In July 2015, Eric Metaxas of Socrates in the City sat down for a lengthy conversation in Oxford with Walter Hooper (b. 1931).
You can watch it below:
Editing a lifetime’s letters is no easy undertaking: it is almost a lifetime’s work in itself. First, the collecting of the letters is a Herculean labor. In the 44 years since Hooper served briefly as Lewis’ secretary, he has steadily accumulated from all corners of the globe the material which makes up these volumes, namely 3,228 separate items of correspondence. . . . Hooper notes in his preface that “the occasional letter will be popping up for the next 100 years,” a useful reminder that this aspect of the editorial task is akin to catching autumnal leaves in a wood, a game which requires first dizzying energy, then inexhaustible patience. No one could play that game perfectly, but Hooper has come darn close.
After the collecting comes the deciphering. Having studied for my own doctoral research many of the originals of Lewis’ letters in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, I know that his hand, especially in later years when he began to suffer from rheumatism, was not always easily legible; he frequently apologizes to recipients for writing unclearly. The effects of wear-and-tear in the mail and the fading and dirtying which some letters have suffered over the decades mean that Hooper has had to exercise considerable analytical skill in determining what Lewis’ hieroglyphics actually denote. The beautifully crisp presentation of the correspondence in this volume is the result of hours spent puzzling over smudges.
But even after the text has been established, the end of the editorial road is still a long way off. It is not enough, after all, simply to print the letters without explanatory comments. Given that usually we have only Lewis’ half of his various correspondences (he almost never retained letters sent to him), it is sometimes difficult to understand what he is talking about. This is where Hooper shows his real mettle. Lewis’ brother, Warren, once compared Hooper to a ferret—a harsh remark, but one with just a grain of truth inside its harshness, for Hooper demonstrates a voraciousness and fixity of purpose in hunting down explanations which is definitely not unferret-like. Tirelessly he has sought to discover the actual people behind the names of the salutees, many of whom were strangers even to Lewis (such as a certain Father George Restropo, SJ, a seminarian in Maryland, to whom Lewis wrote a single letter, but whom Hooper has managed to locate) and many of whom have long since died. Tracking down these people or their descendants has enabled Hooper in large part to reconstruct both sides of the conversation and therefore to illuminate remarks by Lewis that would otherwise have remained mysterious or misleading.
In addition to the detective side of this hermeneutic endeavor, there is the straightforwardly academic side: giving the sources of the quotations with which Lewis liberally sprinkled his sentences; identifying the (sometimes extremely obscure) allusions to Euripides or Mrs. Humphrey Ward or the Second Book of Kings or what you will; translating the frequent phrases in Latin, Greek, French, or Italian. And so on and so forth. The amount of help that Hooper gives to the reader on every page is deeply impressive.
I emphasize the editor’s role here for two reasons. First, because it is more evident in this collection than in the two previous volumes which cover the years when Lewis was less famous and writing to a smaller circle of people. There were 775 letters in Volume 2 and only 457 letters in Volume 1, but Volume 3 contains almost exactly 2,000; inevitably then, Hooper’s function as epistolary circus-master becomes much more important. He has to give due weight to big-name interlocutors such as J.B. Priestley and Mervyn Peake and Austin Farrer, without overlooking the numerous minor figures who have no other literary memorial.