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Discovering England: G. K. Chesterton and English national identity, 1900--1936

By Susan Elizabeth Hanssen


G. K. Chesterton (1874--1936), an English journalist and man-of-letters, gained an broad audience for his cultural criticism in the first decades of the twentieth century. This dissertation presents an explanation for Chesterton's widespread popularity based on a reading of contemporary reviews of Chesterton's work. It argues that one of the chief reasons for Chesterton's popularity was that he provided an understanding of English national identity at a time when this was problematic for the British public. His early literary criticism on Charles Dickens and Robert Browning, written in the context of the Anglo-Boer War and widespread anti-war agitation, questioned the Kiplingesque glorification of the British Empire and the racial identifications of Englishness. In attempting to create a spiritual or cultural rather than racial genealogy for Englishness, Chesterton got involved in debates over England's religious heritage, the Church of England's establishment, and the role of religion in state education, the nature of English liberalism, and the possibilities for a native English brand of socialism. These debates led him eventually to reformulate the Whig history of England---particularly in his epic poem of King Alfred, The Ballad of the White Horse (1911), his propaganda during World War I, and his Short History of England (1918)---to tell a tale in which the persistence of Christian orthodoxy was the key to England's peculiar liberal cultural inheritance. After his death in 1936, Chesterton's conception of England as a nation with a past rooted in European Christendom contributed to rhetorical understandings of England's identity and role during World War II

Topics: Biographies, Religious history, European history, English literature
Year: 2002
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