Two Catholic critics numbered among Lewis’s most enthusiastic American readers
This essay is a Preview, a new occasional feature at Current and a companion to our Review features. In Previews we publish short excerpts from new and upcoming books that tell a good story and fit our general mission of commentary, reflection, judgment. It has been adapted from C. S. Lewis in America: Readings and Reception, 1935-1947 by Mark Noll. InterVarsity Press, 2023. 176 pp., $20.00
It is noteworthy that the two longest, most learned, and most laudatory examples of Lewis criticism by any Americans in this period came from Catholics who seemed completely untroubled by the reservations other reviewers voiced. The first appeared in 1944 from a Canisius College professor whom Lewis congratulated as providing a comprehensive account of all his writings, the second in 1945 as a review-essay by a professor of English literature at Marquette who situated Perelandra in the context of much else that Lewis had written.
Charles Brady (1922-1995), a graduate of Canisius, a college founded by Jesuits, returned to teach at his alma mater after completing a master’s degree at Harvard. At age twenty-four, in 1936, he became chair of the English department, a position he held until 1959, after which Brady continued to teach for another twenty years and then remained an active book reviewer for the Buffalo News for still two more decades. As an author in his own right, Brady published poems, fiction for children (including The Church Mouse of St. Nicholas , which told how an underweight church mouse inspired the beloved Christmas carol “Silent Night”), and historical novels based on the lives of Thomas More (1953) and Leif Erickson (1958). His anthology A Catholic Reader, published shortly after he wrote about Lewis, began with Brady explaining that, while “an embattled Church Militant” required polemical writing “since that far-off day when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door at Wittenberg,” he wanted to show that Catholics could write sparkling fiction, exposition, poetry, anecdote, and essays that did not major in controversy. His anthology included selections from priests such as John Henry Newman, Ronald Knox, and Harold Gardiner, SJ, but even more material from lay Catholics, including Thomas Malory, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Clare Booth Luce, Thomas Merton, and Robert Lowell.
The Jesuits’ magazine America published Brady’s two essays, “Introduction to Lewis” and “C. S. Lewis: II,” in 1944, the titles being the only humdrum thing about the articles. In an immensely learned treatment, Brady explained how Lewis’s academic writing on Percy Byssche Shelley, Geoffrey Chaucer, and especially John Milton informed his works for popular audiences, such as The Screwtape Letters, which Brady called “the most phenomenally popular household book of applied religion of the twentieth century.” He 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-galley . . . of what is great in world literature.” And then Brady specified as Lewis’s sources Virgil and the Aeneid, R.H. Benson, Olaf Stapledon, Rider Haggard, Ronald Knox, J. R. R. Tolkien, William Morris, Jonathan Swift, John Henry Newman, Chaucer, Dante Alighieri, and many others including especially, again, Milton.
In this tidal wave of commendation, no hint appeared that Brady considered any aspect of Lewis’s work questionable by Catholic standards. To the contrary, he contended that even “the non-professional reader” would benefit from The Personal Heresy and the academic essays gathered in Lewis’s Rehabilitations because of their excellent “humane scholarship.” These works, according to Brady, revealed Lewis as a “very humanistic, and therefore Catholic, don.” In other words, since to a Roman Catholic “all truth is God’s truth,” and Lewis wrote so truly about so many aspects of human experience, it was appropriate to regard him as a Catholic.
Specifically Catholic concerns surfaces only once in these essays, when Brady chided reviewers for treating Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra “very shabbily,” including some “feckless” Catholic reviewers who missed the subtle defense of Christian orthodoxy in these works. For the rest, this first American to write comprehensively about C. S. Lewis’s books offered his glowing introduction in a Catholic magazine with the express hope that more Catholic readers would be drawn to those books.
The review-essay on Perelandra by Marquette professor Victor M. Hamm (born 1904), which appeared just a year after Brady’s comprehensive report, strained the limits of praise just as thoroughly. Hamm had earned degrees at Marquette and a Ph.D. at Harvard before teaching briefly at two Catholic colleges and then returning to his alma mater, another school founded by Jesuits, where he taught for several decades. Known for his translations of fifteenth-century Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola and for several works of literary criticism, Hamm’s “Mr. Lewis in Perelandra” appeared in the Fordham quarterly Thought. It would be the longest American essay on a single work by Lewis for many years to come.
Hamm began arrestingly: “Milton wrote the epics of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Mr. C. S. Lewis has essayed the epic of Paradise Retained.” As did Brady, Hamm identified a host of obvious and not-so-obvious literary influences—H. G. Well, Jules Verne, Rider Haggard, Plato, the Neoplatonists, the Kabbala, Rosicrucianism, Greek and Oriental myths, Shelley, John Keats, Robert Blake, Dante, and more—but all employed to craft an inspiring fiction and a bold Christian affirmation accessible to all readers. After outlining the plot, in which the protagonist, Ransom, acts to prevent Perelandra from falling into sin as Eve had fallen, Hamm summarized his assessment of Lewis’s art and faith: “To some [Lewis’s] sheer imaginative power will alone be enough to rank the novel among the great works of invention . . . But beyond all this, the form that vivifies and organizes Mr. Lewis’s art is his Christian faith which has given him the power to see as in a dream the incorporation of a futurable, the reality of a possibility.”
More than half of this essay then positioned Perelandra against Lewis’s other imaginative works, especially his Preface to Paradise Lost, which, with Brady, Hamm considered the crucial academic framework for the imaginative world of Perelandra. He brought his essay to a close by heralding Lewis’s triumph with this moving evocation:
The Universe is friendly, because it is filled with God and His angels. It is only our silent planet, which has cut itself off from communication with the other great order by its act of primal disloyalty, that is an exile, and we the exsules filii Hevae, the exiled sons of Eve, weeping and wailing in this valley of tears, dreaming of happy sinless spheres in our unhappiness and making poems to ease the bitter sorrow of our hearts.
Mark Noll is retired as a historian who taught at Wheaton College and the University of Notre Dame. His books include America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (2002), The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006), and, most recently, America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911 (2023).