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.

Thank You, Walter Hooper

One of the most rewarding periods in my life as an academic was the sabbatical I received for 2014-2015. What made that sabbatical so rewarding was the almost-daily routine I had of researching letters C. S. Lewis wrote to Americans while simultaneously re-reading every Lewis book I could.

As most of you already know, the result of that sabbatical was my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact. I wrote it because I believed God had shown me a niche in Lewis scholarship that hadn’t been fully investigated. Yet even with that faith, I was wondering how much confirmation of God’s leading I might receive from others after publication.

I’ve mentioned before that Walter Hooper, Lewis’s friend in the summer before his death and the eventual agent for Lewis’s literary estate, was very helpful to me in the research. Last month, I posted a blog highlighting his gracious visit to the Kilns to speak with my student group.

Recently, I received an e-mail from Walter that I would like to share.

Dear Alan, I’ve finished a close reading of America Discovers C.S.Lewis, and at the risk of being considered a mere flatterer, I think it Perfect.

For instance, you handle the chapter on Sheldon Vanauken better than I would have thought possible. I knew him over many years, and the man kept me wondering what  he believed, and how much of it was represented by A Severe Mercy. He changed his mind several times about almost everything, including his loss of interest in C.S.Lewis. At one point he was tremendously enthusiastic about the ordination of women in the Anglican Church, but when he became a Catholic all that changed.

But the important thing is that – by sticking to A Severe Mercy and his letters to and from Lewis, you represented the man as he almost certainly was. It would have ruined your book had you got in all Sheldon’s tergiversations. And I think you’ve told his story as in a better world he would have wanted it told. That was a very fine victory over half-truths and shoddy representation.

My guess is that you’ve dealt as fairly as you can with all the people you mention, and that partly because you are not interested in anything that diminished anyone. As a result I think you’ve achieved an almost perfect history of the story you set out to tell. I’ve always loved Chad’s Apostle to the Skeptics, and now you’ve produced a sequel, and I love it too. Congratulations! Your friend, Walter Hooper.

As I read that e-mail the first time, I was stunned by the praise (initial response), followed by a deep sense of gratitude and humility. I don’t need praise to know I’ve accomplished something God wanted me to do, but it is welcome nevertheless.

I will always treasure Walter’s response. More than that, though, I will treasure any and all testimonies that what I’ve written has helped people see the Lord’s work in Lewis’s life and how He used a man to illuminate Biblical truth.

Thank you, Walter. Thank you, Lord.

At the Kilns

If I had an official bucket list, what transpired on Thursday, May 11, would have been at the top of that list. That’s the day I arrived at C. S. Lewis’s home, the Kilns.

Lewis lived in this house for the final thirty-three years of his life. It was here where he wrote most of his books and essays, here where he took care of the cantankerous Mrs. Janie Moore for twenty of those years, and here where Joy Gresham eventually resided as Mrs. C. S. Lewis.

Prior to the tour, we had time to walk through the wooded area that Lewis used to be able to see through his study window. Now there’s a house in the way of that view, but that’s fine—the owner of that house has a plaque with Narnia inscribed on it. I’m sure Lewis wouldn’t mind that.

I have read often of the pond and woods around the house but never realized how extensive the area is. And beautiful. Very beautiful.

I think the students would have appreciated more time to explore. I know I would have. Next time, I’ll have to take that into account when we return.

The home and grounds are well maintained. I don’t remember who took this photo of me outside, but it gives the sense of the peaceful atmosphere.

As I took the tour, images of where Lewis would have been sitting and of other events I’ve read about at the home came to mind. Upstairs we were ushered into Lewis’s bedroom.

Lewis sometimes used the room right next to it for his work. Yes, I had to sit there for a few moments.

We did more than the typical tour, though. Walter Hooper, who knew Lewis personally and helped him with correspondence during his final summer when he suffered a coma, and whom Lewis wanted to make his permanent secretary (Lewis died before that could happen), arrived to speak with us.

Mr. Hooper had communicated with me via e-mail as I was writing my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, and was a great encouragement to me as I progressed through my research and writing. He graciously accepted my invitation to share with our group at the Kilns.

There were other people in our little tour group, so I invited them to stay and take part in the session with Mr. Hooper. They were delighted. I then had the honor of introducing him.

He spent an hour relating his personal experiences with Lewis and answered questions. Then he conversed with the attendees afterward one-on-one. I can say emphatically that this interaction was the highlight of the day—and for me, the highlight of the entire two weeks in England.

After this experience, there was one more that was obligatory—going to Lewis’s grave to pay my respects.

Someone had recently placed flowers on the grave. It’s hard to see in this photo, but there also was an envelope there with “Jack” written on it (the name Lewis’s friends used for him). Yes, it was tempting to open that envelope and read the contents, but I refrained from doing so.

In the survey I conducted with the Wade Center when I was amassing research information for my book, there was one response that I think fits nicely here. The respondent commented,

I long to go with others on a walking tour in heaven with Jack (as he used to do with Warnie and others) and have a good lengthy chat with this man who for years now has seemed like a good, dear friend.

I can relate to that. I also hope to do the same.

Remember That Lewis Book?

Just a reminder that my book is out there waiting for you. Walter Hooper concluded his endorsement with these words: “I can honestly say I understand Lewis so much better having read this book.”

cover-on-ws-page

America Discovers C. S. Lewis

Front CoverI’m pleased to announce that my new book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact, is now published. It’s so new that it won’t be on Amazon for a few weeks yet, but it can be purchased directly from the publisher, Wipf & Stock, at this link: http://wipfandstock.com/america-discovers-c-s-lewis.html

I’m delighted to have a number of excellent endorsements for the book. Walter Hooper, Lewis’s friend and secretary near the end of his life, is the subject of one of the chapters and corresponded with me in the preparation of the manuscript. He wrote the following:

Lewis was not an authority on theology, nor a clergyman, and the British were prejudiced against his writings on theology. But Americans knew nothing of this, and liked his books because they explained profound theological truths in language almost everyone could understand. I can honestly say I understand Lewis so much better having read this book.

I’m particularly gratified by Hooper’s last sentence. This is a man who, as adviser to the Lewis estate and editor of Lewis’s collected letters, says this book helped him understand his mentor even better. Actually, that’s a little startling, but I’m humbled that he would say it.

The three other “official” endorsements come from established Lewis scholars representing three different academic fields: English literature, history, and philosophy.

Diana Glyer, author of books on the Inklings—The Company They Keep and Bandersnatch—graciously offered this:

This is an illuminating, thoughtful account of the many strands that connected Lewis to America during his lifetime and continue to do so today. Snyder’s writing is crisp, his research extensive, and his focus strong and clear.

Renowned evangelical historian Mark Noll, to whom I gave the manuscript even though we had had only one brief face-to-face meeting twenty years ago, has given this recommendation:

Snyder has made this a very good season for deeper understanding of the impact of C. S. Lewis. America Discovers C. S. Lewis joins George Marsden’s recently published “biography” of the Mere Christianity writer to explore and explain why Lewis has meant so much to so many American readers. Snyder’s use of Lewis’ correspondence with Americans is a special highlight in this helpful study.

Finally, professor of philosophy Scott Key, one of the inner circle at the C. S. Lewis Foundation and moderator of the Academic Roundtable at the Foundation’s conferences, states this with respect to the book:

Snyder provides his readers with a carefully crafted and historically engaging roadmap to the various ways in which the life and writings of C. S. Lewis influenced American Christianity. Snyder’s account of this dynamic, yet unlikely story of influence, is, itself, reflective of Lewis’s remarkable impact on American Christianity and serves as a significant contribution to the continuing assessment of and appreciation for the contribution of Lewis.

I researched and wrote this book during my academic sabbatical year in 2014-2015. Although I had read Lewis all my life and often thought of writing on him, I never had the time. The sabbatical remedied that and allowed this labor of love to come to fruition.

May this book be more than an academic exercise. May it inspire those who read it not only to appreciate Lewis more, but to give praise to the One who inspired his life and writings. That’s what Lewis would have wanted more than anything.

Lewis: Writing to Please the Ear & the Eye

Walter Hooper & KilnsBy now, regular readers of this blog know that I like to fill Saturdays with what I’m gleaning from my study of C. S. Lewis. I just completed writing the fourth chapter in my proposed book on Lewis’s impact on Americans. That chapter looks at the relationship between Lewis and Walter Hooper, an American who visited him in 1963 and became his private secretary for a few months before having to return to America.

Hooper’s remembrances of his time with Lewis make for fascinating reading. They give great insight into Lewis’s character. With your permission (or without it), I would like to share a small portion of that chapter today. This excerpt provides a window into the mind of Lewis as he constantly wrote letters to people who wanted his spiritual guidance for their lives. Hooper was deeply impressed by what he saw in Lewis.

The pattern for those last weeks together was for Lewis to dictate letters right after breakfast, since his correspondence was so constant and voluminous. When dictating, he would have Hooper then read the letters back to him before sending them, commenting, “It’s as important to please the ear as the eye.” This gave Hooper even greater insight into Lewis’s mind: “We take it for granted that his writing is both beautiful to read and beautiful to hear, but this was hardly a matter of chance. He told me that when he was writing something—nearly always with a nib pen—he ‘whispered’ the words aloud to himself.

Hooper then concluded,

C. S. Lewis 11I found this when I was with him: that the letters, which he considered one other thing which one must endure about success of a sort, must be answered, if possible that very day. Yet those letters are some of the best. I think they were some of the best things for Lewis in the sense that they were a very pastoral thing to do. They also, I think, are one of the richest mines of his writing. How often he has learned to simply take what others would take ten pages in trying to write and condense to a brief paragraph, and yet in which everything is there. You cannot find an argument put more beautifully and precisely. For many people, this will be the only way they will learn theology: to simply read it in that condensed form.

When Hooper later collected as many of Lewis’s letters as he could find, he published them in a 3-volume set. Those letters are a vast treasure chest of spiritual wisdom. Even when I may disagree with Lewis on certain specific doctrinal matters, I always enjoy reading what he has to say. He’s always worth pondering. And now, with Hooper’s commentary above, we know why those letters are so worthwhile.

The Lewis Humor

C. S. Lewis with BookWalter Hooper, an American who went to visit C. S. Lewis in 1963 unexpectedly grew so close to him that during the summer months he ended up serving as his private secretary. Lewis invited him to return to England in 1964 to take up the position permanently. Lewis’s death in November 1963 seemed to end Hooper’s dream of renewing that role, but he shortly after became the primary literary agent for all of Lewis’s works, a role he has maintained up to the present day.

Hooper shares some stories about his time with Lewis in what he considers to have been the best summer of his life. He likes to showcase Lewis’s sense of humor. One instance, in particular, had Hooper’s reliance on Lewis’s writings as the focus of the humor. Hooper relates,

Sometimes I was the occasion of his humour. It was evident to everyone I knew, and now even C. S. Lewis, that I could hardly speak without making use of Lewis’s thought, and giving full credit to Lewis with my constant refrain of “As C.S. Lewis has said.” After we’d come to know one another he invited me to call him “Jack,” and for a while he was almost like two people to me: the author of my favourite books, and Jack Lewis the friend who would never speak of his own work unless pressed. Quoting one of his books one day, I suddenly realised how it must sound to him. “As C. S. Lewis has said,” I said, “Oh, but you are C. S. Lewis!” Thereafter he made it a joke between us, and whenever he wanted anything done, he might say, “As C. S. Lewis has said ‘I would like a pot of tea.’ As C. S. Lewis has said, ‘You will go and make it.’ As C. S.Lewis has said, ‘I will drink it!”’

On another occasion, Lewis made a comment that revealed both a wry sense of humor combined with a sense of eternal tragedy:

I told Lewis about that newspaper column that was very popular when I was growing up. It was called Ripley’s “Believe it or Not,” and I told Lewis about the grave of an unbeliever whose epitaph was, “Here lies an atheist, all dressed up but with nowhere to go.” Lewis replied, “I bet he wishes that were so.”

For me, my study of C. S. Lewis has provided countless hours of fascination. I’ve written three chapters of my proposed book and am actively working on chapter four. All prayers for this will be gratefully accepted.