Over two years ago, I published a CH article about trying – and roundly failing – to verify G. K. Chesterton’s famous answer to the question “What’s Wrong with the World?”:
Dear sir, I am. Yours, GK Chesterton
As the story normally goes, this was his answer to a request from The Times for essays from famous authors addressing this theme. As the American Chesterton Society puts it in their FAQs.
This story has been repeated so often about Chesterton that we suspect it is true. Also, it seems it is never told about anyone other than Chesterton. What we have not found, however, is any documentary evidence for it. It may indeed be from The Times, as the story is usually told, but no one has taken the trouble to go through the back issues and find a copy of the actual letter. It has also been attributed to other papers, but again, no proof.
Back in February 2017, I duly set about trawling through the archives of The Times, and indeed several other major newspapers. The fruit of my researches? Nothing. Indeed, so overwhelming a nothing that I felt bold enough to call it: “The fabled Times letter is about as authentic to GK Chesterton as ‘preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary’ is to St Francis of Assisi.”
Well, it turns out I was wrong. Not for the first time, certainly. But rarely have I been so delighted to be so.
On Tuesday, Stuart McCullough (of Chesterton pilgrimage fame) alerted me to a tweet by one @SosTheRope, giving a somewhat longer recension than ‘the classic’ version, attributed to a GKC letter to “the Editor of the Daily News, 16 August, 1905”. So, to the archives it was! (A rather easier task in this age of digitization than it once was, I confess.)
And there it was. Turns out, I got two things at least partially right in my original ‘debunking’. It is indeed both a “prolix original version, giving the basic gist, to be later honed in the retelling” and “a similar-ish letter, to a similar-ish question”. But this is no time to get hung up even on Tremendous Trifles.
The Daily News was founded in 1846 by Charles Dickens, who briefly edited it. (According to Wikipedia, it would ultimately, following several mergers, end up absorbed into what is now The Daily Mail.) Chesterton, it seems, was a frequent contributor and correspondent at one time or another, as were numerous other literati.
While the full context – before, during, and after – to Chesterton’s famous letter would better suit a book than a blogpost, let me here recount the barest of bones. On Monday, 14 August, 1905, the paper published a letter from one “A Heretic”. This was entitled “What is Wrong?” and was, in large degree, precisely the kind of state-of-the-nation hand-wringing piece so beloved by today’s op-ed writers on both sides of the Atlantic. It concluded with a string of questions: “What is wrong? Why is the modern person troubled?… Why is his pride in his country a mere pretence or a mere stupidity?…What is wrong? Do you or your readers know?”
Now perhaps the Daily News’s editor did actively solicit answers from leading writers. But there’s no suggestion in any of the several responses, over a period of weeks, that this was so. (Perhaps the newspaper convention of addressing all such replies “to the Editor” is the source of this confusion). In any case, it’s not the kind of challenge that Chesterton could exactly resist. He must have picked up his pen more-or-less instantly, for his reply appeared just two days later.
His actual reply is less pithy than legend would have it: five dense paragraphs of Chestertonian repartee. (E.g., “If you have some philosophic objection to brooms and brushes, throw them away. But do not be surprised if the use of the County Council water-cart is an awkward way of dusting the drawing-room.” Not his zippiest of zingers, to be fair.) It is the third paragraph that is of most interest to us here (quoted here in full):
On one sense, and that the eternal sense, the thing is plain. The answer to the question, “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby. But this original sin belongs to all ages, and is the business of religion. Is there something as “Heretic” suggests, which belongs to this age specially, and is the business of reform? It is a dark matter, but I will make a suggestion.
It is fair to say that the story has been ‘improved’ somewhat in the telling. The canonical, mythic version is far blunter, and all the more powerful for it. The switch from the Daily News to The Times is a natural one (especially given the possibility for confusion with the New York tabloid of the same name). And the way the story has come to be told neatly sidesteps a lot of fairly laborious setting up. One also suspects that “What’s Wrong with the World?” – a phrase absent from both the original challenge and GKC’s reply – has crept in from Chesterton’s unrelated 1910 book of that title.
Nevertheless, it seems fairly clear to me that this is indeed the Ur-text of the oft-repeated story. Mystery solved then – and off to “a Wetherspoon pub of [Mr McCullough’s] choice” (as per my original column) to present his deserved reward.
But before I go, it seems fitting to leave you with one final quotation from Chesterton’s fabled letter, this being Election season and all:
Democracy in losing the austerity of youth and its dogmas has lost all; it tends to be a mere debauch of mental self-indulgence, since by a corrupt and loathsome change, Liberalism has become liberality. – Yours, etc.,