Sheldon Vanauken Remembered
FROM OUT OF C.S. LEWIS'S LONG SHADOW
This October marks the fifteenth anniversary of the death of NOR contributing editor Sheldon Vanauken. I was born in 1972, a mere five years before Vanauken joined the ranks of National Book Award winners and bestselling authors with his memoir A Severe Mercy; I cannot remember the time when I did not know his name. Among the artsy evangelical Protestants whom in my youth I called friends, reading Vanauken’s narrative of love, God, and Oxford was a mandatory rite of passage, a cultural marker that proved one was not a born-again Philistine. When I moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, to take up a professorate in 2005, just about the only thing I knew about the area was that Vanauken, who taught his entire career at Lynchburg College, had lived there for almost half a century. My first summer in Lynchburg I took photographs of each of his residences and sent them to an old friend from my teenage days, now a professional opera singer, who has retained a lifelong affection for Vanauken, though not (alas) for Christ.
As an author Vanauken has always been known to me; I find it difficult therefore to process the extent to which he has now been forgotten. Of his six books, only A Severe Mercy remains in print, and it might be remembered more as a touching footnote to the C.S. Lewis story than as a literary work possessing a merit and force distinctly its own. When I drop Vanauken’s name to students not unlike my former self — evangelical, aesthetic, Anglophilic — I typically meet with no reaction. Even the monsignor at Holy Cross Catholic Church, who possesses an improbably precise knowledge of his enormous flock, responds to my queries about his former parishioner by tentatively asking, “He wrote that book, didn’t he, A Terrible Love or something?”
Sometimes it seems that the central Virginia Vanauken loved and commemorated has also vanished, remaining only in memory. In the nearby town of Forest, his ashes drift among the tombstones of the Confederate dead in the cemetery behind St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, a classical structure dating from the antebellum period. The pilgrim to St. Stephen’s can share in Vanauken’s vision of “the Blueridge [Mountains] glowing in the distance,” but only if he looks past a complex of pastel-colored condominiums, a subdivision of garish McMansions, and an enormous pile of dirt and architectural debris.
I don’t know that Vanauken himself would have had a problem with any of this, save for the desecration of the now ironically named Forest. He considered A Severe Mercy alone among his books to be, in a sense, divinely inspired, and Lewis an intellectual giant far more important than himself. But on the fifteenth anniversary of Vanauken’s death, I’d like to push the shade of Lewis aside for a second, and ponder Vanauken’s own distinct legacy, both in the world of letters and in the world of Lynchburg, Virginia.
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