I was reading Letters of C. S. Lewis this morning. The letters have been written by C. S. Lewis, but the editing was done by W. H. Lewis and Walter Hooper. What amazes me about the book is that, with my copy, there are over 650 pages of letters from C. S. Lewis. These aren’t letters that were sent to C. S. Lewis. In that way, there is only one place to look. These are letters sent to a multitude of people. All of these people kept the letters. They all were willing to have their letters from Lewis included in the book. Albeit, he lived in a different age.
In my youth, I would spend time in my grandmother’s attic. This was before C. S. Lewis passed away. Mawmaw had old steamer trunks from a variety of different ancestors, uncles, aunts, etc. There were clothes in the trunks, but there were letters. Most were love letters. Those, I can see keeping. Another stack of letters that were worth keeping, in my opinion, are letters sent home from a loved one fighting in a war. A lot of the ‘Letters’ in the first part of the book are exactly that. They are the C. S. Lewis letters sent to his father and Warnie, his brother (W. H. Lewis).
I guess the source of my shock is that my mother received a weekly letter from my father for the entire time he was in Europe during World War II. If she kept any, I never discovered them. I only know that there were letters when I took my father to Liege, Belgium when they were visiting us while I was stationed in Germany.
We went to Liege so that my father could see the train station. He had run the train stations through France, Belgium, and Offenbach, Germany to keep the front lines supplied. He had worked for the railroad before enlisting, and they transferred him to the railroad crew the day before D-Day. He arrived in France the day after the beach was secured to operate the train on the mulberry docks, until the storm blew them away. When they arrived for their visit in 1980, we went straight to Offenbach and he was convinced the terrain was right, but those buildings shouldn’t be there. I couldn’t convince him that they dug the dated cornerstones out of the rubble and reused them when they rebuilt the buildings. Those buildings weren’t a hundred years old, they just used hundred year old stones. When we reached Liege a week later, he became so moody that he didn’t want to even see the train station. He just wanted to go back to our home in Karlsruhe.
I had mapped out our return trip so that I could see Bastogne. My father raised his voice at this point. “I don’t want to go down this road. Go straight home.” Not having a clue what brought this on, I insisted. I had studied military history. I wanted to see some of it. The drive to Bastogne was so beautiful. The old two-lane road went through the trees and had a lot of curves in the road. When I drove around one particular curve, my mother yelled, “Stop the car. Pull over.”
My Dad yelled, “No! Keep driving. Get out of here!”
My mother said, “Your father had surgery soon before we left. He looks white as a sheet. I’m afraid he’s having some kind of an attack.” My Dad protested that we should keep going. He was fine, but I pulled over on the non-existent shoulder just about one hundred yards past a small, insignificant bridge.
My Dad was in the front seat with me. Having pulled over, I could see how white he was, but the color was returning. He said, “See that bridge back there?” I checked it out in the mirror. “The officers in Liege needed to send a message to General McAuliffe’s office in Bastogne. I volunteered. It was all behind friendly lines, so the driver didn’t carry a weapon and I had a 45 (pistol). We dropped off the message, but when we got to that curve up ahead, we saw a German patrol guarding that bridge. We ditched the jeep and started crawling back to Liege. We hid in people’s barns. Sometimes they would feed us, but we usually took a few eggs and kept going. We travelled mostly by night. It took us a month to get back to Liege.”
My mother said, “Hmpft! I wondered why there was a month gap in the letters.” She had never cared to ask. My Dad had seen the enemy in combat only one time, and he hid in a barn. He was ashamed and had been ashamed for 35 years, never telling the story until he went over the bridge.
As I pulled back out onto the road, I told him, “Dad, you’re my hero. If you had emptied your 45 at that patrol, you wouldn’t be here, and I would have never been born.”
Until my mother said what she did about the letters, I would have never known there were any letters. He had sent well over a hundred letters, and she kept none of them.
Yet, C. S. Lewis’ letters from before he was published for the first time take up almost two-thirds of the book, roughly 400 pages of letters. It is simply amazing that everyone would keep them.
That brings me to the topic of this essay. In a letter written to his brother on 1 July 1921, he goes on and on about an essay that he had just submitted for a grade in a college course of study. The title of the essay was ‘Optimism’. Footnote number 90 at the bottom of one of the pages (a long letter) states, “’Optimism’ was never published, and no copies seem to have survived.”
My question is, “Why?” All of these letters were kept, but an essay that Lewis was especially proud of at the time was lost. Letters begins with letters to a childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, in 1916 and continues through to a few letters within weeks of his death in 1963. There are collections of essays from C. S. Lewis published, yet ‘Optimism’ is not among them.
What we know of ‘Optimism’ can be found in the letter. At this point in Lewis’ life, he is an atheist. He talks about “God or no God’ in his essay just in case there is a Christian among the examiners. He didn’t want to offend an examiner. He had too much at stake. His entire career hinged on getting his education. He didn’t want to make enemies by protesting his atheist views at that time. He had no problem expressing his views with Arthur Greeves (in 1916) where he likens Jesus to Loki, just another myth. He didn’t believe in God until 1929. He didn’t become a Christian until 1931.
I feel that God had a hand in the loss of ‘Optimism’. Ephesians 2:12 talks of there being no hope outside of Christ. This essay would contradict that statement in that hope could be obtained with or without a belief in God. Is it not best that the essay was lost?
Yet, again, C. S. Lewis also said about reviewing written works that you started to read a literary work thinking that the work was good, but by the time that you finished, you realized that you had given the author an undeserved compliment. I have read things that I wrote two years ago, and wondered why I had kept this poorly written article. Did Lewis rid the world of all ‘Optimism’ himself?