Lewis Takes Manhattan

The first American review of a book by C. S. Lewis appeared in December 1935 when the New York Times commended The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis’s allegory narrating why the Christian faith met personal and intellectual needs much better than any contemporary alternative. Almost twelve years later on September 8, 1947, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine, the country’s best-selling newsweekly. The lengthy accompanying article expressed positive judgments about several of his works, including the recently published Miracles, which Time called “a strictly unorthodox presentation of strict orthodoxy.”

Examining responses to the seventeen works of Lewis that Americans could read in this period—before the publication of the first Narnia tale (1950) and Mere Christianity (1952) made him a worldwide celebrity—reveals surprises about the different constituencies that read Lewis. It also says a great deal about the general state of American culture when these responses appeared.

American attention to Lewis and his work began mostly as a trickle among academics. With only a few reservations, scholars spoke well of The Allegory of Love, which singled out Edmund Spenser for linking romantic love with Christian marriage, and A Preface to Paradise Lost, which insisted on the importance of theology in Milton’s epic. But then with the American publication of The Screwtape Letters in February 1943, a year after the book’s appearance in Britain, attention to Lewis exploded. Soon he seemed to be everywhere—including newspapers (which then published many more serious book reviews than is the case today), middle-brow periodicals, and scholarly journals.

For this twelve-year period, it makes sense to divide Lewis reviewers into three groups: Roman Catholics, Protestants of all types, and those who wrote for the general media. The most unexpected finding in studying those responses is that Catholic readers provided the fullest, most learned, and most appreciative audience. Protestant reviewers, while mainly positive, engaged with fewer works. Evangelical Protestants, who are now among the most enthusiastic Lewis devotees, trailed Protestants of the mainline in coming to appreciate the Oxford don. When Lewis was reviewed in newspapers or secular periodicals like The Saturday Review or Time, appreciation was still the watchword, though with some occasional criticism.

Catholic attention to Lewis began with a 1939 review of The Personal Heresy by Thomas Merton, shortly after he had sought Catholic baptism and not long before he joined the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady in Kentucky. Merton appreciated Lewis’s argument that the enduring value of literary works lay in what they revealed about reality rather than what they revealed about the author.

Then, after Macmillan rushed Lewis’s works into print on this side of the Atlantic, they received detailed attention in a number of Catholic periodicals and from several Catholics writing for the mainstream media. Catholics in this period referenced all seventeen Lewis books (the only group to do so), and no other constituency treated both popular and scholarly works so thoroughly. Occasional criticism did surface, particularly that Lewis slighted the institution of the church in presenting the Christian faith. A more serious reservation pertained not to Lewis himself, but was aimed by Catholic conservatives at their fellow Catholics who recommended Lewis enthusiastically, but without heeding a canon of the church requiring official approval of non-Catholic authors before their work could be recommended.

It is striking that the two longest, most learned, and most laudatory examples of Lewis criticism by any Americans in this period were authored by Catholic professors of English. One came from Victor Hamm, who taught at Marquette, in a lengthy essay-review of the space fantasy Perelandra. He began with these striking words: “Milton wrote the epics of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Mr. C. S. Lewis has essayed the epic of Paradise retained.” The essay went on to expound on how Lewis’s mastery of Milton’s epic brilliantly informed his work of science fiction.

The most impressive American Lewis criticism of this period came in a two-part series published in May and June 1944 in America, a weekly journal sponsored by American Jesuits. The author was Charles Brady (1912-1995), who taught at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. In these two articles, Brady explained how Lewis’ academic writing on Shelley, Chaucer, and especially Milton informed his works for popular audiences like The Screwtape Letters, which Brady called “the most phenomenally popular household book of applied religion in the twentieth century.” Brady urged his readers, however, to go beyond this one work to other writings since Lewis was “the only truly popular champion of Orthodoxy . . . in book, pamphlet and radio address since the passing of Gilbert Keith Chesterton.” In praising the unobtrusive learning behind such work, Brady claimed that the “pages” of Lewis’s writing constituted “a melodious sounding-board, a whispering-gallery of what is great in world literature.” And then Brady specified as Lewis’ sources Virgil and the Aeneid, R. H. Benson, Olaf Stappleton, Rider Haggard, Ronald Knox, J. R. R. Tolkien, William Morris, Jonathan Swift, John Henry Newman, Chaucer, Dante, and many others including especially, again, Milton.

Specifically Catholic concerns surfaced only once when Brady chided other reviewers for treating Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra “very shabbily,” including some “feckless” Catholics who had missed the subtle defense of Christian orthodoxy in these works of science fiction. For the rest, this first American to write comprehensively about C. S. Lewis’ books offered his glowing introduction in a Catholic magazine with the express hope that more Catholic readers would be drawn to those books.

When Brady sent a copy of his articles to Lewis, he responded that Brady was “the first of my critics so far who has really read and understood all of my books.”

In general, Catholics lauded Lewis’s learning but also the accessibility of his writing. They praised the clarity of his Christian communication. Theologically, they appreciated that Lewis’s apologetic began with an appeal to universal human instincts about objective morality, which several critics likened to Catholic teaching about “natural theology” extending back to Thomas Aquinas. No Protestant critic would come anywhere close to what Catholics wrote about Lewis until Chad Walsh of Beloit College began to publish later in the decade.

Walsh, the most perceptive Protestant who wrote about Lewis in this period, published substantial reviews in both Protestant and general periodicals, including a major article from 1946 in The Atlantic entitled “C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics.” A wide range of Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, and Episcopal periodicals also routinely reviewed Lewis positively, though none with the depth found among the Catholics.

Evangelical Protestants came late to recommending Lewis and did so with considerable hesitation. The widely circulated Sunday School Times mentioned a couple of Lewis’s fantasies, but the most space treating Lewis in that widely read magazine came in advertisements placed by Macmillan rather than anything written about him.

A short review in Moody Monthly of the first pamphlet from the talks that Lewis delivered on BBC radio, The Case for Christianity, was typical. It praised the work’s sprightly style and what Lewis wrote about instincts concerning “Right and Wrong.” Yet two-third of this short notice questioned whether Lewis’s apologetical efforts could be successful and worried that he had not said the right things about sacraments and the atonement.

The only evangelical Protestants to write at any depth about Lewis were conservative Presbyterians associated with Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. While several of these Presbyterians expressed real delight at Lewis’s literary verve and also his promotion of “mere Christianity,” they objected to what he said about universal human instincts providing a launching place for Christian apologetics. They objected, in other words, to the gestures toward “natural law” that Catholic critics had found so compelling.

The reception of Lewis in newspapers, general-circulation periodicals, and academic journals was, again, mostly positive. The one thoroughly negative review was published in The New Republic in 1944. Its author was Alistair Cooke, who would later become well known as the host of public television’s Masterpiece Theater. To Cooke, Lewis was a “quack” who exploited “doubting times” to become “a minor prophet, pressed into making a career of reassurance.” Much more common in the general press was appreciation—occasionally with reservations, more often with appreciation alongside mild criticisms, but most often with simple enthusiasm.

The American years 1935 through 1947 were dominated by pervasive national crises—first the Depression, then World War Two, and then uncertainties after the War about charting a course as the world’s dominant Super Power. In that period and with those tensions, Lewis’s literary scholarship, his creative works, the broadcast talks that would later be gathered together as Mere Christianity, and overtly theological works like The Problem of Pain and Miracles resonated powerfully with Americans of all sorts.

These same years were also witnessing a crucial cultural transition–from a past in which Christian values could be more or less taken for granted by wide swaths of the American people to a future in which those values became increasingly contested. In that context, Lewis’s defense of the instinctive human belief in moral absolutes and his advocacy for specifically Christian truths reached an appreciative audience well beyond the Christian circles where he remains so well regarded today. That he became popular with almost no overt political references showed how successful he was in keeping his focus on what he wanted to communicate about Christianity itself.

Today the religious climate has become more pluralistic. The media landscape is also much more fragmented than when a figure like Lewis could win approval with similar judgments in newspapers, academic journals, popular periodicals, and throughout the religious press. Much that Lewis wrote can still change minds and win hearts. It may be, however, that the example of how he set about his work—combining deep learning, a focus on “mere Christianity,” sprightly prose, imaginative creativity, savvy about his audiences, and the courage of his convictions—is just as instructive.

Mark A. Noll is emeritus professor of history at Wheaton College and the University of Notre Dame. His newest book C. S. Lewis in America: Readings and Reception, 1935-1947 was published by InterVarsity Press in late 2023. It includes responses to the lectures first presented at Wheaton College’s Wade Center from Wheaton faculty Karen Johnson, Kirk Farney, and Amy Black. Other recent books include In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 and America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911.


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