Fifty years ago: the death of 3 award-winning writers
In the late night news on the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) on 22 November 1963 the main news item was that Hilgard Muller had replaced Eric Louw as South Africa’s Foreign Minister. And they broadcast Muller’s speech to mark the occasion. In the other news that followed, they noted that US president John F. Kennedy had been shot.
There was no way that the SABC was going to allow Hilgard Muller to be upstaged by the death of a US president, or that their listeners’ minds should be distracted from the important National Party propaganda message in his speech. I suppose they judged, probably rightly, that if they had broadcast the news of President Kennedy’s death first, no one would have paid the least attention to Hilgard Muller’s speech.
But Kennedy’s death also upstaged the deaths of two other people, who, as writers, were better-known than he was.
Three award-winning writers died on 22 November 1963, perhaps the most notable such coincidence since Cervantes and Shakespeare both died (or at least had their death recorded) on 23 April 1616. The fact that one of the trio was John F Kennedy, who had won a Pulitzer prize for Profiles in Courage, served to obscure the death of Aldous Huxley in California and CS Lewis in Oxford, and their obituaries were tardy. Fifty years on, a slew of books and TV programmes have inevitably been produced to mark the half-centenary of the presidential assassination, but this time one of the British authors has not been entirely eclipsed.
At that time I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, studying for the end-of-year exams. I knew both Huxley and Lewis primarily from their science fiction writings. I had read Huxley’s Brave new world in a Penguin edition when I was at school. In those days Penguin books didn’t have fancy eye-catching covers; they were plain orange, white and black. It was the title that caught my eye. We had been reading Shakespeare’s The tempest in class, and Miranda, brought up on a lonely island by an eccentic father, on meeting people from the outside world, exclaims, “O brave new world, that has such people in it.”
Huxley’s novel was set some 600 years in the future, in a dystopian society in which mass-produced people venerated the pioneer of mass-produced cars, Henry Ford.
At about the same time I read C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, beginning with Perelandra. That did have an illustrated cover, and both the cover and title intrigued me.
When I left school and went to Wits University Brave new world was one of the English set works, as was another dystopian novel, William Golding’s Lord of the flies. The Wits University English department seemed to be big on dystopian novels at that time. I can’t remember if Orwell’s 1984 was also on the list, but I certainly read it about the same time, as it seemed to indicate the direction in which South Africa was heading.
At the University of Natal the English department, rather to my disappointment, had different priorities, so I hadn’t read any more of Huxley, and they were wedded to the school of literary criticism headed by F.R. Leavis, who was opposed to C.S. Lewis in many ways, so I didn’t hear much more of Lewis either. My mother had some of his books on Christian apologetics, which I found rather dull. A fellow student showed me a book called The lion, the witch and the wardrobe and recommended it, but I didn’t pay much attention, as I wasn’t into children’s books at the time.
It was only a couple of years later that I read The lion, the witch and the wardrobe, and then went on to read the rest of the Narnia stories as well. And it was then that I discovered that C.S. Lewis had died two years earlier.
After reading Brave new world about 4-5 times between the ages of 16 and 18, I re-read it some 35 years later, at the age of 54, and found it rather trite and disappointing. What had seemed a brilliant novel to me as a teenager and turned dull in middle age.
But I’ve re-read C.S. Lewis’s fiction several times over the years, and the last reading is as enjoyable as the first, sometimes even more so, because I see things that I never saw before.
I never read anything written by J.F. Kennedy, but as everyone seems to ask “What were you doing when you heard President Kennedy was shot?” here is an extract from my diary for 22 November 1963, when I had spent the evening in my room in the university residence (William O’Brien Hall) studying for the exams:
(I) typed out a lecture I had missed. I finished it at quarter to nine, and went to have coffee, and a lot of people were saying that President Kennedy of the USA had been shot three times. So I went back to listen to the news, and lo and behold, it was reported that the head of the diplomatic mission in London, Dr Muller, had been appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, in place of Eric Louw, who has resigned, and they broadcast the speech made by this Muller creep. And then the announcer said he had just been given an urgent newsflash, saying that President Kennedy and the governor of Texas had been shot in a car, in Dallas, Texas, and that they had been rushed to hospital. Considering that it was common knowledge here in Maritzburg twenty minutes previously, it seems that the Broederbond-dominated SABC considers the speech of the new Minister of Foreign Affairs more important. Oh well, perhaps it is, but I don’t suppose he will be better than Louw. It reminds me of the shooting of Dr Verwoerd — it is no way of settling political arguments. No, I was wrong, about the SABC — this time. At five to ten John Stewart said that Kennedy was dead. John Daniel said he had heard it on the Voice of America. Five minutes later it was broadcast over the SABC, and they observed a minute’s silence, and now they are giving a eulogy. It seems that the days of the Wild West are not yet over, and it is still a common thing. Verwoerd and Lumumba in 1960, Casin, Diam and Kennedy in 1963, and Bandaranaike of Ceylon was assassinated not long ago. And the only thing that stands out about Kennedy in my memory is the balls-up he made in Cuba last year. It seems too hypocritical, considering the American atomic bases in Turkey, that they should object to Russian missiles in Cuba. But I was glad when he became president, because he was a Catholic. Prejudice, I suppose, but what would Nixon, a Quaker, have done — abolished the army? Probably not. So that made them almost equal.
So much for my opinionated 22-year-old self.
Five years later Nixon did become President, and five years after that the Watergate scandal broke. And still the American public re-elected him. But we South Africans don’t have much room to talk — we elected Zuma.
But of the three authors who died on that day, the one who has had the deepest and most lasting influence of my life has undoubtedly been C.S. Lewis.
If anyone reading this is interested in a discussion of Lewis’s life, works and literary influence, or that of his fellow members of the Inklings literary group, I invite you to join us on the Neoinklings discussion forum. which you can find at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/eldil/. To subscribe to it, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, but it is worth also visiting the web site, as there are facilities for uploading files and photos, creating polls and databases and more.