Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Chesterton the Journalist

I have troubles referring to GKC as a journalist. When I hear “journalist,” I think "Kolchak.” I’m not the only person who has grappled with the label. Paul Johnson wrote in the Winter 2002 Chesterton Review:

[M]ost of his time was spent in journalism. In one sense, this is curious. Journalists deal with facts, or at least factual lies or half-truths. GKC avoided facts. There are fewer facts in his books, including his history of England, than anyone else’s. Yet his journalism survives just as fairy stories survive, because neither is attached to facts, which grow out of date and are uninteresting. GKC was a highly unprofessional journalist but he believed strongly in the ethics of journalism.

A “highly unprofessional journalist.” That seems apt. It’s not fair to say he wasn’t a journalist, just because he didn’t engage in the muckraking of his era or doesn’t resemble the shoe hounds of today. After all, he was a denizen of that hotbed of journalism, Fleet Street, his biographer Michael Coren noting that “most of the mythology about Gilbert had its origins in Fleet Street,” and that “Fleet Street was his domain, and he was as much a part of it as the El Vino and Cheshire Cheese watering holes which he frequented.”

It might be correct to say that GKC was an op-ed writer. That, after all, is what he wrote: opinion pieces by the truck-full, especially for the Illustrated London News. He landed that weekly column gig in 1905 and would do it for over thirty years, publishing over 1,600 columns. They paid him 350 pounds annually (which, using the calculation explained last week, would equal about $35,000 today). The assignment gave him financial stability and continued access to the leisure that allowed him to create some of the finest books of the early twentieth century.

Even if he isn’t properly considered a journalist, we can be grateful that the journals of his day thought him worthy of the title.


In a 1991 article for the Midwest Chesterton News, Fr. James Schall shed broader light on the journalism issue, quoting Belloc:

Chesterton was a "journalist ... the chief of that trade," that is, someone who thought that telling the truth to anyone who could read was itself the most worthwhile of enterprises. “The journalist is the man who discovers the truth about important happenings affecting his country in the world even as they happen, and who, having discovered the truth, proclaims it in such a fashion that his fellows shall know it too.”

That passage from Belloc is one my friend William Burleigh at Scripps-Howard would like very much. Chesterton did have the uncanny ability to discover the roots of ultimate things in the happenings of every day events which often ceased to be merely ephemeral through his very words.

But Belloc feared that such writing the truth in the press could not be heard in his land. Belloc compared Chesterton to Samuel Johnson. "Dr. Johnson telling some truth was heard by all the England of his time, all the England which counted, in the sense of that word 'heard' when we use it to mean understood and taken for what he was in full. We have no longer the social machinery for such appreciation." The ability to "hear" the truth is also a function of our wills to want to hear it.

Belloc saw in Chesterton the journalist who could "most convey to his fellow-citizens those things they most needed to know." It was in this "expression of thought" in which Belloc wanted to "continually live." One almost thinks that the only comparable man in the world today is the Holy Father, the one who speaks the truths we most need to know but whose voice is stilled because "we no longer have the social machinery for such appreciation" of what he is saying.

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