Letters of C.S. Lewis
© 2017 Harper Collins
Edited by Warren Lewis and Walter Hooper
After the death of his younger brother, Warren Lewis released a collection of his letters for posterity’s sake. Perhaps it was to repay a debt, as Jack spent much of his adult years trying to keep Warren from drinking himself to death. The collection is rather a selection, a sampling of Lewis’ vast correspondence that reveals his captivity by literature, his wrestling with ideas, his debates and warm exchanges with friends. The original edition produced by Warren included his active mark as an editor, with improvements to word choice; this edition by Lewis’ secretary Walter Hooper presents the original. It also incorporates excerpts from Lewis’ diary where correspondence was slight, as well as editorial comments in brackets to provide context for particular letters.
Casual Lewis fans who are expecting something like Surprised by Joy will be in for more work than they anticipate, because the first half of this is a bit of a slog, really. It’s tremendously helpful if you’re writing a paper on Lewis and want to incorporate something like first-hand sources, but it’s lots of minutiae: Lewis talking about outings with friends, or going on and on and on about the virtues of taking this approach in school rather than that approach, and the English uni system at that time bewilders me — it’s almost medieval, with students seeming choosing day by day if they want to go to this lecture by Dr. Waugh or that lecture by Dr. Granthum. The Great War is curiously muted, with the exception of its effect on Oxford. Even when Lewis is deployed in France, he mostly writes about books.
Lewis is most famous for his reluctant conversion to Christianity, and thereafter becoming one of the foremost defenders of Christianity in the modern age until his death in November 1963 — a death overshadowed by another Jack the same day — but these letter don’t reveal much about his conversion. An early Lewis comments to his friend that of course all religions are alike, just made-up stories, and a later Lewis dashes off to his friend that some metaphysical concept in his head is quickly becoming rather like God, and if something isn’t done quickly he’s going to find himself in a monastery. And then he’s a bestselling author and receiving letters asking for religious and personal advice. This familiar Lewis enters about halfway through the volume, and then religious discussion mixes with the usual literary stuff and social banter.
If one only knows Lewis as the author of beloved stories and apologia, the letters here reveal the more human one — and a very long suffering one. He spends much of his adulthood caring for the mother of a friend who perished in the Great War (they’d promised the other that in the event of their dying, the survivor would look after the other’s parent); once she passes, he has an alcoholic brother and a cancer-stricken wife to tend to. The few years of his marriage were among his happiest, however, and a brief respite from her pain allowed them both to visit Greece. He writes to a friend that the ancient splendor had him worried he might become a pagan once more and pray to Apollo.
I for one find “Jack” to be extremely pleasant company, with the effect that I often re-read his autobiography. After clearing the hurdle of his university days, the letters here were largely engaging or amusing,, particularly his advice to young students on writing, and his eternal literary discussion with his friends.
This collection is of great interest to devoted Lewisians.