In last Saturday’s C. S. Lewis post, I related how Chad Walsh, an English professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin, turned from atheism to Christianity and how Lewis’s writings, particularly Perelandra, played a prominent role in his conversion.
This led Walsh to want to know more about his new favorite author. He wrote an article about him in The Atlantic Monthly but sought to make the thesis of that article into a book, explaining in greater detail how Lewis’s writings could reach religious skeptics.
This called for a trip to Oxford to interview his subject, which occurred in June 1948. Lewis, at first, had not encouraged Walsh’s effort, feeling he was not a proper subject for scrutiny at that time. “He had urged me to desist and devote my time to better subjects (such as some safely dead writer),” Walsh relates in the book, “but once he became convinced that I considered the study worth doing he wholeheartedly cooperated with me. He answered innumerable questions without evasion, and his friendliness did much to make my stay in England enjoyable.”
Writing to his wife, Eva, he told the story of his “first encounter”:
I went out after breakfast to shop. Came back at 10, and there was a note, asking me to call CSL at Magdalen. I called, and a deep, very English voice, said, “Is that you, Walsh?” He told me to come over to the college.
I did so, and by asking a succession of people found my way thru the maze of vault-like passages. Reached his sanctum—a two-room affair—and at last laid my eyes on CSL.
He greeted me warmly. He looks much like his pictures. A little more slender than I had imagined. A wrinkled gray suit, brown tie messily tied, scruffed black shoes. We chatted a while, then in about an hour’s time I got most of the info I need from him. He was very cooperative, as well as marvelous entertaining. . . .
He said, “I think you did a good job with those three chapters you sent me. But what are you going to write about in the other 17?”
They had a number of meetings, as Walsh questioned him thoroughly on his views. Almost from the start, they hit it off, and the relationship became more than interviewer with interviewee.
As Walsh happily recounted to his wife, “Reached CSL’s rooms at Magdalen a little after 10, & was warmly received. I soon finished with questions, so . . . we adjourned to the King’s Arms. . . . We talked of everything under the sun—when I parted I felt that we were hovering on the edge of really knowing each other. I think he takes a genuine interest in me, and really likes me—half as one colleague to another, half as father to son.”
Writing to Eva again the next day, he added, “Lewis is definitely old-fashioned in many ways. Nostalgia about the 19th c. Can’t see the possibilities in surrealist art that I think I see. Loathes the present British gov’t—‘those swine,’ as he frequently calls them.”
Before meeting Lewis for the first time, Walsh couldn’t figure out why the pictures of him on the book dust-jackets—“sad-eyed, world-weary”—didn’t seem to match the “wit and grace” he experienced in the books. “Only after I met Lewis did I see that the solution to the enigma was simpler than the theories I had been busy devising. He consented to pose for a couple of snapshots and I perceived that—like half of humanity—he stands stiffly at attention and freezes into impersonality when a camera is pointed his way. The picture on the dust-jackets resembles him about as much as a mummy resembles a living man.”
Walsh was most taken by what he called “the aliveness of his face,” both when he was talking and when listening. His “quick smile,” Walsh noted, could have been called “sweet” except for the feminine connotation of that word. It did not ring true for Lewis, who was “one of the most masculine persons I have ever known.”
It became obvious to the interviewer that his subject had very little regard for making carefully guarded statements. Concern for public relations was not part of his internal makeup. “I never detected him pausing to phrase a reply carefully for fear it might be used against him. If I mentioned prominent names he commented on them with matter-of-fact candor (whether favorably or no) and did not add that this was ‘off the record.’”
Neither did Lewis try to paint himself as an expert on every subject. Walsh witnessed genuine humility: “When I inquired his opinions on a vast variety of matters he answered with equal directness—though sometimes his response was simply, ‘I don’t know enough to have an opinion.’” Walsh’s conclusion? “It adds up to plain unselfconsciousness. . . . To the world outside of Oxford he is a famous figure. To himself he is an Oxford don who writes an occasional book in odd moments.”
That last line is quite an insight into Lewis’s conception of himself. He would probably be shocked by all the attention he has received since his death. Of course, from his current vantage point (since he is now more alive than ever), he probably knows.
Walsh did write his book, C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics. Next Saturday, I’ll offer a synopsis of its contents.
Note: this account of Walsh’s visit with Lewis is found in my America Discovers C. S. Lewis book, as just one example of what you can find there.