SWCCL*: Adventurous Types, Narrative Historiography of GK Chesterton

In live blogging this conference, I am following the conventions for conference blogging.

Philip Mitchell
Dallas Baptist University

“realistic biography… reveals about a man the precise points which are unimportant” (G.K. Chesterton)

In the early persons, he began to develop an unsystematic approach to biography. Rejected historiography. Without a sense of the emotional tone, the purposes of bio were aborted. Picturesque, comic, and heroic show the person.

Discovered that a life can sum up an era or an attitude.

Nothing of the formalist fear of the ______ fallacy. Told what a person was thinking and why.

It’s a call for sympathy from the readers’ part. (1895-1905)

Has an arresting strangeness in each biography.
Coins counter-intuitive terms to explain the periods.
Written originally for newspapers.
Particular order in books shows care.

Opening essay presents the ideas.
Next five are aesthetic.
Three are prophetic.
Sandwiched by essays on normal.

Essays on humor (Bret Harte)
Then heroic v. weak national memory
Then four Victorian cases

12 Types, starts with Charlotte Bronte and ends with Sir Walter Scott.

Point/counterpoint pattern.

Model Chesterton’s wisdom methodology.

Critic: Don’t put all the folks together the way he does.

Instead, Mitchell says, it’s a presentation. Positive and weak power. Chesterton’s judgments have a powerful immediacy.
1. awaken reader to other worlds worth arguing with
2. reader gains wisdom by joining with

The real that is worth recounting is the “indestructible germ,” even when it is minor.
Locating the essence of someone is the important thing.
Can’t concentrate on the comic or shocking.
Life is invested with sweetness.
All houses are houses of joy and terror.

Chesterton extends an argument for narratives, not fiction, but human narrative sets.

Extends this principle to William Morris, “Wm Morris and His School.” Rightfully forced Victorians to face up to their ugliness. Morris did not understand the “human figures in the round.” Could not love the “fabulous monster of industrial London.”
Art did a world of good for Victorian homes, but not for humanity.

Morris, the lover of fairy tales, should have known better.

Experience sympathy with past eras that they would be tempted to slough off.

“Optimism of Byron” unconscious buoyancy v. real pessimism
Everything has once belonged somewhere, including the affective pessimism.
True pessimism is different.

“Pope and the Art of Satire” is on the nature of true wit.
Challenges readers for the lack of their understanding of the 18th C.
What the modern reader lacks is what Pope possesses.
True hatred requires full awareness of what is hated (thus satire is better).

St. Francis essay.
Hopes to awaken audience to “sensual excitement that is present in the practice and goals of the Franciscans.”
Asceticism, too, is staggering optimism, fit to put all people capering.

Rostand essay.
Heroic comedy, Cyrano de Bergerac, love of love and love of death are two passions of humanity.
Poetry is great.

These four historical pieces, psychological and spiritual centers of the world view.
“romance of civilization” (see list on handout)

More nuanced historical judgment.
Charles II is open to and not engaged with religion and science.
Aspects of human beings remain unaccounted for in every system.
Charles II gains sympathy, but more pity. Epicurean of a lesser type in a protected polity.
“Strange unreality broods over the period.”
“Our restraints are larger than their liberty.”

Robert Louis Stevenson:
Critics are unable to see optimism of heroic violence.
Love of the good and the beautiful for its own sake. This includes an imaginatively lived experience.
Loyalist to the world’s physical goodness and humanity’s dramatic explorations.

Carlyle, able to love God and the great, but not the regular person.
“cosmic irony”
To understand Carlyle you must distinguish him from later philosophers.
Says he comes close to Christianity when he sees a leader who is loving and magnanimous.
Seed of Carlyle’s madness (which lead to Nietzche) came from his inability to recognize the evil of slavery.


Savonarola as an iconoclast was needed to cleanse them to aspire to something beyond taste.

Sir Walter Scott- romantic imagination to tell us what life really is
Loves oratory. But a poor person’s voice can speak well.
Modernist realism cannot imagine attributing good speech to the poor.
“false cosmos, a lying and horrible perfection” = what others say (biographies?)

Hopes to open contemporaries to the past.
Not in distance, but in empathic manner.

Romance and adventure, and other genres, to make sense of other lives.

How did idea for this paper develop?

Chesterton’s approach to history. In middle of a book on…
Broad model for the thing.
Looking at individual texts more closely.
Each essay has the pattern.

Was curious if this happens in the book too.
Not just getting the audience to look at the past but also a pattern to build a case.

The only real difference is the second part (twenty total) is humility and inaction.
Queen Victoria’s strategic inaction gave her the strength to influence the masses.
He calls her attitude a raging humility, made it possible to keep the excesses of the British system in check until Edwardianism.

*SWCCL= Southwest Conference of Christianity and Literature

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