This is a reblog from the same day last year, on the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death.
Canadians just aren’t as good as Americans when it comes to iconic days. Let’s be honest: Canada Day isn’t nearly as interesting as Independence Day. From the landing of the Mayflower to 9/11, America sets its days in the hewn stones of history, while Canada prints them shyly on postage stamps.
The moment hit home for me on Aug 31, 1997. I can pinpoint where I was when I heard that Lady Diana died. It was a Sunday, and I was on my way to church. I didn’t even care about this celebrity, really, but I still sealed the memory the way people sealed in Nov 22, 1963, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. My memory of Lady Di’s crash is chiefly due to my grandfather’s wry sense of humour. On the eve of her funeral, Mother Teresa quietly passed away. Most people were focussed on other things. My grandfather, a seldom spoken man, commented:
“It really is poor timing on her part,” he said.
“Abominable timing,” I said.
“If she’d have thought it through, she might have waited,” he said.
“A real mistake in marketing,” I said.
Still I can borrow American days. I remember all the minutes of 9/11. It was a Tuesday. I was in rural Japan when I heard from our American landlords what had happened. My wife and I drove to the top of a mountain to get the English radio station from the American installation at the Yokota Air Base on the Kanto Plains. Then we mourned with the motley crew of ex-patriots under the weepy trees of Karuizawa. It was an international day of grieving, but it was an American day.
I’m too young to know the JFK moment as all middle age Americans do. I think I remember the death of John Lennon, also an assassination. I don’t remember any details, except a general sense of sadness in the house. Strawberry fields forever. It was a Monday.
In my own life, besides 9/11 and that week in June 1989 when things went bad in Tiananmen Square, there are dates I will never forget: April 16, 1987; Feb 4, 1990; Jul 2, 1990; Jan 3, 1994; May 9, 1997; Nov 25, 2004; Feb 1, 2008. They are mine but they are not the world’s.
The weight of American days is heaviest on Nov 22, 1963. The death of Kennedy, which keeps appearing in this blog, continues to appear in American consciousness. When he died in Dallas, the news overwhelmed all other news.
There were many things that happened that day. A police officer died with Kennedy, didn’t he? The Beatles released their second album, the political tides were shifting in Asia, Americans died in Vietnam as children there lost their homes. Many people in the world died that day, including Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World and dozens of other books. This was also the day that Wilhelm Beiglböck died comfortably in his home after having made a career out of doing human tests on Jews in concentration camps. Most eyes were turned away. Perhaps that is best.
My grandfather quipped that Mother Teresa should have planned her death better. It doesn’t surprise me that she slipped away without much fanfare. She may not have thought she was worth the fuss anyway.
I suppose my grandfather would also have criticized C.S. Lewis as well. If dying during the week of Lady Di’s memorial was bad, dying on America’s day of days is even worse. But that is what happened. On Nov 22, 1963, while Americans were glued to their television sets and radios, C.S. Lewis died quietly in his bedroom. He was one week shy of his sixty-fifth birthday. It was a Friday.
Almost no one paid attention to the death of one of the most popular authors of a generation. This probably wouldn’t have fazed Lewis. I’m not sure he ever really had a true sense of his importance as an author. He knew he was popular because he responded to the fan letters that poured in for years. But the popularity never truly settled within him. According to his step-son, Douglas Gresham, Lewis told his lawyer he didn’t need a literary estate since he would be forgotten in five year’s time. With book sales in the hundreds of millions—The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe selling 85,000,000 copies alone—I would suggest Lewis underestimated his impact.
And if Lewis was forgotten on the day he died, it is no longer the case 50 years later. As we come to this auspicious anniversary, the semicentenary, a year of jubilee, Beiglböck is mercifully forgotten. The Beatles are as important as ever, though I still miss John Lennon. Brave New World is a must-read, even if Aldous Huxley himself is obscured in time. 9/11 began a century—or closed one off, I hope—though I’m not sure Tiananmen Square did either of these things. Mother Teresa is on her way to sainthood, and Lady Di’s little boy has had a little boy.
All calendar pages turn, and in the end, all days are just days. 50 years ago, C.S. Lewis finished his last day with tea. J.F.K.’s legacy is Cuba and Vietnam, Marilyn Monroe and the Moon. Lewis’ legacy is far more modest, Oxford and Narnia, tea stains, smoke rings, and a few good words. I wonder, though, as we pass the next fifty years, if Lewis’ legacy may not continue to rise, while the days of America’s visionary martyr will prove to have been too short.
Only the Ancient of Days can know for certain. The voices of great men and almost all women have passed away no doubt. All stone turns to sand, I suppose. But I have a feeling that C.S. Lewis’ words are engraved in our human experience. So it is on this day that I think it is worth celebrating the artistic, literary, and spiritual legacy of C.S. Lewis.