John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis: November 1998 mingled recollections of two vastly different men who died the same day of the same year. Pomp and poignance, on the day of the Kennedy funeral, left indelible memories of muffled drums, a young boy’s salute to his father’s casket, a riderless horse clopping through the streets.
Funeral rites the same week for Lewis were, in contrast, bare and stark. A mere handful in attendance, old friends chiefly; prayers tailored democratically for king or commoner—”in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body . . . “; earth flung without flourish onto a simple casket.
History, since November 22, 1963, has worked its decisive, if leisurely, way with both men’s reputations.
The deification of John F. Kennedy commenced at once and enjoyed a prosperous run. Even today, elderly courtiers like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., remain available for a spontaneous hymn of praise to those theoretically incomparable times, so suffused with idealism and hope. But 35 years later, the Kennedy myth could see a good coat of paint. Charming the president may have been; also profane, satiric, vindictive, reckless. We have been learning as much for about two decades. Judith Campbell Exner and Marilyn Monroe are names as integral to the Kennedy legend as Jackie. Indeed, hardly anyone who spent much time around the Kennedys looks really good today.
Among John Kennedy’s gifts beyond the grave is the inspiration he apparently provided a gawking Arkansas teenager. Billy Clinton, one day in the White House Rose Garden. The impressionable kid, squeezing his idol’s hand, decided, gee-whiz, golly, he wanted to be just like him. In many ways, he has succeeded richly.
Circumstances are rather different with that fateful day’s other famous victim, C.S. Lewis, who today is more honored and influential than when he was alive. November 1998 brought, in addition to the anniversary of Lewis’s death, the centennial of his birth—a great, disjointed festival of adoration.
A Lewis expert, James Como, in a centennial appraisal (Branches to Heaven: The Geniuses of C.S. Lewis), ponders the gigantic display: “four Lewis anthologies, one encyclopedic; two indexes . . . two sequential annotated checklists to shelves full of secondary sources; one handbook, with another forthcoming . . . four major biographies Most of his titles are in print. . . . Societies, institutes, and foundations devoted to the study and perpetuation of his work now abound worldwide. He is frequently visited in cyberspace. . . . There are three major university repositories of work by, or related to, him. Tours are conducted of Lewis sites, memorial statues and stones are being carved, a centenary office has been established, and a commemorative stamp has been issued.”
And no one noticed for a while that he was gone? Not quite that. The Dallas shooting understandably overshadowed all else. It failed to conceal for long, however, the gigantic gap on the theological skyline left by Lewis’s death.
Lewis, the English dialectician with his paradoxical love of fantasy and his genius for liquid, limpid prose, is not for everyone. I came to him, in fact, through the vehemence with which a liberal friend rejected him. How could one writer inspire such detestation? Mere Christianity showed me: In Lewis, mere—meaning simple, unadorned—Christianity had a champion as formidable in his way as the burnished armies that Europe once threw against the Saracens. More respectable, too; The crusaders plundered Constantinople and rarely did much that was useful for the Faith. Lewis’s exertions were constant, and utterly, utterly the reverse of self-seeking. He wanted nothing for himself—literally nothing, including money. His late-life character was saintly, his good works quiet and meticulous.
Christianity lately looks to have fallen on hard times. Not as hard as they look, perhaps. Why would a totally lost world clutch to its bosom the likes of Lewis? It would not. Such a world would, among other things, drool over every Schlesingerian hymn to John Kennedy. Quod erat demonstrandum.