Surprised by Joy and Witness are two of the most literate memoirs you are likely to read. C.S. Lewis and Whitaker Chambers were introspective men with an eloquent ability to convey their innermost thoughts to readers. Both were sensitive and thoughtful and both stories tell of each realizing that, for him, Christianity was the only way out of the dead end of atheism.
Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life takes readers in to Lewis’ world of Oxford dons and late night discussions about literature and philosophy over brandy and cigars. Witness (Cold War Classics) is set in a completely different world of Communist spies in the United States and intrigue at the highest levels of government. Both are moving and exciting stories of the search for meaning in a world that decries meaning.
Read the Memoirs; Read the Biographies
I highly recommend reading both their stories told from the point of view of the men who lived them. And then I highly recommend reading a biography about each man.
I read A.N. Wilson’s C. S. Lewis: A Biography and Sam Tanenhaus’ Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (Modern Library Paperbacks). In doing so, I found myself completely taken aback by revelations in the biographies about both men that were not even hinted at in their autobiographies.
It is not to disparage either man to reveal their secrets here, but if you are only familiar with their side of the story, you might find yourself blindsided by these revelations if you had not ever heard of them.
What Lewis Doesn’t Mention
It is probably more well known about C.S. Lewis that he for more than 30 years hosted in his home the mother of a friend killed in WWI. He did this out of a sense of duty to a promise each of them had made to the other to see to the other’s parent in the event either of them was killed. Paddy was killed and Lewis took in his mother, Mrs. Moore, until her death in 1951.
Lewis doesn’t even mention Mrs. Moore in Surprised by Joy. And so to find this unmentioned character spent so many years with Lewis is quite surprising. On top of that, the nature of the relationship between the two of them is subject to much speculation. Wilson thinks they were likely lovers and many other biographers agree. But also, apparently, the woman was a shrew and kept poor Lewis in constant subjection to her needs. Their sexual relationship ended at least by the time of his conversion to Christianity, but her domination of him continued until her death. It is somewhat understandable that this episode of his life is not really a part of his conversion story and one he preferred not discuss. But it is one that Lewis fans should at least know about.
What Witness Leaves Out
Witness is the story of how a young, talented writer from a terribly dysfunctional family, became first an atheistic Communist spy and then a patriotic Christian. The story is fascinating and one few school children are familiar with. The last chapters of Witness detail the perjury trials that occurred in 1949 and 1950 when Chambers accused a high ranking and highly respected State Department official named Alger Hiss of espionage for the Soviet Union. This was the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joe McCarthy.
Joe McCarthy’s excesses have so tainted that mid-century search for Soviet-friendly Communists in the government that today “McCarthyism” is a synonym for witch hunt. And a witch hunt is where innocent people are persecuted by fanatical believers in fantasy. This is unfortunate, because as Witness proves, Soviet espionage was no fantasy, and there were Soviet-friendly Communists in the U.S. Government. There were even spies, of which Alger Hiss was one. But the Democrat administration was loathe to believe that one of their own was working for the Russians, and Chambers was viciously maligned. Even today there are Hiss apologists, though, the evidence is overwhelming that Chambers was telling the truth.
Sadly, Chambers had some damaging secrets in his past. Though married, he had engaged in several homosexual encounters which left him open to attack. He does not mention this in his memoir.
Whitaker Chambers is one of the brave men of history. By calling a government and party favorite a traitor to his country, Chambers told the truth even though it cost him dearly. Even though he always felt that Communism would win over the West in the end, he felt he could no longer live by lies. In this he is like another Communist foe who fought with the pen, Alexander Solzhenitzyn, and his admonition to us to Live Not By Lies.
We all have episodes we would rather the world not know about. And we all have the right to present our lives in memoir the way we want. Both of these men have left a valuable legacy to our culture and deserve more than hagiography. So read their words and learn from them. And learn about them as well.