Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bleaching the Controversy

Since The Chronicle of Higher Education was so unwise as to turn down the following, it appears here. The proof of its fit to the alleged theme of this blog is left as an exercise for the reader.

The third and last volume of
The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis (HarperSanFrancisco) was released on January 9, 2007 after long delay. Despite its bulk it will probably sell briskly, as anything with Lewis’s name on it tends to. Readers braving the finished set’s 8,333 footnotes and 99 biographical appendices might get the notion that the editor, Walter Hooper, has included every relevant detail about the people in C. S. Lewis’s life, plus some—but they would be wrong.

C. S. (“Jack”) Lewis’s brother, Warren Lewis, is central to any account of Lewis’s life. The pair toughed out a lonely boyhood together in Northern Ireland and were housemates in middle and old age. But the relationship was tragic, too. In
Collected Letters III, Mr. Hooper describes how Warren “would periodically disappear to Ireland on drinking binges, often absenting himself when Jack needed most help with Mrs Moore,” the elderly woman whom the Lewis brothers cared for. Later we are reminded that thanks to Warren’s boozing, “Jack was left to cope as best he could.” All this belongs in the book and none of it is new; Mr. Hooper and other biographers have often described Warren Lewis’s alcoholism. In the introduction to an earlier collection of Lewis letters (They Stand Together, 1979), Mr. Hooper even found occasion to tell how he, Hooper, once saved a badly soused Warren from soiling his pants in the lavatory of an Irish inn. He also offered the astonishing — and perhaps medically improbable — information that Warren would “sit in his study chair for as long as a fortnight without getting up, eating nothing, and drinking as much as six bottles of whiskey a day.”

So, then, what’s missing? Full disclosure. Mr. Hooper served briefly as C. S. Lewis’s secretary in 1963, not long before his death. Their relationship was friendly; not entirely so Mr. Hooper’s relationship with Warren Lewis. By 1969, Warren had come to believe that Mr. Hooper was a sort of secretarial Rasputin, plotting for control over Jack’s literary legacy. “In his tireless, unscrupulous busybodyness Walter is the perfect Jesuit,” he snarled in his journal; “I dread the statements he may make after my death . . . which he will have the skill to make with seeming authority. I wish J[ack] had never met him.”

Here are the makings of what an ethicist might call the appearance of a conflict of interest: Mr. Hooper writes tell-all biographical squibs about a man who called him names but never shares this awkward background with his readers. One cannot learn of it from Mr. Hooper’s books about Lewis or his editorial addenda to anything in the Lewis canon, including the
Collected Letters. The Cone of Silence has descended even over works not by C. S. Lewis or edited by Mr. Hooper: in the published version of Warren’s journal, Brothers and Friends (Harper & Row, 1982), Warren’s anti-Hooper rants (described only as “certain passages”) are said to have been purged “at the request of and as a courtesy to the C. S. Lewis Estate”—Mr. Hooper’s employer. To read those rants one must go either to the unexpurgated journal itself at Wheaton College or Oxford or to Kathryn Lindskoog’s controversial anti-Hooper tract, Sleuthing C. S. Lewis (Mercer University Press, 2001), in which they are quoted. (Speaking of disclosure, I indexed Sleuthing.)

Nor is this the only historical cleansing in the
Collected Letters. Mr. Hooper’s short biography of Ms. Lindskoog in the back matter of Letters III makes no mention that the last few decades of her life were largely devoted to charging that Mr. Hooper forged manuscripts published as C. S. Lewis’s after his death, most notably The Dark Tower (1977; see Scott McLemee, “Holy War in the Shadowlands,” July 20, 2001). In fact, Ms. Lindskoog, who died in 2003, is primarily known today for her anti-Hooper books, which have attracted both vigorous criticism and admirers as diverse as Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. LeGuin, and C. S. Lewis’s friend Sheldon Vanauken.

In short, Mr. Hooper has made a habit of selectively sanitizing history. He continues to do so in
Collected Letters III by omitting all mention of serious charges made against him by two fellow players in the Lewis story, Warren Lewis and Ms. Lindskoog—players whose biographies he handles here and whose charges go straight to his own reliability. It hardly seems cricket. Surely it should not be up to the target of such charges, regardless of their merit, to decide whether their existence deserves mention.

But what does it all matter, if one is not a Lewis-worshipper committed to one side or another of the Hooper-Lindskoog wars? It matters because Lewis is one of those literary oddities whose readership continues to swell decades after their death. Tens of millions of people read him yearly. Many have their first, primary, or only contact with myth, literary criticism, literary history, philosophy, and theology through his writings. It’s a legacy worth keeping squeaky clean. That is why it is so unfortunate that Mr. Hooper, who has enjoyed a near-total monopoly on editing the Lewis oeuvre since Lewis’s death in 1963, covers with silence certain controversies in which he has himself been entangled.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Walter Hooper in the Lewis-reading world. Nobody can edit Lewis without the permission of C. S. Lewis Pte Ltd, which owns Lewis’s works, and they have rarely—if ever—given that permission to anybody but Mr. Hooper. His prefaces are attached to most Lewis books. He is the Lewis gatekeeper
par excellence. When he endows the canon with Bowdlerized history, leaving fuller truths to be told by fringe figures or the dead, it matters.

His motive cannot be a modest reluctance to insert his own role unnecessarily into the record, for in that case he wouldn’t have regaled us with the Irish pants-wetting story (and many others). But it needn’t be sinister, either, for the result to be sad. The result is that the
Collected Letters’ value as a resource is lessened. That is the problem with even an apparent conflict of interest: the appearance itself does damage. In a case like this, where recusal and disclosure have gone quietly AWOL, one is forced to wonder: what else may be missing?