Letters to an American Lady
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Letters to an American Lady


           This little volume is special to me because it is the first adult book by C. S. Lewis that I read.  Often I will recommend it to readers who are just starting out with C. S. Lewis.  The short, conversational segments make it easy to breeze through and do not require a background in theology or literature.

            In a little over 100 pages, we sample Lewis's humor, bits of autobiography (notably his brief marriage and the loss of his wife, Joy), his ruminations on various everyday topics (e.g. nature, pets, the weather), and most of all, his spiritual advice to a struggling Christian.  We discover that what Lewis wrote for an audience of one is entirely consistent with what he wrote for the public.

            Because this is a short book that goes quickly, our book club spent one session discussing it. 

            Why did Lewis write so many letters?  In the late 1930s, Lewis sensed that God wanted him to answer all his mail.  He recognized that both his time and his talents belonged to God and were to be used to do his will.  At that point, he had written two Christian books (Pilgrim's Regress and Out of the Silent Planet) and received the occasional letter from a reader.  After The Problem of Pain (1940) and the World War II BBC radio broadcasts, the volume of mail increased dramatically.  When the Narnia series was published in the 1950s, even children began writing to him.

            Eventually, Lewis was answering over one hundred letters per month.  He would get up an hour or two before the rest of the household to answer the mail.  His handwritten responses did not rely on a template or standardized form.  Each correspondent seeking counsel was given a thoughtfully tailored response.

            C. S. Lewis once lamented to his friend and lawyer, Owen Barfield, "if I didn't have so many letters to answer, I'd have time to write another book."  Letter-writing was a tedious chore that often did not seem the best use of his time or abilities.  Yet, Lewis persevered out of obedience to God and concern for the people who had written to him.   Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Lewis, God used these letters to minister, not only to the original recipients, but countless others when collections of his letters were published posthumously.  Ironically, his letters became the books he didn't have time to write.

            Who is the American Lady?  Known only as "Mary" in the book, her real name was Mary Willis Shelburne, a widow from Washington, DC.  She was a journalist, poet and critic, four years older than Lewis, and a Catholic.  She had health problems, as well as strained family relationships.  She also had financial needs.  Initially, Lewis was not able to help her financially because of laws prohibiting him from sending money to America.  Eventually this changed, and in 1958 he established a monthly stipend for Mary through his American publisher, which continued even after his death.

Further Reading:

Dorsett, Lyle, Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis (2004).  Chapters 6 & 7 discuss C. S. Lewis's role as a "reluctant guide" through his letter-writing.

Collections of Letters

Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis Vol. 1: Family Letters, 1905-1931 (2000), ed. by Walter Hooper.

Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis Vol. 2: Books, Broadcasts and War 1931-1949 (2004), ed. by Walter Hooper.

Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis Vol. 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963 (2007), ed. by Walter Hooper.

This three-volume set is the most comprehensive collection of Lewis letters.  An abundance of footnotes and a biographical appendix explain the occasion for a letter and a bit about the recipient.

The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis (1998), trans. and ed. by Martin Moynihan.  In 1947, an Italian priest in Verona, Don Giovanni Calabria, wrote to Lewis after reading The Screwtape Letters.   The two men continued to correspond in Latin (the one language they had in common) until Fr. Calabria died in 1954.

Letters to an American Lady (1967), ed. by Clyde S. Kilby.

Letters to Children (1985), ed. by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead.  This delightful collection of letters to children shows the dignity with which Lewis treated children's questions and concerns.  We learn his thoughts behind some of the Narnia characters and his advice on schoolwork. 

Letters of C. S. Lewis (1966), ed. by Warren H. Lewis.  Also contains a 20-page memoir by Warren Lewis.

They Stand Together: The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 1914-1963 (1979), ed. by Walter Hooper.  Lewis and Greeves grew up in the same Belfast neighborhood.  They began writing when Lewis was away at boarding school and continued until Lewis's death.  The letters chronicle a lifelong friendship.