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C. S. Lewis on America

Every Fourth of July I wear some article of clothing in remembrance of the losing side in America's War for Independence. This year I wore a Union Jack pin on the collar of my T-shirt. Yes, I am a certifiable Anglophile.

As such, I got to wondering: "What did C. S. Lewis have to say about America?" Here is one answer:

"Columbus, a man of lofty mind, with missionary and scientific interests, had the original idea of acting on the age-old doctrine of the earth's rotundity and sailing west to find the east. Lands which no one had dreamed of barred his way. Though we all know, we often forget, that the existence of America was one of the greatest disappointments in the history of Europe. Plans laid and hardships borne in the hope of reaching Cathay, merely ushered in a period during which we became to America what the Huns had been to us. Foiled of Cathay, the Spaniards fell back on exploiting the mineral wealth of the new continent. The English, coming later and denied even this, had to content themselves with colonization, which they conceived chiefly as a social sewerage system, a vent for 'needy people who now trouble the commonwealth' and are 'daily consumed with the gallows' (Humphrey Gilbert's Discourse, cap. 10)."

I must pause here to comment on how right Lewis was on this last point. One of my own ancestors came to America from England only because, having been tried for forgery and found guilty, and being given the choice between a hanging and deportation to the colonies, he chose the colonies! Lewis continues . . .

"Of course the dream of Cathay died hard. We hoped that each new stretch of the American coast was the shore of one more island and that each new bay was the mouth of the channel that led through into the Pacific or 'South Sea'. In comparison with that perpetually disappointed hope the delectable things we really found seemed unimportant. In Virginia there was 'shole water wher we smelt so sweet and so strong a smell as if we had beene in the midst of some delicate garden'; a land 'so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea ouerflowed them'; a king 'very iust of his promise'; a people 'as manerly and ciuill as any of Europe', most 'gentle, louing and faithfull, voide of all guile and treason', living 'after the maner of the golden age'. But that was all rather beside the point; nothing but 'a good Mine or a passage to the South Sea' could ever 'bring this Countrey in request to be inhabited by our nation' (Hakluyt, vii. 298-331). . . . Judged in the light of later events the history of English exploration in the sixteenth century may appear to modern Americans and modern Englishmen a very Aeneid: but judged by the aims and wishes of its own time it was on the whole a record of failures and second bests. Nor was the failure relieved by any high ideal motives. Missionary designs are sometimes paraded in the prospectus of a new venture (but the actual record of early Protestantism in this field seems to be 'blank as death'.)"

C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, pp. 15-16.

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