Stephanie L. Derrick
The fame of C.S. Lewis. A controversialist’s reception in Britain and America
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018
[A review to be published in Reading Religion.]
Readers might be forgiven for asking how much more there is to be known about C.S. Lewis. The biographical materials for Lewis’ life are relatively small in bulk, and well known, and the published writings are also easily accessible. And scholars have come at the canon itself – the apologetics and the fiction in particular – from every conceivable angle. (There were more than 160 books published on Lewis in the decade after 2000). Alister McGrath, in the final chapter of his 2013 biography (reviewed here), briefly indicated a new direction of travel for Lewis studies, that paid attention not so much to the man and to the works, but to their reception. Stephanie L. Derrick has now given us the first extended essay in the subject, which will shape work on Lewis for perhaps a generation. Her scope is the UK and the United States as two analytic units treated as whole, and the works of Lewis in question are the Narnia stories and the most well-known apologetic works (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and others).
The first chapter outlines Lewis’ conscious fashioning of his literary self as a kind of ‘Ulster contrarian’, a ‘Christian dinosaur’ with a vocation to reach popular audiences with his rejection of modernism in both literature and (in a wider sense) theology and society. Chapter 2 sets out Lewis’ reputation with his peers in the UK, and in particularly in Oxford. These two chapters will not surprise specialist readers in matters of detail to any great extent, but they frame the main burden of the book: that there were radically different trajectories in Lewis’ reception in the USA and in the UK, which are to be explained both by specific religious and cultural conditions, but also by the degree to which Lewis was known as an individual alongside his writings. In the UK, academic readers and others in the literary and journalistic fields knew, or thought they knew, a Lewis who was tricksy, unreliable, an invented literary persona; it was unclear where the posture ended and the man began. (Significantly, reference was often made to his Irishness, which meant different things to an English audience than it did in the USA).
Readers in the USA, by contrast, reacted rather more to what Derrick calls a ‘Platonic Lewis’, found in the writings alone, detached from the very specific literary and cultural context into which he intended to speak. Free to shape an idea of Lewis to their own purposes, American readers’ engagement with Lewis had a ubiquity and intensity that far outstripped that in the UK, where there remained a persistent unease with Lewis both as an apologist and as a writer of fiction. Derrick’s exposition of these contrasting national reactions is acute and convincing, although there of course remains room for further refinement within each story, both chronologically and sociologically.
In all this, Derrick’s reading of Lewis’ fame against the religious context in which he was read is fresh and invigorating. The most innovative aspect of the study, however, is in chapter 4, where Derrick examines Lewis and the ‘mechanisms of mass culture’. Religious historians of the twentieth century have not always paid sufficient attention to the means by which religious ideas are communicated. Derrick’s achievement is to direct attention not just away from the man to the reader, but also to the sheer contingency of his fame. Lewis’ reputation was shaped not so much by the intrinsic appeal of the work as the fact that it coincided with particular moments in technological history. Radio broadcasting in the UK during the 1940s; the peculiar liveliness of learned periodical culture after the war; the development of a market for paperback children’s fiction (and marketing devices such as the Puffin Club); patterns in library acquisition; the decisions of the Lewis estate; the control of his works as it passed from publisher to publisher; the internal dynamics of media conglomerates with interests in film as well as print: Lewis’ fame is inexplicable without considering the interactions of all these parts of the broad ecosystem of ideas.
Given this sensitivity to technological and economic context, one curious – and explicit – omission is the impact of Lewis online, especially as Derrick draws attention in her conclusion to the dependence of British evangelicals on American resources, which is surely in part a function of the Internet. This leaves open a significant gap to be filled by other scholars, as there is also for a history of Lewis’ books as designed objects, and of their illustrations in particular.
These cavils aside, Dr Derrick has given us a striking and important study. It should find a wide readership among historians of Christianity and of twentieth century literature, as well as those interested in the history of the media. Well written, generously produced and reasonably priced, it deserves an audience outside the academy.