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The Rhetoric of Redemption

Chesterton, Ethical Criticism, and the Common Man


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 Eight: “The Fin de Siècle Atmosphere”: Aestheticism vs. Ethical Criticism at the Turns of the Centuries 95


Chapter Eight “The Fin de Siècle Atmosphere”: Aestheticism vs. Ethical Criticism at the Turns of the Centuries The approach to literature called “moral” or “ethical” criticism (also known as “pragmatic,” “consequentialist,” or “evaluative” criticism), which argues that literature can and should be evaluated, at least in part, by the effects it produces, began with Plato and was largely unquestioned before the advent of modernism. However, “Chesterton’s pragmatic insistence on the relationship between art and life,” says Lawrence Clipper, “has until very recently been denied by the stress on textual studies” (“Closer Look” 464). Two late twentieth-century critical works that reasserted the relationship between art and life are John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction (1978) and Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988). Gardner’s book was received by the critical academy with a hostility equal to that aroused by Chesterton’s books among the academics of his day, and for many of the same reasons: talk of morality, truth, beauty, good, ideals and “eternal verities” is even less acceptable today than it was when Chesterton dared to incorporate such terms in his criticism. And much of Gardner’s essential argument is identical to Chesterton’s—that the function of true art and true criticism is to affirm and uphold rather than deny and devalue life: “The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us” (Fiction...

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