A Biography of Young Jack Lewis (1898-1918)
By Harry Lee Poe
A Review by Dwight A Moody
Between 2004 and 2007, Walter Hooper, one-time instructor at the University of Kentucky and, for more than a half century since, the primary curator and editor of the writings of C.S. Lewis, published The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis in three large volumes. In my judgment, they are the best of all the published works of Lewis, so much so, that I actually created a manuscript of my favorite quotes from the thousands of letters included in the three volumes.
Harry Lee Poe has read them as well, for 343 of the 764 footnotes in this richly researched book on the first third of Lewis’ life are taken from these three volumes (almost all from volume one). We can expect more of the same when volumes two and three of his comprehensive account of the life of Lewis roll off the press. I, for one, will be waiting and will read and review them with the same enthusiasm I have for this first offering.
It covers the first years of the life of the famous scholar and apologist of Oxford and Cambridge universities: from his birth in 1898 to the decisive year of 1917 in which, as Poe summarizes (page 233), Lewis entered Oxford University as a student, graduated from Officer Training Corps and went off to war, and met Janie Moore, with whom he would live until her death in 1951. This is also the period covered by volume one of the Collected Letters.
It is hard to explain the lingering popularity of Mr. Lewis. His life and thought continue to command the attention of scholars—now mostly American and largely Evangelical—who seek to respond to the interest and admiration of the reading public—mostly Christian. Some of it is the wider fascination with all things English and the deeper appreciation for the significance of Oxford University as a place of immense learning. Some of it is the intelligence and inventiveness that undergird the Christian vision of Lewis as well as his kind, compelling way of presenting it to the public. Some of it is the quirkiness of Lewis himself—his unusual upbringing, his romances with (at least) two women, his rare mixture of reason and imagination, and his failure to live inside the various ideological boxes we use to interpret the world.
Whatever it is, Poe exemplifies all of it, having spent a career (since he and I shared the chapel pew in 1982 as newly-minted PhDs at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) reading, writing, researching, and speaking about C. S. Lewis. The pinnacle of all that preparation is this first volume of a three-volume biography of Lewis. Volume two is at the publisher, and volume three is rolling out of his memory even as I write this review.
I have not read everything about Lewis, not by a long shot—but of the many Lewis biographies I have read, none has traced in such a comprehensive and compelling manner the many ways in which the Lewis we all love was shaped by the experiences of childhood and adolescence. Over and over in this book, Poe asserts that the pleasures and preferences of Lewis’ life time were shaped by what Lewis came to love and admire as a teenager: books and words, music and imagination, ideas of chivalry and the significance of pleasure. Pay attention to what makes you happy and stirs your soul, Lewis would say in one way or another for the rest of his life. Poe lays it all out in this wonderful book.
What is surely to register as you read this book is the stunning success of what we would today call his homeschool education. What Lewis failed to gain in the way of socialization he more than made up for in the depth and breadth of his reading. By the time he entered the University, he had read and understood more literature and languages than most college graduates manage to do in a lifetime, or two. All we can say is, thanks be to God. Perhaps even now there is another young scholar toiling over Greek verbs and Latin phrases, preparing to think, speak, and write for the Christian community of the 21st century. Let it be so, Lord.