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Historical Context in The Fallacy of Success

The Industrial Revolution and Modernity: At the time of Chesterton’s composition of “The Fallacy of Success” in 1909, the industrial revolution had been underway for the better part of a century and showed no signs of slowing down. With Edward VII on the throne, Britain was an imperial superpower with colonies in India, Africa, and the Caribbean further fueling its wealth. In both the United States and Britain, the expansion of industry gave rise to the “rag-to-riches” narrative: with enough wit and grit, any plebeian can vault himself into the upper echelons of society. The Success books that Chesterton rails against draw on just such stories, citing, for example, railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877) as a model of American bootstrapping entrepreneurship. In many ways, the industrial revolution defined the culture, values, and morals of modernity—and it is in this context that Chesterton delivers his critique.

Historical Context Examples in The Fallacy of Success:

G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success"

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"an article called "The Instinct that Makes People Rich."..."   (G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success")

It is unclear if Chesterton is referring to an actual article or if he has fabricated the excerpts he will include below, either as pastiches of articles he has read or as entirely fictional. The answer may have been more obvious to his contemporaries, but modern readers are left uncertain.

"the horrible mysticism of money..."   (G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success")

Chesterton returns to this theme in “The Worship of the Wealthy,” another of his essays collected in [All Things Considered] (https://www.owleyes.org/text/all-things-considered/read/the-worship-of-the-wealthy). In that essay, Chesterton criticizes the tendency among the poor to treat the wealthy as if they were especially noble and sacred. True to Christian ethics, Chesterton often pointed out the false conflation of material riches with spiritual attainment.

"a German Jew, he may become an Anglo-Saxon..."   (G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success")

Chesterton is invoking a perceived disparity in the quality of personhood between a German Jew and an “Anglo-Saxon,” or white Northern European. When All Things Considered was published in 1909, systemic anti-Semitism in Europe had been declining for some time, but Chesterton’s remark is indicative of the social standing and cultural perception of Jews in some circles, and potentially of the anti-Semitism of which Chesterton would later be personally accused.

"peer..."   (G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success")

“Peer” refers to a member of the peerage, the system of hereditary noble titles in Britain. The peerage includes ranks such as Duke and Earl. It is highly unlikely that one of these honors would be bestowed upon a “tenth-rate journalist.”

"Vanderbilt..."   (G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success")

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877) was an American railroad magnate who rose from poverty to unprecedented wealth over the course of his lifetime. Vanderbilt represented an ideal subject for writers of “Success” books in that he was American and he embodied the “rags-to-riches” narrative, making him a ready object of admiration among would-be entrepreneurs.

"Lord Rothschild..."   (G. K. Chesterton's "The Fallacy of Success")

The “Lord Rothschild” referred to here is Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744–1812), a German financier who founded what is perhaps the wealthiest banking dynasty in the world. The Rothschild name has come to be associated with the highest strata of wealth.

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