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Kindred Spirits: C.S. Lewis and His American Cousin, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Del Kehl

When he was a student at Oxford University in 1916, C. S. Lewis wrote to a friend expressing his great admiration of, and enthusiasm for, the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne, particularly The House of the Seven Gables, which he called "the most glorious novel (almost) that I have ever read...I really think I have never enjoyed a novel more...I intend to read all Hawthorne after this." He concluded with the poignant comment, "What a pity such a genius should be a beastly American!"2 What was it about this "beastly" American's work that struck such a responsive chord in Lewis, separated chronologically by nearly a century and geographically by nearly 3000 nautical miles? Exploration of parallels, affinities, or connections between these two writers and their works provides mutual illumination and enhanced appreciation of each.

Space permits the mention of only a few examples of the similar tastes and loves, experiences and trials which the two writers shared. For example, biographers have pointed out, respectively, that the two favorite books of each were Spenser's Faerie Queene and Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. Both knew the value of fantasy and wrote books for children (five by Hawthorne, seven by Lewis); both enjoyed the male camaraderie engendered on walking tours and in clubs (the Inklings for Lewis, the Saturday Club for Hawthorne). Each was greatly traumatized by the death of his mother: the nine-year-old Lewis's childish faith being deeply shaken, whereas Hawthorne, though grief-stricken, found assurance in the hope of Heaven. Both men were immeasurably influenced by two other women, respectively, who became their wives (Hawthorne's Sophia Peabody, Lewis's Joy Davidman).

Other striking parallels include their spiritual beliefs and worldviews, the "Ultimates" they both pondered, central motifs in their work, literary/aesthetic philosophies, and various works which can be examined as companion pieces. Though Hawthorne never asserted his beliefs in a systematic way, he did, as did Lewis, ponder, discuss, and write about what have been called the four great storylines, along with variations and ramifications thereof: Divine Providence, the diabolic adversary, human mutiny and fall, and potential redemption and restoration, or, expressed another way; creation, fall, redemption, restoration. Though he never explicitly attested to a personal conversion as Lewis did,3 Hawthorne wrote of redemption not through some utopian meliorism (like Brook Farm, the cooperative community, near West Roxbury, MA, which Hawthorne wrote about in The Blithedale Romance) but through a changed heart:

The heart, the heart,—there was the little yet boundless
sphere wherein existed the original wrong of which the
crime and misery of this outward world were merely
types. Purify that inward sphere, and the many shapes of
evil that haunt the outward... will turn to shadowy
phantoms and vanish of their own accord.4

The concluding paragraph of his story "Fancy's Show Box" provides further evidence of his belief in the need of repentance for mercy and redemption:

Man must not disclaim his brotherhood, even with the
guiltiest, since, though his hand be clean, his heart has
surely been polluted by the flitting phantoms of iniquity.
He must feel that, when he shall knock at the gate of
heaven, no semblance of an unspotted life can entitle him
to entrance there. Patience must kneel, and Mercy come
from the footstool of the throne, or that golden gate will
never open!

Though he apparently believed in their necessity, Hawthorne only hinted at his own repentance and redemption. For example, in a letter to Sophia Peabody, his future wife, he wrote:

We are all but shadows—we are not endowed with real
life, and all that seems most real about us is but the thin
nest substance of a dream—till the heart is touched. That
touch creates us—then we begin to be—thereby we are
beings of reality, and inheritors of eternity.5

It is not clear if Hawthorne is attributing this essential creative "touch" of the heart, a prerequisite to real life and inheritance of eternity, to the Almighty, to Sophia, to both, or, most likely, to the former through the instrumentality of the latter.

While Hawthorne was serving as U.S. consul in Liverpool, England (1853–57), Herman Melville visited, and the two took a long walk along the shore, settling in to talk in a hollow among the dunes. Hawthorne later recorded their discussion, surely revealing as much about himself and his beliefs as about Melville and his:

Melville, as he always does, began to reason about
Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond
human ken, and informed me that he had 'pretty much
made up his mind to be annihilated' but still he does not
seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never
rest until he gets hold of a definite belief...He can neither
believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too
honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.6

In a strikingly similar instance, Lewis, writing in 1922 (before his conversion, even to Theism), recorded having a long conversation with Owen Barfield: "We then drifted into a long talk about ultimates. Like me, he has no belief in immortality, etc....He is most miserable... The conversation ranged over many topics and finally died because it was impossible to hold a court between two devil's advocates."7

Clearly, both writers spent a great deal of time pondering the "ultimates," Providence, immortality, "everything that lies beyond human ken," belief and unbelief. They seemed to share worldviews, viewing mortal life sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity. "We dwell in the shadow cast by Time, which is itself the shadow of Eternity," Hawthorne wrote, anticipating Lewis, who wrote, echoing Plato: "Time is the moving image of eternity. All visible things exist just in so far as they succeed in imitating the Forms."8 To both writers, time and the natural world bespeak eternity and the supernatural world. The narrator of Hawthorne's "Earth's Holocaust" tells the desperate bookworm whose precious books have been burned, "The great book of Time is still spread wide open before us; and, if we read it aright, it will be to us a volume of eternal truth."9 Similarly, Lewis, also using a book analogy, writes: "The world...is the beautiful frontispiece to Eternity."10

Lewis in various places wrote of how the universal longing, which he called Joy or Sehnsucht and said that no experience in this world can satisfy, is evidence that humans were made for another world. Similarly, Hawthorne expressed the core belief that both human misery and happiness constitute a claim for eternal life. The following passage could have been written by either writer:

There is a pervading blessing diffused over all the world.
I look out of the window and think, 'O perfect day! O
beautiful world! O good God!' And such a day is the
promise of a blissful eternity. Our Creator would never
have made such weather, and given us the deep heart to
enjoy it, above and beyond all thought, if he had not
meant us to be immortal. It opens the gates of heaven and
gives us glimpses far inward.11

Both writers pondered and wrote of faith, repentance, heaven and hell, confession, church attendance and the clergy, and Puritanism. Major motifs in their works include myth, scientism, and what Melville called "the great power of blackness." Interestingly and significantly, many of their works can be examined as companion pieces. For example, a major theme in Hawthorne's The Marble Faun and Lewis's Perelandra is Felix Culpa ("Happy Fault"), Felix Peccatum Adae ("Fortunate Sin of Adam"), the view that if there had been no Fall, no sin, then there would have been no grace, no Incarnation, no redemption, for God "judged it better to bring good out of evil, than not to permit any evil to exist..."12 Surely no work of belles-lettres has treated this theological conundrum more extensively, cogently, and engagingly than do these two novels.

Other companion pieces, Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil" and The Blithedale Romance vis-á-vis Lewis's Till We Have Faces, make extensive, poignant use of veil imagery. Still others, demonstrating the influence of Bunyan's allegory The Pilgrim's Progress, are Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress and Hawthorne's "The Celestial Railroad." One might get the impression that Hawthorne set about writing his 1851 novel, The House of the Seven Gables, as a dramatization of Lewis's 1960 treatise The Four Loves, were it not for the chronological contretemps.

Had they been able to meet in Salem or in Oxford, Nat Hawthorne and Jack Lewis would surely have enthusiastically, perhaps even heatedly, discussed their common interests. How would the two, virtual cousins in their proclivities, have assessed and reacted to each other's work? The question must remain moot, not because it has been resolved or no longer needs to be resolved, but because it is open for further discussion and debate. Both Lewis and Hawthorne placed great stock in the imagination—Lewis referring to his "baptized" imagination and Hawthorne to a "sane," "refined" imagination. Exercising a refined, baptized imagination, one might envision a Tuesday morning meeting of Lewis's Inklings at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. Huddled around a coal fire in the little back room, all enjoy a pint or two of bitters. Jack introduces their guest, the Foreign Consul at Liverpool and requests that he read from his current work in progress, The House of the Seven Gables. During the reading, Lewis can be heard whispering to Tolkien, "Isn't it a pity that such a genius should be a beastly American?"

©Del Kehl

You may find all references and endnotes for this article by clicking here.

Editor's Note:

While Del Kehl, professor emeritus from the English Department, was working on his book about C. S. Lewis and Nathaniel Hawthorne, he began to feel so close to the two authors that he began using their nick names—Jack Lewis and Nat Hawthorne. Hence, the title of his new book is Jack Lewis and His American Cousin: A Study in Instructive Affinities. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013.1