The Art of the Thank You Note

On the subject of thanksgiving, C. S. Lewis believed we should be grateful for all the fortunes that come our way, both good and bad. It is easy, of course, to be grateful for the good things in our lives. But Lewis felt that we should be equally thankful for bad fortune, for that is what “works in us patience, humility, the contempt of this world and the hope of our eternal country” (Collected Letters 2, 869).

Lewis’s own fortune was certainly mixed in the years after World War 2. Though Britain could count itself among the victors of the war, the economic strain on the country left its people hardly better off than those in nations that had been vanquished. In the late 1940s, Lewis began receiving gifts from his American admirers–commodities hard to come by in England such as ham, cheese, tobacco, stationery, and even canned juices. These gifts became so frequent and so plentiful that Lewis was compelled to cultivate the art of the thank you note as a minor literary genre.

Anyone who has ever written the Acknowledgements section for a book knows how hard it is to come up with new ways to say thank you. After the words thankful, grateful, indebted, acknowledge and all their variants have been used, one begins to reach for a thesaurus or to peek at the acknowledgments sections of other books to see how authors have tried to avoid repetitious phrasing. (Usually they do not succeed.)

But Lewis always seemed to find new ways to say thank you for the many gifts he received in the post-war years. At first he seemed to content himself with conventional ways of saying thanks, using phrases such as “deeply grateful,” “hearty gratitude,” and “thank you very much.” But as the gifts kept coming, often from the same generous donors, Lewis developed more creative ways to express his thanks. Though no two thank-you notes are alike, one might classify some of his favorite techniques for his “Art of the Thank You Note.”

1. Expressing the inexpressible.  Lewis begins one letter “I am completely at a loss when it comes to thanking your for your last parcel.” In another he exclaims, “the arrival of that magnificent ham leaves me not knowing what to say.” In a third he writes, “How am I to thank you for your constant kindness? The answer appears to be it is not possible, and that you must just take my word for it I am still most gratefully yours, C. S. Lewis.”

2. The humorous hyperbole. In one letter, Lewis says that his benefactors have been so kind, and so varied in their gifts, that he doesn’t know what else he should ask for: “A tin of peacock’s brains? Some frozen lark’s tongues by air mail?” In another letter Lewis claims that he will someday have to give his American donors credit for his entire body. After saying that he’s heard that the human body renews itself every seven years, Lewis explains: “If the apparently unceasing flow of your generosity continues, I shall, in common gratitude, have to put a placard on my back stating that ‘This body has been reconstituted entirely by the generosity of Edward A. Allen, Esq., of Westfield, Mass., USA.’” Elsewhere Lewis claims with feigned anxiety that if others knew all the valued gifts he’d been receiving, burglars would be sure to break into his house or the authorities would suspect him of being a black market distributor.

3. The outrageous pun. Some of the most treasured gifts Lewis received from America were hams, and occasionally he couldn’t resist punning in his letters of thanks. He signs one such note, “Ham-icably yours.” In another, he explains that he has been sharing his gifts with his fellow Inklings, wondering if they should start calling themselves the “Hamsters.”

4. Noting the aesthetics of the gift as well as it usefulness. In several letters, Lewis notes not only how valuable are the contents of the gift but how artfully they have been packed and wrapped. He notes that however generous he might be feeling, he would never have had the skill or patience to send a gift so “admirably packed.” In another thank you note for a ham, he concludes, “We’re boiling it tomorrow. Meantime I go and have a look at it every now and then for the mere beauty of it—the finest view in England!”

5. The collaborative thank you note. Surely the most elaborate thank you Lewis ever sent to a benefactor is sometimes called “The Ham Testimonial.” In March 1948, Lewis and his fellow Inklings made a dinner out of one of the more massive hams they had received from America. With his usual letter of thanks, Lewis appended a testimonial. Beginning in his own hand, Lewis wrote, “The undersigned, having just partaken of your ham, have drunk your health.” Then he signed it himself, giving his military unit in World War I and his position at Oxford. He then passed the paper around, so that everyone else present could sign their names, and mention their military duties and/or their positions at Oxford. Among the personal signatures on the “testimonial” are those of H. V. “Hugo” Dyson, Lord David Cecil, W. H. Lewis, Colin Hardie, Christopher Tolkien, R. E. “Humphrey” Havard, and J. R. R. Tolkien. (CL 2, 838).

Lewis once described the giving of praise and thanks as “inner health made audible.” He felt that it was the most “balanced and capacious minds” who found it easiest to praise others, while it was misfits and malcontents who found it hardest to offer praise and thanks–to others or to God (Reflections on the Psalms, 94-95). If his observation is correct, then Lewis’s frequent, sincere but often highly amusing, thank you notes sent to his benefactors must surely be a sign of his own inner health, and of his balanced and capacious mind.

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David C. Downing is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Downing has written four award-winning books on C. S. Lewis, including Planets in Peril, about the Ransom Trilogy; The Most Reluctant Convert, about Lewis’s journey to faith; Into the Region of Awe, about mysticism in C. S. Lewis, and Into the Wardrobe, a guide to the Narnia Chronicles. Downing’s latest book is Looking for the King, a historical novel featuring C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their friends (lookingfortheking.com).

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