Some thoughts in review
Jonal entry 1039 | February 20 2008
Having read something close to two thousand letters by C.S. Lewis thus far and having created nine synopses of my notes and notated passages in them in this series of "overflow" articles, here are some thoughts in the way of a review.
First, though reading the correspondence often gives readers the impression they are the complete door to understanding or truly knowing their writer, this is less than the whole truth. I've read several biographies of Lewis as well as the letters, and have often been impressed by how disparate are the impressions both convey. It's a fact that any biographereven Lewis in his autobiographical Surprised By Joywill be influenced by the material he has at hand. Though Lewis himself would have had the advantage of having more material in his own mind than anyone else could, George Sayer and other later biographers had the advantage of having access to other people who remembered things about Jack that he himself had never mentioned in his autobiography, and also access to collected letters and papers Jack himself had long since sent out but never saw again in his lifetime.
I say at one point in my own forthcoming biography (13 chapters of the 20 are biographical, the other seven are reviews of the seven Narnian Chronicles) that through all the collected papers we students of C. S. Lewis have more thorough access to his school days, for example, than we do to our own school days. If most people's memories are similar to mine, they probably have flashes of incidents that took place when they are age eight, or in fifth grade, or seventh, but can not even relate the daily routine of a specific day thirty or more years ago, even if it was very much like day after day after day in that part of their growing-up years.
On the other hand, one of the greatest joys of writing, to me, is that if I do start describing one of those vague "incidences" of decades ago, a myriad of details start filling in so that a flash of something I once heard in seventh grade can be turned into a page or more of narration. How truthful that narration may be, however, is anyone's guess. One of my favorite books of recent years, often mentioned in these "postcards from my mind" was Frank McCort's Angela's Ashes, McCort's retelling of growing up in utter poverty in Limerick, Ireland, in much the same time frame I grew up in the western Pennsylvania coalfields. But when I refer to that book I usually call it a novel, even though he calls it autobiographical, because I'm convinced no one could have really "remembered" the depth and breadth of things he describes at ages three, nine, thirteen, and so on. He was making it up, I'm convinced, to comport with his family's general memories, but it is far more than the truth and nothing but the truth.
But I digress from the point that even an extensive collection of correspondence such as Lewis's is not enough to really bring the subject to life. Lengthy diaries would do a better job of that, but even those would be incomplete. Besides the material on hand, biographers are influenced in a major way by what they are looking for. Some of Lewis's more liberal (and therefore hostile) biographers were obviously looking for dirt, or scandal, to expose in the way of undermining his influence toward holiness. Possibly most of the others, including yours truly, were looking primarily for evidences of his holiness, generosity, orthodoxy, and goodness, and our critics from the left generally and with some justification call us "hagiographers," or partisans for Lewis's metaphorical canonization.
In the nine synopses of the correspondence thus far (another whole volume is yet to be read), I readily admit that I was looking for two types of things primarily: items that evidenced exceptional spirituality and (reluctantly, but in the cause of full disclosure) evidences of his feet of clay, failings, and carnality. To condense 2000 pages of letters into nine relatively short articles would require much selectivity in any case, but it's a sure bet that anyone who attempts to do so will make the choices of what to include according to preselected criteria. §
LATE BREAKING NEWSAs this Jonal entry was being completed, the author's copies of The Everything Guide to C.S. Lewis and Narnia reached the writer. Look for it online or at a store near you, or soon at the Nanty Glo Public Library. And in the same day's mail, so did Volume 3 of the Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis!
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