Chesterton and Oblivion

Someone once said that all writing is an attempt to achieve immortality. The authenticity of this statement is up for debate.

However, if it is true, then there are a hundred thousand sad tales of authors hoping to gain entrance to the pearly gates only to be denied. Writers are born every year and have been since the dawn of language, but the few we remember can be held in a few loose handfuls. How sad it is that so many of the greats died thinking that they would be dead forever, and it’s tragic that many who lived hoping that their words would shine like the sun, watched to see their works ignored like fireflies.

Some writers -in attempting to write for posterity- lose sight of writing for their own time. They can write an enduring classic that will stand the test of time, but while they’re alive, no one knows who they are. They may be remembered forever, but everyone in their own age ignores them. A prophet is not without honor, except in his own hometown.

Others choose to meet the issues of their times head on like gladiators, but are forgotten names in as little as a decade, soon after they are gone.

G.K. Chesterton was one such gladiator.

I’m a little soft on this particular subject. Not the subject of writing, particularly, but of Chesterton. You see, he’s my favorite author.

This is what happened:

I was young, in the library, and bored out of my skull.

In my anguish, I resolved to stick my finger into the bookshelf and read the first book I touched. I reached out like little Jack Horner and pulled back with a dingy copy of Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday.

It was a plum of a book.

When I was expecting a dull novel full of dry characters and archaic speech, I instead read a thrilling story of adventure, philosophy, and high comedy.

The Man Who was Thursday instantly became my favorite book in the whole wide world. It still is. In fact, I would heartily recommend it to anyone who can read English, not just because it’s a great book, but also because it’s free on Amazon Kindle.

As fascinating as the book is, the author fascinates me more.

G.K. Chesterton was a journalist at a time when newspapers were as productive and creative as the internet is today. His most active period was in the years shortly after the turn of the last century: 1900-1920ish. He was a writer who wrote about the issues of the day with clarity, style, and sense. He wrote complex and clearsighted books in between other writing projects, articles, and columns by dictating to his secretary. He commanded words and their meaning without effort although he had studied to become a illustrator.

Wielding the sword of his office as a literary critic, he was a major influence into the modern conception of what separates classic writers from those who are merely popular. If you tie a string to one of your favorite classic authors -Dickens, Bronte, or Austen- you will find Chesterton smiling with approval at the other end of it.

Didn’t your literature teacher ever tell you about G.K. Chesterton? No? Well here’s why:

What impresses me most about Chesterton is his unflinching attitude towards what I would call Writer’s Oblivion. As I stated in the beginning of this article, writers must decide -consciously or unconsciously- whether they would rather affect the ages to come or the age they live in right now. Some writers are required reading in every school in America but were ignored in their own time. Others had a profound impact on the issues of their time, and yet no one today even recognizes their name. This is Writer’s Oblivion: to be forgotten.

Chesterton stared straight into the yawning abyss of Writer’s Oblivion and sneered.

He wrote constantly, argued publicly with people he disagreed with, crossed intellectual swords with giants such as George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, directed the stream of literature to the form that is recognized today, and paved the way for scores of prolific and intelligent men like him. He was forgotten almost immediately after he died.

It’s incredible that this great mountain of a man changed the world he lived in and was forgotten.

I believe he knew this and never feared it for a moment.

I hope it was worth it.

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