After an assassin’s bullets killed President John F. Kennedy Nov. 22, 1963, all other world news seemed muffled. Perhaps that’s why the deaths of two other well-known men that day were pushed aside.
After an assassin’s bullets killed President John F. Kennedy Nov. 22, 1963, all other world news seemed muffled. The handsome politician, just 46 years old, drew the biggest headlines because his death was dramatic and public, leaving his widow soaked with his blood and his small children fatherless.
Perhaps that’s why the deaths of two other well-known men that day were pushed aside. Philosopher Aldous Huxley, the 69-year-old author of Brave New World, died in California. Christian scholar C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia series, died in England at 64. Both men had been ill.
The three deaths were clearly unrelated, but that hasn’t stopped writers from bundling them: In 1982, Boston College professor Peter Kreeft linked the men through their shared Christian faith in Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death With John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley, a novel that imagines the three meeting in the hereafter and discussing their different views on the afterlife.
More recently, on the 50th anniversary of the deaths in 2013, columnist Cal Thomas noted that while Kennedy’s death received the most press, Lewis was the most influential person both during his lifetime and in the years since, as his writings on Christianity have changed countless lives.
Legacy asked British writer John Garth to share his thoughts on the JFK-Huxley-Lewis connection. Garth originally pondered the ties between the “three towering figures of the 20th century” last year in the Oxford American magazine. A noted authority on the life and work of J.R.R. Tolkien, he is the author of Tolkien and the Great War and the new Tolkien at Exeter. He speaks regularly at conferences and universities around the world on a variety of subjects.
Did these three men connect in any way during their lifetimes?
“Their paths seem never to have crossed, and their mental worlds were almost mutually exclusive. Lewis lived in Oxford, England, most of his adult life, but Huxley left England for California in 1938 and never moved back. And of course, the life of the much younger Kennedy was circumscribed by politics. We don’t know if Lewis was read by Huxley or if either reached Kennedy’s notice, though his wife, Jackie, is sure to have read some of their books. Lewis, a voracious reader, mentions Huxley in a 1952 letter as one of a trio of key dystopian novelists alongside George Orwell and H.G. Wells.”
Kennedy claimed the headlines in 1963. How are these three men viewed now?
“Huxley had a huge following from the 1930s until after his death, writing some 50 books including a number of big successes. In the ’60s his legacy was embraced — hijacked, even — by a hedonistic drug culture, which he had witnessed in its beginnings but which he distrusted. And now his influence is restricted preponderantly to one book, Brave New World.
“Meanwhile, Lewis’ reputation has boomed, especially in Christian America, where his theological works are studied avidly. His deeply insightful literary scholarship, to which he devoted his professional life, is rather forgotten in comparison.
“Kennedy remains the giant everyone has heard of, but relatively few understand — a man more loved or hated than comprehended. I would argue that by dividing us so powerfully, he has helped to define who we are.”
When you reflect on these three men, what are their greatest legacies?
“Huxley and Lewis looked beneath and beyond our known world, respectively: Huxley into realms of deep transcendentalism, Lewis into the Christian eternal. Yet Brave New World engages brilliantly with the real world of human social systems, and stands as one of the defining visions of the human future — indeed, in our consumer-driven post-Soviet world it has arguably proven more accurate a forecast than with George Orwell’s 1984. Lewis’ influence might be felt most deeply among admirers of his Christian apologetics, but his widest influence is sure in his Narnia books: common ground as childhood reading, helping literally to build the imaginations of vast numbers of us. Kennedy’s clearest legacy is twofold. He propelled humans on their furthest exploration by launching NASA’s moon missions, which quite inadvertently revealed to us — in the photographs taken from the moon — the fragility and preciousness of our own blue-green world. And during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 he kept this world from the brink of nuclear destruction.”
“We live in an information-rich world, but we simply don’t pay attention to (or don’t hear about) the vast majority of deaths. Thousands of other people also died on 22 November 1963; were their deaths part of a designed pattern along with Kennedy’s, Huxley’s and Lewis’? It seems rather unlikely. Certainly the deaths of famous people on the same date must be coincidences, unless there is a hidden hand that’s interested in celebrity.”
“The 27 Club is a slightly different matter. There may be an equation between the curve of fame and factors such as disillusionment, loss of youthful energy, realization of responsibility and so on, that makes the mid-to-late 20s a particularly difficult time for people in the frenetic world of popular music. I’ve been struck, too that some of the most profound albums have been recorded by artists at 27 or thereabouts — Joni Mitchell’s Blue, for example, which shows her accepting the burdens and complexities that might destroy a lesser artist.”
Why do we survivors search for links or deeper meanings between these unrelated incidents?
“It’s in our nature to see patterns. We make constellations from stars of the night sky because from our narrow perspective they look close together — even though one star may be 10 light-years away, its ‘neighbor’ may be a hundred times further off. We see shapes in the clouds, in Rorschach blots. We’re particularly apt to form faces out of abstract patterns — the human dimension is so important to us.”
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”