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.

The Lewis Humility

Clyde KilbyClyde Kilby was a central figure in ensuring that the works of C. S. Lewis were never forgotten. Kilby is largely responsible for assembling the largest collection of Lewis papers and books by and about him in the U.S. He was director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College for many years.

Kilby corresponded with Lewis and was able to sit down and talk with him face-to-face in July 1953. When he returned to America, he wrote an article that gave details of that visit. What I’m discovering as I study Lewis is that all those who met him for the first time came away with common stories about that first meeting, and their recollections are very similar. Let me offer a few sample paragraphs from the chapter I’m writing in my book about Lewis’s impact on Americans. Here is what happened at that first meeting:

Upon knocking, Kilby was greeted warmly by the man who had meant so much to him in writing. First impressions? “He has a pleasant, almost jolly face, full though not fat, with a double chin. He has a high forehead and thinning hair. Actually, he is a much better looking man than the published picture of him.” Kilby also liked Lewis’s sense of humor, of a type understood best by a fellow academic: “He spoke of the making of a bibliography as just plain labor and laughed about the idea of the scholar’s life as a sedentary one, saying that the physical labor of pulling big folios from the shelves of the Bodleian was all the exercise he needed.”

It was the sharing of minds, though, that stood out to Kilby as he looked back on this meeting. . . . Given Lewis’s penchant for writing novels, they debated the exact nature of that specific species of literature. When Kilby quoted someone who had said a novel is no better than a well-told lie, Lewis objected: “As I expected, he disagreed completely with this claim, saying that one is far more likely to find the truth in a novel than in a newspaper. In fact, he said he had quit reading newspapers because they were so untruthful.”

C.S. Lewis 9Kilby then discovered something about the character of Lewis that stayed with him:

The only awkward moment was when Kilby asked him to autograph one of Lewis’s books he had brought with him. Although Lewis agreed to the request, he commented that he saw no sense in doing so. That led Kilby to conclude something about his character: “Both from reading his books and talking with him, I get the impression that he is far more fearful than most of us of the subtle sin of pride and tries in every way to escape it: thus his reticence to give an autograph.” Perhaps that is what should be expected from one who wrote a book detailing how Satan traps Christians. The Screwtape Letters may have been one of the hardest books Lewis ever wrote, but the message of it seemed to remain with him to the end.

The true test of a real man or woman of God is their humility. There are countless testimonies that, in spite of his fame and great learning, C. S. Lewis retained a heart of even greater humility. That’s one excellent reason why he is worthy of study.

Lewis on Progressive Education: God Help Us All

C. S. Lewis 2C. S. Lewis developed friendships with a number of American college and university professors. One of them, Nathan Comfort Starr, visited Lewis three times over a period of fifteen years, and kept up a steady correspondence with him. Like Lewis, he was a Christian traditionalist when it came to education: learn the classics, hold students to a standard of intellectual rigor.

Starr was teaching at Rollins College in Florida in the early 1950s when a “progressive” president at the college decided to purge the traditionalists from the faculty. Because Lewis was such a revered figure, both in the scholarly and Christian worlds, he pleaded with him to write something that could be put in the newspapers or some such public organ, defending the professors.

Lewis certainly had great sympathy for them. In his response to Starr, he emphatically stated, “This is the sort of thing that makes my blood boil. The events at Rollins College seem to me to concentrate into one filthy amalgam every tendency in the modern world which I most hate and despise. And, as you say, this kind of thing will put an end to American scholarship if it goes on.”

Yet he declined to write something publicly, feeling that it would not be helpful. Here’s his rationale:

Why then did I not cable to an American paper as you suggested? My dear fellow, consider. What could unsolicited advice from a foreigner do except to stiffen the Wagnerian party by enlisting on its side every anti-British and every anti-God element in the state? You are asking me to damage a good cause by what would, from an unauthorized outsider like me, be simply impertinence. In a cooler moment (I don’t expect you to be cool at present) you will be thankful I didn’t. God help us all. It is terrible to live in a post-civilized age.

I have to agree with Lewis’s reasoning here. His intervention probably wouldn’t have helped. His response, though, does point to the fact that the current problems we face in education—at all levels—are not new. They have been brewing for a long time. Only now are they threatening to overwhelm us. The “progressive” element has had traditional education as a target for a long time.

We have dumbed down our expectations of students to the point of absurdity in many cases. Lewis referenced the “anti-God element in the state”; that element has only grown since he wrote that. We are, as he said, living “in a post-civilized age.” The reason we are rapidly descending into that age is that we are also an increasingly post-Christian age.

Lewis was correct in his plea: “God help us all.”

Lewis & Humility

Sheldon VanaukenSheldon Vanauken was an American studying in Oxford in the early 1950s. He was supremely pagan in worldview and lifestyle. Then he started reading C. S. Lewis. As a student of literature, he immediately was drawn to Lewis’s Space Trilogy, then began digesting his apologetic works. He decided, since Lewis was at Oxford also, to contact him, and a correspondence between them developed.

Lewis dealt with all of Vanauken’s major questions: the uniqueness of Christianity with respect to all other religions; the need for humility and “bending the knee” to Christ as Lord of all things in one’s life. Vanauken, with Lewis’s help, bent his knee one day and became a convinced Christian. Vanauken’s wife also gave her life to Christ as a result of reading Lewis.

What’s interesting is to see Lewis’s perspective on the role he played in the Vanaukens’ conversion. It gives insight into Lewis’s own character, and the prominence of humility in someone who could easily have puffed up his role. Instead, here is how he explained his contribution:

C. S. Lewis 8I hope my interest in you both is something less blasphemous than that of a Creator in a creature (it wd. anyway be begetting not creating, see Philemon 10).

My feeling about people in whose conversion I have been allowed to play a part is always mixed with awe and even fear: such as a boy might feel on first being allowed to fire a rifle. The disproportion between his puny finger on the trigger and the thunder & lightning wh. follow is alarming.

And the seriousness with which the other party takes my words always raises the doubt whether I have taken them seriously enough myself. By writing the things I write, you see, one especially qualifies for being hereafter “condemned out of one’s mouth.” Think of me as a fellow-patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier, cd. give some advice.

God will always use a person for His purposes who doesn’t think too highly of himself. I believe Lewis’s books and essays continue to bless readers today, in large part because of the quality of his personal character. It shines through in everything he wrote.

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.

Did Lewis Like Americans?

C. S. Lewis 8By the start of this next week, I will have completed three chapters in my proposed book on C. S. Lewis’s impact on Americans. My first chapter deals with the often-repeated charge that Lewis didn’t really like Americans. Some excerpts from this chapter follow. Here’s how it begins:

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.

James T. Como, editor of a volume now renamed Remembering C. S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him, remarks that stories have always circulated about Lewis being antagonistic toward Americans. One story Como mentions in particular has Lewis turning down an invitation to speak to an American audience, and adding a rather spiteful twist to the refusal by writing his response on a piece of toilet paper. The only problem with the story, Como notes, is that it never happened; there is no evidence for it. Como then comments, “Lewis is not on record as possessed of an antagonism toward Americans.”

I have to amend Como’s words slightly. Lewis did make some disparaging remarks about America and Americans, but most of those seem to have emanated from a young Lewis, mostly prior to his conversion. I’ve spend the past few months examining his letters to Americans and have found, quite often, gratitude for all the gifts he received in post-war, rationed Britain, and the obvious connections he made with Americans.

Walter HooperHelping me with this study has been the Rev. Walter Hooper, an American who was Lewis’s private secretary for those months before he died. Hooper has sent me information via e-mail. Here’s what he had to say in one of those e-mails:

Let us suppose that when you were two years old your father slapped your hand to prevent you putting it in the fire, and you said to your mother, “Don’t like Daddy!” Would you, or would you not, be a fool to allow that statement to stand for your settled belief about your father? Well, there was a man who used to write a lot about Lewis who used a chance, ignorant comment Lewis made as an 18-year-old student about Oxford dons to stand for— as this man did—for “Lewis’s Belief About Oxford Dons.” To accept that as Lewis’s opinion on Oxford would be as ignorant and foolish for someone to regard “Don’t like Daddy!” to be regarded as your settled opinion about your father.

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.

This study has been fascinating. I hope a book does result from this so I can share with all what I have found.