C. S. Lewis Loses His Joy

On this day, July 13, 1960, C. S. Lewis lost his wife, Joy, to cancer. It was a devastating loss for him; their very short marriage he considered the apex of his life. Here’s how I wrote about it in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact:

“The blow has fallen,” Lewis informed [his friend Chad] Walsh in October 1959. News that Joy’s cancer had returned was a shock. Prior to receiving this bad news, they had planned a May trip to Greece. Neither had ever been there, but for Joy, in particular, seeing Greece was an unfulfilled passion. Now they had to wonder if those plans should be canceled.

She resisted; they went anyway, even knowing that it could drain the last drops of energy from her. Lewis wrote of it to Walsh shortly after they returned, wherein he remarked that though, at first, he doubted she would be able to make the trip, it turned out wonderfully. They had no regrets for making the trip. Lewis considered Joy “divinely supported” the entire time. She had been granted a lifelong desire and was grateful.

Death—the last enemy the Christian faces before being ushered into the presence of God—came to Joy Lewis a few weeks later on 13 July 1960. Lewis wrote of it to many of his correspondents, but the letter to Walsh probably provides the greatest insight into her last moments.

“It was a wonderful marriage,” Lewis confirmed to Walsh. “Even after all hope was gone, even on the last night before her death, there were ‘patins of bright gold.’ Two of the last things she said were ‘You have made me happy’ and ‘I am at peace with God.’”

Shortly after Joy’s death, Lewis began recording his feelings. Out of those daily jottings came an honest little book full of anguish, pain, and questioning of God’s ways, yet ultimately coming to the conclusion that one must put one’s life in His hands and allow Him to bring the healing, both now and in eternity.

A Grief Observed was published in 1961 initially under a pseudonym, N. W. Clerk, which was a pun on an Old English term for “I know not what scholar.” In those eighty-nine pages (more of a booklet than a book), we find Lewis struggling emotionally. Intellectually, he knew the answers to his questions, but he needed to work through the inner conflict that was making him doubt God’s goodness.

Lewis’s faith held. He lived only three more years, and was in bad health most of that time. By the end, he was fully resigned to death, even anticipating it. His understanding of his own faith, and his grasp of the door that opens into the next world, was enhanced by his relationship with an American, Jewish, former atheist, former communist woman who became the love of his life.

America Discovers C. S. Lewis: A Review

The new edition of Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal has some marvelous articles, and tucked into the back of the journal in the book review section is a review of my recent offering, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact.

The review was undertaken by Lewis scholar Charlie Starr. It’s always nice when a reviewer catches the spirit of the book he is analyzing; Starr accomplishes that admirably when reporting on what I’ve written.

“We might ask,” Starr begins, “what else can be written about Lewis?” He continues, “One answer to that question: we can examine C. S. Lewis’s relationships with Americans and his influence on America. In revealing that answer, K. Alan Snyder does not disappoint.”

Words like that are a balm to an author’s soul.

Starr then asks the following: “If there is a test for ‘yet another’ book on Lewis, it is this question: does it teach the audience something new? Snyder’s book accomplishes that task throughout.”

Commenting on the chapter in which I detail the relationship between Lewis and his first biographer, Chad Walsh, Starr notes,

In this chapter, we also get what is one of the highlights running throughout Snyder’s book: an account of first impressions. Before meeting Lewis, Walsh’s image was of a “sad-eyed,” and “world-weary” man—an impression drawn from pictures of Lewis, and one which made no sense given the vibrancy and life Walsh found in Lewis’s books.

This mystery disappeared once Walsh met Lewis and he realized that the dust-jacket pictures resembled Lewis “as much as a mummy resembles a living man.”

In my book, I offered a number of first impressions people had of Lewis. When one of his American students, William Brown Patterson, first saw Lewis, he didn’t know who he was, and since he was in “baggy trousers” and a “shapeless tweed jacket,” Patterson concluded this must be the gardener.

“The best moments in Snyder’s book,” Starr testifies, “are these storied moments, and the author manages the historian’s art: to tell a story of the past.”

One of my concerns was whether I could add anything new to the Lewis story. Starr believes I did, although he did point to one omission on my part:

In giving us the biographies of people influenced by Lewis, Snyder adds something to the biography of Lewis himself. Clyde Kilby’s story is worth knowing. Sheldon Vanauken’s account is one of the most powerful stories in the book (66-73), carrying much of the potency in this abbreviated telling that is to be found in Vanauken’s own account, A Severe Mercy.

Even more profound is the story of Joy Davidman Gresham, one which Snyder tells with charm and restraint, although the history here suffers from a failure to use the most recent discoveries about Joy and Lewis, particularly the love sonnets she wrote for him.

Mea culpa. May I plead ignorance?

Starr loves my Preface, which he says “grips readers and draws them in,” but feels I sometimes fall into basic (actually, the word he used was “bland”) prose. But he does give me a little bit of an “out” for that, noting that it’s kind of difficult to maintain the prose level of the Preface when all you are doing is providing an overview of the various Lewis societies and organizations.

He was impressed with the “excellent testimonies” from Americans who responded to my survey about how Lewis has impacted them. And he likes the chapter devoted to Lewis’s correspondence with ordinary Americans:

Here Snyder is smart to track down not only new and surprising stories about Lewis’s correspondents, but also the best tidbits from Lewis’s letters. The three-volume set of Lewis’s letters is a daunting read. Snyder kindly offers some fine moments from an epistolary Lewis in a few pages.

Starr’s final paragraph in the review summarizes nicely, so I give it here in full:

There are times when Lewis scholars and fans should ask, “Is this new book about Lewis really needed?” It would be very easy to ask whether or not we need a book about Lewis and America, especially one that moves beyond Lewis and his generation to the generations after. However, K. Alan Snyder’s America Discovers C. S. Lewis illustrates the first foray into something very much worthwhile. Snyder’s book predicts about Lewis what usually takes centuries to recognize in philosophers, theologians, or poets: the need to look back, acknowledge, and analyze the profound influence of a great writer/thinker on our culture. Had Lewis faded in the sixties as he himself predicted, there would be no need for such a study. Yet, despite Lewis’s speculation, Snyder firmly demonstrates a powerful trend: C. S. Lewis has and still is influencing Christianity in America. He did so in his lifetime, and, as Snyder proves, he continues to do so today.

I’m grateful to Charlie Starr for this positive review. Need I say that I hope it may inspire those who read it to make my book part of their collection?

Chad Walsh Meets C. S. Lewis

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.

Chad Walsh’s Baptized Imagination

One of C. S. Lewis’s earliest American friendships was with Chad Walsh, a professor of English at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Like Lewis, Walsh traveled the road from atheism to Christianity, and Lewis helped him on that journey.

“In my case there was no childhood faith,” Walsh wrote in an account of how he eventually found the Christian path.

If I ever believed in God as a small child, no memory of the time remains with me. I regarded myself as an atheist from the moment I learned to read—and, indeed, pamphlet editions of Ingersoll, et cetera, were part of my earliest reading.

Why would a young boy be so attracted to a non-Christian worldview? Walsh, although ultimately placing the blame on his own stubbornness and pride, also pointed to a reaction he had to the community in which he was raised:

Undoubtedly my atheism was in part a revolt against the Fundamentalism of my home town—Marion, Virginia. . . . It was not a winsome faith, and I was in full agreement with H. L. Mencken about the superstitious backwardness of the ‘Bible Belt.’

He eventually escaped what he considered the confines of that small town and found the atmosphere of the University of Virginia more to his liking. There he didn’t have to worry about people shoving religion at him. He was free, he felt, but the freedom did not settle the bigger questions that began to crowd upon his mind. While he claimed to be a self-satisfied atheist, doubts crept in. “Is there such a thing as good or evil?” he often wondered. “Is there any meaning in life and the universe?” World events in the 1930s helped crystallize the answers.

The rise of Hitler in Germany, and the growing awareness of the actions of that regime, forced him to confront the problem of evil in the world. Walsh’s companions in atheism and/or agnosticism, when challenged by Walsh to come up with a response to what Hitler was doing, would provide excuses, albeit excuses that were actually consistent with their worldview.

Walsh recounts,

They agreed with me that the world was a senseless jungle. Very well, they reasoned, if the world is a jungle, it’s absurd to speak of right and wrong. Everything is relative. Hitler thinks he’s doing right to invade Poland and murder the Jews. Very well, it is right for him. It’s all in the way you look at it.

That response shook him. He knew he had to come to grips with the reality of evil.

Walsh’s second question, about the meaning of life and the universe, intruded more on his thoughts once he was forced to recognize that real goodness and real evil existed, and that there was a decided difference between the two. If everything was some kind of cosmic accident, what did that say about his personhood? Was he living an illusion?

His atheism was crumbling. He lived in a transition from atheist to Christian for a few years, trying to figure out what he should believe. It all came down to the person of Jesus Christ.

Walsh began reading the New Testament. What he found surprised him. He had preconceived ideas of Jesus as some weak character—the words “meek and mild” were stuck in his mind from childhood. What he saw in the pages of the Gospels was something different:

The man I encountered in the Gospels was a towering figure of strength; even his death was that of a man strong enough to accept death voluntarily. So I was up against the final question: What or who was Jesus?

Eventually, reason led to faith.

As I recount in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, along the way, Walsh had begun to read some Lewis, and that helped him see the reality. But then he had an experience with one of Lewis’s books that absolutely transformed him.

A friend enthusiastically lent him a book she had just finished reading; she just knew he would love it. That book was Perelandra, the second in Lewis’s Space Trilogy in which the protagonist, Elwin Ransom, is transported to Venus to save an innocent world from falling into sin. Walsh was transported as well:

I quickly consumed it from cover to cover. I was struck first of all by the sheer beauty of the book. It transported me into a kind of Elysian Fields—or better yet, an unspoiled Eden, inhabited by the innocent and unfallen.

A second revelation was that, even though he had always been a science fiction fan, he had never read any science fiction like this, where it could be used as a “vehicle of great philosophic and psychological myth.” The third revelation, though, was the greatest of all:

Finally, and most importantly, in Perelandra I found my imagination being baptized. At the time I was slowly thinking, feeling, and fumbling my way towards the Christian faith and had reached the point where I was more than half convinced that it was true. This conviction, however, was a thing more of the mind than of the imagination and heart.

In Perelandra I got the taste and smell of Christian truth. My senses as well as my soul were baptized. It was as though an intellectual abstraction or speculation had become flesh and dwelt in its solid bodily glory among us.

Walsh then became the first person to write a book about Lewis. To do so properly, he knew he had to visit Oxford and interview him. That’s the tale I’ll tell in a Lewis post next Saturday. Please come back.

A Baptized Imagination

Chad WalshThe first book to analyze C. S. Lewis and his popularity was written by an American, Chad Walsh, an English professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin. It came out in 1949 with the title C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics.

Walsh had Lewis to thank for his own conversion. “In my case there was no childhood faith,” Walsh wrote in an account of how he eventually found the Christian path. “If I ever believed in God as a small child, no memory of the time remains with me. I regarded myself as an atheist from the moment I learned to read—and, indeed, pamphlet editions of Ingersoll, et cetera, were part of my earliest reading.”

At the University of Virginia, Walsh, as a student, found himself free of the dominant Christianity of his small hometown of Marion, Virginia, and flourished as a convinced atheist—at least until world circumstances forced him to think more seriously.

The rise of Hitler in Germany, and the growing awareness of the actions of that regime, forced him to confront the problem of evil in the world. Walsh’s companions in atheism and/or agnosticism, when challenged by Walsh to come up with a response to what Hitler was doing, would provide excuses, albeit excuses that were actually consistent with their worldview.

Walsh recounts, “They agreed with me that the world was a senseless jungle. Very well, they reasoned, if the world is a jungle, it’s absurd to speak of right and wrong. Everything is relative. Hitler thinks he’s doing right to invade Poland and murder the Jews. Very well, it is right for him. It’s all in the way you look at it.” That response shook him. He knew he had to come to grips with the reality of evil.

Coming to grips with evil also meant coming to grips with the whole idea of right and wrong and where the concepts originated. That led him to finally consider not only the existence of God but what his response to this God might entail. In this transition period of his life, Walsh came across some of Lewis’s writings. One, in particular, changed his life forever.

PerelandraIt was in either 1944 or 1945, he recalls, on a short vacation to Vermont, that a friend enthusiastically lent him a book she had just finished reading; she just knew he would love it. That book was Perelandra, the second in Lewis’s Space Trilogy in which the protagonist, Elwin Ransom, is transported to Venus to save an innocent world from falling into sin.

Walsh was transported as well: “I quickly consumed it from cover to cover. I was struck first of all by the sheer beauty of the book. It transported me into a kind of Elysian Fields—or better yet, an unspoiled Eden, inhabited by the innocent and unfallen.”

A second revelation was that, even though he had always been a science fiction fan, he had never read any science fiction like this, where it could be used as a “vehicle of great philosophic and psychological myth.” The third revelation, though, was the greatest of all:

Finally, and most importantly, in Perelandra I found my imagination being baptized. At the time I was slowly thinking, feeling, and fumbling my way towards the Christian faith and had reached the point where I was more than half convinced that it was true. This conviction, however, was a thing more of the mind than of the imagination and heart.

In Perelandra I got the taste and smell of Christian truth. My senses as well as my soul were baptized. It was as though an intellectual abstraction or speculation had become flesh and dwelt in its solid bodily glory among us.

As Walsh looked back on this event years later, he came to the realization that the way he found Lewis was quite typical. A person reads something by Lewis, becomes so enthused that he/she lends the book to a friend, who in turn catches that enthusiasm and passes it on to others.

For Walsh, “The result was that I began buying everything else by him that was available in America and also passed along word of the discovery to other friends. It was as though I had discovered a new ingredient in my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual diet that I had unconsciously desired but had not previously found. I think many others, coming on Lewis for the first time, felt the same way.”

As you might guess, the above is excerpted from my new book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, which will be available in a few short weeks.