English professor invited to speak at Ivy League college, annual literary festival

Kelly Bergh September 25, 2015 0

R.W. Schlosser Professor of English Dr. David C. Downing has spent over twenty years familiarizing himself with the life and literature of C.S. Lewis. At long last, his wit and wisdom have landed him a speaking gig at the University of Pennsylvania’s famed Kelly Writers House, where he will have the opportunity to educate Ivy League students and Philadelphia scholars on the literary rivalry of Lewis and hisw “best frenemy,” T.S. Eliot.

Long interested in the authors and their relationship with one another, Downing is engaging in a comparative study of the two, looking into the similarities and differences in their writings.

Despite their similar interests, such as Anglicanism, mysticism and the Classics, they approached these topics with very different outlooks. Lewis was considered a leading expert on Medievalism, while Eliot is often seen as the iconic Modernist.

Downing’s previous publications focus on Lewis, exploring the author’s writing during his time as a don at Oxford University. Downing’s four scholarly books, Planets in Peril (1992), The Most Reluctant Convert (2002), Into the Wardrobe (2005) and Into the Region of Awe (2005), look at Lewis’ approach to fantasy and religious elements.

During the same time the Narnia creator was loyal to the more traditional Oxford, Eliot was practicing with language in the trendier London.

“I am well-versed in C.S. Lewis studies, but I am a novice in T.S. Eliot studies,” Downing said of his current research subjects. To prepare for his talk at Penn, he has been ambitiously reading a book a night about Eliot to understand the man’s relationship with his own work and that of Lewis, who infamously satirized the poet in his Pilgrim’s Regress. After saying  Eliot’s eminent poem “The Waste Land” should be called “The Waste Paper” and satirizing the other author’s writing in his own work, Lewis set himself in the poet’s line of fire.

“The first time they met was a disaster,” Downing explained, describing their tense relationship. “If they’d have become friends they would have had an endless amount of topics to talk about. But they just couldn’t get past their initial stereotypes of each other,” he said. “I think if they’d tried harder they would have.”

To fit the theme of the Kelly Writers House’s series on “literary discoveries,” Downing will be identifying the source of each man’s scholarly breakthrough, which, incidentally, is a basis of similarity between them: Both Lewis and Eliot credited lesser-known authors as the impetus behind their respective writing transformations. Eliot believed that each generation should speak with its own voice, creatively adding to more traditional societal and literary practices. Such led him to discovering French Symbolist poet Jules LaForgue, who created his own set of Prufrockian characters.

Lewis, in turn, found inspiration in the works of Scottish novelist George MacDonald, author of Phantastes. Using MacDonald as a guide, Lewis began writing about his spirituality and interest in philosophy in the form of fantasy novels—including, of course, The Chronicles of Narnia.

Downing’s lecture at Penn will cover how Lewis and Eliot approached including the works of their influencers in their own. “It’s interesting to me that they both gave credit for their first major discovery to a minor author that most people have never heard of.” He remarked that Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism and Lewis’s increasing openness to contemporary literature eventually brought them together, but the road to friendship was a rocky one.

In addition to contributing to the Literary Discoveries series at the Kelly Writers House, Downing and his wife, a Dorothy Sayers expert, will also be traveling to Petoskey, Michigan, in October to speak at the C.S. Lewis Festival, an annual celebration of the Inklings, of whom Lewis and Tolkien, frequent subject’s of Downing’s research, were a part.

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