OUT OF MY BONE: The Letters of Joy Davidman
edited by Don W. King
Eerdman’s Publishing Company
I’ve “lived” with this book for a week, and I still cannot stop staring at the undated jacket photo of young (twenty-something?) Joy Davidman. She’s staring soberly into the camera, the flash reflecting in her watery eyes. She’s stunningly beautiful and hauntingly present. A store browser might be swayed to buy the book on the merits of the jacket alone. But there’s so much more to be revealed by reading the hefty volume of letters written by Joy Davidman, whose reputation might have been lost to history had she not married C. S. “Jack” Lewis, famed author of the Chronicles of Narnia series.
The first letters were written in 1936; at age 21, she already has a master’s degree from Columbia and is corresponding about her poetic aspirations with Stephen Vincent Benét. This brings up a notable feature of the collection: it is designed for lay readers as well as literary types. The editor provides footnotes that give basic information on virtually all correspondents. If you don’t happen to know the import of Benét in his time --- a Pulitzer Prize winner --- it’s laid out for you right at the bottom of the page.
By age 30, she is a prize-winning poet and has published her first novel. She’s a member of the Communist Party and an editor for its American magazine New Masses. She has married a fellow writer and Communist, William Lindsay Gresham, and is a mother. Many of the early letters focus on her own writing pursuits and also reveal her as a no-nonsense editorial mentor-critic. For example, she is quoted as saying, “What the words do not contain, you cannot add with punctuation.”
One of the most interesting portions of the book is not a letter but an essay, “The Longest Way Round” (published in THESE FOUND THE WAY: Thirteen Converts to Protestant Christianity, 1951), that recounts her journey from atheism (as a secular Jew) and communism to Christianity. The essay ends on this note: “My present tasks are to look after my children and my husband and my garden and my house --- and, perhaps, to serve God in books and letters as best I can….”
But it isn’t long before Joy’s marriage falls apart, and in 1953 she and her sons move from suburban New York to London. A large portion of the book reprints Joy’s letters to her estranged and then ex-husband, Bill Gresham, who has been drinking, is in love with (and, eventually, marries) Joy’s cousin Renée, and whose writing career is floundering. In first and/or last paragraphs, she’s forever asking him to pay the requisite child support. But once you get beyond that, you discover a complicated woman who wins the heart of “Jack” Lewis, with whom she has been corresponding for several years.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Readers looking for correspondence between Joy and Jack will be disappointed. As editor Don W. King notes in his lengthy introduction, “Lewis was notorious for not saving letters (he tried to burn the letters sent him three weeks or so after he received them), and most of Lewis’s letters to Davidman have not survived.” But don’t let that deter you if you have any interest in things literary or Lewis.
A final note of interest: A previously out-of-print biography of Joy Davidman (AND GOD CAME IN by Lyle Dorsett) has been recently reissued by Hendrickson Publishers.
--- Reviewed by Evelyn Bence
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