Letters to an American Lady

I’m sorry to say that my initial response to Letters to an American Lady was one of annoyance.  The book contains thirteen years of letters from C.S. Lewis (Jack) to a woman who kept writing him back.  Only Jack’s letters to Mrs. ——– (Mary) are published, but from his we get an idea of hers. She had many distressing circumstances, medical and financial.  

Lewis was from the old school of manners: for every letter he received, he wrote a reply. Jack doesn’t disguise his opinion: responding to mail was tedious and difficult and, at times, dreadful.  The daily letter-writing I have to do is very laborious for me. (May 6, 1959)  He asks Mary –nearly every year–not to write at holiday times. Will you, please, always avoid “holiday” periods in writing to me? (April 17, 1954)  And always remember that there is no time in the whole year when I am less willing to write than near Christmas, for it is then that my burden is heaviest. (January 29, 1955)

A majority of the letters have some explanation/apology from Lewis about the length it took him to respond.  (You have, you know, recently stepped up the pace of the correspondence! I can’t play at that tempo, you know.) (October 5, 1955)  I get on my righteous indignation and want to reproach Dear Mary to please quit bugging one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. 

Don’t get me wrong: there are some gems in these letters between the in great hastes and all good wishes.  All the best quotes from this book will be found in The Quotable Lewis if you’d like to skim the cream off the top.

As for wrinkles–pshaw! Why shouldn’t we have wrinkles?
Honorable insignia of long service in this warfare.
(October 30, 1958) 

The great thing with unhappy times is to take them bit by bit,
hour by hour, like an illness. It is seldom the present,
the exact present, that is unbearable.
(June 14, 1956) 

A man whose hands are full of parcels can’t receive a gift. (March 31, 1958)

: :         : :        : :

The second time through this short book (124 small pages) I had a better sense of its value. In short, it is a primer on helping people who are in pain. 

He prays for her.  From the first letter, I will have you in my prayers (October 26, 1950) to a letter written on behalf of Lewis by Walter Hooper, He is much concerned for you and prays that you may have courage for whatever may be yours both in the present and future. (August 10, 1963) there are assurances of prayer.

His words of sympathy are simple: May God comfort you. (October 20, 1956)  May the peace of God continue to infold you. (June 7, 1959)  I am most sorry to hear about…

Lewis writes about the daily stuff of life:  I love the empty, silent, dewy, cobwebby hours (September 30, 1958)  A big tree and a still bigger branch off another came crashing down in the wood yesterday, in windless calm–purely for lack of internal moisture. (August 21, 1959)  In these short snippets he offers a piece of his personal life, which, I’m certain, was received as a valued gift and a pleasant distraction.

If you love Lewis and want to read everything he wrote, this is a book for you.  For the rest of you, get The Quotable Lewis.

What is your favorite C.S. Lewis title? 
Which book would you recommend to a reader unfamiliar with C.S. Lewis?


12 thoughts on “Letters to an American Lady

  1. I, too, just finished a Lewis book, _The Weight of Glory_.  And I also read it through twice because with Lewis I never feel I catch it all the first time around. I do like him, but don’t feel compelled to read his all. In the _Weight of Glory_ the very first chapter was stand out, and the rest didn’t strike me so greatly.

  2. I think Screwtape Letters is my favorite Lewis title.  For all his simplicity, I, too, have had to read through slowly, and re-read.  Something I didnt expect from his supposed plainness in speech. http://hiddenart.xanga.com/716955730/the-screwtape-letters/My favorite quote from Letters to the American Lady is the Mary/Martha one.And as far as first recommendation?  I’m sticking with my first Lewis:  Shadowlands, which I saw on stage at a local community theater here. 

  3. First of all, I suppose you have watched Shadowlands, haven’t you? Do not miss it.After watching it, I went into A grief observed, which is very different from the film but really interesting (and short).My favorite is Till we have faces: Lewis remake of the myth of Psique. It includes in my opinion an amazing reflection on faith.

  4. @Alfonso – I always appreciate your recommendations and am happy to say that I’ve watched Shadowlands at least five times.  (We own the DVD.) The first time I read Till We Have Faces I didn’t understand it…and didn’t care for it.  A few years later I read it again and it clicked that time. 

  5. @Carrie, Reading to Know – Carrie, that is WILD!  My husband is sitting at the table and I started to quote sections of your review to him.  He accused me of copying you, heh heh!  I have appreciated many of your reviews in the past. I have exactly three months left until I retire from working full-time.  There are certain blogs I look forward to reading through archives when I’m not helping home school my grandson.  Yours is one of those blogs.    

  6. I read Letters to an American Lady years ago (when I was young and quick to jump to conclusions) and felt downright irritated with her — not only for not recognizing that this gracious man already had more than enough to do with his hours, but also for cashing in on his kindness by making his letters available for publication.   (But perhaps if I knew the full story on this, my long-ago uncharitable reaction would now make me hang my head).   I think I’d like to have another go at it now that I’m a lot older, hoping for a better reaction on my part.  Mere Christianity was my intro to CSLewis, when I was nineteen, and I still remember the thrill, the string of “Aha!” moments that came to me as I read.   Have read many of his books since, but my memory of that first read makes me think of it as my favorite.

  7. I love C.S. Lewis, and I’m so glad that Christians can claim the incredible man as one of us.I fell in love with his Chronicles of Narnia as a little girl.  As for his adult novels, I would say The Screwtape Letters is probably my favorite, but I haven’t read everything.Thanks for this wonderful review!

  8. My favorite Lewis?  That’s like asking what my favorite Jane Austen is.  Well… it’s not The Last Battle.  I love his space trilogy, especially That Hideous Strength.  It took me three times to understand The Abolition of Man, but now it’s on my Most Important Books list.  I first read Mere Christianity in my teens and it’s not only on my MIB list, it’s probably second only to the Bible in shaping me into the person I am now.  To introduce someone to him I’d probably recommend either the Narnia books or The Four Loves, depending on who’s asking.

  9. O Carol.  I was just thanking God for C.S. Lewis’ writings the other day.  He is so diverse in topics, can talk to any spectrum of people, and it is just ‘homey’ to read his stories.  I breathe easily around him. Guess what!! My youngest began reading this last week, JUST FOR THE FUN OF IT. His first book?  The Magician’s Nephew.  Now, he HAS to read all the others.  I’ve read the Chronicles aloud to him (as a family) for years, but he thinks he’s hearing them for the first time. I’m over the moon happy.  I appreciate the Space Trilogy so very much.  I remember reading Perelandra in high school, and thinking it a bit- boring- dare I say such a thing.  Now of course, since I’m so much more older and wiser, it too is up on my list of books. His Grief Observed was very timely and helpful for me, and I think M. L’Engle’s introduction to that book is also interesting.  Introductory works?  Besides Mere Christianity?  A few of his essays.  “Men Without Chests” comes readily to mind, and if I weren’t so distracted by Narnia at the moment, I’m sure I’d think of some more!  :0)

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