I have often heard that C.S. Lewis is one of the great letter writers of history. I can hardly make any comparison; the only other letter collections I have on my shelf are single volumes by J.R.R. Tolkien, Dylan Thomas, and James Thurber. As I am slowly moving through Walter Hooper’s impeccable 3 Volume Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (CL)–numbering 3700 pages plus introductions and biographies–I am inclined to agree with the sentiment (even if I cannot verify the history).
Two things I do know, though. It is probably true that Lewis is one of the last great letter writers. I suspect that when some of Lewis’ contemporaries, like T.S. Eliot or Ernest Hemingway, have their letters finally published Lewis will have met his match in sheer volume. But authors who pour their wit and wisdom and literary artistry–and uncounted hours–into writing letters are from a time past. In his inaugural address upon receiving a professorship at Cambridge (1954), Lewis called himself a dinosaur. In the art of letter writing, at least, he was probably right.
If it is most likely true that Lewis is one of the last of a dying breed of letter writers, it is certainly true that he came to dread the task. Classically, Lewis said that
“it is an essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman’s knock” (Surprised by Joy, 143).
I wrote an entire blog on Lewis’ aversion to writing the letters that he felt duty-bound to write (see here), and how his growing fame meant that he was constantly responding to fan letters and answering the questions of inquisitive Christians. As we will see, there certainly is an increase in letters as Lewis’ fame grows.
But my own curiosity drove me to look deeper into how much Lewis wrote, and what sort of trends develop in his writing. I set about to the task, then, of counting the letters Lewis wrote each year. I am no statistician, but I decided also to count the number of pages these letters occupied in the Hooper 3-Volume collection and then calculate roughly how many letters per page Lewis averaged each year. The final calculation is very rough: my letter count is a single page-turn count, not a digital creation; there are footnotes that occupy a varying amount of page space; there are some duplications in the collection (as we have both the original and a translation of his letters in Latin); the titles that introduce each letter and Lewis’ signature occupy 4-9 lines whether it is a 4-page letter or a quick note; and the third volume may have a very slightly different word count per page. A true analysis would account for Lewis’ word count, but I think we can learn a lot about Lewis’ life in letters from these numbers. We should also be aware that we do not have all of Lewis’ letters, but only what have survived (or have been discovered). The entire chart is included at the end of this blog.
Before the Great War
By my rough count we have 3274 letters, ranging from quick notes of thanks to long philosophical debates. C.S. Lewis was born in 1898 and his first surviving letters are from the age of 7 and 8. In the period until 1912, we have very few letters. Letter writing only begins in earnest when Lewis is sent to boarding school after the death of his mother in the Fall 1908. In 1911 he moved to a new school (Cherbourg) and in the summer of 1913 Lewis began to write regularly to his father (or, at least, his father began to keep the letters faithfully). Even in these preteen letters we see a young man with a remarkable vocabulary and a sophisticated literary style.
Throughout this entire period he was very unhappy in school–a sentiment only moderately veiled in the letters. But in 1914 Lewis was moved to the home a private tutor, The Great Knock, where he flourished academically. During this period, as Lewis was preparing to enter university at Oxford, his letters become more frequent and longer. In 1913, Lewis wrote 25 letters that occupy 32 pages; in 1916 he wrote 50 letters in 102 pages–he wrote twice as many letters and they were about 50% longer. While the young Lewis becomes more faithful in his letters to his “Papy,” the increase really shows the growing friendship with Arthur Greeves. In this period about half the letters are to Arthur. Lewis continues to write to both his father and Arthur while he is at war in 1917-1918, and during his recovery from an injury near the end of the war.
this chart shows a rough calculation of the number of letters per page in CL
After the War
In the postwar we see a shift in both the number and length of letters. When C.S. Lewis was injured, his father never came to visit him. Lewis was quite hurt and the letters wane as a result.
In 1921, when Lewis is at Oxford, there are 32 letters averaging a little more than 2 pages each. But it is during this period that Lewis sends long, serial letters to his brother (who continued a career in the army). After WWI, Lewis became part of a family with Mrs Moore–perhaps his lover at first–and her daughter. His father was very concerned about this situation, which caused further stress on their relationship. Letters to his father are fewer, and the great conversational letters to his friend Arthur are almost gone in this period as well. Lewis develops friendships at Oxford, and there seems to be a cooling in his friendship with Arthur.
It is also true that Lewis is genuinely very busy in the period throughout his years being educated and into his first year of teaching. There are very few letters in this period, though we do know a lot about Lewis from his journal, All My Road Before Me.
Friendships and Great Shifts
In 1926 the letters start to build as the friends he made at Oxford are spreading out. It is this period that we have the “Great War”–a philosophical battle with his good friend and believer in God, Owen Barfield. In the period of 1926-28 the letters are the longest of Lewis’ career, on average. The length is partly due to the philosophical debates, but also to a new correspondence with his brother who is, once again, overseas.
1929-31 was an important period for Lewis. His academic career is settling in and his financial dependence upon his father has passed, leading to a renewal of relationship. His friendships are deepening, and with his brother overseas we get a lot of details of his life in long letters. The effect of the Great War with Owen Barfield and his literary research are beginning the process of converting his mind toward theism (sometime in 1929-30), and some of his letters reflect the shift.
But 1929 is also a year of tragedy. Lewis’ father got ill and, quite suddenly, passed away. Warren is still overseas, and Lewis is left to bury his father and deal with the estate. Lewis’ letters are a strange mix of dull business dealings and heartfelt notes to family and friends. The letters of the second sort show some regret that he had treated his father so poorly, and some relief that he is gone.
With the loss came new opportunities. When the estate is settled, the Lewis brothers and Mrs. Moore are able to buy an Oxford property, The Kilns, that Lewis made home until his death. Lewis’ time in Ireland for his father’s illness, funeral, and estate dealings also allowed Lewis to reconnect with Arthur Greeves. Their letters increase in this period, and we are grateful for it. It is in these letters that Lewis explains much of his spiritual conversion, resulting in a full commitment to Christianity in the Fall of 1931.
Lewis’ life after conversion is noticeably different in his letters. He has to explain his conversion to some of his old friends–though much of this was done in person in Oxford or on annual long-weekend walking tours with literary friends–and we see his conversations with editors and publishers. His essays and editorials are being printed with increasing frequency, and he has two important books published (The Pilgrim’s Regress, a spiritual allegory, and The Allegory of Love, an academic treatise).
So although 1933-1938 were not fruitful letter-writing years, they do show us about how he processed his faith journey and many of his literary dealings. It is also in this period that Lewis meets writer, publisher, and poet Charles Williams through mutual fan letters. Williams would prove to be influential in the next period of Lewis’ work.
The Public Intellectual
In 1938 Lewis published his first Science Fiction book, Out of the Silent Planet, and The Problem of Pain, a book defending Christianity, was published the following year, followed closely by The Screwtape Letters and the BBC Broadcasts. It is in this period that we begin to see some of the “fan” correspondence. He dialogues with authors Dorothy Sayers, Arthur C. Clarke, and Evelyn Underhill. He also develops lifelong literary relationships with Sr. Penelope and Mary Neylan (who becomes a Christian largely through Lewis’ letters). As such, we see a spike in the number and length of letters in 1939-1941–it is only at the height of the Narnia series that we see so much paper coming from Lewis’ desk.
Part of the reason for the 1939-1940 letter bulk is that C.S. Lewis’ brother is once again at war. What takes place as WWII carries on and Warren returns home is that the correspondents multiply while the length of the letters decrease. From 1941 until his death in 1963, Lewis’ letters will slowly decrease in length while slowly increasing in number (except for 1950-51); letters average about a page per letter through the 1940s.
Intriguingly, as WWII continues, there is a drop in the amount of writing that Lewis does, even as the number of letters slowly creeps up. Lewis published prolifically during WWII and is successful in four series of Broadcast Talks. His profile on campus is increasing, and WWII finishes with the last two volumes of his Ransom Cycle, The Great Divorce, and a number of published essays.
While WWII is the most fertile period of publication, the letters follow the war. We see fans asking about the Ransom books, Christian thinkers talking about Lewis’ apologetic books, and a number of letters to editors. We also begin to hear from Americans in this post-WWII period, including Chad Walsh–an early Lewis biographer–and a number of Christians who sent Lewis food and supplies in the lean times after the war.
1949 is a very productive letter year and is filled with letters to Lewis’ friends, literary correspondents, and fans. The early 1950s is the beginning of the Narnia period and printing of Mere Christianity. It is in this period that the fan letters begin in earnest–including some wonderful letters to children–and Lewis is busy until his death. 1954 sees Lewis’ career shift to Cambridge, and the number of letters that year–the most ever–is buoyed by notes (both mundane and personal) about the change.
The number of letters increase in this period dramatically, and although they decrease in 1957, that period through 1963 is remarkable in the number of correspondents Lewis maintains. Letters to an American Lady shows the patience that Lewis showed to the people who sent him notes. In the American Lady series of 141 letters, Lewis criticizes poetry, offers advice, gives Christian encouragement, provides financial support, and puts up with a number of complaints from his correspondent.
As the 1950s continues, we see the surprising marriage of Lewis to Joy Davidman, her illness and subsequent death in 1960, and the grieving process that is evident in his letters. There is a drop in letters in the two years after her death, but it seems like Lewis was picking up the pace again before he became sick in the summer of 1963.
Looking at the Numbers
As we can see in this chart, the most fruitful years are during WWI, in the time leading up to his conversion, and during the post-WWII period through to the end of his life. The WWI period was filled with letters home and to his best friend, Arthur Greeves. There are surprisingly very few letters to his brother, Warren. The period around his conversion is stronger due to the fact that Lewis had a lot of business by letter and he was writing long letters to his brother. But we also see letters where he is thinking through spiritual implications with his friends–in particular with Arthur. The building demand of letters from the ’40s through the early ’60s is indicative of his growing fame, the solidity of his position as a public intellectual, his extensive relational base of support, and the business of publishing.
There were periods of extreme busyness in Lewis’ life, especially 1920-26, 1940-48 (Lewis’ student load doubled after WWII), and after his sabbatical of 1951 through his move to Cambridge in 1954. While we see a dip in letter writing during the busy period of Lewis’ education in the early ’20s, we do not see that in the ’40s. Lewis seems bound by duty or honour or opportunity to dialogue with the public, regardless of his increasing weariness. That weariness breaks, I think, with a writing sabbatical and the death of Mrs. Moore in 1951. While “schedule” was a factor in writing when Lewis was younger, the older public figure makes time to respond to friends and fans.
There seems also to be a shift in letter-writing philosophy around 1941. Warren retires from the army and begins typing letters and working as Lewis’ secretary. Letters slowly become briefer as the demand for writing increases, and probably Warren is writing some of them from Lewis’ notes. In the late ’50s Joy wrote some letters on Lewis’ behalf, as did both Warren and Walter Hooper in 1963 during his illness.
What emerges most for me are his literary friendships. I already mentioned The American Lady and Mary Neylan, but there was a more equal relationship with so many figures. There are extended discussions with Sr. Penelope, Dom Bede Griffiths, Chad Walsh, Roger Lancelyn Green, Ruth Pitter, and George Sayer. Real highlights are the extended discussions with Owen Barfield, the Latin Letters shared with Don Giovanni Calabria, the great correspondence with Dorothy Sayers, and Sheldon Vanauken’s transformational series, which became the book A Severe Mercy.
And then there is Arthur, of course. From their time of meeting through the end of WWII Lewis wrote to Arthur almost weekly. In the couple of years after WWII, when Lewis went to Oxford, the letters become monthly, and then yearly through the 1920s. The correspondence reignites with Lewis’ last visits to his father in 1929. Their boyhood pace of a letter every week or two continues through the afterglow of his conversion, then settles in to a pace of 2 or 3 letters a year until they thin out near the end of WWII, at which point they were hardly writing at all.
As the death of Lewis’ father reignited their friendship in 1929, the death of Arthur’s mother in Jan 1, 1949 had the same effect. Lewis followed up with a month-long visit with Arthur in Belfast that summer, and then again for two weeks in 1951 after Mrs. Moore’s death. Their visits were almost annual after this point and the letters, though frequent in the 1950s, are filled with details of travel and jovial notes rather than the deep talks of their youth. In the late ’50s the letters become more personal again as they share news of their own journeys of aging, of Lewis’ marriage to and loss of Joy Davidman, and the sharing of literature. Here is a note that captures the more personal side of their later letters:
12 March 1960
My dear Arthur
I am afraid it is rather an understatement to say that Joy is ‘not so well’. The last x-ray test revealed that cancer is returning in almost every part of her skeleton. They do something with radiotherapy, but as soon as they have silenced an ache in one place one breaks out in another. The doctors hold out no hope of a cure; it is only a question of how soon the end comes and how painful it will be. She is still, however, mostly free from pain and able to get about and unbelievably cheerful. We hope to do a lightning trip to Greece by air this vacation. We hardly dare to look as far ahead as next summer….
Though Joy did pass away, Lewis was able to visit that next summer. But in his last letter to Arthur, Sep 11, 1963, Lewis shared that he is then retired and a cheerful invalid. These are some of his last words to his friend:
The only real snag is that it looks as if you and I shall never meet again in this life. This often saddens me v. much.
All told Lewis wrote nearly 300 letters (292 by my count) to his good friend Arthur. It is true that he spoke of the burden of letter writing and the “dread of the postman’s knock.” But there were aspects of letter writing he quite enjoyed. On May 8, 1961, Lewis began a letter to Arthur with these words: “Your letter has brightened my whole sky.” For all his complaints about the work (i.e., time not doing real writing) and apologies for late replies, Lewis gained much from his correspondence.
And those of us looking back into history have gained even more, I’d wager. These letters are as humorous as they are numerous, as personal as they are necessary, and as literary and thoughtful as they are (increasingly) perfunctory. I don’t know whether this little analysis is helpful to anyone else, but it has really drawn my eye toward intriguing trends in Lewis’ everyday affairs. Now, to finish reading all the letters. Only 2000 more pages to go!
C.S. Lewis’ Letter Writing Pace (The Full Chart)
“# of Letters” means the number of surviving letters Lewis wrote each year . “pages in CL” refers to the number of pages these letters occupy in Hooper’s Collected Letters (leaving out large editorial comments, but including the letters written on Lewis’ behalf by his brother, his wife, or other secretaries). “# of letters in Vol III” refers to supplemental letters that were put in an appendix to Volume 3–letters that could not be included in the first 2 volumes or were found later. “# letters/pg” simply refers to the number of letters that would occupy a single page in CL. For example number of .5 would mean the letters averaged 2 pages per letter; a number of 2 would mean the letters averaged a half page each.
|Year||# of Letters||pages in CL||# of letters in Vol III||# letters /pg|
If anyone finds a mistake in the chart, please let me know–there are likely to be some. This chart is meant only to be illustrative. Researchers should make their own calculations. Feel free to dialogue through the comments section.
Letter Collection Bibliography
Volume 1: The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Family Letters (1905-1931). Ed. Walter Hooper. HarperSanFrancisco, NY, 2004.
Volume 2: The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Books, Broadcasts, and the War (1931-1949). Ed. Walter Hooper. HarperSanFrancisco, NY, 2004.
Volume 3: The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy (1950-1963). HarperSanFrancisco, NY, 2007.
There are also individual collections including Letters to An American Lady, Letters to Children, The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis, They Stand Together: The letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, and Letters of C. S. Lewis collected by his brother, Warren Lewis. Where possible, Hooper’s three volumes include all the letters. There are bound to be other letters that could not be included. I have found four unpublished letters (hinted at here), and one published note not included. If anyone has letters that have not been published, drop me a note.