Duty with a Stamp: “Half My Life is Spent Answering Letters”

When the third volume of C.S. Lewis’s Collected Letters came out in 2006, it did not receive nearly the attention it deserved. Its publication, however, marked the summit of assembling and editing which Walter Hooper almost single-handedly accomplished in the space of eight years. But where were the mainstream reviews or the critical assessments, and what might be said of the Letters’ benefit to Lewis scholarship?

To be fair, three volumes of over a thousand pages each take some digesting. Volume I provides the portrait of a man in intellectual formation: here is the Romantic, the poet, the Idealist, the classicist, the tutor in English, the son of Albert, and the friend of Arthur Greeves. While the contents of this volume are some of the most lengthy and detailed, they are also often not as satisfying as the letter-writer of Volume II who encountered a larger world. Indeed, Volume II marks the crest of the wave. Successes on many literary fronts in Lewis’s late 30’s and 40’s brought his formidable mind into contact with the scholars and laity interested in Lewis’s academic, fictional, and apologetic contributions. From the security of the routine – the routine of typing letters with his brother Warren, the routine of Oxford terms and vacations, and the routine of camaraderie with the Inklings – flowed rich creativity and epistolary encounters.

By the time one reaches Volume III, which picks up Lewis’s correspondence at 1950, Lewis is already doubting his powers. Worse still, his successes do burden him with an ever-increasing number of correspondents and requests. The long and delicious letters of Lewis to his father or Arthur or Warren or Ruth Pitter or Owen Barfield increasingly give way to the compact theological response, the honest “thank you” letter, or mere secretarial scheduling. The structure of a letter to Edward Dell in 1950 is typical, for it show how almost all of Lewis’s letters begin in medeas res. In this example, after noting the place and date of composition, Lewis very first sentence runs, “I had not thought of it before but it might be, as you say, that the decay of serious male friendship has results unfavorable to male religion.” (April 6, 1950). No pleasantries or small talk. More importantly from a moral point of view, no rancor, no intimidation, no bullying – none of the mischaracterizations that have slipped into descriptions of C.S. Lewis, especially by A.N. Wilson. I cannot think, out of over the 3400+ letters I have read by the author, of one that is rude, beery, or vicious.

On the contrary, one notices the unending courtesy of his writing to children or distressed ladies well below his intellectual station. Also, virtually no correspondence or relationship substantially degenerates; those correspondences which are sustained often witness to the reverse as one sees Lewis add friendship to admiration in the letters to Dorothy Sayers, Sheldon Vanauken, and T.S. Eliot, to name only a sample. Nor does Lewis seem ever to have been goaded into controversy with “the Tee-Totallers and Pacifists who honor me with frequent letters.” (June 27, 1963). Instead, he shares theological acumen with many strangers when acting as theological advisor, confessor, and confidante. At each turn, he fulfilled the very maxim he borrowed from Samuel Johnson: “it is the duty of one who has knowledge to share it”.

Joined to this adamant devotion to duty was a mode of relief. How often Lewis notes in his letters that writing is the cure for all ills – and of ills he had no short supply. All three Volumes testify to a life that, which if lived directly, had several nightmarish aspects. When one adds World War I to World War II, to the Korean War to British post-war rationing, to Mrs. Moore at home to Mrs. Moore visited daily at the nursing home, to Joy’s cancer to his own osteoporosis, to his alcoholic brother to Joy’s death: a hard coming he had of it! Writing was the treatment, if not the cure, of many of these personal ills. Looked at from another perspective, the letters show that Lewis’s writing was just as often the treatment of other people’s ills. For this reason Lewis could open a letter to Mary Van Deusen saying, “I rarely get such happy letters as yours” (June 19, 1950). A mature reading of the Lewis correspondence cannot miss the hardships of his life and the lives to which he became connected by writing; there is more than this reason for his addiction to ink, certainly, but it is one of the reasons.

Because this exhaustive compendium of letters runs at a pace of about a letter every 2-4 days of Lewis’s life, the net effect of reading Volumes I through III is that of a remarkable epistolary biography. And how many letters are lost, too. If most mornings he took the early hours for correspondence and the thousands of letters we do have are spaced out (usually) one every few days, these letters statistically represent a minority of those he wrote. He wouldn’t lament that loss, so sharp was his wholesale disapproval of biography. Nevertheless, what a shock to read a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance scholar say that, “if I had some rare information about the private life of Shakespeare or Dante I’d throw it in the fire, tell no one, and re-read their works. All this biographical interest is only a device for indulging in gossip as an excuse for not reading what the chaps say” (Jan 19, 1948). Fortunately, those who received letters from Lewis and supplied them back to the Bodleian or the Wade Center held no such view.

In sum, the letters give a tremendous amount of material which has yet to be quarried. They show a man who, to use his own description of the Renaissance masque, “is the combination throughout of what is extremely local and English and fresh with what is classical or timeless” (Jan. 3, 1950). He gives the quintessentially English side in his yearly vignettes of weather but rises to the timeless by answering such questions as “What is a soul? I am. (This is the only possible answer: or expanded, ‘A soul is that which can say I am’) (Feb. 7, 1950). There are frequent flashes of humor, such as when he writes to his brother about Jane Eyre: “Particularly delicious is her idea of conjugal bliss when she says almost on the last page ‘We talk, I believe, all day.’ Poor husband.” (Nov. 19, 1939). The bachelor Lewis’s comment becomes even better when one reads his first description of Joy Davidman as a guest “who talks from morning till night” (Dec. 19, 1952). Little did he suspect then all the joys and sorrows to come.

Lastly, as the letters put Lewis into contact with those who shared his experience of sehnsucht, they also put him into contact with his own thinking, for, as he was wont to say, he often did not know what he meant till he wrote it. The manner in which writing takes on a life of its own, how it dips into the subconscious (or the supraconscious), each suggest the duty of letter writing added as much to his thought as much as it subtracted from his time to write other material. And few other guiding threads make sense of the letters as a whole or the scheme of Lewis’s thought as Duty mixed with joy. As he characteristically writes to Keith Manship: “Your question what to do is already answered. Go on…doing all your duties. And, in all lawful ways, go on enjoying all that can be enjoyed – your friends, your music, your books. Remember we are told to ‘rejoice’” (Sept. 13, 1962). Mixed in with duty are many important details, of course. For those who want the minutiae about his own books (e.g. why is St. Anne’s called St. Anne’s in That Hideous Strength) or his particular views on perennial issues (e.g. abortion or contraception) or his views about denominations which are found no where else (e.g. what he thought of Catholicism) or even why some of the kindest letters he wrote are to Walter Hooper, there is only one place to find the truth: the Collected Letters.

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Andrew Cuneo is professor of English at Hillsdale College in Michigan. He has assisted in a variety of Lewis projects including all three volumes of The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis.

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