Real, actual letters are a gift, an insight into our best and our worst selves. Unlike the present world of the ephemeral email and hatchet posts on social media, letters of the pre-internet era could be gorgeous works of art. In them, the writer shares just a bit of his soul, preserving it for time, at least until time itself ends.
For those of us who love C.S. Lewis, we think of the man in his many aspects. Indeed, one of the hardest things about studying C.S. Lewis is simply that he wrote so much and so often. Once he started publishing in the early 1930s, he simply never stopped. He had read and understood so much that the man himself becomes a bit elusive in our understanding of his being. There’s C.S. Lewis the satirist; C.S. Lewis the diarist; C.S. Lewis the Inkling; C.S. Lewis the professor; C.S. Lewis the friend; C.S. Lewis the brother; C.S. Lewis the husband; C.S. Lewis the Christian apologist; C.S. Lewis the literary critic; C.S. Lewis the science-fiction author; C.S. Lewis the children’s author; C.S. Lewis the editorialist; and C.S. Lewis the philosopher. One aspect of his life, though, that many of even his most ardent admirers have neglected is C.S. Lewis as letter writer and correspondent. Just as the man never stopped writing his books, he seemed never to have stopped writing letters as well. Even as his fame grew enormously in the 1940s in Britain and America, he continued a correspondence—often quite deep and extensive—with many. He also answered almost every letter he received, no matter how bizarre or needy. His letters, it turns out, provide us with many of the great man’s most interesting insights, especially considering the immediacy of so many vital issues during his own day.
Let me turn to something deeply personal at this point in this little essay. Ever since I can remember—but it arose most fully while I was in fifth grade—I have been strangely obsessed with research. If there was a job that just allowed someone to pursue research into biographies, events, wars, disasters, celebrations, I would be there! I wrote my very first research paper in 1978, after begging permission from my fifth-grade teacher, on the Asian theater of World War II. Later, in junior high and high school, I would write such voluntary papers (and sometimes not so voluntary) on space exploration, fantasy novels, rock music, Hong Kong, Jewish history, Israeli policies in Africa, why comic book superheroes were mythic, etc. For those of you who put up with my writings here at The Imaginative Conservative, I’m not sure I’ve actually matured much in my passions since 1978 or so!
My hope that someone would one day employ me to be—for all intents and purposes—a professional researcher and debater, on my own terms, of course, reminds me of the excellent Gary Larson/Far Side cartoon in which two parents are watching over Junior blowing something up on his game station. “Some day,” the parents say with immense pride, “he will make great money with his video game expertise.” Knowing that no company would ever pay me just to research, I became an academic. Close enough!
Back on a serious note. One of the reasons I loved research so much was the personal connection that it brought to persons and moments. I especially developed a love of looking at letters—original and tangible letters, not reprinted ones in collections or online. I will never forget the first time I opened a letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams. I was researching in the William Clements Archives in Ann Arbor for my dissertation on the American Revolution, and there in my hands was a letter written by John Adams. It was a love letter and a letter of deep philosophy. It had been intercepted by the British, never to make it to Abigail. But, I had it, over two hundred years after it was written. A stunning moment that I will cherish my entire life.
This leads me back to C.S. Lewis as Man of Letters. In the summer of 2004, I was in Princeton for a conference. I honestly cannot remember now whether it was sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies or the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. But, I was part of a week-long program held by one of these two great organizations, and I had the afternoons free. I spent them in the archives, looking through the papers of one of my favorite twentieth-century men, Paul Elmer More. In particular, I wanted to look at his correspondence with T.S. Eliot. While this would be the subject of a different essay, I can state with enthusiasm and certainty that this correspondence is outstanding in every respect. Good for the mind and for the soul, to be sure. While reading such goodness, I came across something almost as good as letters from John Adams to his wife. Much to my shock, I found three letters to More from C.S. Lewis. At that point, I had no idea the two men ever knew one another. Not only did they know one another, they were very close friends! What a wonderful surprise, the kind of surprise that made my heart beat quickly and my breath lessen in its ability to function properly. More and Lewis knew one another. Stunning.
In the first letter, dated October 25, 1934, Lewis admits his deep admiration for More’s most recent book, The Skeptical Approach to Religion:
The sixth chapter especially will entitle you to a place in an American Patrologia if such a collection is ever made. What is of most importance to me as an individual is that you have made me understand for the first time why most of the representatives of the present Christian Renaissance so hate Idealism—perhaps you will have made them understand too. To you it may be a matter of surprise that I could ever have found this hatred unintelligible: but you would not wonder if you had traveled the same road as I, which was from materialism to idealism, from idealism to Pantheism, from pantheism to theism, and from theism to Christianity. Our different views are natural enough. A field which seems a high place to one ascending the mountain, seems almost part of the valley to one descending. Idealism is suspect to you as a door out of Christianity: for me it was the door in.
Somewhat stunningly, Lewis concludes the letter by asking More to visit him more often in England, as the American served as Lewis’s “spiritual uncle,” especially because of More’s intelligence and his “avuncular character.”
On April 5, 1935, Lewis admits to More that he realizes how little he remembers about Plato, especially Plato’s understanding of the divine. “The immediate reaction is an irrelevant one—a groan at discovering how much less Plato I remember than I thought I did.” More had written that Plato’s thought had naturally led into Christianity, with the latter ultimately sanctifying the former. Here was Lewis, recognizing his own ignorance and More’s excellence on the issue.
In the third and final letter housed in Princeton, Lewis expresses his profound dislike of T.S. Eliot. Whether Lewis knew just how close More and Eliot were as friends (frankly, best friends) is unclear. Lewis, regardless, is simply brutal on the matter. “Surely it is natural that I should regard Eliot’s work as a very great evil,” he wrote. “His constant profession of humanism and his claim to be a ‘classicist’ may not be consciously insincere, but they are erroneous. The plea that his poems of disintegration are all satiric, are intended as awful warnings, is the common plea of all these literary traitors to humanity.” Even more shockingly, Lewis claims that The Waste Land is responsible for the destruction of much good. “His intention only God knows: I must be content to judge his work by its fruits, and I contend that no man is fortified against chaos by reading the Waste Land but that most men are by it infected with chaos.” One can only wonder what More thought of one friend not only deconstructing another friend, but claiming his art as a form of infectious disease.
Whatever one makes of More, Eliot, and Lewis, this remains true—real, actual letters are a gift, an insight into our best and our worst selves. Unlike the present world of the ephemeral email and hatchet posts on social media, letters of the pre-internet era could be gorgeous works of art, in and of themselves. In them, the writer shares just a bit of his soul, preserving it for time… at least until time itself ends.
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