Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois lies an hour outside of Chicago by train, and if you approach the campus on foot on a fine autumn day, as I did, you, too, might be struck by how badly it wants to look like Connecticut. Red brick buildings with tall white steeples (Wheaton has a lot of churches) rise next to russet leaves against an enamel blue sky — a high school student's fantasy of a small, private New England liberal arts college. This is the sort of architecture usually associated with Congregationist churches, but Wheaton was founded in 1860 by Wesleyan Methodists. Its first president, Jonathan Blanchard, a fiery abolitionist and anti-Masonic crusader, insisted that the college be officially non-denominational, but by the mid-20th century it was a neo-evangelist institution whose most celebrated alumnus was the charismatic minister Billy Graham. (Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and -- oddly enough -- the horror film maestro Wes Craven are two others.) The college motto, "For Christ and His Kingdom" has been carved onto any piece of stone large enough to accommodate it.
At one corner of the campus stands the Marion E. Wade Center, in a limestone building, erected in 2001 and "fashioned after the style of an English manor house," according to the center's literature -- a large cottage (the kind Jane Austen's characters would live in with a couple servants) is an apter comparison. Like the faux federal-style structures nearby, it has the faint air of a theme park. Inside the center, stout wooden beams cross the ceilings and plush chairs covered in tapestry-pattern upholstery stand in every corner. Although it’s meant to mimic a much older sort of house, this interior has all the modern conveniences. There’s plenty of built-in cabinetry and, wherever you turn, discretely placed electrical outlets. Convenient, solid, spacious, snug and well-tended, it is, I couldn’t help but think, the exact opposite of Lewis' home, the Kilns, in all practical aspects. The Wade Center is entirely devoted to housing special collections pertaining to Lewis and six other Christian writers from Britain and Ireland: J.R.R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.
This is where anyone who studies C.S. Lewis must eventually come, although there's another collection of his papers at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. A.N. Wilson, who visited the Wade collection when it was still housed on a floor of the college library, found delicious irony in the erection of a bibliographic shrine to the beer-drinking, tobacco-loving Lewis on a campus where alcohol and smoking are forbidden. (Dancing was permitted for the first time in 2003.) To Wilson, Wheaton seemed a haven for quaint, mild-mannered American "puritans" most notable for what they didn't do -- that is, indulge in the hearty, manly vices that Lewis and Tolkien both relished
I arrived at a different historical moment, just before the midterm elections of 2006 took Republican hubris down several notches. By that time, the GOP had enjoyed control of the White House and Congress for six years. The religious right claimed responsibility for a decisive portion of that electoral success, and was threatening to withdraw its support if it didn't see more progress on its pet issues: abortion, gay marriage, the injection of religious beliefs into the education system. Like most blue staters, I regard evangelicals with a fascinated dread; these are fanatics who believe that the world is 6000 years old, the Second Coming is imminent and the proper place for women is in the home. If they were really honest, I’m sure a lot of them would like to see my unrepentant gay friends tossed into reeducation camps, or worse. Somehow, these people had taken over the country, and since no one seemed able to stop them, we might soon find ourselves living in a version of the fundamentalist dystopia Margaret Atwood depicted in "The Handmaid's Tale" -- a book I had once dismissed as hysterical and didactic!
There was little in Wheaton's placid appearance to confirm my paranoia. The campus seemed underpopulated compared to the big public university I attended in California, where the plazas and walkways were crowded all day with students hanging out, playing guitars, riding skateboards and canvassing for clubs and political causes. At best, walking across its neat grounds, I might pass three or four people. There were no hot dog or falafel stands, and a decent cup of coffee was astonishingly hard to come by. The handsome dining hall (the most convenient lunch spot for Wade Center researchers), was the the only place people seemed to congregate. The students looked as if they’d be perfectly at home on any campus in the nation, except perhaps for the jocks with the Bible verses printed on their sweatshirts. They were wholesome, but not excessively so. They were not all white and they didn't wear suits and ties or dowdy dresses. Yet, something was missing. It took me a while to realize what it was: There were no outsiders here of the extravagantly visible teenaged variety -- no goths, no punks, no stoners.
The Wade Center itself was very quiet. I had the wide mahogany desks and glass-doored bookcases of the Kilby Reading Room almost entirely to myself, sifting through photocopies of Lewis' letters and his brother's obsessive account of their family history. In the Center's one-room museum, I circled Lewis' and Tolkien's writing desks, examined Pauline Baynes' original painting of the map of Narnia and contemplated the wardrobe Jack and Warren used to hide in as boys. I was alone. Except for a few hours when a group of rambunctious schoolchildren came in for a tour, the place was quieter than any library I've ever been in.
The Wade Center’s new building, paid for by the daughter of Marion Wade, the Christian businessman who established the center's original endowment, is well-outfitted but apparently lightly used. With its financial roots in a dull Midwestern rectitude (Wade made his fortune selling moth-proofing and rug-cleaning) the place seems an outpost of the now-sidelined genteel strain of American Protestantism, now richer in funds than in congregants. Lewis, with his professed "distrust or dislike of emotion" and the centrality he gave to moral self-criticism in his religious life, makes a poor lay pastor for the strain of exhuberant, triumphalist, righteous American Christianity currently in ascendancy in this country. Furthermore, anyone who thought so metaphorically could only seem uncongenial to the literalism of fundamentalists.
The Christians I know who admire Lewis' apologetics are the reflective, self-critical kind. If they sometimes wrestle with questions I consider absurd -- whether or not God approves of homosexuality, for one -- they nevertheless wrestle. Perhaps the unfashionability of self-doubt among American evangelicals explained why so few young Christian scholars (or, for that matter, older ones) were exploring the Wade Center's riches. The group of children brought through on the first day to watch a video presentation and gawk at Lewis' old wardrobe were there for the same reason I was. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!" they shouted when their guide asked them what C.S. Lewis had written. It was a rare moment of communal sentiment for me, since most of the adults who pay any attention at all to Lewis these days are in it for the religion, which doesn't interest me much.
I had expected to walloped by a fervently Christian atmosphere at the Wade Center. Instead, what impressed itself most firmly was the rampant Anglophilia, a variety of idolatry to which I'm far from immune. All the most organized and committed of Lewis' contemporary acolytes -- from the founder of the Wade Center, a Wheaton English professor named Clyde Kilby, to the C.S. Lewis Foundation in Redlands, California and the people who maintain the Kilns, even Walter Hooper, the convert to Roman Catholicism who has parlayed a brief acquaintance with Lewis into a curatorial vocation in Oxford -- all are American. Without a doubt, Lewis' apologetics have comforted and inspired them, but the aura of avuncular kindliness that clings to their image of him as a man is intricately bound up in his "Englishness." "Don't you just want to sit at his feet and listen to him talk?" a woman at the Kilns exclaimed when she showed me a framed studio photo of Lewis in his old tweed jacket.
I didn't -- Lewis' jowly face has never struck me as especially welcoming, and to my eye, the photo plays up his overbearing side. But I could understand the longing for a genial, old-fashioned English uncle who could pull the pipe out of his mouth to tell fairy tales and provide rock-solid counseling at times of doubt and distress.
"Lewis," said Alan Griffiths (later Dom Bede Griffiths), "always affected (I think it was deliberate) to be a plain, honest man with no nonsense about him, usually wearing, when out on a walk, an old tweed hat and coat and accompanied with a pipe and a dog." Wilson regards this persona of Lewis' as the manifestation of a complete retreat from real self-knowledge. He could scrutinize himself for moral failures but refuse otherwise to consider his own motivations and feelings or to develop a more subtle grasp of his own personality. The fact that late in life, after proclaiming himself a committed bachelor, he could be manuevered (by circumstances and by people) into a marriage that made him deliriously happy, suggests that Wilson is right that Lewis didn't know who he really was or what he really wanted. The "plain honest man" was less an act than a reflex, "comparable with the oddness which might visit all our outward appearances if we stopped looking in mirrors." In any case, whether deliberately or not, Lewis became the quintessential Englishman.
To Anglophiliac Americans at our most regressive, England is, above all else, "cozy." It is a place of tea and scones, wood-paneled pubs, good books, and plum-pudding Christmases. (Although few Americans have actually eaten plum pudding and fewer still would care to repeat the experience.) It is a place where things are done as they have been done for many, many years, yet without the least straining toward tradition because tradition is effortless observed and rarely challenged. Life does not have to be remade from the ground up with each new generation there, and people do not routinely pack up and move thousands of miles away. Order reigns, and on those rare occasions when someone shatters that order, an adorably eccentric detective -- a violin-playing genius or a sweet little old lady -- immediately steps in to straightens things out.
Although this vision, of course, bears little resemblance to the real England, it is powerfully alluring even to those of us who know better. The English are so accomplished at furnishing this fantasy version of their own homeland that people from places as remote as Japan and Turkey fall in love with one or another of its manifestations and form societies based on a shared obsessive love of Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter.
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