On November 22, 1963 — just 50 years ago today — three eminent men died: President John F. Kennedy and the writers Aldous Huxley (b. 1894) and C. S. Lewis (b. 1898). In 1982, the philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote a clever and valuable fictional “dialogue of the dead” among the three, imagining them meeting and conversing just after death in a purgatorial state — Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere beyond Death.
The fortunes of the three figures’ reputations over the last half-century make for an interesting comparison. The young, handsome, glamorous Kennedy, brutally slain by a left-winger at a time of rising liberal optimism, has remained a media icon to the point of credulous idolatry, but his reputation among the reflective does not stand high. Thomas C. Reeves’s A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy
(1991) was a devastating portrait of the president’s moral and political deficiencies. In November 2006 the Kennedy-hometown Boston Globe
was shocked that, when ten eminent American historians were asked by The Atlantic
(originally also a hometown liberal institution) who were the 100 most influential Americans of all time, their list did not include Kennedy. Historical judgment has given us more positive views of Truman and Eisenhower than might have been expected, but Kennedy now seems more appropriately lodged in the neighborhood of his great, disgraced antagonist Richard Nixon.
Aldous Huxley was one of the most sheerly intelligent of 20th-century English-language writers, the author of the profound, hauntingly relevant, satirical-philosophical dystopian novel Brave New World (1932) and several other powerful works of fiction and nonfiction, including the religious-philosophical anthology The Perennial Philosophy (1945). But the last 15 years of his life in California, under the influence of his Francophone Belgian first wife (who died in 1955), make for a strangely ambiguous chapter, not least owing to drug use, promiscuity, and participation in a quite decadent southern-California world well but sadly described by David King Dunaway in Huxley in Hollywood (1989).
C. S. “Jack” Lewis, at the time of his death on that same autumn day in 1963, surely was seen by many as the least interesting, most backward-looking, most dated figure of the three, even a kind of surviving “dinosaur,” as he once described himself: a late Victorian as the swinging Sixties moved into high gear and the gates of Eden seemed to be opening. Yet 50 years after Lewis’s death, his books have been translated into many languages, 200 million of them have been sold, and a wide variety of people affirm the crucial role in their lives of one or another of his works. Plays and films have been made of his Narnia Chronicles for children, of his Screwtape Letters, of imagined dialogues between him and Sigmund Freud in London at the beginning of World War II, and of his life. A book of essays on his views of science, scientism, and society, The Magician’s Twin, has been published recently, and conferences and celebrations are taking place all over the world; these include a symposium at Westminster Abbey and the dedication there of a memorial to Lewis in Poets’ Corner. According to Publishers Weekly, 150,000 copies of Lewis’s Mere Christianity were sold in the U.S. alone in the last year, with “lifetime sales of about 18 million in the U.S.” The dinosaur is far from extinct.
One reason is that the dinosaur C. S. Lewis was also “Jack the Giant-Killer,” to evoke the title of an excellent essay on Lewis published in 1984 by the distinguished Oxford literary critic A. D. Nuttall (1937–2007), who had been a star Oxford student of the philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch. One has the sense that Lewis, having seen intense combat and been badly wounded as a British soldier on the Western Front during World War I, had learned not to fear lesser pains, such as being unfashionable in elite atheistic groups and agnostic opinion-making circles. An adult convert to Christianity, through painful experience and arduous reasoning, assisted by his great Catholic colleague and lifelong friend J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis was unafraid of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, believing, with his older contemporary Dean W. R. Inge, that “he who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widower.”