Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman

Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman. Ed. Don W. King. Grand Rapids: Williams B. Eerdmans, 2009. xxxiv + 387 pp. $28.00. ISBN-13 978-0-8028-6399-7.

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Reviewed by Joe R. Christopher

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 28.3/4 (#109/110) (2010): 186–90.]

First, a matter of completeness. In the Acknowledgments, King says, “I managed to collect most of the surviving letters written by Davidman” (ix). In the Introduction, he says, “[...] this book publishes for the first time the letters of Joy Davidman” (xix). How complete is this collection? In reply to a query from this reviewer, King replied that, so far as he knows, this book collects all available letters by Davidman. No doubt a scattering of letters to people and periodicals will be discovered. A possibility of two groups of letters to known correspondents exists—but those letters may have been destroyed. After all, Lewis destroyed letters sent to him—including all but one of those from Davidman (the exception, written after their marriage, is on pp. 331-32).

What the book contains is very impressive. One hundred sixty nine letters, with their contexts, sometimes with partial or complete quotation of the others’ letters before or after the related letter by Davidman. King divides Davidman’s letters into time periods:

As indicated, between the letters of 1948 and 1949, King reprints Davidman’s essay about her conversion to Christian belief. (The essay was published in 1951. According to King’s “Chronology of Joy Davidman’s Life” [xxxi-xxxiv]—and according to Lyle Dorsett’s biography of Davidman—her mystical experience happened in 1946. King’s chronology indicates that the Christian understanding of the experience came in 1947-1948.)

The book starts with an 18 August 1936 letter to Stephen Vincent Benét, a well-known poet of the time: his long poem in a variety of verse forms, John Brown’s Body, had appeared in 1928. He evidently praised an early form of Davidman’s Letter to a Comrade in typescript. Benét was involved with the Yale Series of Younger Poets for a decade, and presumably this was tied to that series. Davidman’s book was published in the series in 1938. Several of these early letters are to him (as a mentor), all addressed to “Mr. Benét”; a few letters are addressed to his brother, William Rose Benét, as “Bill.” (One letter is to the widow of the former.) On p. 70, Davidman lists Stephen Vincent Benét with Robinson, Frost, and Eliot as being “modern American” poetry. Her last mention of SVB occurs in a letter in 1951 (123)—a loyalty to her mentor.

Other early letters are in connection to Davidman being poetry editor of the Communist magazine New Masses. Davidman is likely, in her Communist phase, to praise writing in a simple style for the common man (35-37), although she also tells one writer that his poetry needs greater education behind it—with a reading list (59, 68-71). A few letters complain about Davidman’s brief period of writing for movies (e.g., 25-26).

By 1945 Davidman is married and has a child (no letters at the time of the marriage). She complains of the brainlessness of housework (40-41). Her mystical experience of God was in the spring of 1946, as said above (no letters at the time). By 1948 she is reading Engels and Lenin and slowly abandoning Marxism (e.g., 44-55). She has started reading Lewis (53-54). In the next section, the first of the letters to Chad Walsh appears (104-06). Essentially, the rest of the book follows the familiar pattern known to any student of Lewis. But, of course, interesting details appear. In a 1951 letter to Kenneth Porter (a poet), Davidman mentions Lewis:

Since I am one of C.S. Lewis’s converts I tend to follow him fairly closely. […] I’m not quite as traditional as my teacher though on several points, particularly things like birth control, on which I’ve been having a running argument with him on and off [by mail] for a couple of years. (122)

As should have been expected, her attitudes are at this point often on the conservative side of her times—as in her comments on homosexuals (cf. 120). (She does not seem to have realized that her friendly acquaintance in London later, Arthur C. Clarke, was a homosexual—cf. her comments to Gresham about Clarke’s brief marriage [223].) She also has many comments on Jews and Judaism, speaking of herself as a Jew (e.g., 122-23).

A number of references to Dianetics appear, since Davidman and Gresham worked in that movement before it became the religion of Scientology. For example, Gresham in his late 1952 or early 1953 letter about having fallen in love with Renée Rodrigues Pierce (133-37), refers to the “red-headed sea captain”—that is, L. Ron Hubbard (although King does not footnote the reference)—who had saved Gresham’s and Davidman’s psychic lives (137). Davidman comments to Gresham in a 22 December 1953 letter, re Dianetics, “We wuz had” (165). But in a 7 December 1956 letter, she says, “I remain convinced there’s something in it” (303).

In a letter to her cousin—Renée Rodrigues Pierce again—on 10 March 1953, Davidman speaks of having to discuss divorce with Gresham in a particular way: “I keep at it, gently, and make slight but visible progress. [...][If she doesn’t,] he will just drift from day to day in his usual pattern” (143-44). This suggests that Davidman’s friendly tone in most of her letters to Gresham after their divorce and her move to England, was mainly intended to keep him sending her checks, as she normally requested in the final paragraphs. When he did send checks, she usually celebrated the fact in her next letters’ opening paragraphs. (Occasionally she threatens legal action against him for the child support.)

Many other interesting things appear. For example, Nevill Coghill, in a 1965 essay, wanted to compare Lewis with a similar man as balance—and he chose W.H. Auden. Whatever one thinks of the comparison, the interest lies in a final detail: “I believe that when they met, they liked each other. I wish I had been there” (Gibb 66). Lewis and Auden met? Where? When? Many must have wondered about that comment through the years. It turns out to occur during Davidman’s period of health as Lewis’s wife: she writes Gresham, “I’m beginning all sorts of new social activities; had [...] [W.H.] Auden, now a rather limp middle-aged man with the face of a sad bloodhound, to tea” (337). Unfortunately, she does not say anything about how Lewis and Auden got along; instead, she says something Gresham can relate to: “He’s the only person I ever met who not only likes living in New York but has chosen St. Marks’ [sic] Place (remember that?) to do it in! I’d sooner live in hell” (337).

Much more could be said about this book. It is, with some minor exceptions, very well edited. The “Chronology of Joy Davidman’s Life” has been mentioned. King also provides a long “Introduction” (xii-xxx). He lists in it five areas of interest the letters discuss (his list is on p. xiv), and he goes on to expand on these. The fourth is of particular significance to this Society: “4. Her letters illuminate her relationship with C.S. Lewis and demonstrate her influence upon his later writings, including Surprised by Joy and especially Till We Have Faces” (xiv). Much of this has been known, but it is very good to have the original letters available. King’s “Bibliography” (301-75) begins with “A Chronological Bibliography of Joy Davidman’s Works” (301-68); it is the basic guide to Davidman as a writer. (Although her book of poetry—Letter to a Comrade—is listed, its contents are not in the bibliography; instead, the list of its poems appears on pp. 4-5, with page references.) “The Critical Bibliography” begins with reviews of Davidman’s books, and continues with the list of articles and books significantly on Davidman. A good index follows.

But the previous paragraph mentioned some minor exceptions. For example, Davidman suggests to Gresham that he might meet Arthur C. Clarke during a visit to the U.S. “at the Hydra Club” (170). King has no footnote on the Hydra Club, and it is not listed in the index. Science-fiction historians will know that it is the club established by Frederik Pohl, Lester del Rey, and seven others in New York City in 1947—for years, it was the meeting for SF pros, living in New York or visiting. Evidently Davidman and Gresham attended sometimes. (Gresham did publish some SF.) A second minor exception: when Davidman mentions J.B.S. Haldane (77), King comments in his footnote that Lewis attacked Haldane’s ideas in Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, but does not mention the more direct work: Lewis’s “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” a response to a essay by Haldane on the Ransom Trilogy. Similarly, the footnote about Lewis and Davidman’s trip to Greece lists three sources for information, but does not refer to the diary entries of Roger Lancelyn Green printed in the Green-Hooper biography of Lewis. A different type of point: one could wish for a list of all the writings by Davidman that are referred to but were never published—such as a typescript of a second book of poetry (28-9). These are lost, evidently, but it would be interesting to have the list. But these, and similar minor matters, do not affect the over-all quality of this book. King lists in his bibliography of Davidman’s writings her school publications and her New Masses reviews, essays, and poems, as well as more obvious works. He collects all available letters—and identifies most of the persons addressed. He writes introductions and afterwords to particular letters (set in italics). He prints some previously unpublished poems. And so forth. This is a very good collection. Davidman’s letters are one of her major works.

Works Cited

Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman. Ed. Don W. King. Grand Rapids: Williams B. Eerdmans, 2009. xxxiv + 387 pp. $28.00. ISBN-13 978-0-8028-6399-7.

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