C.S. Lewis gained acclaim as a children’s author for his classic series The Chronicles of Narnia. He also gained acclaim for his popular apologetics, including such works as Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. What is more, he gained acclaim as a science fiction writer for his Ransom Trilogy. Furthermore, he gained acclaim for his scholarly work in Medieval and Renaissance literature with The Allegory of Love and A Preface to Paradise Lost. Many writers have their fleeting moment of fame before their books become yesterday’s child—all the rage and then has-been. Remarkably, Lewis’s books in all of these areas have remained in print for 70, 80, and 90 years. Over the years, the print runs have grown.
1. Lewis was not English. He was Irish. Because of his long association with Oxford University, and later with Cambridge, many people assume he was English. When he first went to school in England as a boy, he had a strong Irish accent. Both the students and the headmaster made fun of young Lewis, and he hated the English in turn. It would be many years before he overcame his prejudice against the English.
2. Lewis could not play team sports. Perhaps it would be better to say that he could not succeed at team sports. One of the features of human anatomy that separates us from the lower primates is the two-jointed thumb, which helped us enormously in the development of technology and civilization. Lewis and his brother Warnie had only one joint in their thumbs which left them hopeless at throwing, catching, or hitting balls. As a result of his failure on the playing field, young Lewis was subjected to ridicule and abuse from the other students at school and made to feel unworthy to draw breath.
3. Lewis was a shy man. In spite of his great skill at debate and his mastery of the platform in holding an audience of hundreds in the palm of his hand, Lewis was shy in everyday encounters with other people he did not know. His enormous publishing success came in spite of his inability to put himself forward instead of from any effort on his part to market himself.
4. Lewis gave away the royalties from his books. Though he had only a modest salary as a tutor at Magdalen College, Lewis set up a charitable trust to give away whatever money he received from his books. Having given away his royalties when he first began this practice, he was startled to learn that the government still expected him to pay taxes on the money he had earned!
5. Lewis never expected to make any money from his books. He was sure they would all be out of print by the time he died. He advised one of his innumerable correspondents that a first edition of The Screwtape Letters would not be worth anything since it would be a used book. He advised not paying more than half the original price. They now sell for over $1200.
6. Lewis was instrumental in Tolkien’s writing of The Lord of the Rings. Soon after they became friends in the 1920s, J. R. R. Tolkien began showing Lewis snatches of a massive myth he was creating about Middle Earth. When he finally began writing his “new Hobbit” that became The Lord of the Rings, he suffered from bouts of writer’s block that could last for several years at a time. Lewis provided the encouragement and the prodding that Tolkien needed to get through these dry spells.
7. Lewis had a favorite kind of story. Lewis loved Norse mythology and science fiction, but his favorite kind of story was the journey to the world’s end on a great quest to gain that most valuable prize, the great unattainable thing. He found this story as a teenager in the medieval story of the quest for the Holy Grail. It is the plot of Spenser’s The Fairie Queene and of George MacDonald’s Phantastes. It would be a plot he incorporated into The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Pilgrim’s Regress.
8. Lewis earned two degrees at Oxford. Lewis had planned to have a career as a philosopher, teaching at Oxford University. When he could not get a job upon graduation, he remained at Oxford an additional year and did a second degree in English literature. He could complete the degree in only one year because he had read the books in the English syllabus for his pleasure reading when he was a teenager. In the end, he taught English literature instead of philosophy.
9. Lewis’s first book was a collection of poetry he wrote as a teenager. Before he planned to be a philosopher, the teenage Lewis hoped to become a great poet. He wrote poetry with the hope of publishing his work and gaining fame. He returned to England after being injured in France during World War I and published his collection as Spirits in Bondage under the pen name of Clive Hamilton.
10. Lewis was very athletic. Even though he hated team sports throughout his life, Lewis was addicted to vigorous exercise. He loved to take 10-, 15-, and 20-mile rapid tromps across countryside, but especially over rugged hills and mountains. He loved to ride a bicycle all over Oxfordshire. He loved to swim in cold streams and ponds. He loved to row a boat. He kept up a vigorous regimen until World War II interrupted his life with all of the new duties and obligations he accepted to do his bit for the war effort.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.
Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)
Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time’s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.
In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce
had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.
This same impulse seems to be at work in Time’s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”
Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time’s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time’s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”
In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time’s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:
Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.
And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)
By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather “looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time’s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time’s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.
The other thing to say about Time’s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)
Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time’s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross’s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time’s). Read them to marvel at Time’s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.
Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.
Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.
Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.
Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.