Fifty years have now passed since November 22nd 1963, when the world was stunned by the assassination of President John F Kennedy. Since that time, there have been countless words penned reflecting upon his legacy, and understandably so. His story captured the imagination of the world—America’s Camelot with its hopes in a leader who could negotiate an idealised, peaceful future. And of course the manner of his death ensured he would be frozen in time as a life full of promise tragically and ironically cut short by violence.
Yet 2013 also marks the 50th anniversary of the death of four other influential figures no less extraordinary, but perhaps less part of our public consciousness.
On 29th January 1963, America lost one of its most important poets, Robert Frost. Four times a Pulitzer Prize winner, Frost’s national significance was recognised not only by a Congressional Medal of Honour, but by his recitation of his own poem, “The Gift Outright”, at the inauguration of President Kennedy on 20th January 1961. Frost’s legacy lives on in the many thousands (more likely, millions) of school students who still study his works. Many readers may remember vividly his “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening”, or perhaps his most famous work, “The road not taken”; it is a simple, beautiful and profound poem which encourages readers to ask a question about their own life choices, with the understated determination for which Frost is well-known:
|Two roads diverged in the woods, and I, I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.
Thus 1963 opened with the passing of quiet greatness in the person and work of Robert Frost. His vision of simple life, of natural beauty and of purposeful living has left a powerful legacy. Amongst the turmoil and terror of two World Wars, the Great Depression, and considerably personal tragedy, Frost continued to see life as hopeful and beautiful.
Just under two weeks following Frost’s death, the world awoke on 11th February 1963 to the devastating news that emerging poet Sylvia Plath had taken her life. Plath crashed into the poetic world with a self-confessing, brutally honest, proto-feminist outlook that marked her as a poet of her time. She chronicled her struggles with suicidal thoughts, with breaking free from the strictures of male-constructed social expectations and with a wildly vacillating set of personal relationships. Though dark and often obscure, her work, like Frost’s, has gone on to prescribed works lists in schools and universities around the globe. But her legacy is characterised somewhat differently to Frost’s. Her journals reveal an altogether different view of the world, no less honest or profound, but much darker and unsure, as this extended reflection from her unabridged journal shows:
|I do not love; I do not love anybody except myself. That is a rather shocking thing to admit. I have none of the selfless love of my mother. I have none of the plodding, practical love…I am, to be blunt and concise, in love only with myself, my puny being…and meager, thin talents. I am capable of affection for those who reflect my own world.
Despite finding love, marriage and children with fellow poet, Ted Hughes, she found it impossible to find rest:
|I do not know who I am, where I am going—and I am the one who has to decide the answers to these hideous questions. I long for a noble escape from freedom—I am weak, tired, in revolt from the strong constructive humanitarian faith which presupposes a healthy, active intellect and will. There is nowhere to go.
Where Frost saw the world through optimistic and simple lenses, Plath found the world a difficult and disquieting place. Frost was born in the city, but moved to New England to realise his vision; Plath was born in New England, but ended her life alone in the city. Something different was driving them both and was clearly manifest in their lives and outlook on the world.
Kennedy’s death on 22nd November 1963 overshadowed the loss of two other significant luminaries. With comparatively little global media notice, two giants of the literary world departed: Aldous Huxley, perhaps best known for his dystopian novel, “Brave New World”, and C.S. Lewis, scholar, novelist and one of the most influential Christian thinkers of recent times.
Huxley’s “Brave New World” still resonates in 2013, exactly 100 years after Henry Ford popularised mass production. And it’s the social application of mass production that forms a target of critique in Brave New World. The novel regularly finds its way into school bags, posing questions for each new generation about social control, freedom, meaning and purpose. In his essay “Ends and Means”, written in 1937 before the horrors of World War II were unleashed upon the world, Huxley wrote of the benefits to be had in concluding the world had no ultimate meaning.
Huxley’s withering critique of modernist society, not only in “Brave New World”, but in earlier works such as “Point Counterpoint” and later works such as “Eyeless in Gaza”, also included narcotics to smooth the “inconveniences” of life, a view curiously juxtaposed by his personal use and advocacy of hallucinogenic drugs as a means by which to find purpose amongst the meaninglessness of the universe. Toward the end of his life, Huxley was an early exponent of psychedelic experience in the search for meaning, following his first ingestion of mescaline in 1953. Moksha, a collection of his thoughts and ideas on psychedelic experience, published posthumously in 1977, included the following:
|It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than “Try to be a little kinder”.
C.S. Lewis described himself at one time as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England”. He was a highly esteemed academic across both Oxford and Cambridge; his lectures on Medieval Literature were so popular amongst students that many attended who were not even enrolled in his courses. Lewis loved literature:
|It is a good rule after reading a new book [he once said], never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between;
|You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.
But above all, he believed and passionately pursued the truth of Christian faith. As author and public speaker, Lewis developed a commitment to reasoned, thoughtful, Christianity that is still influential today.
He possessed an extraordinary ability to convey profound and complex ideas simply and elegantly, perhaps none more so than this:
|Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance, the only thing it cannot be is moderately important.
Artists show us the substance of their souls. Frost, the naturalist; Plath, the tormented confessor; Huxley, the disillusioned social critic; Lewis, the Oxbridge apologist. Their works reveal both their own view of the world, but also invite us to consider the relevance and efficacy of such views for our own lives. They are four compelling and challenging outlooks on life, its purpose and meaning. They capture part of the rich diversity of human existence.
Our world lost so much in 1963 in four extraordinary literary lives. Remembering each of them gives opportunity to ask important questions of our own lives and purposes. For Plath and Huxley, their quests revealed struggles with uncertainty, with ultimate meaning and with various methods of anaesthetising themselves against the pains they felt. Frost’s quest to connect with nature had a nobility and romance about it, yet reflected a self-contentedness borne of confident individualism. Lewis’ search for a higher reality, expressed through his Chronicles of Narnia, lead him to commit to faith in a transcendent realm, a coherent universe, and a belief in the God who gave meaning to that realm and all that is within it. To appropriate Frost, “and that has made all the difference”.
Frost, Plath, Huxley and Lewis all left their mark. Their literary merit is acknowledged in the millions of school students who continue to study their works five decades later; because of this, we can only hope their legacies and visions are not overwhelmed by the not unexpected memorialising of Kennedy. While all four ask us to look inside ourselves, to understand ourselves and our world, Lewis also asks us to look beyond our present shadows to see a deeper reality, coherence and meaning. It’s an invitation he offers to us in “The Last Battle”, the concluding book of the Chronicles of Narnia, to “come further up, come further in”.
Paul Kidson is Principal of St Paul’s Grammar School. He has a life-long love of literature and drama.