In 1949 Chad Walsh, at that time an obscure poet and literary critic at Beloit College in Wisconsin, published the first book on C.S. Lewis. Entitled C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Sceptics, this long out-of-print volume is still one of the best books written on the subject. In the forty years since Walsh established himself as an authority on Lewis, over fifty books have been published on the Belfast-born, Oxford-educated author who died in November 1963, the same day President Kennedy was assassinated. Unfortunately, most of those subsequently published books are not as good as the first one. Walsh, to be sure, had the advantage of being first in print. But more than that, he was a superb stylist, an able critic, and he knew Lewis. The burden of every author to walk in Walsh’s path has been to say something new.
Nevertheless, in four decades some original contributions have been made to our knowledge of Lewis. The author of nearly forty books, Lewis still had 14 years to live after Walsh’s book was published. Furthermore, the celebrated Englishman wrote some of his most important books during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
The first full-scale biography to appear after Lewis’s death appeared in 1974. This useful volume was written by a close friend, Roger Lancelyn Green, a well-established freelance writer, and Walter Hooper, a man who at the time was an obscure American who had spent a few weeks doing some secretarial chores for Lewis in 1963.
Warren H. Lewis, Lewis’s older brother, had authorized the volume done by Green and Hooper. Before Warren Lewis’s death, however, he expressed concern that Hooper would make himself out to be a close friend and confidant of the Lewis brothers—especially Jack (as C.S. Lewis was called by all his friends). Hooper barely knew C.S. Lewis, but one would never think so from reading the book. Indeed, Roger Lancelyn Green told me a few years ago that the one thing he would change about the book if he could redo it would be to make clear that Hooper’s relationship with Jack was brief and superficial. Green said he did not see the draft of the last portion of the book before it went to press. Warren Lewis died before it was published, so he never saw in print what he predicted would happen.
Hooper’s curious desire to depict himself as Lewis’s close friend notwithstanding, the book he and Green did was the standard work on Lewis’s life and writing until the 1980’s. Not until 1986 did a new full-scale life of Lewis appear. This one was written by William Griffin, an editor for two decades, first at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and later at Macmillan. During those years Griffin acquired and edited numerous books of Lewisiana, thereby establishing himself as an expert in the field. Now the religious books editor for Publishers Weekly, Griffin, also an able novelist and playwright, wrote a biography entitled Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life. This immense book of nearly five hundred pages is well written, and it has the unique quality of letting Lewis speak for himself An author of remarkable restraint. Griffin doggedly refuses to pass judgment on Lewis, his friends and associates. Letting the famous writer speak for himself. Griffin quotes countless letters, diaries, and books. Ultimately the Lewis we see is one Lewis wanted us to see.
Not every student of Lewis studies was satisfied with Griffin’s original but aloof approach. Therefore when Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times by George Sayer appeared in 1988, it was eagerly picked up by those who had read Lewis’s works but yearned to get a closer look at the man. Sayer—Lewis’s close friend for thirty years—wrote a book that made Lewis come alive for those who never knew him. Full of Sayer’s keen insights, as well as rich quotations from his correspondence with Lewis, this book is at once a personal memoir, an in-depth biography, and a work of insightful literary criticism. In brief, it is a superb book and eminently worthy of its subject.
Because Jack is such a splendid book, many people will be puzzled as to why we need another biography two years later. The answer to that question is easy. Sayer’s book has all of the strengths of being written by an intelligent man who knew Lewis well. But there is a certain myopia that comes from such a perspective, too. Furthermore, as is well-known, some major primary sources have become available to serious researchers since Sayer finished the first draft of his book. For example, over two thousand volumes from C.S. Lewis’s personal library—many complete with his incisive marginal notes—were acquired and made available by the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College in Illinois. Approximately fifty oral history interviews that contain the reminiscences of some of Lewis’s closest friends and associates are available at the Wade Center as well. Added to these treasures are Joy Davidman Lewis’s (his wife) letters, which are now open to the public, as well as many letters written by Lewis’s brother, Warren. Warren’s diaries—complete with major portions never published—were also opened to researchers after Sayer completed his book.
When word reached us that A.N. Wilson was under contract to do a Lewis biography, I was delighted. Wilson is one of the most intelligent writers and gifted stylists of our time, who has made some important contributions to the genre of biography with his books on Hilaire Belloc, John Milton, and Leo Tolstoy.
To my utter dismay and great disappointment, Wilson spent less than three hours in the Marion E. Wade Center. Though his book will leave the reader with the impression that he knows Wheaton College and the Wade Collection well, he made only one afternoon visit to our archives in the midst of a slightly longer trip to Chicago.
What is so sad about Wilson’s slipshod scholarship is that he missed an opportunity to look at incredibly rich sources that no one else has used. His talent and insight could have shaped those materials into a truly original contribution. But alas, we have a new book on Lewis that tells us nothing original. On the contrary, it is replete with factual errors tied to a rather simplistic Freudian framework. Wilson argues that Lewis spent his life in search of a mother. (His mother died when he was a boy.) During this quest, according to Wilson, Lewis had two premarital affairs with women who were mother substitutes to him. Wilson presents no conclusive evidence for this thesis. Indeed, much of his evidence is wrong. For example, Wilson maintains that Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis slept together in 1955 before they were married. Wilson’s source is Douglas Gresham’s oral history interview with me. But this assertion is not in the interview, because Lewis’s stepson never made such a statement. In this same vein Wilson has nothing but assumptions to support his thesis that Lewis had an affair with Mrs. Janie Moore.
The reliability of Wilson’s book is questionable for still other reasons. The biography is replete with other errors—the sort that happen when a book is hastily conceived, researched, and written. For example, Westchester County should read Duchess County (p. 236), and the Wade Center at Wheaton College has no memorabilia of T.S. Eliot (p. xiii). Malcolm Muggeridge’s typewriter is not and never has been at Wheaton College (p. xiii), and the political preferences of Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis are actually rather similar and in a word, conservative, despite Wilson’s argument to the contrary (p. xiii).
Errors of this kind are annoying, but they are to be expected when a researcher implies that he has combed a collection he has scarcely glimpsed. Nevertheless, the most tiresome aspect of this book is the patronizing tone. Everyone the author writes about is denigrated—Walter Hooper, Warren Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, J.B. Phillips, Joy Davidman Lewis, and even C.S. Lewis himself.
Frankly, A.N. Wilson’s omniscience and preciousness wear rather thin. Lewis has a “workable intelligence” (p. 197), That Hideous Strength is “self-indulgent” (p. 189), all of the books in the space trilogy “fail” (p. 191), and Lewis displays “sheer inadequacy as a philosopher” (p. 213). The list of such “insights” goes on ad nauseam.
In the last analysis, A.N. Wilson’s C.S. Lewis is more than a disappointing biography; it is a sad portrait of the biographer. It seems that Wilson’s recent literary successes have driven him to the point of hubris. He sees himself as superior to everyone he writes about, and he delights in making his discovery known.
If you are in the market for a book on C.S. Lewis buy Sayer’s Jack or Griffin’s Clive Staples Lewis. I certainly would not spend $22.50 for A.N. Wilson’s impressionistic and distorted portrait of a man he neither understands nor takes seriously enough to do his homework on.
[C.S. Lewis: A Biography, by A.N. Wilson (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company) 334 pp., $22.50]