Did Lewis Dislike Americans?

I’ve come across people who believe that C. S. Lewis really didn’t like America or Americans. Dealing with that issue was one of the goals of my book, so I made sure I covered it in the very first chapter. It begins with this snippet from Lewis’s early life:

On the very first page of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis, author Alan Jacobs tells the story of a precocious “Jack” Lewis, probably no more than eight years old at the time, entering his father’s study to make this following pronouncement: “I have a prejudice against the French.”

Naturally, his father, Albert, wanted to know why his younger son would have such a definite opinion. The answer he received is perhaps an indication of the astute reasoning that would continue to be a hallmark throughout C. S. Lewis’s life: “If I knew why,” he calmly asserted, “it would not be a prejudice.” Early on, then, it appears that Lewis had a clear understanding of the unreasonable nature of coming to conclusions about people without evidence.

One perhaps might be excused for thinking Lewis had a dislike for America—and Americans—if all one had to go on were early statements prior to his conversion. Firsthand contact with Americans was minimal in his life until he became famous in America, during World War II. After that, though, as his correspondence with Americans became nearly a flood, one sees instead a man who treats people as individuals, and not as stereotypes. It is instructive to witness this metamorphosis over time and trace not only Lewis’s changing attitude toward America but also his impact on individual Americans.

As one studies Lewis’s voluminous correspondence, one notices the first mention of America appears in a letter just prior to his eighteenth birthday to lifelong friend and Belfast neighbor Arthur Greeves. As might be expected, given his later career as a professor of literature, Lewis indicates to Greeves that he is beginning to read some American authors, singling out Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he admires. Yet he thought it a shame that someone of Hawthorne’s genius had to be an American.

When Lewis returned to Oxford after the war to resume his studies, he commented on the increasing number of Americans on campus, calling it an invasion. He related a story to his father about a professor who read a paper at a literary meeting and who acknowledged his effort wasn’t all that good; he thought he needed to apologize for even offering it. He had meant to publish it, he told the group, but felt it was so bad that he sent it to an American magazine instead. Lewis found that appropriately amusing.

All of these comments emanate from a pre-Christian Lewis. This doesn’t mean that his conversion necessarily changed all of his thinking about Americans, but slowly, over time, he got to know more Americans on a personal basis, and those views were tempered accordingly.

Although Lewis declined all invitations to visit America due to his personal circumstances, that did not mean he wasn’t attracted to some of what the New World had to offer. Sprinkled throughout his letters to Americans, one finds comments that reveal the longing of his heart to make the journey.

He was developing a new appreciation for the literary tastes of the American public, confessing to American correspondent Warfield Firor that he would love to visit the country where his own favorite book at the time—Perelandra—had been more enthusiastically received than in his native land.

The lean years after WWII saw Lewis on the receiving end of American largesse. Numerous American Christians who loved his writings and who heard of the shortages in his country, opened up their wallets and showered him with gifts—food, stationery, and assorted luxuries. Lewis was overwhelmed by their spirit of giving.

What irritated Lewis considerably was the reluctance of the British government to publicly acknowledge the help flowing from American citizens. In one of his few comments during his lifetime that praised the press, he informed another American correspondent, Edward Allen, that reports from the press were showing the British just how much they had the Americans to thank for their better standard of living.

If Lewis had harbored any lingering prejudices against Americans, this flood tide of giving after World War II gave him the basis for changing his earlier views. And by the way he communicated his gratitude, one may say with a great degree of certitude that his views definitely did change.

Perhaps the most fitting conclusion to this specific question of Lewis’s attitude toward Americans comes from Walter Hooper, who met Lewis in the last year of his life, and for a few months served as his private secretary. In an e-mail exchange I had with Hooper, he offered these thoughts:

Lewis himself drew my attention to another illustration of ignorance that needs unmasking. I forget where it is, but Jonathan Swift, the Irish writer, when asked if he liked or disliked the Irish, the English, the Japanese, etc. etc, pointed out that he didn’t know all the Irish people, so how could he possibly know where he liked or loathed them. Of course, like nearly everyone else, some Irish he liked, some he didn’t.

And so to Lewis, who I think must have liked many, many Americans considering that roughly three-quarters of his letters were to them. One of them to whom he wrote to for years, Mary Willis Shelburne, he provided with a pension, paid for by his American publishers. And as we all know, he married an American, and—hardly of similar importance—he made another his secretary.

My research pretty well laid to rest the issue for me. Lewis, as a young man, had a typical attitude toward the nation that seemed to be supplanting Britain as world leader. His conversion, coupled with increased contacts with Americans, led to a reversal of his earlier—and youthfully arrogant—views.

You can read about this in much more detail in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact, by going to this Amazon page.

Lewis on Visiting America

cover-on-ws-pageWhy write a book on C. S. Lewis’s connections with America when he never set foot on American soil? Well, connections are made in many ways, and this book stresses the impact Lewis made on individual Americans. During his lifetime, he received countless invitations to visit but he always had reasons for why he couldn’t do it.

Although Lewis declined all invitations to visit America due to his personal circumstances, that did not mean he wasn’t attracted to some of what the New World had to offer. Sprinkled throughout his letters to Americans, one finds comments that reveal the longing of his heart to make the journey.

He was developing a new appreciation for the literary tastes of the American public, confessing to longtime correspondent Warfield Firor that he would love to visit the country where his own favorite book at the time—Perelandra—had been more enthusiastically received than in his native land.

Lewis stated more than once that he was not drawn to the cities of America, but instead he hoped for the opportunity to experience what nature had to offer in the New World. In having to reject Firor’s offer of a stay in a cabin in the woods, Lewis lamented his lost opportunity, as he would have loved to have witnessed American wildlife and the mountainous landscape.

Lewis never shied away from acknowledging his preferences for places to see in America. He wrote to a Beverly Hills resident that he didn’t think he would like that kind of climate on a permanent basis. He needed to have snow, he confided to her.

To another who had sent pictures of California, he admitted it looked attractive, but that he would prefer New England. Why? He confessed to another correspondent that in temperament and habit, he was actually more like a Polar Bear.

c-s-lewis-13One letter, in particular, pretty much summarized what he would do if he ever did take the opportunity to travel through the United States, and how he would handle the entire trip: his focus would be on meeting the friends he had made through his American correspondence, seeing the natural wonders—the Rockies and Yellowstone Park—and just taking his time to enjoy the entire getaway. The only way he would ever consider arriving in America, he confessed, was by a slow boat so he could enjoy the maritime voyage.

It’s a shame that Lewis never made it to these shores, but that doesn’t diminish the influence he has wielded on the minds of so many Americans in the last seven decades. And that influence shows no signs of diminishing.

If you would like to read more about Lewis’s relationship with Americans, check out my book. The publisher’s page provides an overview of it and a link for purchasing it.

Lewis’s Attitude Toward America

C. S. Lewis 4My upcoming book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, deals with that famous author’s interactions with Americans and his attitude toward America as well. Early in his life, judging by comments in his letters, he had some prejudices against America and its citizens, but once he began exchanging views with American academics and receiving an abundance of letters from Americans who loved his books, one can see a decided shift in attitude.

While he did critique some aspects of American society and government, one cannot truly evaluate a person’s views of another nation in a vacuum. Comparisons are necessary. What better way to evaluate Lewis’s views on America than to look also at his views on the Britain of his day?

If he entertained a low opinion of British government and culture, would we say he was anti-British? Or would he merely be pointing out the problems that needed to be corrected? In fact, Lewis’s comments on his native country appear to be far harsher than anything he said about America.

When American university professor Nathan Comfort Starr sought to bring Lewis to America and Lewis had to decline, he did invite Starr to Britain, but not with a sterling recommendation, referring to Britain as “this luckless country.”

In offering the same invitation to Warfield Firor, a famous surgeon at Johns Hopkins, the image of Britain he used in the letter was “this bleak island,” and he wondered why Firor would even want to visit it.

Why the bleak state of affairs? For Lewis, the blame fell on the Labour government and its socialist policies, which not only ruined the nation economically but was siphoning off its liberties and making Britain a less-than-stellar partner for the United States. As he explained to Firor, the government always seemed to be thinking of ways to take more liberties from the people. “Try not to judge us by our rulers,” he pleaded.

C. S. Lewis 5By 1954, rationing in Britain finally came to an end, thanks to the new Conservative government. He informed Vera Gebbert, another regular American correspondent, that he wouldn’t be needing her gifts anymore, but there was a possibility, if she really missed sending him all those items, that she might be able to begin anew, noting that if the Socialists ever regained the majority, she could once again show her kindness “by supplying us, not with little luxuries, but with the necessities of life!”

He continued to sound the warning, such as when Gebbert was thinking of moving permanently to Britain. While they would be glad to welcome her, she needed to know the truth: there would always be the threat of a revival of a government ruled by the Socialists, “which would finish us off completely.”

When Mary Van Deusen wrote to ask him what he thought of the concept of loving one’s own country, his reply indicates a man striving to find the balance between nations and individuals. Love of country, he theorized, was primarily love for those with whom one had a lot in common.

He cautioned, “Mind you, I’m in considerable doubt about the whole thing. My mind tends to move in a world of individuals not of societies.” That tendency in Lewis’s mind to “move in a world of individuals” and “not of societies,” would also lend itself to a tendency not to wed oneself to stereotypes, whether of good traits in a people group or less-admirable ones. Whatever prejudices he may have had at the outset were set aside as he came to know more Americans.

If you find this subject of interest, there is more in my book. I’ll be sure to let you know when it is available.

America Discovers C. S . Lewis

C. S. Lewis 10My year-long sabbatical in 2014-2015 will soon pay off. The manuscript for my book on C. S. Lewis is now in the hands of the publisher and I’ve secured the Lewis Company’s permission to quote from Lewis sources. I’d like to give you an overview of what to expect in this book.

The revised title is America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact.

Chapter one looks at the relationship between Lewis and America. What was his attitude toward Americans and their country? Did it change over time? What did he like about the land he never got around to visiting and what did he critique about it? What conclusions can we reach about his views on Mother England’s former colony?

Chad WalshThe second chapter introduces Chad Walsh, an English professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin, the first American to write a book-length treatment of Lewis’s thought. In fact, Walsh was the first person, American or not, to do so. We discover that he not only met Lewis but became good friends with him.

Walsh not only introduced Americans to Lewis through his Apostle to the Skeptics volume, but he also was instrumental in connecting Lewis to one special person in particular—his future wife.

JoyJoy Davidman Gresham Lewis enters the story in chapter three. An American Jewish woman who rejected religion entirely, she committed herself to the communist vision for the future in her younger days, only to become disillusioned with that false worldview over time. C. S. Lewis filled the vacuum, showing her the way to the true faith. That relationship, which began in letters, blossomed eventually into marriage with Lewis, transforming his bachelor existence in his later years. The joy of that journey together was tested by the pain of cancer and her death, but their marriage is a testament to the essence of a love inspired by God.

Walter Hooper 1963How can one know Lewis personally for only a few months yet feel as if one has known him for many years? Walter Hooper experienced that as a young American who arrived in Oxford to meet with Lewis for only one afternoon but ended up being a close friend and companion who went on to edit Lewis’s works and ensure he would not be forgotten by future generations. His story is the subject of chapter four.

I”m also grateful to Hooper for communicating directly with me about his personal experiences with Lewis. He continues to be a link to the man who has inspired so many.

Clyde KilbyLewis became friends as well with a number of other academics on the other side of the Atlantic. Some he met in person, others only by letter. He helped fashion their Biblical worldviews, and they returned the favor by publicizing his works in America. Chapter five develops those relationships.

Clyde Kilby of Wheaton College is a prime example. It was through Kilby’s extensive efforts that the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton now exists, not only with the largest collection of Lewis primary materials in America but also as the repository for other well-known British authors, either personal friends of Lewis’s or those who influenced him greatly: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, Owen Barfield, and George MacDonald.

Severe MercyA young American who studied at Oxford, Sheldon Vanauken, attributed his conversion to Lewis, first through letters, then as a personal friend. His wife, Davy, also became a Christian by reading Lewis. After Vanauken returned to America to take up a professorship, Davy died a few years later. Lewis’s letters to him through that trying time solidified his faith.

Vanauken’s experience later appeared in a book that is treasured by many believers, A Severe Mercy. I’ve always come away from reading this autobiography deeply moved.

There is a second generation that knew not Lewis, but that owes him a great intellectual and spiritual debt. That generation is also examined in chapter five, along with representatives from American evangelicals who have depended a great deal on Lewis for their respective ministries.

Charles ColsonCharles Colson, caught in the Watergate net as a high-ranking member of the Nixon administration, read Mere Christianity and committed his life to the Lord, resulting in the worldwide ministry of Prison Fellowship. I recall reading Colson’s autobiography, Born Again, shortly after it first appeared in the late 1970s. It was an encouragement to my faith at a crucial time in my life. Lewis’s role in Colson’s journey to faith is recounted in this chapter.

Chapter six delves into the letters Lewis wrote to a number of regular American correspondents over the years. Most of these correspondents are not well known, but Lewis’s patient commitment to helping them understand better the essentials for living a victorious Christian life is central to his responses. He met those correspondents wherever they were along the Christian path and sought to lead them further. This sixth chapter also includes some of his most poignant letters to American children, most of whom contacted him after reading The Chronicles of Narnia books.

CSL FoundationChapter seven details three organizations in America that were established as a result of their appreciation for Lewis’s works: the New York C. S. Lewis Society; the C. S. Lewis Institute; and the C. S. Lewis Foundation. Their ongoing ministries testify to the impact that Lewis’s legacy continues to have on Americans. The Foundation even bought Lewis’s Oxford home, the Kilns, and has made it a study center for visiting Americans.

I’ve begun a connection with the Foundation, presenting a paper last fall at a retreat and preparing one for next month’s conference. It’s a connection I hope to strengthen over the years. I’m also slated to speak at a meeting of the New York C. S. Lewis Society in October; I’m looking forward to that.

Surveys of Americans to deduce how Lewis has influenced their lives form the substance of chapter eight. Two of those surveys, conducted in 1986 and 1996, simply asked for testimonies. The final survey, taken in 2014, expands the questions answered by the respondents and provides an even greater insight into how contemporary Americans view their C. S. Lewis experience. I conducted that final survey myself with the help of the Wade Center.

The ninth, and concluding, chapter offers some analyses by Lewis experts on the extent of his impact on America and reasons for his popularity. After reviewing what the experts say, I close with my own personal evaluation of their insights.

That’s the overview. Publication date will be late summer-early autumn. I’m excited about being able to offer this to those who are interested in understanding the immense impact Lewis has had on Americans.