Find a published citation source for Chesterton's famous "I am" what's wrong with the world.
August 17, 2011 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Q: What's wrong with the world? A: I am. - G. K. Chesterton... really? Verified citation please?

Before you jump in and post "that's by G. K. Chesterton!" please tell me where is the published source where he wrote it originally?

Wikipedia and various 2nd and 3rd hand sources say it was in response to a Times essay question involving other "great and good" writers - OK, then which ones? Where are the rest of the essays and what date was it published? Wikipedia does not say (because it never was?), it cites Philip Yancy, not exactly a paragon of scholarly rigour.

Another bit of n-th hand Internet trawling gives a possible date of 1908 but again the named source is Wikipedia... not conclusive then!

This seems to me like another of the many trite later catchphrases attributed to Chesterton because they are snappy and "paradoxical".

I'm happy to be proved wrong - I just want to clear up the misattribution.
posted by KMH to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Guardian book review.

But Kevin Belmonte found no proof of any actual Times publication of this and thinks it didn't happen. But it looks like Chesterton is still the source.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:20 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

You made me exhaustively search the Times of London archive, you jerk, and it is guaranteed not there. And that is the only place where it would have been.
posted by michaelh at 9:25 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been looking through the resources of a fairly decently-equipped library, but have found nothing. I don't have full access to the Times archive as michaelh does.

Maybe there's an exhaustive collection of his letters, but I don't have access to one.

Best guess: it's a fake.
posted by John Farrier at 9:28 AM on August 17, 2011

Best answer: You made me exhaustively search the Times of London archive, you jerk

Ha - that makes two of us. Although The Times obituary in 1936 references him publishing a "large number of volumes of essays - the last came out this month - under such typical titles as "What's Wrong With The World" - not a phrase otherwise much used by The Times.
posted by robself at 9:29 AM on August 17, 2011

Best answer: Yep, I looked at the Times of London archive and it doesn't appear to be there. Of course, just because they didn't publish such a letter it doesn't mean they didn't receive it. (There's also a possibility that a typo in the text search prevented me from finding it.)

Such an incident is also not mentioned in Chesterton's book, What's Wrong With the World, where he goes on at great length on the topic.
posted by Jahaza at 9:31 AM on August 17, 2011

Postscript - Chesterton seems to have a lot more than 2 words to say on the subject.
posted by robself at 9:31 AM on August 17, 2011

The best I could find was a review of his book of the same name in the times of 1908. I suspect that if this quote had been real, it would probably have merited a mention in that review.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 9:35 AM on August 17, 2011

I've been looking through the resources of a fairly decently-equipped library, but have found nothing. I don't have full access to the Times archive as michaelh does.

Anyone can search and view preview results, which were enough. Had I found a promising search result I would have paid $10 for a day pass to print a PDF.
posted by michaelh at 9:36 AM on August 17, 2011

Best answer: I would try emailing the Marion E. Wade Center. They are an archive of various British authors including Chesterton. They may recognize it right away. They are extremely helpful!
posted by la petite marie at 10:11 AM on August 17, 2011

Best answer: As far as I'm concerned Ideefixe has already given the best answer. I doubt that there's any value to other people exhaustively searching for a source that, apparently, doesn't exist.

Note that for something like this Wikiquote generally beats Wikipedia, as they tend to use better -- usually primary -- sources, but the Chesterton entry doesn't include this one.
I will now add it, under Misattributed.
posted by dhartung at 12:06 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Perhaps one of the following could help:

G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture

The American Chesterton Society

The Chesterton Society

If you find an answer let us know!
posted by tronec at 12:16 PM on August 17, 2011

Best answer: I had a look at Chesterton's own scrapbook of press-cuttings (Add 73395 in the British Library) to see if it would answer the question. Nobody quotes the bon mot as coming from Chesterton himself, but several of the reviewers of What's Wrong With The World make a version of the same joke: e.g. St John Ervine remarks: 'The book is called 'What's Wrong with the World,' by G.K. Chesterton: it should have been called, 'What's Wrong with the World' is G.K. Chesterton'. This may be the original source of the anecdote, misremembered and attributed to Chesterton at a later date.
posted by verstegan at 12:45 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

verstegan, brilliant!
posted by Jahaza at 1:34 PM on August 19, 2011

Response by poster: So many best answers, so little time!

I followed up all the resources and experts y'all mentioned, and I'm still awaiting any useful response.

I think verstegan has come nearest to a plausible explanation.
posted by KMH at 2:47 AM on August 24, 2011

Response by poster: I'm slowly collecting responses. Here's another one from a world expert on Chesterton:

"I asked XXXXX XXXXXXX who is a world expert on GKC, and he replied: "I haven't been able to locate a precse source, but my memory is that a newspaper, probablyThe Daily Telegraph (which was then The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post) asked several public figures to say what was wrong with the world. G.K. replied, "I am".

Sorry I can't give you a book reference. It may be described in maisie Ward's biography or the sequel. I don't have time to search."
posted by KMH at 4:47 AM on September 12, 2011

Response by poster: Another clue - again, if you take silence as evidence, sure there's plenty of evidence...

The American Chesterton Society used to have a very useful "Frequently Asked Questions" section, one of which addressed this question:

Is it true that The Times once sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking the question, "What’s wrong with the world today?" and Chesterton responded simply,

"Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours, G.K. Chesterton."


This story has been repeated so often about Chesterton that we suspect it is true. Also, it seems it is never told about any one 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.

It is also entirely possible that it actually happened with another author, but has been attributed to Chesterton because it is typical of both is humility and his wit and because it is associated with the title of a book he wrote in 1910, What’s Wrong with the World.

If anyone out there can provide further information on this one, please let us know.

- The "Quotemeister"

The page (along with all the other FAQs) is still accessible via the Internet Archive Wayback machine:
posted by KMH at 5:05 AM on September 14, 2011

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