C.S. Lewis, “carny classics,” Joy Davidman … it all comes together


Notable poet, feisty communist, and free spirit

Books Inq made a reference to Daniel Kalder’s recent Guardian article on the carny world — “that strange parallel world of mutants, outcasts and misfits living according to their own code.”

Since the article had an ostensible literary purpose, perhaps it was inevitable that William Lindsay Gresham‘s Nightmare Alley came to the fore — “a violent and disturbing voyage through tarot, mind reading, carnival life, psychoanalysis and spiritualism, as cold reader Stan Carlisle graduates from sideshows to fake religion, seeking wealth.”

Normally the worlds of William Lindsay Gresham and C.S. Lewis don’t join up — but they should.  The two men married the same woman — Helen Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis.

I wrote about her in 2006 for the San Francisco Chronicle here — “ESSAY: Lost in the shadow of C.S. Lewis’ fame, Joy Davidman was a noted poet, a feisty Communist and a free spirit.”

If I do say so myself — and I do — it’s a good read.  Not because I am so clever, but because Joy is a fascinating and much-disparaged figure in literary history:

“Most references to her either neglect or gloss over the fact that she received the most prestigious award a new poet can receive — the Yale Younger Poets Series Award — for her 1938 poetry collection, “Letter to a Comrade.” …

A year later, Davidman was named joint recipient — with Robert Frost — of the $1,000 Loines Memorial Fund. She went on to write two novels. Her final work, “Smoke on the Mountain,” is a vivid, provocative interpretation of the Decalogue still in print after half a century. She inspired what some critics see as Lewis’ greatest work, “Till We Have Faces,” as well as being its dedicatee (as he was hers in “Smoke”). Some say she is even the model for its tough and invincible heroine, Orual.”

I can’t summarize it.  Read it yourself.  Women have the historic role of being eclipsed by their husbands.  Joy Davidman, however, had the unusual experience of having that misfortune happen to her twice.  One thing bugs me, however, in the Shadowlands version of her story (where she is played by Debra Winger), and in the usual biographical accounts.  Normally, her wish to remain in England is portrayed as some sort of groupie fandom or attempt to manipulate C.S. Lewis into a relationship.  I’ve advanced the best theory:

Her 1953 emigration to England has usually been attributed to her breakup with Gresham and her subsequent flight into the arms of a stable, stoutish Oxford don. No one has suggested another possibility: The House Un-American Activities Committee hearings were in full swing.

Davidman had been a strident associate editor of New Masses and active in the pro-communist League of American Writers. She had also had an unsuccessful stint in Hollywood as a scriptwriter. Did she see herself and Gresham summoned to squeal on former colleagues before Sen. Joe McCarthy? At the time of her first flight to England in 1952, Congress was issuing subpoenas to another volatile husband-and-wife writer team with Hollywood links, Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman. (Hammett served five months in jail for refusing to testify before McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee; Hellman was hauled before HUAC.)

This anxiety is not likely to surface in any of her letters, and could not have been discussed openly. Such were the times. It’s hard now to comprehend the red scare unleashed by the hearings, especially among those who might have had a song to sing. (As the daughter of a “red diaper baby,” this writer remembers being earnestly warned never to mention that grandparents had been rank-and-file Party members in the ’30s — even a decade and a half after the congressional hearings finished.)

I responded to Frank Wilson‘s Books Inq. post — and Frank responded to me by posting a link to my San Francisco Chronicle story.  And I responded by posting it all here.  Once again, the endlessly self-reflexive nature of blogdom.  The Land o’ Lakes butter box once again.

Postscript on Oct. 23:  By the by, I neglected to mention that I found evidence to support my theory.  I mentioned it in my 2007 Washington Post review of Lewis’s letters here:

Although many have impugned the motives of Davidman, the [initial reason for their marriage] is revealed in a footnote: Lewis confided to his friend Sheldon Vanauken that he had married “to prevent the Government deporting her to America as a communist.” She had been a prominent party member, and the congressional red scare was in full swing when she fled the United States.

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6 Responses to “C.S. Lewis, “carny classics,” Joy Davidman … it all comes together”

  1. Roseanne Sullivan Says:

    Thanks for this. I had no idea there was so much to Joy Davidman. Or that her husband William Lindsay Gresham had written potboilers. Her brilliance in combination with her admiration for Lewis (not to mention her looks) must have all held great attractions for Lewis.

  2. Elena Danielson Says:

    There is a big story her about the fate of the women who were hounded during the McCarthy period.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    @Roseanne — Not a “potboiler” exactly. It’s considered a classic in the noir genre. Among the books I think I’ll give a miss. If all your life rolls before you when you die — would you really want to read that stuff twice?

    @Elena — I’d really, really love to write something more in depth about this. Will I ever have the time, d’you think? I added a postscript to the post. When I was writing my review of Lewis’s letters for the Washington Post, I finally found a bit of corroboration for my theory:

    “Although many have impugned the motives of Davidman, the [initial reason for their marriage] is revealed in a footnote: Lewis confided to his friend Sheldon Vanauken that he had married “to prevent the Government deporting her to America as a communist.” She had been a prominent party member, and the congressional red scare was in full swing when she fled the United States.”

  4. Elena Danielson Says:

    I tracked down a woman named Joyce Campbell, who had been harrassed by the McCarthy machine for her work with UNICEF. She was not herself ever a communist, but she did public health work with the newly founded UN, and that was enough to unleash retaliation. She was in very bad shape when a charming Stanford doctor, Leo Eloesser, swept her off to a hacienda in Mexico and rescued her. It took me a while to find her, but I then persuaded her that the Hoover Archives would take good care of her papers. Joyce was one of the most luminous women I’ve ever met, but not herself famous. A friend of mine has been researching the stories of the women in the life of J.Robert Oppenheimer, they were more prominent than my friend Joyce. I hope you are able to carve out some time to explore these stories. There is a lot of material nearby on campus.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Interesting, Elena. Thanks! (Helps me see why my mum was so fearful, still, in the 1960s.)

  6. Cynthia Haven Says:

    My own evidence is fairly scant: It’s hard to ferret out something that people were shushing about at the time. But reviewing Lewis’s letters of the 1950s, what’s interesting is how disparaging he is of America. Since America bailed out the U.K. during and after the war, most contemporary opinion seemed to be admiration, even if grudging admiration, while dissing America’s popular culture. But what’s strange about Lewis’s comments is that he makes it very clear that it’s the political life of America he finds odious. I’m hardly a scholar of the period, but I don’t find much of that anywhere else. It suggests that Joy’s life was making him more aware of the red scare than many of his peers may have been. But all this is a very slender argument indeed.