Here in the United States of America, Nov. 22 will always mean one thing on the news calendar. That's especially true in Texas and for folks like me who are natives of Dallas.
As you would expect, there was some mainstream coverage of the fact that today is the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I expect some second-day coverage of events linked to the anniversary, as well.
However, on the other side of the Atlantic, this day also marks the 53rd anniversary of the death of another famous man -- a scholar and popular writer whose works are just as influential today as they were on the day he died. We're talking about C.S. Lewis.
I know that I am biased -- "The Great Divorce" is my favorite book -- but I am thinking that many Americans would want to know if there are any events on the other side of the pond, even coverage after the fact, marking this event. This 2013 story from The Independent -- timed for the 50th anniversary -- contains plenty of information to serve as a starting point.
CS Lewis: In the shadow of JFK's death...
The author of the 'Narnia' children's books, died an hour before Kennedy. His stepson recalls the day
The stepson is Douglas Gresham, known to some Americans for his role in promoting the work of Lewis and for playing a role in turning some of the Narnia books into mainstream movies. That series will be rebooted with the release of "The Silver Chair," which is expected in 2018.
This passage from the earlier story provides all the context that journalists would need:
Gresham ... knew the man who was his only parent at the time as Jack. The rest of the world knew him as CS Lewis. He died, aged 64, less than an hour before JFK was shot, and 12 minutes after Aldous Huxley succumbed to cancer. News of the writers' coincidental demise would be swallowed by the outpouring of shock and grief springing from Texas. Nobody noticed that Lewis was gone, but for Gresham the loss was devastating.
"I didn't think much about the timing," he says. "I didn't intellectualise the whole thing. It was a situation of being numb and carrying on, irrespective of what was going on in the wider world. Because my world had suddenly become very small and I ceased to be interested in anything else. Grief is a selfish thing -- it shuts out everything except your own pain."
Gresham now lives in Malta but has travelled to London to attend a service this afternoon at Westminster Abbey. A stone will be unveiled in Lewis's honour on the floor of Poets' Corner. Using the baritone of a film-trailer voice-over artist, Gresham will read a passage from The Last Battle, the final novel in The Chronicles of Narnia, the books for which Lewis is best remembered.
Yes, as you would imagine, this was the quote for that day, with the transformation of the Christ-figure Aslan -- the great lion of Narnia -- at the end of all things:
And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Please understand that I am not arguing that the anniversary of the death of Lewis is newsworthy in the same sense as that of JFK. I am not arguing for some kind of bright red mark on the journalism calendar calling for mandatory annual coverage, like a literary holy day.
So what am I saying?
I am simply arguing that journalists may want to check and see if there are events timed for this date that might be of interest to the millions of Lewis fans here in America and around the world. I would imagine that something will take place at Magdalen College, even if the powers that be at Oxford are rather embarrassed by the flocks of foreigners (especially evangelical Protestants) who travel there to take photographs of the windows (usually marked with flowers) of the scholar's rooms. Are there annual readings and prayers now in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey?
There is also the ongoing interest in the symbolism of those three significant deaths taking place within a few moments of each other -- Huxley, Lewis and Kennedy.
The death of Lewis was overlooked at the time because of the momentous events in Dallas. I found it interesting, in that earlier story in The Independent, that the British press -- for understandable reasons -- missed the significance of the event. This passage is long, but Lewis readers will find it poignant, focusing on Gresham's memories of that time:
Jill, the headmaster's daughter who had fetched him from the classroom, asked the teenager if she could do anything to help. "I knew that when I got back to the dorm the guys would ask awkward questions, and that I would be on the verge of shaming myself by weeping. So I asked her to tell them first. When I got back nobody said anything, but when I picked up my pillow to get my pyjamas, I found a half bottle of brandy. One of the lads, a friend who I fought with all the time, had got out of school and rushed to the pub. There were four of us and we proceeded to get plastered."
Sober the next day, Gresham took on the task of telling a distracted world about the death of CS Lewis. The writer's older brother and closest friend, Warren "Warnie" Lewis, was devastated and, Gresham recalls, had turned to the bottle "for anaesthesia for the pain he was suffering. It was up to me to manage things. I was 18 and I didn't know what I was doing."
A press release marking the death drew little interest.
A journalist at the Oxford Mail was one of only two who responded. "In a way, it was good because it gave me a lot of peace," Gresham says. "And because Kennedy's death was so suspicious, the distraction went on. People only very slowly became aware of Jack's death. For years afterwards, his estate would forward letters to me that were still addressed to him. Even today, a child will write to him every now and then."
Worth a story? Maybe. Might the Chicago Tribune team want to check to see if there are any events at Wheaton College (for obvious reasons)? And the Los Angeles Times might want to call nearby Westmont College.
This is just a suggestion from one C.S. Lewis reader, out of millions and millions, who will offer up a prayer of thanksgiving on this day.