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R. W. B. Lewis

By Daniel Aaron

I met Dick Lewis in 1950 at Bennington College, Vermont, where he had been teaching for several years and where he blended happily with its fabulous extra-academic faculty and progressively reared student body. The war still reverberated inside of him, but he spoke little about his own part in it. Whatever had happened to him in Italy or elsewhere appeared to have toughened him and educated him in ways his preparatory schooling and Harvard University (from which he graduated in 1939) had not. It was plain to see that he was unusually intelligent and well educated and that he had been solicitously brought up. His father, an Episcopal priest dead before Dick and I became friends, was only the first of a company of significant elders he was attached to throughout his lifetime.

Most of these counselors were educators, painters, critics, poets, novelists, theologians, museum directors and the like who comprised a kind of informal ecclesia or enlarged family he could unhesitatingly call upon for guidance. He respected and honored them as sincerely as he did Ted Williams, Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter, Fred Astaire, and W.C. Fields, or the later newsworthy who performed at Calhoun College when he was master there, or the eminent men and women he encountered in his various ports of call—the Salzburg Seminar, Smith College, the universities of Chicago, and Princeton, Rutgers—before landing for good at Yale in 1959. He borrowed and quoted freely from his friends and scrupulously acknowledged the slightest of his intellectual debts. It was his way, I suspect, of inviting them to share the attention he was beginning to win after the publication of his first book, The American Adam, in 1955.

Here was a ripe book by a young man, a clergyman’s son no less, who had been through a war and had reasons, other than theological, to ponder the notion that moral rebirth might come only after a tumble into the abyss. Henry James Senior, who with Henry James Junior pervades The American Adam, called Adam’s fall “fortunate,” because it marked the rise of prelapsarian man (in William James’s phrase “a mere dimpled nursling of the skies”) from a benighted innocence to full membership in a sinning human community. Dick brought into his discussion not only the big guns of the 19th-century literary canon but also less familiar fiction writers, theologians, and historians, and he did so with learning (always lightly worn), urbanity, and rhetorical flourish.

There was always a touch of the histrionic in Dick’s performances, and he savored the spontaneous and idiosyncratic in the people he invited to his house in Bethany to talk, drink, sing, and dance and to enjoy Nancy Lewis’s conversation and table. They constituted a fellowship of sorts that bridged the generations. It embraced his Yale colleagues and random friends from everywhere and young men and women, not necessarily his students, who had somehow come to his notice. After such festivities, he would usually retreat to his chapel-like study, in a separate structure connected to the main house by a short crosswalk that linked the social and monastic habitats between which he easily moved.

For as long as I knew him, Dick was always unostentatiously at work, writing essays and reviews at first and then branching out to studies of persons and places. Medieval and renaissance literature had been a passion (in his case not too strong a term) that persisted for a lifetime, as his books on Florence and Dante attest. European modernists engaged him as much or more than their American cousins did, at least at the start of his career, and he pointedly separated himself from the cultural nationalists who elected, he said, “to re-read all of literature for its alleged political motivations.” The “American Culture” he favored tended to be fluid, extravagant, cosmopolitan, and archetypal, and it says something about the Yale professor of American Studies that his two longest and most multi-textured books, Edith Wharton and The Jameses, were biographies of Americans who straddled the trans-Atlantic worlds.

Both books are social histories spun from vast heaps of private and public lore, and both are complex portraits struck off by a biographer with a novelist’s eye for character and a talent for cunning investigation. How appropriate that Sherlock Holmes should have been one of his heroes and that biographer Lewis himself could snoop for evidence like a detective. I won’t forget a cold afternoon in Lenox, Massachusetts, when we prowled around Edith Wharton’s shuttered house and tried without success to see what lay inside. From there we walked up the fateful hill nearby and measured, step by step, the course of Ethan Frome’s catastrophic sled ride.

I like to think that Dick was drawn to modern literature in part because he saw the plots of the novels and stories he was reviewing as both literal and existential mystery stories. Their tormented antiheroes are marginal figures, (“picaresque saints” he once called them) who share not only the “miseries of humanity” but also “its greatest weaknesses.” This morally ambiguous fusion of picaro and saint hinted of a “sacramental sensibility” (Dick’s phrase) that he detected in the writing of both the senior and junior Henry James, but he might have been speaking for himself when he described Henry James the novelist as the “representative of the post-Christian epoch.” Dick was a Christian but one without portfolio.

All of his critical writing, breezy or sermonical, is of a piece and bears his hallmark. He was a good talker and a good listener, sensitive to nuances but not fastidious. He judged himself and others with wry candor, liked to joke and laugh. He relished the burlesque. But his own style of humor retained something of the old-fashioned formality of his elder mentors. His reading was purposeful rather than encyclopedic, profuse but tidy, and he elegantly wove what he had absorbed into essays, biographies, and lectures. They are his permanent reminders of his festive, witty, declarative self.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 14, 2002.

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