Despite all Christopher Dawson’s quirks and social fears, friends flocked to him; together, they read poetry, discussed philosophy, farmed, and made crafts. Would there have been a European renaissance of Christian Humanism without this friendship centered around “Tiger Dawson”? Almost certainly not…
Though he might very well have been the most important Christian Humanist intellectual of the twentieth century, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) certainly did not possess the easiest of lives. His mother rejected him when he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1914, and he suffered from severe anxiety, depression, mania, insomnia, and extreme self-doubt his entire adult life. At times, when he lectured, he grew so nervous that his wife would have to take over the talk, speaking for him. She was “tall and beautiful with unaffected charm,” Tom Burns reminisced. “She ministered to husband, family and their guest with an easy devotion.” Indeed, without his vivacious and loving wife, Valerie, it’s not clear just how Dawson would’ve survived adulthood. Had he been born several generations later, he would’ve been probably been diagnosed with some kind of disorder, and he’d most likely be heavily medicated—on Paxil, Xanax, and Ambien.
Absent such drugs, though, Dawson’s mind never seemed to stop, which might account for his lack of sleep. He was “a bit severe and frightening in the way deep learning is apt to be,” poet David Jones remembered. Tellingly, Jones continued, Dawson always made one realize that he (his friend) knew far more than he had realized. That is, Dawson did not use his learning to oppress and intimidate, but to enliven and leaven those around him.
Yet, despite all his quirks and social fears, friends flocked to him. His best friend, E.I. Watkin, once described Dawson as Roman and himself a Greek, an intellectual as well as spiritual friendship from day one. Well, at least from day two. Loyal to the end, their friendship actually began in childhood when the two got into a fight, bashing chairs upon each other.
In the 1920s, a large group of young men flocked to the banner of Dawson in what was called a “never-ending party” in Chelsea, London. They met, read poetry, discussed philosophy, farmed and made crafts at Ditchling (the Catholic commune run by a bizarre but talented Catholic artist), and praised Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism as the greatest work of the day. Calling themselves the Order men, they took the motto of the Roman Republic, “Delenda Est” and dedicated themselves to destroying the Catholic clergy and press of their day (replacing them with intellectual priests and editors who loved art and culture and refused to bow to British conventions). Their number included Dawson, Jones, Harmon Grisewood (later of the BBC), Burns (editor and journalist), Robert Speaight (actor), and Bernard Wall (editor and journalist). Each of these men thought Dawson equal to Maritain in intellect, and they hung on every one of his few pronouncements. When he wasn’t in the room, they referred to him—proudly and with no small amount of admiration—as “tiger.” When he was in the room, they called him “Kit.” Out of this friendship came the four-volumes of the Catholic and Christian Humanist journal, Order, as well as Sheed and Ward’s famed sixteen-volume Essays in Order. Would there have been a European renaissance of Christian Humanism without this friendship centered around Tiger Dawson? Almost certainly not.
Dawson’s friendships reached beyond London, not surprisingly, especially when he and his family lived in Boar’s Hill in Oxford. He knew Charles Williams, Jack and Warnie Lewis, Humphrey Harvard, and J.R.R. Tolkien quite well, too. Though never an Inkling, Dawson certainly shaped the thoughts of every one of the Inklings, personally as well as intellectually. He and Tolkien even attended the same parish during the 1930s through the 1950s, and they had the same physician (Harvard). It was Dawson who gave Tolkien the intellectual ammunition to make his famed 1939 lecture, “On Faerie Stories,” as brilliant as it was, and it was Dawson who published Tolkien’s most justly famous short story, “Leaf by Niggle,” in the venerable Dublin Review.
When friends in Boston threw a surprise birthday party for Dawson on his seventieth birthday, his old friend, Alex Guinness, made an appearance.
Two of Dawson’s closest friends, Frank and Maisie Sheed, held radically different views of him. Sheed thought him utterly brilliant as well as utterly exasperating. As the founder and executive editor of Sheed and Ward books and publishing, Sheed spent an inordinate part of his personal correspondence as well as his professional time simply reassuring Dawson that he mattered, that he was not hated, and that he was making a difference in his Christian duty. Driven to a fault, Sheed wanted a Catholic Literary Revival more than anything else among his desires, and he correctly understood that Dawson’s mind was the key to such a revival. Grudgingly, therefore, while Sheed admitted that he was not omniscient, he did firmly believe that Dawson should never be discounted as not knowing something. He might very well know everything about even the most obscure subject, and he often served as a walking encyclopedia—more Brittanica than WorldBook.
At times, Dawson’s ideas so intrigued Frank Sheed that the famed Catholic publisher became distracted. He even once wrecked his car after a conversation with Dawson, so excited was he that he forgot to pay attention to the rules of the road.
Sheed’s wife, Maisie, however, only knew and dealt with Dawson as a friend and found him delightful. “From Chinese dynasties to American Indians, from prehistory to the Oxford Movement, from Virgil to the latest novel or even ‘Western,’ Christopher can talk of anything.” Often, Ward claimed, Dawson could speak so eloquently and solidly on any subject that one might have published the talk directly and immediately as an academic paper or journal article without the need of editing it.
In the end, Dawson is remembered—if at all—more for his ideas than his personality. Yet, it should be obvious to us all that Dawson would never have done what he did in pure isolation. In isolation, who knows where the great man might have ended? Instead, his friends suffered through his quirks, respecting the good, the true, and the beautiful in a very flawed man.
Flawed, like all of us, but a genius, like almost none of us.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Still Life with an Open Book and Spectacles” by William T. Howell Allchin (1844-1883), licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.