Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy

Click to enlargeJon Kennedy's
'C. S. Lewis Overflow
Jon Kennedy's latest book is The Everything Guide to C.S. Lewis and Narnia, due in stores in March 2008, from Adams Media, F&W Publications. This series of articles is thinking inspired by readings in Lewis's work that didn't fit into the book. Click here for a list of all articles in the C.S. Lewis Overflow series.

C.S. Lewis's letters, an introduction

The discussion last week about the revelations of the torment of the soul experienced by Mother Teresa, which came to light through the publication of private correspondence she sent to her confessors and confidantes in the Catholic church, makes a fitting segue to a discussion of C. S. Lewis's letters, which I have been reading in earnest since the beginning of this month. Ironically, Lewis's own "dark night of the soul"—feelings of abandonment from God following the death of his wife—are not accessed through correspondence but rather through a book (A Grief Observed) that he wrote specifically to share that process with others facing similar crises, thus helping them carry their burden.

C. S. LewisFor years, only a thin volume of letters by Lewis was in print. Letters to An American Lady is a collection of about 100 letters Lewis sent to an anonymous American woman discussing anything from cats to finances, facing old age, and, pre-eminently, faith. Lewis never met the woman, who had written as a fan of his writing and was among the few of many women who wrote when he was still a bachelor but did not disappear once he married. He became so involved with her life through their correspondence that he even directed his American publisher to send some of his royalties from American sales of his books to her after she confessed she was nearly destitute. After Lewis's death, she sent the letters to the Wade Center at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, where the curator, Clyde Kilby, edited them and submitted them for publication in the form they have ever since been available.

My current writing project is an investigation of Lewis's worthiness for sainthood, a quest that made me realize the best window into his internal life (lacking extensive diaries) is his collected correspondence, a point that Mother Teresa's correspondence drove home. Though some may think reading another person's personal correspondence is an invasion of their privacy, publishing the letters of famous figures from history, especially literary figures like Lewis, has a long history of precedents. Furthermore, Lewis encouraged his brother, who survived him by some years, to collect the family correspondence and organize it for scholarly research in some place (the main such being the Wade Center in Wheaton) that might want such information. Though he probably did not expect his letters to be published, especially in a popularly priced edition ($29.95 for the first two volumes with a total of over 2000 pages), there was such demand for collections of his papers in the latter years of his life that he must have known that was a possibility.

I've obtained the first two volumes (which come in a handsome case, a fact that Lewis himself would be impressed by) and have thus far read through the first 264 pages, which take us through 1916. Lewis turned 18 on November 29 that year. The first letters appear in 1905 (when he was six, going on seven) and were written from his original home to his brother, Warnie, who had by then been sent from Ireland to England to attend boarding school. When two years later Jack (as C.S. Lewis preferred to be known) also went to England to school, the letters increased in frequency and most are to his father (his mother having died when he was nine). Though he and his three-years-older brother were the best of friends until Jack was in his teens, when he was 16 he struck up a friendship with a boy from a neighboring house in Belfast, Arthur Greeves, which lasted through their lives. From 1914 through 1916, when Jack was boarding with a tutor and his wife in the south of England, the letters increased in quantity, length, and sophistication, and are addressed almost evenly to his father, whom he addresses as Papy, and Arthur, his closest confidante, whom he often addresses as "Galahad," a reference to Arthur's youthful sexual purity which, in Jack's thinking, contrasted with his own more debauched life.

This period also corresponds closely with Lewis's apostasy (turning away) from the Christianity he'd been taught in childhood, and his period of professing atheism. Though he concealed this from his father, he openly discussed it with Arthur, whose background was a strict evangelicalism (Plymouth Brethren) and who was still at this stage of life professing faith in Christ. That is where we'll take up the letters next time.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

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For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.

C. S. Lewis (1898 - 1963)

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