Not long after beginning Letters to An American Lady, I blogged about C.S. Lewis and the Art of Letter Writing. By the tenth letter in the volume I knew that Lewis found writing letters to his fans to be a great burden. In the preface of the three-volume collection of Lewis’ letters, editor Walter Hooper says that Lewis once commented that if he didn’t have so many letters to write, he could write another book. In Lewis’ literary afterlife, these books seem to have written themselves. His thousands of letters—he sent about one hundred per month to readers seeking recognition and advice, and in the holidays as many as ten a day—have been edited into several volumes. Some of them, including the American Lady and Letters to Children, outsold some of his other books.
As much as Lewis belly-ached about letter writing—and belly-ache he did: he complains about correspondence and apologizes for time-squeezed brevity at least two dozen times in the hundred or so letters in this book—something spurred Lewis on in the task. The American Lady of this collection is the now less-than-anonymous “Mary” who first wrote to C.S. Lewis in 1950, just as his Narnia chronicles were starting to become popular. Mary was a widow a little older than Lewis, who had fallen on hard financial times after being self-sustained throughout life. A recent convert to Catholicism, she was also an amateur poet and a capable literary reviewer. She often sent to Lewis poems for his critique and lengthy reviews of his books (which we never see—we only have Lewis’ side of the conversation). As the correspondents grow to become friends, Lewis takes the role of a spiritual advisor over more than a decade of great trials.
Lewis managed to write to Mary almost monthly, most of which was the discussion of shared literary interests, observations about unusual weather patterns, brief details about work, and the occasional moment of mutual satire of ridiculous cultural moments (like angels or transportation or the commercialization of Christmas). Despite the foreground simplicity of Lewis’ life in the letters, some very key things happened. He went from being a well-respected Christian thinker and cultural critic to becoming a superstar children’s author. During the decade of their letters, Lewis was elected as a full professor to Cambridge and maintained two residences. It was also during this time that he met, married, and lost the love of his life, Joy Davidman. The brevity and focus of Lewis would cause us to miss all these monumental moments if we weren’t paying attention. Almost coyly, Lewis writes on Nov 16, 1956,
You may as well know (but don’t talk of it, for all is still uncertain) that I may soon be, in rapid succession, a bridegroom and a widower. There may, in fact, be a deathbed marriage.
He then casually complains about a headache and asks that they pray for one another.
The letters are brief, but not impersonal. We see his almost incredulous joy as his new wife recovers from cancer. We also hear the pangs of grief between the lines of his Oct 18, 1959 letter, when “the wonderful recovery Joy made in 1957 was only a reprieve, not a pardon.” He exults with Joy’s pleasure in a trip to Greece (which may have quickened her death) and talks about the loneliness he feels after she is gone. Although he was quite business-like when he sent a note to Mary that Joy had died, he admitted in the letter he was “like a sleep-walker” and asks for space to mourn before writing again (July 15, 1960). In just a few pen-scratched words on a page Lewis shared with Mary, a woman he never met, out of his deepest moments of feeling.
Most of the mutual sharing concerns the increasing role that illness takes in their lives. After Joy’s passing, both speak increasingly of colds, flues, dental operations, and heart troubles. In fact, almost every letter from 1960-1963 carries on this conversation. It is in this correspondence that we see Lewis the mentor, the experienced spiritual advisor. In each struggle, Lewis draws out for Mary the potential for spiritual growth. Throughout the book he had done the same with interpersonal battles—Mary’s experience with bullies and gossips—and with financial struggles. At the end, Lewis redoubles his effort to draw Mary closer to the Christ they worship together. He has poignant things to say about forgiveness, but his most striking comments are about death. Lewis chides her softly, saying that she is “rather badly wrong on the subject [death]” (Jun 25, 1963). Her negative reaction to his words are hardly unexpected:
Pain is terrible, but surely you need not have fear as well? Can you not see death as both friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hairshirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? You have long attempted (and none of us does more) a Christian life. Your sins are confessed and absolved….
Remember, tho’ we struggle against things because we are afraid of them, it is often the other way round—we get afraid because we struggle. Are you struggling, resisting? Don’t you think Our Lord says to you “Peace, child, peace. Relax. Let go. Underneath are the everlasting arms. Let go, I will catch you. Do you trust me so little?”
Of course this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal. (June 17, 1963)
I do wonder why the doctors inflict such torture to delay what cannot in any case be very long delayed. Or why God does! … But oh, I do pity you for waking up and finding yourself still on the wrong side of the door [i.e., not dead yet]. How awful it must have been for poor Lazarus who had actually died, got it all over, and then was brought back – to go through it all, I suppose, a few years later. (June 25, 1963)
While Lewis was advising Mary in these letters, the words are clearly written for himself too. A month after he wrote these letters, he had a heart attack that would lead to the end of his life. How much did he know that when he signed his June 17th letter, “Yours (and like you a tired traveller, near the journey’s end) Jack” that the words were so very true? Although often imperfect, sometimes miscued, and hardly literary gems, Lewis’ advice rings true not because of his great intelligence, but because he lives out what he believes—or at least attempts too (and no one does more).
Editor Chris S. Kilby calls it a “mortification of the flesh” for Lewis to deny his own will and respond to so many letters throughout his adult life. In his correspondence with Mary we see not only the decay of his flesh but the strengthening of his will. In A Grief Observed, Lewis’ pseudonymous journal after the passing of his wife, we see a man floundering under the weight of sorrow. In these letters we see a mentor guiding his correspondent toward that which is most secure—the hope of what is on the other side of the bright door of death.
These are, though, a collection of real letters from a world that his hardly so well planned as a book. Jack Lewis’ last letter to his friend Mary can be quoted here in its entirety:
Thanks for yours of the 27. I am quite comfortable but easily tired. B.B. [his brother] is still away so I have all the mail to do. So you must expect my letters to be very few and very short. More a wave of the hand than a letter. Yours Jack. (Aug 30, 1963)
For if this is Good-bye, I am sure you will not forget me when you are in a better place. You’ll put in a good word for me now and then, won’t you? It will be fun when we last meet. Yours Jack.
In the end, however, it was just the wave of a pen and the expectation of another tomorrow (of one kind or another).
And of course, he finishes his last letter to Mary with Jack-typical complaint about writing letters to begin with. I think, though, in spying on this literary friendship I’ve discovered part of Lewis’ reason for committing to return letters. Letter-writing was, for him, a place where he could share his deep faith—not in the tight, literary prose of his books and lectures, but in the mundane hen-scratching that emerge out of his daily life. In any case, I guess I’ll find out on the other side of that bright door.