Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman
Don King, a well-known scholar in the field of C. S. Lewis studies, has made a substantial contribution to our knowledge of a fascinating and important woman. Joy Davidman is not well known. Indeed, most people who are aware of her can only imagine her as the heroic and tragic cancer victim and wife of C. S. Lewis as portrayed by Debra Winger in the film Shadowlands. But Joy Davidman was much more important than the brief glimpse offered in Shadowlands reveals. Born in New York City in 1915, Joy was the older of two children. Both of her college-educated parents were public school teachers, and their Jewish heritage was secular rather than religious. Joy’s father boasted of his atheism, and she and her brother emulated their domineering father ’s disdain for the supernatural. Joy proved to be an unusually brilliant child. Possessing a genius-level IQ, photographic memory, and keen critical and analytic skills, she performed exceptionally well in the public schools, Hunter College (B.A.) and Columbia University (M.A.). Already publishing poetry as an undergraduate, Joy won the Yale Younger Poets Award when she was twenty-three, and Yale published a collection of her verse titled Letter to a Comrade in 1938. Prior to this achievement Joy worked as film critic and poetry editor for New Masses magazine and served as an editor of Harriet Monroe’s periodical, Poetry.
In 1940 Macmillan published Ms. Davidman’s first novel, Anya, and then two years later she married novelist William Lindsay Gresham, whom she had met in local Communist party meetings and at gatherings of aspiring writers. Actually, the couple shared little in common beyond their writing ambitions and disillusionment with the American capitalistic system that had broken down in the world-wide depression of the 1930s.
By early 1946 much had changed for the couple, who had been married only four years. They had become parents of two boys, Douglas and David. They had learned also that Communism was no answer to the problems of depression and war, and certainly they recognized that they did not want to raise their children in a nation that resembled the Soviet Union even remotely. Furthermore, Joy had discovered that her husband was an alcoholic and that he could not remain sexually faithful for even a brief period of time.
The dysfunctional nature of their relationship came into sharp relief in spring of 1946 when Bill Gresham went on a binge, suffered a breakdown, and deserted his wife and boys. Joy acknowledged that as her self-confidence and security began to collapse, she became personally humiliated and devastated for the first time in her memory. Her cry of utter helplessness—spoken to no one but herself—was followed by a mystical experience that caused her to become, as she phrased it, “the world’s most surprised atheist.”1
This epiphany led Joy on a search for the One who confronted her that spring night. Her quest—which she admitted later was all God’s doing—led her to books by C. S. Lewis and a friendship with Chad Walsh, a college professor and poet, who knew Lewis and had written a volume on the Oxford author titled, C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics. Soon the former Communist acknowledged that the “Presence” she had met was Jesus Christ. She surrendered her soul to Him and quickly pursued instruction in the faith for her baptism in a Presbyterian church in upstate New York. In the wake of her conversion, the focus of Joy’s writing changed. She published a novel with a Christian theme in 1950, Weeping Bay, and then wrote several autobiographical articles on her conversion, and then a book of her reflections on the Ten Commandments, Smoke on the Mountain.
Joy Davidman’s relationship with C. S. Lewis began with a letter she wrote to him in l950. The initial contact opened the way to a relationship. What began with a letter containing questions to a writer she admired evolved gradually into Lewis mentoring Joy spiritually and through the dreadful trials of her husband’s infidelities and then the divorce. Eventually the relationship flowered into friendship and marriage, spanning only ten and a half years and ending with Joy’s death in summer 1960. Despite the brevity of the marriage—they were only married four years and three months—the American convert to Christianity had a profound impact on her husband’s life and writing. Besides bringing children into the long-time bachelor ’s life and thereby freeing him (by his own admission) from much self-centeredness, Joy’s influence can be seen in several of his books. Among these are: Surprised By Joy, Till We Have Faces, Reflections, On the Psalms, The Four Loves, and A Grief Observed. Her impact on Lewis is also obvious in some of his poetry and many pastoral letters.
Joy’s enormous effect on Lewis notwithstanding, her involvement with him was shrouded in obscurity for years. The first biography of Lewis published after his death by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Biography (1974), marginalizes Joy Davidman in the famous author ’s life quite obviously and incorrectly. In fact, Roger Green told me when I questioned him about this, that he did not write that portion of the book. Furthermore, he told Hooper that he wanted that brief part of the book expanded and clarified to present the truth. But, alas, the book went to press without Green’s demands being met.
Joy Davidman was not given her proper place in Mr. Lewis’s life until I published her biography in 1983, And God Came In: The Extraordinary Story of Joy Davidman, Her Life and Marriage to C.S. Lewis. And now, with Don King’s splendid edition of Joy’s letters, a much richer and fuller picture of this remarkable woman is available. He has gathered over 300 pages of her letters and arranged them in chronological order, complete with careful and informative editorial comments.
King gathered the Davidman letters from seven libraries: The Bodleian (Oxford), The University of Iowa, The University of Kentucky, The Newberry (Chicago), The University of Michigan, The Marion E. Wade Center (Wheaton College, Illinois) and Yale University. He arranged the letters chronologically under nine headings: “Poet, Zealot, Critic” (1936-1946), “Eyes Opened” (1948), “Growing in Belief” (1949-1951), “Crisis and Hope” (l952-1953), “Anglophile” (1954), “Hard Times” (l955), “The Sword of Damocles” (1956), “Agape, Phileo, Eros” (1957), and “A Sweet Season” (1958-1960). By far the editor is most indebted to the Marion E. Wade Center. The bulk of the letters, and by far the richest material, is housed there in the world’s largest library and archive of Lewisiana.
There is one group of Joy Davidman’s letters that do not appear in this book. Joy wrote numerous letters to her brother Howard between l953 and l960. A New York psychiatrist, Dr. Davidman generously gave me two consecutive afternoons of interviews. He mentioned the treasure trove of letters he had received from his sister and promised to send copies to the Wade Center if his daughter (who possessed the file) agreed to make copies. But the letters never came to Wheaton. Therefore, when I read this book I hoped these would be included. Perhaps they have been destroyed or lost. But maybe one day Dr. King or a future biographer of Joy Davidman will gain access to what Dr. Davidman maintained to be an extremely rich and revealing collection of material about both Joy and Jack (C. S.) Lewis.
Out of My Bone provides us with a brief introduction to Joy’s life and literary accomplishments, a detailed chronology of the major events of her short life (she died in l960 at age 45), a reprint of her previously published autobiography, as well as the first comprehensive bibliography of her publications including film and book reviews, poetry, and fiction and non-fiction books.
The bulk of the volume, however, is a chronologically arranged collection of her correspondence with informative editorial notes. Through this scholarly work we learn much about Joy as editor, critic, poet, novelist and maturing Christian. The letters reveal much about C. S. Lewis—fresh glimpses into how his rich mind worked and how he related to family. The Joy Davidman letters are replete with observations about social and intellectual life from the middle 1930s through the 1940s. And some of her observations about life in England during the 1950s make for delightful reading. As one reads these letters in chronological order, it is enthralling to witness the development of a writer who engages her culture through poetry and prose. It is equally captivating to observe the transformation of her worldview from atheism and materialism to Christianity. In the same vein the reader can only celebrate the gradual softening of Joy’s soul as she experienced increasingly the love of Jesus Christ and her devoted friend and husband, C. S. Lewis.
It is this reviewer’s hope that many people will read Out of My Bone because any reader will learn that Joy Davidman was a much more brilliant and accomplished person than is left to the popular imagination in the famous play and film Shadowlands. Furthermore, it will become clear once and for all that she did not trick C. S. Lewis into marrying her. On the contrary, after meeting and growing to know Joy after her divorce from William Lindsay Gresham, Lewis could not bear to be parted from her.
In the last analysis, Don King and Eerdmans are to be congratulated on a book that is well edited and indexed, as well as attractively presented. All students of Lewis’s writing will want to read this volume, as will people who have an interest in American radicalism in the 1930s.