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The Rhetoric of Redemption

Chesterton, Ethical Criticism, and the Common Man

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Alan R. Blackstock

The Rhetoric of Redemption: Chesterton, Ethical Criticism, and the Common Man examines the literary criticism written by G. K. Chesterton between 1902 and 1913 from a rhetorical standpoint to ascertain whether Chesterton did in fact create the «criticism for the common man» he aimed for. To answer this question, this book explores the relationships among writers, readers, books, and critics both during the time Chesterton first began writing and in the context of rhetorical and critical tradition from Plato to the present day. Ultimately, this book argues that Chesterton's unorthodox approach to literature, while still dismissed by the academic establishment, raises fundamental questions about the nature and function of literature and criticism that need to be raised anew in every generation and especially in the wake of each new critical episteme.
The Rhetoric of Redemption is extremely useful for both scholars and students of literary criticism and Chesterton enthusiasts who are interested in his approach to literature. This book would also be a valuable resource for courses in nineteenth-century British literature, literary criticism, and rhetorical analysis.

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Chapter Three: “I Could Not Help Being a Controversialist”: Chesterton and His Readers 23

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Chapter Three “I Could Not Help Being a Controversialist”: Chesterton and His Readers Introducing the volume of her collected essays The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf quotes Samuel Johnson’s pronouncement that ‘by the common sense of readers uncorrupted by literary prejudices…must finally be decided all claim to poetical honours,” and comments, The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole—a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking suffi- ciently like the real object to allow affection, laughter, and argument. (11-12) While Woolf is indulging in self-deprecating caricature of her own criticism here, the description applies equally well, if not better, to Chesterton’s critical posture and practice. Although Chesterton was well educated and generously gifted, he disdained any show of scholarship as pretentious1 and would have readily agreed that his guiding instinct was to use whatever odds and ends lay at hand to create a portrait of a man or an age. Whether intentionally or not, Woolf has...

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