I was raised on C. S. Lewis. From some of my earliest memories of my parents reading The Chronicles of Narnia to me before bed, to my college semester in Cambridge where I took a seminar on his life and work that culminated in meetings with Walter Hooper, tours of The Kilns, and drinks at The Eagle and Child pub, and from drawing on his apologetic work in my graduate studies in philosophy to now teaching a regular seminar on his work at Furman University, Lewis has accompanied me throughout all the stages of my life.
However, what can often happen when you are raised reading a particular figure is that you begin to view them through the lens of their fame, rather than viewing their fame as a complicated result of all sorts of factors that often get ignored in their reception. Accordingly, when I first engaged The Fame of C. S. Lewis by Stephanie Derrick, I was quickly interested in the way that she considers his legacy, reception history in the United States and the UK, and lasting significance in a variety of ways. Importantly, though, Derrick does not so much read Lewis as she reads the readings of him. As a historian, Derrick’s scholarship is extremely impressive and adds a whole new layer to the often saint-like homage to Lewis that occurs within American Christianity. Focusing, in particular, on the views of Lewis held by his colleagues, his contemporaries in Britain, and the material history of his influence, Derrick invites us all, whether we have read his entire authorship, teach his work in academic settings, or simply know him through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, to take stock of his life, his work, and his fame with the critical eye of a scholar, rather than the invested eye of a fan. In doing so, Derrick helpfully reminds us that C. S. Lewis was much more, and much less, than the figure portrayed in The Shadowlands films and plays. As Friedrich Nietzsche might say, Lewis, like us all, was human, all too human. But, that should not worry those of us who continue to find inspiration and encouragement in his writings. Instead, it should just motivate a reflective awareness that resists turning him into the hero of a story that he might have intentionally avoided writing.
This symposium on Derrick’s book features three Lewis scholars who all represent different academic disciplines, approaches, and interests. George Marsden is a historian, J. Matthew Melton is a professor of communication arts, and Alicia Broggi specializes in English language and literature. They all three are distinguished in their fields and their readings of both Lewis and Derrick impressively display hermeneutic sensitivity, discursive charity, and critical awareness. The discussion that this symposium invites is one that is well worth having and it is much needed in a time when Lewis’s work is being used for all sorts of purposes—social, political, cultural, theological, etc. Hopefully readers of this symposium will be encouraged to read Derrick and reread Lewis as they all take stock of what it means to seek truth, stand for virtue, and prize excellence in the face of the temptations that fame presents both to those who are famous and also to those of us who so often engage in uncritical celebration of them.
The Problem with Jack
No one seems to have instructed Lewis in the formal art of public relations.
—Chad Walsh (1948)
The last time I assigned Alister McGrath’s 2013 biography of C. S. Lewis to a class of undergraduates, students came away from the book thinking Lewis was a lonely, humorless, brooding man. None of them had actually seen Sir Anthony Hopkins play Lewis in that vein in the film Shadowlands (1993), so I was at a loss to explain it, until I reread the biography for myself, pushing all other biographies out of mind and, well, there it was. Not much of the ruddy, Jovian, beer-quaffing, tobacco-wreathed Oxford don appears in McGrath’s biography.
Therein lies an element of what we might call “The Problem with Jack.” The Jack to whom we refer, of course, is “Jack” Lewis, as Clive Staples Lewis allegedly preferred to be called by his family and close friends. He does seem to have been simply “Clive” to a few with whom he reached that enviable social pinnacle of first-name familiarity—a bigger deal among twentieth-century academic types in Britain than it may ever have been among libertine Americans who have been known to call parents by their first names.
The problem with Jack for the people in his circle may well have been “which Jack” each one actually knew. Lewis seems to have been something of the proverbial elephant examined by blind researchers, each of whom arrives at a radically different impression of the animal. Firsthand accounts of those who spent time in Lewis’s presence offer some inconsistencies. Even among his closest friends, a fragmentary image emerges. But is that a phenomenon unique to Lewis? Charles Cooley’s adaptation of the “Looking Glass Self,” sparking renewed interest in the era of social media, suggests we may all have shifting identities dependent on our perceived expectations from divergent momentary audiences. If true, it would suggest that biographers are inevitably forced to make arbitrary choices when it comes to building a subject’s persona. This may explain why our image of Jack Lewis continues to evolve.
The image problem grows more complex when one adds the brand that has inexorably replaced the man. For the image of the man himself, we owe much to the repositories that store countless pieces of him, like medieval relics, in oddly incompatible locations—the Bodleian; Wheaton University’s Marion E. Wade Center; Taylor University’s Edwin W. Brown Collection; the Wilson Library at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The site of The Kilns, Lewis’s home for thirty years, bears similarities to Littlemore just a few miles away, the “International Centre of Newman Friends”—the site where John Henry Newman lived and worked for many years after his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Littlemore is run by sincere and helpful nuns who were once longsuffering petitioners for the cardinal’s beatification. How they must have rejoiced when Pope Francis finally made their dreams come true! The Kilns Study Centre is run by a modest nonprofit called the C. S. Lewis Foundation, and is a shrine of sorts as well as a residence for aspiring graduate students. Protestantism may not canonize or beatify its saints, but it does find ways to sacralize them something fierce. None may be more sacralized than Jack Lewis. But all these repositories only guard the fragmented spirit of the man and have little to do with the heavily promoted entity currently on the market.
The Fame of C. S. Lewis is a welcome addition to Lewisian scholarship, though one may hesitate to call it “Lewisian.” The work holds Lewis and his brand at arm’s length, carefully avoiding the pit of celebrity infatuation. Stephanie Derrick aims a flashlight on several under-researched aspects of Lewis’s opus and reveals heretofore untapped material regarding the phenomenon of the Lewis brand during his lifetime and in the decades following his death. As the book unfolds, we see that Lewis’s fame took on a life of its own, separate from its source. Derrick makes expositional forays to provide a richer context, delving into others’ views of Lewis as a scholar, as a theologian, as an apologist, even as a personality. Many of these views are admittedly of a negative cast, such that rarely get any press in the non-discriminating rush to canonize Lewis, and Derrick seems to be at some pains to be sure readers are aware of these counter-balancing perspectives.
One strength of such analytical distancing is a refreshingly different lens through which to examine a well-known subject. The author mentions the explosion, with no end in sight, of Lewis-related articles and books in the last decade. No matter where we turn today, we run into quotes by Lewis, or blogs deploying his thoughts to address current issues, or books and articles teasing out his ideas on everything from politics to pandemics. In March 2020, secular news outlets the world over, including the New York Times, the Times of London, Australia’s Spectator, India Currents, and more took a cue from the Gospel Coalition in the United States and began quoting Lewis’s “Living in an Atomic Age” to help anxious readers cope with the uncertainties of COVID-19. It seems that Lewis’s wisdom is endlessly cyclical. To many in today’s audience, Lewis is prescient, relevant, and, most of call, correct. He is seen as a source whose authority is simply accepted. Given this fashionable ubiquity, a little distance from the subject seems beneficial.
Derrick’s focus on new information regarding the brand that became “C. S. Lewis” is by far the most exciting aspect of the work. The evolution of mass market publishing as an integral part of Lewis’s expanding fame reveals the scaffolding beneath his international celebrity status. Derrick’s guide to the Golden Age of Print celebrated by media scholars like Neil Postman is wonderful stuff, the kind of cross-disciplinary research that makes the reader think of similar cases. That the Lewis brand was not alone in benefiting from the bounty of this particular media era is further proof of its power. One can see ready parallels between the rise of Lewis’s fame and that of A. A. Milne and Roald Dahl—and for similar reasons. They were both Lewis’s rough contemporaries, a decade before and a decade after respectively. Each benefited from the mass market boom, with generous aid from other media. Milne’s relationship with American media guru Stephen Slesinger resulted in astronomical US sales for anything and everything Winnie the Pooh but had the side effect of completely erasing Milne’s career as an adult comic playwright, for which he was known among elites in London and New York. (One other thing Milne had in common with Lewis was a very public and nasty feud with T. S. Eliot.)
Roald Dahl’s story bears a few uncanny resemblances to Lewis’s, including the early death of a parent (his father), a hated boarding school experience, wartime service that ended in a hospital bed, and the eventual declining of a proffered OBE. Similarities falter after that, but in terms of their fame, there is little doubt that Dahl’s work drove some of the new interest in children’s fiction mentioned in Derrick’s research. While a comparative study on Lewis and Dahl might be intriguing, one item of interest is that a number of criticisms leveled at Lewis’s children’s fiction would be doubly applicable to Dahl’s. Dahl’s mercurial behavior and infamously difficult personality render the imperfections in Lewis’s personality tame by comparison. But Dahl’s fame and popular reception remain unencumbered by the strongly religious dimension that characterizes the aura of C. S. Lewis. Most who love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach remain relatively ignorant about its author. Lewis gets no such luxury.
While Derrick makes passing mention of Alister McGrath’s analysis of Lewis’s fame in the United States in the final chapter of his biography, “The Lewis Phenomenon,” some of McGrath’s more important claims go unexamined. These claims include the early hostility of evangelicals to Lewis (perhaps a mutual sentiment). Also, McGrath’s poorly supported assertion that many pew worshippers in the United States came to view Lewis as their “spiritual mentor” bears further study.
Closer to the heart of Derrick’s book is McGrath’s question regarding how a diverse array of traditions employ Lewis’s thought and work. Like Jack’s personal friends, many of whom might never have had anything to do with one another outside the nucleus Lewis provided, members of Christian traditions who quote Lewis extensively are not so friendly to one another. While Lewis himself might have been pleased to know this, given his stated desire to be as “catholic” as possible, this extraordinary phenomenon makes us wonder whether Lewis’s theology is truly so malleable. Scholars have in recent years scrutinized more closely Lewis’s approach to apologetics and theological questions in general. A sampling of those who have looked at Reflections on the Psalms alone, one of Lewis’s lesser-known works, reveals that not all of his views are as elastic as they might seem.
An example of the degree to which some of Lewis’s admirers go to make him fit their views is a recent recorded conversation between Tim Keller and John Piper, conservative Presbyterian pillars. In the conversation, Keller and Piper are careful to praise Lewis, but strongly question whether George MacDonald was actually a Christian. Lewis, who anthologized MacDonald’s central tenets and referred consistently to the central place he gave MacDonald in developing his own theology, would have been mystified by the distinction.
A curious side note to Lewis’s fame in the United States is that his broadcast talks, so popular in the UK, were not replayed stateside because his views on sexuality were perceived to be taboo to the American public. Along similar lines, the reaction to Lewis among American fundamentalists has been persistently negative since the 1960s. McGrath addresses this phenomenon as well. A quick search of self-labeled fundamentalist preachers and teachers, some of whom sport doctoral degrees, reveals remarkably thorough and colorful condemnations of Lewis’s writings. Derrick, in positioning Lewis as a “conservative” theologian, leaves this entertainingly fertile soil of fundamentalist antipathy to Lewis untouched, which is a shame, but not a serious weakness of the book.
One can hope, signaled by Derrick’s work, that C. S. Lewis-related scholarship may be reaching maturity in terms of academic value. There have been other encouraging signs along the way. The Cambridge Companion (2010) and the Critical Essays on C. S. Lewis (1992) contain excellent, objective reviews of Lewis’s work by respected scholars. Journal articles in multiple disciplines as well as recent dissertations are making solid contributions as well, some morphing into published books. In this sense, Lewis is the gift that keeps on giving, not only to his publishers, but to those riding his professorial robe to achieve their own academic credentials.
Derrick does seem at times seems to shadowbox with Lewis’s devotees. If an authorial bias intrudes at any point, it might be in the shade cast on Lewis as a truculent “anti-modern” scholar hampered by a deep reluctance to keep up with the latest in fields connected to his own. The reader is left to wonder whether spending one’s academic life in the recesses of Duke Humphrey’s Library for many hours a day reading texts no one else is likely to read and then curating them for the rest of the world is, in the end, a lesser form of scholarship. As an intellectual curator of antiquities, why would Lewis be otherwise than anti-modern? When he referred to himself as a dinosaur in De Descriptione Temporum, he identified with a breed of scholars who valued mining into primary sources (in their original tongues) over analyzing contemporary commentary. In a couple of places, he likened reading secondary scholarship (even his own) to English travelers who explore the European Continent but “carry their resolute Englishry with them. . . . They have no wish to realize what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.” Perhaps the standard of what it means to be a superior scholar are different today.
Derrick’s counterbalancing narrative does score solid points in the treatment of Lewis’s failure to be elected to a professorship at Oxford. Derrick’s research on the topic is the most thorough I have seen and may be kinder to Lewis than he deserves. The simple truth may be that between lampooning his peers mercilessly in That Hideous Strength and also possessing a laughably clueless sense of faculty politics, Lewis may have gotten no less than he deserved if the recognition was deliberately withheld. But the notion that those who campaigned against him did so because he was a popular Christian apologist is, as Derrick makes clear, simply untenable. Much has been made by a number of Lewis fans of an alleged bias against him at Oxford. Less has been made of personal ways that Lewis may have stoked those coals.
It is apparently too great a temptation for those who write about Lewis to avoid weighing in on his style and personality. So much testimony on this theme exists, it’s easy to fashion a coherent picture that inevitably does damage to the whole. A. N. Wilson’s wonderfully engaging biography goes most astray when it tries to overlay sweeping psychological templates over Lewis’s life, offering up tasty, yet altogether gossipy insights. Wilson seems to have been unable to imagine that his subject should be simply human, unforgivably mundane. Other biographers—Walsh, Hooper, and Green, Sayer, Carpenter, McGrath—each construct a slightly different character. Outside the tiresome hagiographies (Lewis’s stepson Doug Gresham’s is among these), the less agenda-driven a biographer is, the more generally boring is the subject. That is probably not surprising. Interestingly, if one wishes to weigh an author, the tone of the treatment of the young John Betjeman’s experience with his newly minted tutor Lewis seems to be one of the clearest “tells.”
Much of the posthumous judgment of Lewis’s personality and career mirrors the scale of Anubis, weighing his heart against idiosyncratic iterations of Ma’at and either elevating him to their true and only heaven or condemning him to be devoured by critics. While one grows weary of the unrelieved adulation on the one hand, the more ad hominem put-downs of Lewis are equally uninstructive; if not merely petty, they are often airily dismissive. One is reminded of a fuming Malcolm Muggeridge, after John Cleese and Michael Palin had cleverly deflected his accusation of blasphemy for The Life of Brian, sputtering that it was, after all, just a third-rate film.
Derrick’s first-class examination of the role of modern marketing in Lewis’s fame in the end points to what turned out to be a secure investment for HarperCollins and the Murdoch empire. As any Hollywood producer can attest, marketing alone, no matter how zesty, is no guarantee of success. Plenty of heavily marketed authors (and films) have crashed and burned. Some even had the advantage of critical acclaim, but ultimately failed with the audience. Readers continue to debate the merits of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity. But each sparkling new reprint finds a ready audience who take them to their book clubs or their Sunday Schools or their college classes to debate them.
Will they fade eventually into oblivion? Lewis thought they would have vanished long ago. In the spring of 1961 in Cambridge, as Professor Lewis ducked into the narrow Laundress Lane on his way from the Mill Lane lecture studios back to his Magdalene College rooms, it is just possible that his elbow may have brushed the teenage Syd Barrett lurking outside the corner pub near the student union. In a few short years, Syd would be the lead guitarist for Pink Floyd. By that time, the bulky, aging professor was blending into history. But the brand that would become C. S. Lewis was just being born.
Cooley, Charles H. On Self and Social Organization. Edited by Schubert Hans-Joachim. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Green, R. L., and W. Hooper. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. Rev. ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1974, 2002.
“Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” Friday Night, Saturday Morning. November 9, 1979. YouTube video, 1:06:09. Uploaded November 6, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeKWVuye1YE.
Lewis, C. S. De Descriptione Temporum: An Inaugural Lecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955.
———. The Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964.
———. “Living in an Atomic Age.” In Present Concerns, edited by Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt, 1986.
———. Reflections on the Psalms. New York: Harcourt, 1958.
———. That Hideous Strength. New York: MacMillan, 1946.
MacSwain, Robert, and Michael Ward, eds. The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
McGrath, Alister. C. S. Lewis: A Life. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2013.
Powell, Mark. “Coronavirus, Climate Change and C. S. Lewis.” Spectator Australia, March 15, 2020. https://www.spectator.com.au/2020/03/coronavirus-climate-change-and-c-s-lewis/.
Sayer, George. Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1988, 1994.
Shadowlands. Motion picture. Directed by Richard Attenborough. Performances by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Paramount Pictures, 1993.
Smethurst, Matt. “C. S. Lewis on the Coronavirus.” Gospel Coalition, March 12, 2020. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/cs-lewis-coronavirus/.
Walsh, Chad. C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008.
Watson, George, ed. Critical Essays on C. S. Lewis. University of California: Scholar, 1992.
Wilson, A. N. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1990.
“Would We Have Been Friends? Tim Keller and John Piper on C. S. Lewis.” YouTube video, 5:05. Posted by Desiring God, July 24, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqiZJaDeM6Y.
On the Fame of C. S. Lewis
In The Rambler no. 23, Samuel Johnson asserted that “the publick [sic], which is never corrupted, nor often deceived, is to pass the last sentence upon literary claims.” Johnson believed, as Nicholas Hudson explains in Samuel Johnson and the Making of Modern England (2003), that “the intrinsic values of literature” were located in “the realm of ‘nature,’ the universal and enduring values of human life” (130). On the basis of this belief, which may now seem outdated or culturally naïve, he “could appeal with confidence to the public response on literary questions upon which all people, as equal participants in life, are equally qualified to judge.” In my reading of The Fame of C. S. Lewis (2018), Stephanie Derrick inspires questions about the relationship between fame and literary merit, by tracing numerous factors that have shaped Lewis’s literary afterlife.
Derrick uses methods of book history to offer an extended consideration of the web of “institutions, editors, changing social forces, and audiences” that have contributed to one belligerently antimodern Oxford don’s transatlantic reception (7). In the process, she conducts an oblique exploration of timeless themes about why certain writings endure and others do not, themes which have been discussed since Pliny the Younger, Horace, and Cicero.1 These themes are addressed, however, in the concrete terms that one expects from a historian. Derrick asks: Why did Lewis, an “Ulster medievalist,” become “one of the twentieth century’s most beloved authors of children’s books and Christian apologetics?” (3). And why has his reception differed so markedly between the UK and the United States?
“Fame” is a capacious enough thematic to cover an astounding array of responses to Lewis’s writings. No response is too prestigious, too populist, or too pious for Derrick’s purview. She highlights some of his better-known accolades, such as his commemoration with a stone at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, alongside William Shakespeare, George Eliot, and (I would be remiss not to note) Samuel Johnson (129). Derrick also recounts that in 1951 Lewis declined an offer from Winston Churchill for recommendation as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in the same year he received the more popular recognition of being featured in British Vogue (33, 80). More recently, his Narnia books have been the subject of a Disney film and a Saturday Night Live parody sketch (127, 129). The sheer range of responses to his writings is fascinating, not least when it is tinctured with religious devotion. HarperCollins produced a C. S. Lewis Bible in 2010, binding his words alongside the Christian scriptures, and his image has been “enshrined in stained glass in three American churches” (152, 148). What allures and beguiles about this array of evidence, to my mind, is that it subtly provokes questions about what the significance of such varied responses to Lewis’s writings might be as a “pass[ing of] the last sentence upon literary claims.”
One strength of Derrick’s book, however, is that it refuses to answer such questions, or even to broach them directly. This suspension of judgment creates space for reflectivity on a subject whose writings have frequently inspired strong emotions in supports and detractors alike. The theologian Alister McGrath describes just how intense responses to Lewis can be, in C. S. Lewis: A Life. Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (2013), even within Protestant reading communities. “For many young evangelicals,” McGrath explains, “reading Lewis gives added depth and power to their evangelical commitments” (375). For these readers his writings inspire devotion and provide words to live by. By contrast, amongst other “fundamentalist Protestant Christians in the United States,” McGrath notes, “Lewis [is regarded] as a dangerous heretic.”
The evocation of strong moral feelings by Lewis’s writings also extends into professional realms, as the literary critic and intellectual historian Stefan Collini conveys in Common Writing: Essays on Literary Culture and Public Debate (2016). “But I have to confess,” he says, after exploring the cultural significance of Lewis’s writings in an altogether even-handed way, “that there is something about him and his circle that gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies” (30). Collini explains that this feeling arises in response to the “unspoken yet rigid codes of respectability” that Lewis and his group convey through didactic allegories, which at times come across as “narrowingly coercive.” This is as much a matter of aesthetic sensibility as it is of morality; or perhaps it is a matter where aesthetic and moral sensibilities intersect. “And yet,” Collini continues,
even as I run from the atmosphere of arrested development and conservative prejudice, I trip over a scattering of the kind of elegant, learned, perceptive sentences that [Lewis] was capable of writing, and I am abashed—abashed at the too-ready deployment of my own prejudices, abashed that I was ever tempted to condescend to a mind that could be so subtle when it wasn’t intent on parading its blunt scorn for all self-conscious forms of subtlety.
This is no mere concession to Lewis, but a clear and relatable articulation of certain fraught tensions alive in his works, which inspire dramatically wide-ranging reactions in readers. These tensions clearly fascinate Derrick as well.
Indeed, the culturally sophisticated framework of Derrick’s book brings into focus specific ways in which elements of context and sensibility have mediated encounters with Lewis’s works. Derrick shows how his British reception has tended toward skepticism, often over matters of sensibility in his delivery; by contrast, American readers have tended to receive this more direct form of discourse warmly, as if his words came straight from the author to them, his distant readers. In addition to considering general readers, Derrick notes how Lewis’s literary and scholarly acclaim has at times sat uneasily alongside his choice to produce more popular—even populist—writings. His choice to write for the common person and his embrace of a didactic (some would say dogmatic) style strongly diverged from high modernist aesthetic difficulty, and the attendant skepticism surrounding representational narrative’s capacities to convey truths directly. So, while Lewis clearly wrestled with tensions akin to those that Johnson described, between pleasing present-day readers and following his own literary convictions, the cultural nuances of Derrick’s study convey a much richer story.
Derrick is most immediately interested in exploring how Lewis’s reception has differed between the cultural contexts of the UK and the United States, yet there is a pervasive fascination in this book with the sheer range of his impact, across the Atlantic. If I might pause and hearken back to Collini’s essay, it is notable that alongside his critiques, he appraised Lewis as “an apologist of genius,” for “genius” is a word that Derrick also uses (26; 10, 187). Moreover, with a flourish of magnanimity, Collini gave the final word of his essay to Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien. He quoted a letter from August 30, 1964, in which Tolkien says of the then-deceased Lewis: “I wish it could be forbidden that after a great man is dead, little men should scribble over him, who have not and must know they have not sufficient knowledge of his life and character to give them any key to the truth.” The anachronistic language of a “genius” and a “great man” recalls, to my mind, the Great Man debates of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
It may be the case, as the historian Darrin M. McMahon claims in “The Fate of Nations Is the Work of Genius: The French Revolution and the Great Man Theory of History” (2018), that “to invoke ‘great men’ and the ‘great man theory of history’ in an academic setting today is to invite ridicule, or worse” (135). Yet as McMahon also emphasizes, “genius was absolutely central not only to Carlyle’s conception of the great man, but to the great man theory of history more generally” (139). This derives from an older conception of a genius, as one who was not merely a “great man,” but who somehow participated in the divine, and we know from Derrick that Lewis shaped his own persona around Romantic ideas of genius.
In the debates over Great Man theory, fault lines developed between those who attributed great individuals with being the shapers of history, and those who contested this view by referencing a more diffuse, wider context, comprised of intersecting lives, actions, and accidents. This divide is of course outdated. Although “popular culture may find it impossible to relinquish an obsessive fascination with outstanding individuals,” in such a way that “it might be possible to believe that great men and great women pull the levers of history,” McMahon tells us, “professional historians are less easily seduced, conscious of the fact that individuals, however ‘great’ they may be, are always imbedded in social processes and constrained by structures that shape their aims and outcomes” (135). Yet by returning to these apparently outdated lines of argumentation, we gain a clearer view of what is at stake in Derrick’s book. For, she explores the social and marketing impact of Lewis’s person and persona, in certain passages, while showing, in others, how changes to the publishing industry influenced the marketing of his books; shifts in educational requirements contributed to the stocking of his books in school libraries; and the rise of the paperback novel converged with his devotion to speaking to everyman. Consequently, the resulting image is a paradoxical one, wherein a multitude of agents and historical changes intersect with Lewis’s person and writings to facilitate his impact (widely provocative, and at times transformative) on a disproportionate number of lives.
Today, great men have fallen out of fashion, and for some very good reasons.2 Derrick’s work reflects a number of more up-to-date concerns, for instance, about Lewis’s view of masculinity, and about a propensity in some critics to inflate the role of his personal agency and moral authority in his fame. Derrick also shows how the same persona, when viewed from two sides of the Atlantic, is inflected with different social and literary significance. Nevertheless, undergirding the book’s scholarly attention to the multifarious agents and factors that have shaped Lewis’s fame, thrums a chord of fascination with the achievement of fame itself. Although the book offers no direct appraisal of Lewis’s literary merits, no less of his spiritual or moral authority, its sheer existence—as the product of eight years’ research, in two different countries—asserts that the historical, social, and institutional forces that have intersected with this particular writer’s strengths, and indeed weaknesses, to reach a wide-ranging readership warrant our time and consideration.
Published fifty-five years after his death, The Fame of C. S. Lewis wisely skirts some of the same questions that it, implicitly, provokes for this reader, about just what the significance of his fame might be. In Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame (2015), H. J. Jackson quotes Samuel Johnson when observing, “Every writer dreams of ‘unfading laurels, and immortal reputation,’ but the fact is that very few, in any age, will achieve them” (16). It is too soon to know whether Lewis’s laurels will fade, or his reputation endure, even past the century mark; yet this quotation returns us to Johnson, as he reflects on the duration of fame as a measure of literary greatness. This quotation likewise returns us to the problem signaled at the start of this essay: what measure of literary value does a literary afterlife provide, if the marketing and dissemination of texts is increasingly institutionalized, perhaps even detached from the judgements of a reading public? What indicator is literary fame for literary value today? Like the contents of Derrick’s book, the questions that it leaves unanswered inspire as much reflection about the times in which we live as they do about Lewis and his writings.
Collini, Stefan. Common Writing: Essays on Literary Culture and Public Debate. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Derrick, Stephanie. The Fame of C. S. Lewis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Jackson, H. J. Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame. New Have: Yale University Press, 2015.
Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler: By Dr. Samuel Johnson. Vol. 1. Oxford, Talboys and Wheeler, and W. Pickering, 1875. Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/43656/43656-h/43656-h.htm#page113.
McGrath, Alister. C. S. Lewis: A Life; Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013.
McMahon, Darrin M. “The Fate of Nations Is the Work of Genius: The French Revolution and the Great Man Theory of History.” In Rethinking the Age of Revolutions: France and the Birth of the Modern World, edited by David A. Bell and Yair Mintzker, 135–54. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Ridley, Jane. “Is There Still Value in ‘Great Man’ History?” History Today 69.9 (September 2019). https://www.historytoday.com/archive/head-head/there-still-value-‘great-man’-history.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “Letter 261.” In The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
For more on this early history of writers’ pursuits and evaluations of literary fame, see Samuel Johnson’s Rambler no. 23 and chapter 1 in H. J. Jackson’s Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputation and the Dream of Lasting Fame (2015).↩
Jane Ridley, professor of modern history at the University of Buckingham, specifically argues that “great men are out of fashion” in a public-facing forum with other historians, “Is There Still Value in ‘Great Man’ History?” (2019).↩
Thinking with Stephanie Derrick about C. S. Lewis
Stephanie Derrick is to be congratulated on finding enough new material on Lewis to make a valuable book. One might think that in the face of the scores of books about C. S. Lewis there was not much to say beyond largely repackaging old material. She proves that is not the case.
Though the book is billed as a study of “the fame of C. S. Lewis,” it would be more accurately described as a comparative study of the reception of Lewis’s best-known works in two particularly important venues: Great Britain and the United States. It is not a study of the wider range of Lewis’s fame. For instance, Lewis’s works have been translated into many languages and it would be illuminating to compare his reception in various cultural settings. For instance, why is he so well regarded by educated Chinese Christians?
Nonetheless, as an account of the differences in Lewis’s reception in Great Britain and the United States, she offers some illuminating and original detail. Most of that detail has to do with the question of Lewis’s relationship to British culture. His reception in America, which is perhaps a more widely familiar topic, is presented with less nuance and serves largely as a backdrop and contrast to the British story. The question driving the inquiry is something like this: why were so many Americans going gaga over Lewis, while he was not as widely lauded as a prophet in his own country?
The material on Lewis’s background and upbringing is mostly familiar, but Derrick is asking a good question as to why he wrote for popular audiences. I think though that Derrick’s use of the term “populist sensibilities” is misleading. William Jennings Bryan was a populist. The Left Behind series by Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkins is populist fiction. Donald Trump is a populist. Lewis was someone who, among other things, often wrote for general audiences. But his works are aimed at people who are educated and thoughtful enough to appreciate with at least a bit of discrimination what might be seen as some of the best in the cultural heritage. He is not, like a populist appealing to prejudices, emotions, and resentments.
Derrick has also done some highly valuable research on the context of Lewis’s radio addresses on the BBC. She documents well how the sorts of radio talks Lewis gave were hardly unique. And while his talks were successful, they were far from the most successful.
One of the most engaging portions of Derrick’s study is that of Lewis’s relationships to his academic colleagues, especially at Oxford, another topic on which she has done exceptional original research. The added detail fills in the picture as we already more or less had it. Anyone who has spent any time around British academics is familiar with how much some of them relish the dismissive putdown. Derrick very nicely conveys the sense of tension that must have surrounded Lewis in his university setting. Though he was a popular lecturer and cultivated some deep friendships, those who did not share his views saw him as a difficult and sometimes abrasive personality. He was also a master debater and could give as well as he could take. In any case Derrick shows that he was certainly not without fault. She also helpfully documents that his Ulster origins helped shape elite British prejudices. His worst sins, of course, were that he was an outspoken Christian traditionalist and that he wrote for broad audiences, transgressions that are often excoriated even in lesser academic settings.
Likewise, while Lewis’s writings won him some genuine fame and admiration in Great Britain during his lifetime, the reception was more mixed than in the American case. But the bigger difference in the two stories is that after his death the popularity of his works in America continued and grew, while in Great Britain it receded, except perhaps for the Narnia books. Later in the century, Shadowlands, as a BBC play and then as a movie, helped bring him back to the attention of the British public as a sympathetic if somewhat naïve character. By the twenty-first-century older prejudices seem to have receded a bit and some restoration of his reputation was marked especially by his being honored with a place in the “poet’s corner” of Westminster Abbey.
Meanwhile, in the United States beginning with the publication of The Screwtape Letters in 1942, Lewis’s reputation never really faltered. Americans Christians, we can surmise, were impressed to have someone with British academic credentials who assured them of the intellectual credibility of their faith. They were also impressed by the quality, clarity, and creativity of Lewis work. During his lifetime, which extended about to the end of the mid-century religious revival, he had a large following among traditionalists among mainline Protestants who liked that he conserved the essentials of the tradition without being a fundamentalist. American Catholic reviewers were also positive about his work, even if sometime guardedly. Meanwhile the new evangelical heirs of fundamentalists were beginning to cautiously adopt Lewis both as an apologist and as a writer of engaging children’s tales with transparently Christian themes. After Lewis’s death his popularity receded somewhat among mainline Protestants. But evangelical appropriation of Lewis more than took up the slack. By the mid-1970s, especially boosted by the glowing endorsement in Chuck Colson’s best-selling Born Again (1976), Lewis became, as Derrick notes, a sort of saint for American evangelicals. She might have done more to see how he also came to be widely well regarded in American Roman Catholic circles. She also does not consider various American criticisms of Lewis. For instance, she does not mention John Beversluis’s C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (1985 and revised 2007). And there is a whole bibliography of controversy, mostly American, concerning his views on women and gender.
The most basic explanation of the differences in his later twentieth-century popularity in America as compared to Great Britain is not hard to recognize. By the late twentieth century there were simply far more evangelical and other conservative Christian churchgoers in the United States than in Great Britain. Even while mainline American churches were beginning to hemorrhage in memberships, conservative churches were continuing to grow. And Derrick correctly recognizes a key factor in the role Lewis played in those communities. Higher education was burgeoning in America including among evangelicals (and, it might be added, Catholics). So, there were many thoughtful educated American traditionalist Christians who were looking for assurances regarding the viability of their faith in a largely unfriendly intellectual world. My impression from many contacts over the years is that among educated British evangelicals Lewis has remained just as popular as he has among his American counterparts. The smaller role he has played in British culture is explained mostly by the smaller numbers of such traditionalist Christians. Derrick recognizes this point, but sometimes also seems to conflate British academics with the British in general as in alleging “a British distaste” for “dogmatic and over-confident” writing.
Beyond the informative comparisons of British and America receptions, the larger question that readers might want answered in a book about Lewis’s fame is why his fame has lasted so well. His books are selling at least as well or better in the twenty-first century as they did during his lifetime. There are not many authors from the mid-twentieth century of whom that can be said. So what best accounts for the persistence of Lewis’s popularity? Even though her work has many other laudable merits, I think that on this point Derrick falters a bit. In her introduction, when she raises this important question, she quotes Richard Purtill as saying, “The explanation for Lewis’ success is to be found in all the aspects of Lewis as a man and a writer, in his imaginative and moral qualities as well as his intellectual capacities.” She then goes on to say that “I (respectfully) disagree,” though she immediate adds that the disagreement is only that, granted his abilities, “his fame is a very complicated, historically situated phenomenon, the explanation of which begins, but far from ends, with Lewis and the merits of his books.”
Derrick is certainly correct that fame is complicated and that it provides a window on the times, but she appears to want to convince the reader that her reception history provides the primary explanation for Lewis’s fame. At various times she does back away from the implication that Lewis’s fame was not first of all dependent on his excellence as a writer, as for instance when she says, “Having granted that Lewis was absolutely exceptional in many respects, I think the pattern of his readership suggests that in the majority of cases people came to read his books with an agenda.” And even though she goes on to acknowledge that reading a book with an agenda is hardly unusual (especially if a Christian book is being read by those interested in Christianity), she still seems to suggest that the excellence is not as important an explanation of his fame as are the factors shaping the contours of the reception of his works.
In my view, dismissing of excellence as the primary explanation for the fame of Lewis’s work is a bit of a tactical error in a book that has a good bit to offer. That is especially so when one is granting that in this case there is great excellence involved. Nothing would have been lost, it seems to me, by acknowledging the validity of explanations such as Purtill’s and then to go on to say that, especially since Lewis’s excellence has often been studied, here we are going to look at some additional significant factors accounting for his fame that may have been overlooked. It is surely the case, as Derrick observes, that an author’s fame tells us some important and interesting things about the people who buy his or her books. And a comparative study of reception in the two countries underscores the point that the proclivities of potential audiences have a lot to do with where books become most popular.
Although Derrick carefully and usefully sifts through the material on how Lewis and his works were promoted, there seems to be nothing unusual in the promotion of his works. His books had pretty much the same advantages and disadvantages as any other publications of the time and since. Derrick does identify some contingencies that contributed to his fame (such as which publisher he had, or that Walter Hooper dedicated himself to managing his literary estate). Still these were hardly principal determinants of his fame. His best works easily proved themselves in the marketplace and had a way of enlisting admirers. So, it is a safe bet that if these particularly influential admirers had not been among his promoters, others would have stepped in to play comparable roles. And it is indeed the case that sometimes Lewis’s work got major boosts, as from Chuck Colson’s Born Again or the Shadowlands play and movie or from the films of Narnia stories. But even in the case of such substantial contingencies, it seems that it was the merits of his writings and reputation in the first place that brought about such boosts.
One way to ask the question of what accounts most for Lewis’s fame is to compare the reception of his best works to that of works by his peers who presumably had roughly the same advantages and disadvantages. For instance, why is Lewis’s work in Christian apologetics still widely regarded today, while that of his counterparts on the BBC, some of whom were much more popular than he, are almost entirely forgotten? Derrick’s own review of the early reception in Great Britain and America in fact shows that the admiring reviewers consistently commented on the stunning clarity or cleverness of his work. And if we ask why these works still compete well or outsell the best traditionalist Christian apologists of the twenty-first century, one has to suspect that it has mostly to do with those same qualities of the work.
Or another comparative question that might clarify the point that in Lewis’s case the excellence of his work is more important than promotion or circumstances is this: Why did the most popular of Lewis’s books, those that Derrick considers in this volume, do so much better than his less popular books? Why is it that the Narnia books have fared better than the Planetary Trilogy or The Pilgrim’s Regress? All had the same author and similar settings in which they might have been promoted. So, while background and cultural settings for reception are indeed illuminating matters of interest concerning which Derrick provides admirable accounts, the primary explanation for the lasting fame as the author of these leading works is surely their inherent excellence.
Though I have dwelt at some length on what I see as one small bit of interpretive overreach, I would not want that to overshadow the overall value of Derrick’s contribution. She has indeed added significantly to our understanding of the background and cultural settings that helped shape the reception of his work.
2.16.22 | Stephanie Derrick
Response to George Marsden
It is an honor for me to have my book reviewed by Professor Marsden, whom I got to know a bit while taking courses at Harvard Divinity School when he was a guest faculty member there and I, as a student of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, was given access to HDS through the Boston Theological Institute. Marsden is one of the keenest observers of American Christianity and a historian upon whose shoulders stand all who seek to understand American Christianity, and Fundamentalism in particular.
Marsden makes some salient observations about The Fame of C. S. Lewis, which comes as no surprise to me. And I am glad that he sees value in the book. However, I do think I’ve been a bit misread on a couple of points, so I’ll spend my time there for the interest of myself and the reader. First, regarding my use of the term “populist” as applied to Lewis. Marsden remarks that Lewis did not, like a populist, appeal to “prejudices, emotions, and resentments.” I think at least a few of Lewis’s colleagues at Oxford would disagree and that it was this very tendency of his to use his powers of expression to persuade the “common reader” in matters of religion, to persuade them of his own personal views no less, that he was considered a populist by some of them. But this understanding of the term is relative to Lewis’s highly specific cultural context, and I’m sure that I was influenced by that understanding when I used it. Now that we are living in a post-Trump world, the word “populist” has a different resonance than it did five years ago—much less to that of 1940s Oxbridge—so it is bound to stand out in a way that it did not at the writing. Lewis was not a populist of the William Jennings Bryan sort, of course, but in his own high-brow context he was criticized by some for using tactics seen as unfitting to an academic.
The more significant criticism by Marsden is that the book “seems to suggest that the excellence [of Lewis’s works] is not as important an explanation of his fame as are the factors shaping the contours of the reception of his works” and that I dismissed “excellence as the primary explanation for the fame of Lewis’s work.” This is a bit frustrating to hear, honestly, as, anticipating this charge, I was quite careful to set out my position, one that did not dismiss Lewis’s talents as a primary factor. True, I did not say they were, final word, the primary explanation. Here is what I said in the conclusion:
[EXT]This book has certainly confirmed that many people have found Lewis’s writings enjoyable, edifying, and inspiring. Thousands have praised his books for their quality and imagination, in both Britain and America. Lewis’s insights on an impressive variety of topics, his talent for storytelling, his knack for describing complex ideas memorably, and his sheer industry all contributed to his lasting fame. The quotability of Lewis’s Christian books made them resources to which Christian leaders, especially, turned repeatedly, ensuring their continued use in Christian communities. Indeed, the scholarly acclaim he received in his lifetime and the popularity of his books are more than enough evidence to consider Lewis’s abilities an element part of his fame. The intention behind this book is not to diminish the importance of these factors. At the same time. . . . The Fame of C. S. Lewis is not a book of literary analysis. The emphasis of this monograph has been on the historical, cultural, religious, and social factors that shaped the author and gave his fame momentum.[/EXT]
Why is it not satisfactory enough to say that Lewis’s talents were an elemental factor to his fame? Why must I say they were the “primary explanation” for his fame? After looking at this topic for many years I did not find that that was the best way of describing what I saw. The reality was nuanced and complex. Yes, the excellence of his work was fundamental to the phenomenon, but so much is obvious, as I acknowledged. I feel resistance to this need for a final ranking, with Lewis’s great talents at the top. Having identified Lewis’s gifts as a principal reason for his fame, I thought of my task as pulling out the many circumstances and nuances missed by others who were quite content to simply point to Lewis’s talents. I was careful, in fact, to position my book as an expansion upon the explanation of Lewis’s fame as resting on the man’s excellence as a writing and thinker. I argued that the merits of Lewis’s works were (again, obviously) critical to their success but that they are not the end-all-be-all explanation for Lewis’s lasting fame; they do not tell us all we need to know about that history.
The next point is related. If I didn’t elevate Lewis’s talents enough, Marsden seems unconvinced by my documentation of the unique market circumstances that helped Lewis’s books succeed. Marsden writes:
Again the word principal is a tripper. These factors that I name are not claimed to be the principal determinants of Lewis’s fame, but they are important nonetheless. They are documented historical events that had a marked impact on how many people were exposed to Lewis’s books. They matter. If Walter Hooper had not spent over ten years collecting Lewis’s scattered works and pushing publishers to reissue old works or publish new collections, who is to say that those publishers would have promoted him with equal energy? And it very much mattered that the Narnia books were taken up in the public-school sector just as there was a boom in children’s books and reading. Likewise, the path Lewis’s books took to radio, stage, television, and film adaptation is one I chart in detail—and there is nothing that I can see in this history to say that there was inevitability around these developments. Further, it is a bit confusing to claim that “it is a safe bet that if these particularly influential admirers” such as the authors of Born Again or Shadowlands “had not been among his promoters, others would have stepped in to play comparable roles.” Says who, frankly? As historians we document what did happen, not what might have happened or what we think might have happened. I’m not prepared to concede that there certainly would been another Chuck Colson or William Nicholson, both of which are talented communicators. As J. Matthew Melton points out in his contribution to this symposium, there are many things in the social and cultural history that I considered, such as the rise of the paperback, that also had an important influence on the fame of A. A. Milne and Roald Dahl. But that’s not to say that the receptions of these authors are so similar that we can state much beyond very general observations. So many of the circumstances I described were unique to Lewis that I would not want to assume that they would be reproduced in some equitable form for Lewis’s contemporaries. It would take more research to say with confidence.