Review: Stephanie L. Derrick, The Fame of C.S. Lewis: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America (Oxford University Press. Pp. 240. $30).

Review by Zachary Guiliano

“So, why did an Ulster medievalist … become one of the twentieth century’s most beloved authors of children’s books and Christian apologetics?” One of the opening questions in this recent volume reveals much about its author’s approach to the life of C.S. Lewis and his enduring popularity, especially in the United States. It seems incongruous to many that a pipe-smoking, heavy-drinking, brash Oxford don should have such a global appeal: with many millions of his books sold in dozens of languages, films and television series based on the Chronicles of Narnia grossing billions of dollars, and adulatory remarks about him made by more than one Archbishop of Canterbury.

Derrick’s approach is that of the academic historian with an argument to prosecute through hundreds of footnotes referencing middle to late 20th-century advertisements, publishers’ and agents’ notes, reviews, personal letters, and much else. Early chapters attend to his biography and working methods as a scholar, but it is the chapters on his reception that are the real meat of the book.

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Chapter Three, focusing on his growing fame in the 1940s and ’50s, is particularly revealing, as Derrick brings to light a number of otherwise unknown facts. For example, Lewis initially struggled to find a publisher for The Screwtape Letters, until his London editor personally delivered “a copy to the President of MacMillan Publishers in New York, a house that had already rejected the text once.”

The rest, of course, is history: the volume was wildly successful, Lewis became “a sensation,” and “with twenty-two other Lewis titles” it provided handsome returns to MacMillan for over 50 years. She also highlights how Lewis’s emergence as a Christian author came at a high point of public interest in religious themes and with new opportunities for the dissemination of information through radio and television.

Throughout, it can feel as if Derrick means to maintain a certain tone of incredulity regarding Lewis’s success and highlights some of his personal and professional shortcomings. How could he be so popular? She highlights “the element of chance” and contingency, of which she notes Lewis was aware.

She draws our attention to the whimsy of markets and public opinion. In all this, she is perhaps simply a good modern historian, and provides a balance to those who seem to see in Lewis only brilliance. We should not go too far, however, and attribute to her a position she does not hold. Derrick explains that Lewis’s essential quality of thought and style must form “an elemental part of his fame,” and that her task has been to bring to light aspects of his reception that others have not previously attended to. But in giving little space to considering the merits of Lewis’s work, there is occasionally something of an explanatory deficit.

This lack will not prevent fans of Lewis from learning more about him and perhaps realizing that an author’s popularity is only partially owing to personal qualities. Publishers, prices, and marketing matter. Thankfully, Oxford University Press seems to have realized this, and kept this academic volume within a more populist price range.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano is an associate editor of The Living Church and a priest of the Church of England serving as assistant curate at St. Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge.

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