About Helen Joy Davidman
Helen Joy Davidman was born into a family of Polish and Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in 1915, began reading before she was 3. At 8, she read H.G. Wells' "Outline of History" and pronounced herself an atheist. She had a photographic memory; her kid brother recalls that she could read a page of Shakespeare once and have it memorized. Her IQ tests nearly broke the charts.
The brother, psychiatrist Howard Davidman, recounted an extraordinary story about her: The two enjoyed going to the Bronx Zoo and talking to the animals. The 14-year-old girl, however, hungered for a deeper rapport with the big cats. With her brother, they repeatedly broke into the zoo after nightfall. Davidman would coax the lions to the bars, talk to them, pet their heads and feed them from her hand. The nocturnal visits -- prefiguring Aslan by years -- continued for a long time without incident or detection.
Davidman entered Hunter College at 14, and took a degree at 19. A mere three semesters later, in 1935, she received her master's degree with honors from Columbia University. She began publishing poetry in America's most prestigious poetry magazine, Poetry, the next year.
C.S. Lewis' controversial wife, Helen Joy Davidman (1915-1960), a talented poet who never got her due. A profound thinker whose book "Smoke on the Mountain" is a fine contribution to biblical apologetics and the Yoko Ono of the Inklings — Lewis' circle of male literary friends.
She was in fact an award-winning poet (on the strength of her Marxist-themed "Letters to a Comrade," published in 1938), the possessor of a razor-sharp mind (and a tart tongue), the author of two minor novels, a literary editor at the storied New Masses and an acerbic adviser to up-and-coming writers.
Born into a non-religious Jewish family in New York, she journeyed along a self-described spiritual arc from atheistic materialism to communism to theism to Christianity. The last step in that journey was inspired by her having read Lewis' short fantasy novel "The Great Divorce" (1945) shortly after that book's publication.
At that time, she was married to novelist William Lindsay Gresham and the mother of their two boys. Both husband and wife converted to Christianity in the late 1940s, but their marriage was ending at the time because of problems brought on by Bill Gresham's alcoholism.
In 1952, the two separated, with Davidman taking the boys to England, where living was cheaper. There she met Lewis — an Oxford don and fiftyish, lifelong bachelor — and the two became friends, she being unlike any woman he had ever known. Eventually they were married — in a civil ceremony held simply to prevent Davidman being deported after her visa expired.
Now husband and wife in name only, they lived in separate houses for a few months; but when Davidman was diagnosed with bone cancer in mid-1956, Lewis concern for her grew into love. They were married by an Anglican priest the following year.
Now living in Lewis' longtime home in Headington Quarry, outside Oxford, the two enjoyed a short period of married happiness as her cancer went into remission. After her death in 1960, Lewis reflected of their marriage, "I never expected to have in my sixties, the happiness that passed me by in my twenties."
Davidman was born on April 18, 1915 in New York City. According to her biographer Lyle Dorsett, Davidman, the daughter of middle class Jewish immigrants, grew up in a secular home that valued education and that was financially secure even during the depression. Therefore, Davidman, who had read widely in philosophy, history, and American and British literature, matriculated at Hunter College when she was fifteen and completed her M.A. at Columbia University before she was twenty .
Although she was advantaged, a series of experiences during the depression made such an indelible impression on her that she could not sustain her belief in capitalism and the American Dream. In 1934, when Davidman was nineteen, she witnessed a suicide in which a hungry orphan jumped from the roof of a building at Hunter College, and according to journalist Oliver Pilat, this incident enabled her to grasp the economic impact of the depression on the poor (1 Nov. 1949, 36).
Davidman had other experiences that reinforced the inequities of the American economic system. For example, the New York City school system implemented a cost-cutting program in which candidates who were qualified to serve as regular teachers were reduced to underpaid permanent substitutes who taught the most difficult courses.
Davidman's inability to ignore poverty and unfairness, coupled with her exposure to the Spanish Civil war and art from the Soviet Union and her "[y]outhful rebelliousness, youthful vanity, [and] youthful contempt of the 'stupid people' who seemed to be running society . . . " (Davidman 19), led to her joining the Communist Party in 1938, the same year that her first book of poetry, Letter to a Comrade, was published.
Although Letter to a Comrade evidences artistry and intellectual breadth, Davidman does not restrict art to mere aesthetics. Her poems melding art and political activism underscore that art is instrumental in shaping cultural mores and creating social change. Whether she challenges class hierarchies, denounces General Francisco Franco and honors freedom fighters opposing his regime, or probes relationships between men and women, Davidman doggedly faces serious issues and gives her readers much to ponder as they faced (and still face) economic and gender issues in attempting to create a better world.
From the late 1930s through the mid 1940s, Davidman led an active professional and private life. In addition to writing for the communist New Masses, she was a screen writer for M-G-M and published her first novel, Anya (1940), which focuses on female self-determination. In 1942 Davidman married William Gresham by whom she had two sons, David and Douglas. She continued opposing fascism by contributing to the anthology, Seven Poets in Search of an Answer (1942) and publishing War Poems of the United Nations (1943). The latter, a collection of three hundred poems protesting the fascist tyranny in the Spanish Civil War and World War II, ostensibly represents the work of "One Hundred and Fifty Poets from Twenty Countries." Davidman's contributions--soliciting manuscripts, translating, editing, contributing her own poems, and a bit of ghost writing-- were crucial to the anthology's publication. Her minimal ghost writing aside, War Poems of the United Nations is a poetic-political monument of almost 400 pages. In 1950, Davidman published a proletarian novel, Weeping Bay.
During her troubled marriage, Davidman read the apologetics of C. S. Lewis, and these works influenced her conversion to Christianity. Her autobiographical essay, "The Longest Way Around," (1951) details her turning from communism to religion.
Davidman corresponded with Lewis and visited him in England where she and her sons eventually settled after her divorce. Davidman and Lewis were married in a civil ceremony on April 23, 1956 and united in a religious ceremony the following year. She died of cancer on July 13, 1960.
OUT OF MY BONE: THE LETTERS OF JOY DAVIDMAN Edited by Don W. King Eerdmans, $28, 387 pages REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.
Helen Joy Davidman's Timeline
April 18, 1915
Bronx, New York