all.”7

As an alternative paper, its highest circulation was about 8000. Since it never had a large readership, it was never able to support itself. It relied on many benefactors, one of whom was the great orchestra and opera conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham. But the main benefactor was G.K. Chesterton. Or rather, the main benefactor was Father Brown. Whenever there was red ink at G.K.’s Weekly, Chesterton would write a Father Brown story and sell it to a leading magazine. So we can say that a lot of people had to be killed in order to support G.K.’s Weekly. But Father Brown would always solve the murder.

Chesterton’s regular column for the weekly was first called “Found Wandering” and later became “Straws in the Wind.” The main topic of these columns, as of the paper, was Distributism, which Chesterton and his circle saw as the main solution to the social and political problems facing both Europe and America.

The driving force for Distributism was a genuine belief in the idea of liberty and justice for all. Liberty meant freedom with responsibility. Justice meant a just distribution of property. Chesterton maintained that there is a direct connection between property and liberty. Property is not only the means of freedom, but it is in a sense, the function of freedom. It gives a man something with which to do as he pleases. But Property also means responsibility. It is a thing you take care of so it takes care of you. The problem with Socialism is that there is no private property. The problem with Capitalism is that only those with the capital have property and they are very few in comparison with those who do not have property and capital. Chesterton wished to see property – and capital – widely distributed.

But Distributism was attacked from all sides as not merely impractical but crazy. In the thirteenth issue of G.K.’s Weekly, Chesterton responded to these criticisms: “We are called insane for attempting to return to sanity.”8

Three issues later, Chesterton again took up this theme of sanity and began a series of essays that became the book The Outline of Sanity, which is still possibly the best explanation and best defense of Distributism. Even after the series was completed and the book was published, Chesterton’s columns for the most part simply kept the argument going. They could be considered the chapters that were not included in the book.

Chesterton’s ideas were no different than Belloc’s or Cecil’s, but what distinguished G.K.’s Weekly from the Eye Witness and the New Witness was Chesterton’s very positive approach to Distributism as opposed to Belloc’s and Cecil’s negative approach, that is, their violent attacks on Socialism and Capitalism. Nonetheless, defending Distributism meant keeping up a constant critique of both Capitalism and Socialism. For, according to Chesterton, “Capitalism and Socialism are very much alike, especially Capitalism.”9

Communism is that form of Capitalism in which all workers have an equal wage. Capitalism is that form of Communism in which the organising officials have a very large salary. That is the difference; and that is the only difference. Both presuppose property not personal, but Worked from a centre and distributed as wages. There is a third ideal; or rather a second. It is that individuals should own and be free.10

The right and essential thing [is] that as many people as possible should have the natural, original forms of sustenance as their own property.11

The alternative to employment is not unemployment, but independence.12

Distributism may seem like a small, specialized topic, but it involves everything. And if Chesterton has a specialty, it is everything. Everything is the thing he is always writing about, everything involved in being human. In defending Distributism he is defending what it means to be human.

Our business is not so much Distributism as simply Democracy; it is not so much Democracy as simply Humanity. But in these times it needs almost superhuman fortitude to be human.13

The modern world is anti-human. Chesterton foresaw what Pope John Paul the Great called “The Culture of Death.” He saw that the wholeness and dignity of human beings was under attack in a system that treated people as mere cogs in the machine, as statistics, as inconveniences. This began to happen when the modern world began to slice up humanity according to different interests, different races, different temptations. This compartmentalization of all things human is now our standard way of operating as well as educating. It is the reason why most colleges and universities cannot accommodate a complete thinker like G.K. Chesterton. He does not fit comfortably into any one department on campus; he keeps spilling over into other disciplines. They cannot handle a writer who writes about everything. He is not narrow enough. He is not specialized enough. And this is also why they cannot grasp Distributism because Distributism is integral to an integrated way of thinking. One of the main reasons it is rejected is because of our weakness for specialization, for the endless individual pursuits of knowing more and more about less and less. We have forgotten that a thorough knowledge of one thing must still be balanced with a general knowledge of all things.

In his weekly paper, Chesterton pointed out the dangers of this over-specialization:

[This] is the chief practical result of modern practical organisation and efficiency. The division of labour has become the division of mind; and means in a new and sinister sense that the right hand does not know what the left hand doeth. In the age of universal education, nobody knows where anything comes from. The process of production has become so indirect, so multitudinous and so anonymous, that to trace anything to its origin is to enter upon a sort of detective story, or the exploration of a concealed crime.14

The result of this incomplete thinking, or lack of integrated thinking, is that the people “who dictate current opinion are governed not by principles but by obsessions, or by isolated theories.”15

How did this disintegration of rational society happen? Chesterton argues that it started “in the drift from the hearth and the family.”16 The solution of course must involve a drift back. Chesterton was on the forefront of defending the attack on the family. What critics of Distributism have never addressed is that under the socialist or capitalist or servile systems that they defend, the family has been decimated by any number of forces, all of which directly relate to Statism and Commercialism, or Big Government and Big Business. Unlike the others, Distributism is centered around the family and the precept that every governmental, commercial or judicial force must be dedicated to protecting, nourishing, and encouraging the family. We see nothing of that sort in the modern world.

Hardly anybody…dares to defend the family. The world around us has accepted a social system which denies the family. It will sometimes help the child in spite of the family; the mother in spite of the family; the grandfather in spite of the family. It will not help the family.17

We live in an age of journalese, in which everything done inside a house is called ‘drudgery’ while anything done inside an office is called ‘enterprise.’18

Chesterton offers a prophetic analysis of what has happened to the family. He goes even further. He sees that technological improvements that have made the world smaller have also served to make us more isolated. And this is seen again right in the home in the “progressive child of the twentieth century, with his earphones or his loud speaker…”

When he puts the earphones to his ears he does in fact put a mouth-gag into his mouth; as compared with the normal conversationalist conducting normal conversations. There is no harm in it, of course, in its proper place and proportion. But to fill your house, and fill your head, with voices you cannot answer, with cries you cannot return, with arguments you cannot dispute, with sentiments you cannot either applaud or denounce, is to enter into a one-sided relation and to live a lopsided life. The five senses used to be called the five wits; and to depend wholly on the receptive side of them is to be in a real sense half-witted.19

Besides the technological attack on the family which uses passive entertainment to separate children from their parents, there is also the technological attack to separate sex from fertility.

Even if I did not dislike Birth-Control, I should dislike the propaganda of Birth-Control. It is not fighting out a fair battle on the high seas of the intellect; it is poisoning the wells of innocence and ignorance and simplicity. And it prevails, as all advertisement prevails, simply because there is money behind it. It is an unexpected complication in Capitalism. But the practical effect is that Liberty, Equality and Fraternity have come to mean Plutocracy, Publicity, and Pornography.20

The whole business of Birth Control is quite literally a proposal to [throw] out the baby with the bath. The whole structural system of the suburban civilization is based on the case for having bathrooms and the case against having babies.21

Though he is describing the rise of the suburbs in England, he could just as well be describing the same thing in America. When he writes specifically about America, his observations have a pleasant sting to them:

In the case of the laws of our American friends it may said that they break them too easily because they make them too easily.22

On the subject of Prohibition, which had already passed in America and was threatening to pass in England, Chesterton was nearly beside himself that any civilized Western nation could make such laws against the simple, basic pleasures of the common man. One correspondent wrote in questioning how Chesterton could possibly criticize Prohibition. Clearly this law had prevented drunkenness and had thus improved whole communities, had it not?. The publisher of G.K.’s Weekly responded:

…it is, of course, quite true that in so far as a law prevents drinking it decreases drunkenness…There was once an exceedingly large, active and useful community in America, working under conditions even more effective than those of prohibition. Not one of them ever enfeebled himself by luxury; not one of them ever abased himself to political corruption; none of them were guilty of financial swindles or raids on Wall Street; none of them made corners in the necessities of their countrymen; none of them inflicted ruin by freezing out their rivals. None of them ever wasted their substance on champagne and cigars; and we will undertake to say that very few of them died of drink. This happy community, protected from all these evils, bore the old technical name of the Slaves. Their condition had been thus “improved” by precisely the same process by which the condition of the Bowery is said to have been improved. It was produced by forcibly preventing them from getting what they might otherwise have got. We are quite unable to understand the suggestion of our correspondent that being forcibly prevented is not an exhibition of force…23

This reply is quintessential Chesterton. It combines wit and graciousness. It nimbly combines irony with a direct point that reinforces the overarching theme of the paper: the modern world is the enemy of freedom. Liberty with its attendant risks is preferable to a controlled society regulated by the state and dictated by commerce. Power is in the hands of the few and most everyone else is somehow dependent on those few. It is a simple matter of injustice, even if it is not a simple matter to cure the injustice.

Men desire Peace much, but they desire Justice more; for Justice is at the root of every reason for living; nor was it only made my man.24

Chesterton devoted the latter part of his life to fighting for justice. His inspiration was Pope Leo XIII, whose encyclical Rerum Novarum was the basis for Distributism. Though G.K.’s Weekly was not a religious publication, Chesterton never shied away from religious questions when they were raised. But he strove to make his appeal for social justice as broad as possible since he certainly felt that Catholic social teaching is for the benefit of the entire society, not just for Catholics: “We are Christians and concerned with the body as well as the soul.”25

The Distributist League, which he helped form and which elected him as its first chairman, included both Catholics and non-Catholics. Indeed, it brought together an incredibly diverse collection of individuals, who were drawn to it for its fresh approach and its compelling ideas as well as their own dissatisfaction with the way things were and the way things were going. There was, of course, a lot of disagreement about how to bring about a more Distributist society. There is no question that Chesterton was a peacekeeper as well as the unifying force in the League. This was most poignantly demonstrated by its rather rapid demise after his death in 1936. Belloc took over the editorship of the paper, which eventually changed its name to The Weekly. After World War II, both the paper and Distributism faded away from the public arena altogether. But with the recent revival of interest in Chesterton and his writings, people are starting to take another look at Distributism as well. Many of the arguments again sound very relevant, as Big Government and Big Business have only gotten bigger, as now more than ever, “we are putting all the best things to all the worst uses.”26

For anyone who is serious about studying all the issues of Distributism, there is no better source than G.K.’s Weekly. All of the key figures of this movement contributed important material to the paper.

But beyond that, it is simply one of the most important resources for exploring the writing of one of the world’s great thinkers. There are over 600 full-length essays here and nearly as many half-page essays. There are hundreds of unsigned pieces, most of which are by Chesterton. There well over a hundred poems. Only a fraction of this material has ever been collected elsewhere. Essays from G.K.’s Weekly appear in the following books: The Outline of Sanity, The Well and the Shallows, The End of the Armistice, The Common Man, and The Coloured Lands.

But most of what Chesterton wrote for the paper bearing his initials remains uncollected. Which means that the only place you can find it is in the original editions of G.K.’s Weekly. Most of what I have quoted in this brief paper is from that uncollected material. It is a rich mine that is waiting to be excavated. It is full of Chesterton’s great wit and wisdom and prophetic insight. He is still the affable fighter, throwing down the gauntlet with great mirth, offering challenging ideas that have never been fully addressed. “Men will not enjoy what they dare not defend.”27

1 Eye Witness, Oct. 12, 1911, 520-521.
2 See Dale Ahlquist, ed. Lepanto by G.K. Chesterton with Explanatory Notes and Commentary (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 78-79.
3 New Witness, Sept. 25, 1913, 658.
4 G.K.’s Weekly, April 4, 1925, 30.
5 Ibid. 34.
6 Ibid, April 11, 1925, 69.
7 Ibid. Aug. 20, 1932, 375.
8 Ibid, June 13, 1925, 265.
9 Ibid, April 18, 1925, 73.
10 Ibid. April 23, 1932, 104.
11 Ibid. Sept. 17, 1932, 23.
12 Ibid, Feb. 2, 1929, 331.
13 Ibid, July 19, 1930, 295.
14 Ibid, June 14, 1930, 215.
15 Ibid, July 12, 1930, 279.
16 Ibid, March 30, 1933, 55.
17 Ibid, Sept. 20, 1930, 23.
18 Ibid, Sept. 27, 1930, 39.
19 Ibid, May 3, 1930, 119.
20 Ibid, Dec. 15, 1928, 219.
21 Ibid, July 6, 1929, 263.
22 Ibid, Feb. 6, 1926, 517.
23 Ibid, April 25, 1925, 112.
24 Ibid, Sept. 14, 1929, 7.
25 Ibid, June 20, 1925, 290.
26 Ibid, Dec. 7, 1929, 199.
27 Ibid, Dec. 12, 1931, 213.

©Dale Ahlquist

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