BOOKS: ‘Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman’

OUT OF MY BONE: THE LETTERS OF JOY DAVIDMAN
Edited by Don W. King
Eerdmans, $28, 387 pages
REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

C.S. Lewis’ controversial wife, Helen Joy Davidman (1915-1960), has been described variously as a prickly shrew, a talented poet who never got her due, a gold digger, a profound thinker whose book “Smoke on the Mountain” is a fine contribution to biblical apologetics and the Yoko Ono of the Inklings — Lewis’ circle of male literary friends. That’s quite a mix of perceptions — several of them ungenerous and unjust.

Now, Don W. King, a professor of English at Montreat College and author of “Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter” (2008) has published Davidman’s correspondence in “Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman.” (The odd title of this work is a fragment from one of Davidman’s poems, one in which the poet expresses a desire in every part of her being to be remembered after death by her beloved.) This volume presents many never-published letters by a surprisingly lively and ruminative thinker who was easily a match for her better-known husband in matters of logic, disdain for mental laziness and passion in the pursuit of truth. “Out of My Bone” will perhaps push aside some of the unkind perceptions that have grown up around the life and accomplishments of Davidman.

She was in fact an award-winning poet (on the strength of her Marxist-themed “Letters to a Comrade,” published in 1938), the possessor of a razor-sharp mind (and a tart tongue), the author of two minor novels, a literary editor at the storied New Masses and an acerbic adviser to up-and-coming writers. Born into a non-religious Jewish family in New York, she journeyed along a self-described spiritual arc from atheistic materialism to communism to theism to Christianity. The last step in that journey was inspired by her having read Lewis’ short fantasy novel “The Great Divorce” (1945) shortly after that book’s publication.

At that time, she was married to novelist William Lindsay Gresham and the mother of their two boys. Both husband and wife converted to Christianity in the late 1940s, but their marriage was ending at the time because of problems brought on by Bill Gresham’s alcoholism. In 1952, the two separated, with Davidman taking the boys to England, where living was cheaper. There she met Lewis — an Oxford don and fiftyish, lifelong bachelor — and the two became friends, she being unlike any woman he had ever known. Eventually they were married — in a civil ceremony held simply to prevent Davidman being deported after her visa expired.

Now husband and wife in name only, they lived in separate houses for a few months; but when Davidman was diagnosed with bone cancer in mid-1956, Lewis concern for her grew into love. They were married by an Anglican priest the following year. Now living in Lewis’ longtime home in Headington Quarry, outside Oxford, the two enjoyed a short period of married happiness as her cancer went into remission. After her death in 1960, Lewis reflected of their marriage, “I never expected to have in my sixties, the happiness that passed me by in my twenties.”

The earliest letters included in “Out of My Bone” are of a young writer, having already published a half-dozen poems in the prestigious quarterly Poetry, attempting a bit stiltedly to become a more widely known author. Editor King reprints several hopeful letters to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Vincent Benet, who provided Davidman advice and encouragement early in her career. These letters swiftly give way to lengthy letters of advice and criticism to other writers, and in these Davidman is nothing if not direct. After reading one lengthy, bluntly critical letter written in 1938 to minor poet Harold Harwell Lewis, the reader is left wondering how the poor man could bear to ever write again.

About 10 years later, at about the time she began to cast off her belief in a communist future, she sent a long, scathing letter to a fellow Marxist writer, defenestrating his poetry and concluding: “These are harsh words. I use them only because I want to shock you; I want to jolt you out of any complacent idea you may have that because your English looks good to a New York Jewish group it will look good to America. That idea is the curse of our movement; we are self-imprisoned in the ghetto of our smugness.”

In time, after embracing Christianity, the smugness vanished, though the astringent quality of her speech and prose remained. As editor King notes, these and other letters reflect “a definite, clear, unique voice: focused, concentrated, hard, insisting to be heard, earnest, serious, determined, not suffering fools lightly, confrontational, zealot-like, insightful, and penetrating.” To these qualities was added that of charity, humor, and humility upon Davidman’s move away from Marxism into Christianity in the late ‘40s. This becomes apparent in the letters that dominate the later portions of this volume, most of which are addressed from her new home in England to her estranged husband back in the States.

Through Davidman’s eyes we see Bill Gresham not as the sorry hound he is often depicted as, but as a weak man doing the best he can amid the circumstances of his life. Forever delinquent in his support payments to his estranged family, he receives one reproach after another from Davidman, who within the same letter — turns quickly in mood and tone to tell Bill of the boys’ accomplishments at school and of her everyday dealings with life and with “Jack” Lewis.

Still, the openings of these letters are frequently heated and sometimes funny, as when she writes after receiving one small check, “Thanks for the scratch, only I wish there were more. Lookie, cookie, even if I could live myself on $100 a month (and I’m already on a lunchless, beerless diet) what am I supposed to do with the boys? Drown them? They got laws against that in this country!”

Unfortunately none of Davidman’s letters to Lewis are included here, as Lewis tended to discard or destroy letters he received, an omission that is disappointing but unavoidable. But from her mentions of Lewis to others, and from his own writings, we have some idea of what they meant to each other.

In “A Grief Observed,” a rumination of deep sorrow and hope published a year after his wife’s death, Lewis articulated a portrait of Davidman that is entirely borne out by the autobiographical image that emerges in this volume. He wrote, “She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me. Perhaps more.” No, indeed more.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House) and has completed a novel.

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