Helen Joy Davidman (Mrs. C.S. Lewis) 1915-1960 - page 1


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From the Winter 2005 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

PROFILE IN FAITH

Helen Joy Davidman (Mrs. C.S. Lewis) 1915-1960
A Portrait

by Lyle Dorsett
Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism, Beeson Divinity School

 

fter C.S. Lewis went public with his conversion and commitment to Jesus Christ, controversy hounded him until his death. Fashionable agnostics dubbed him “Heavy Lewis,” liberal Christians reviled him for his lack of theological sophistication, and fundamentalists attacked his interpretation of scripture and his ecumenical charity towards most Christian traditions. But neither these issues nor a host of other contentions stirred up anything like the furor that surrounded his marriage to Helen Joy Davidman. In the minds of many of C.S. Lewis’s friends it was bad enough that a bachelor nearly sixty years old married a woman of forty. But to make matters worse, she was an American divorcee who also happened to be Jewish and the mother of two boys.
  The brilliant and attractive woman Mr. Lewis married in 1956 possessed a well-deserved literary reputation in her own right years before she met the celebrated Oxford don. Born in New York City to well-educated Jewish parents in 1915, Joy Davidman attended public schools and then went on to earn a B.A. at Hunter College and an M.A. from Columbia University. From childhood Joy exhibited marked intellectual prowess. She broke the scale on an IQ test in elementary school and as a youngster she loved books and typically read numerous volumes each week. Obviously a prodigy, Joy manifested unusual critical and analytical skills, as well as musical talent. Raised in a middle class Bronx neighborhood, Joy Davidman amazed even her brilliant and demanding father by being able to read a score of Chopin and then play it on the piano without another glance at the score. Similarly she would take her part in a Shakespeare play and memorize her lines after the first reading. Howard Davidman, Joy’s brother and her junior by four years, recalled that her striking intellectual powers and aggressive personality elicited his devoted admiration but at the same time inhibited him. To be sure, Howard was no intellectual slouch. Indeed, he excelled at the University of Virginia, became a medical doctor who practiced psychiatry in Manhattan after serving in World War II. Nevertheless, he confessed that he was so intimidated by Joy’s writing that he never attempted to publish anything until his sister died.
  Joy Davidman graduated from a demanding high school at age fourteen. She read books at home for the next year and matriculated at Hunter College at age fifteen. Clipping through Hunter as an English major and French Literature minor with honors at age nineteen, Joy then became a high school teacher upon graduation. While teaching her first year out of college, she earned a master’s degree from Columbia in only three semesters.
  In college Joy Davidman exuded a passion for writing. She published some poetry as an undergraduate, and then in January 1936, Poetry, a prestigious magazine out of Chicago and edited by the venerable Harriet Monroe, bought several of her poems. Monroe published a few more of Joy’s works and then asked her to serve as a reader and editor for the magazine. Consequently Joy resigned her teaching position after one year, and devoted herself fulltime to writing and editing.
  Her choice to write turned out to be a wise one. By age twenty-three her poetry caught the attention of Stephen Vincent Benet. He published a volume of her work, Letters to a Comrade, in the Younger Poet Series he edited for Yale University Press. This volume of forty-five poems was celebrated by Benet and it received excellent reviews. Thanks to her initial successes and connection with influential members of the eastern literary establishment, she became a client of Brandt and Brandt, one of New York’s finest literary agencies, and Macmillan brought her into their stable of writers. In 1940 Anya, her first novel, was published by Macmillan and well-received. She contributed to and edited War Poem of the United Nations which appeared with Dial in 1943, and then spent four summers at the MacDowell Colony for writers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There she wrote articles, poetry, and edited another volume of verse.

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