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 & Socialist Britain: His Critique

c-s-lewis-2C. S. Lewis always claimed not to be interested in politics. To be sure, it was not a primary interest. Yet he often engaged in commentary and/or questions with his American correspondents over the state of American politics and government.

As the 1952 presidential election approached, Lewis turned to Vera Gebbert for her opinion on what was transpiring, asking her if even Americans really understood what was happening on their political scene. He told her about another American correspondent who had sent him eight pages of political analysis “so hot that they nearly burnt my fingers.” That correspondent had concluded that the Democrats should really be known as the “Dumbocrats” and were “a sort of mixture of Hitler, the Russian secret police, and the inmates of the village lunatic asylum.”

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?

When 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, 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.

vera-gebbertBy 1954, rationing in Britain finally came to an end, thanks to the new Conservative government. He informed Vera Gebbert 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.”

cover-on-ws-pageLewis also contrasted the blessings Gebbert had in America with the current state of England, saying, “Try living in ‘free’ England for a bit, and you would realize what government interference can mean! And not only interference, but interference in a ‘school marm’ form which is maddening.”

Then he added this quip: “There are times when one feels that a minister or two dangling from a lamp post in Whitehall would be an attraction that would draw a hard worked man up to London!”

So for those who think C. S. Lewis had nothing to say about politics and government, I offer these excerpts from my book as a counterbalance.

Lewis, Education, & Not Losing Heart

Abolition of Man Quote #3Another academic year approaches. I will begin my 28th year of teaching full-time at the college level. As I contemplate this new beginning (every new teaching session feels like a new beginning to me), I reflect on how C. S. Lewis understood education. His Abolition of Man is key to his understanding, but one can also get some insight from his letters to Americans. Those are the letters I know best after delving into them for my upcoming book. As I was picking and choosing what to share from those letters in the book, I included some of Lewis’s poignant comments on education.

Warfield Firor

Warfield Firor, an esteemed surgeon at Johns Hopkins, was a long-time correspondent with Lewis. Firor and Lewis met face-to-face in Oxford once and Firor was a guest at an Inklings meeting. When he returned to America, their correspondence deepened into many subjects, one of which was education.

One of Lewis’s letters to Firor was devoted to a critique of education, at least the way it was being carried out at that time. What is most interesting about this particular letter is that it contains sentiments about education that one might not expect from such an esteemed scholar. While Lewis certainly believed in high standards (witness the testimony of those he tutored), he also saw a bad trend in the early years when children needed more time to be children.

He was deeply concerned that education had turned into more of a competition, even of a ruthless nature. While competition itself was not evil, he told Firor that children needed time to be children. Why, he complained, did one’s entire childhood and the college years always have to be a constant exam preparation? Was this really good for the children? What kind of nation would this produce psychologically, morally, and spiritually?

Vera GebbertIn a letter to another regular American correspondent, Vera Gebbert, Lewis remarked on the deplorable state of education in both England and America, opining that both countries offered very little in the way of a solid education. He was fortunate, he told her, that his father had sent him to a private tutor after his own miserable experiences at schools.

In his very next letter, in response to her information about the kind of school her son was attending, he again took aim at the way English schools were being run, devoid of a real understanding of education. The educational authorities seemed to think that spending money on better facilities would guarantee a great education, but Lewis pointedly remarked that genuine education in the hands of a very good teacher could take place in a ramshackle building, while the best facilities in the world could never make up for the tutelage of bad teachers.

I loved reading that last remark from Lewis. I’ve always maintained that real education doesn’t take as much funding as people think. Apart from paying teachers what they are really worth (I won’t get into that right now), fancy buildings, while wonderful, don’t guarantee good education. A devoted, enthusiastic teacher does.

I’ve rarely wavered in my enthusiasm for teaching, even during some of the roughest patches of my life when discouragement threatened to overwhelm. To all teachers out there, especially those who seek to imbue their students with a love of learning that comes directly from the heart of God—don’t lose heart yourselves. I always come back to this Scripture in Galatians:

For whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. . . . Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.

May weariness never overtake you. May the Lord lift you up and encourage you on this path. You will reap what you have sown.

Lewis & the Hams

Warfield FirorI keep writing my C. S. Lewis book. The chapter I’m currently working on highlights some of the regular American correspondents Lewis had for the last decade and half of his life. Warfield M. Firor was one of those. He was fairly famous as a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. A Chair in Surgery has been established there in his name.

Firor, after WWII, was not only an admirer of Lewis’s books, but one of his most faithful contributors during the rationing after the war. He sent a steady stream of packages with a variety of foods that the English had trouble obtaining. Firor was particularly notable for sending over hams, one of Lewis’s favorite meats, but scarce for many years. Those hams started appearing in late 1947. After the arrival of the first one, Lewis replied,

I am completely at a loss when it comes to thanking you for your last parcel: because I rather doubt if you know what you have done. A ham such as you sent lifts me up into our millionaire class. Such a thing couldn’t be got on this side unless one was very deep in the Black Market. . . .

And as for the cheese, I found I’d almost forgotten what real cheese tastes like.

I and all my friends are very deeply grateful; you have given an amount of pleasure which you, in your happier country, cannot realize. . . .

P.S. We’re boiling it tomorrow. Meantime I go and have a look at it every now and then for the mere beauty of it—the finest view in England.

A scant three months later, Lewis had to send another thank-you letter, telling Firor, “No one ever see a ham these days over here, and even in a good restaurant it is very rarely that you would get a small slice of ham. I shall probably be known in Oxford for months as ‘the man who got the ham from America’! Believe me, I am heartily thankful to you for your kindness.”

When another one arrived just two months later, Lewis informed Firor, “The arrival of that magnificent ham leaves me just not knowing what to say. If it were known that it was in my house, it would draw every housebreaker in the neighbourhood more surely than would a collection of gold plate! Even in your favoured country its intrinsic value must have been considerable, and over here it is beyond valuing.”

InklingsLewis decided to share this largesse with the Inklings, rather than hoard it all for himself. He described to Firor what transpired at their last meeting:

The fate of the ham was this: we have a small informal literary club which meets in my rooms every Thursday for beer and talk, and—in happier times—for an occasional dinner. And last night, having your ham to dine off, we had a meal which eight members attended. By diligent “scraping the bottom of the barrel” in various colleges we got two bottles of burgundy and two of port: the college kitchen supplied soup, fish and a savoury: and we had a delightful evening. This by English standards is a banquet rarely met with, and all agreed that they hadn’t eaten such a dinner for five years or more.

Attached to the letter was a “Ham Testimonial” signed by all the Inklings who were present that evening to enjoy the feast. So Firor had a testimonial signed not only by Lewis but by J. R. R. Tolkien. Imagine what a price that would fetch today.

My study of Lewis has yielded so many fascinating insights. I’m grateful for this sabbatical year when I can devote myself to this.