by Andrew Cuneo
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.
Continue reading the whole article