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Joy Davidman Biography

Donna M. Allego

Contemporary readers usually know of Helen Joy Davidman because Shadowlands identifies her as the wife of C. S. Lewis.   Although this film refers to her poetry and communist politics, it foregrounds her relationship with the well-known scholar and Christian apologist.  However, Joy Davidman's earlier writings and political activities define her as a person in her own right.

Davidman was born on April 18, 1915 in New York City.  According to her biographer Lyle Dorsett, Davidman, the daughter of middle class Jewish immigrants, grew up in a secular home that valued education and that was financially secure even during the depression.  Therefore, Davidman, who had read widely in philosophy, history, and American and British literature, matriculated at Hunter College when she was fifteen and completed her M.A. at Columbia University before she was twenty (4-19).  Although she was advantaged, a series of experiences during the depression made such an indelible impression on her that she could not sustain her belief in capitalism and the American Dream.  In 1934, when Davidman was nineteen, she witnessed a suicide in which a hungry orphan jumped from the roof of a building at Hunter College, and according to journalist Oliver Pilat, this incident enabled her to grasp the economic impact of the depression on the poor (1 Nov. 1949, 36).  Davidman had other experiences that reinforced the inequities of the American economic system.   For example, the New York City school system implemented a cost-cutting program in which candidates who were qualified to serve as regular teachers were reduced to underpaid permanent substitutes who taught the most difficult courses.  When Davidman taught at Roosevelt High in 1936, she heard stories about hardship from students and teachers, and according to Pilat, she was "particularly depressed" when people blamed unemployed New Yorkers for being out of work (1 Nov. 1949, 36).  Davidman's inability to ignore poverty and unfairness, coupled with her exposure to the Spanish Civil war and art from the Soviet Union and her "[y]outhful rebelliousness, youthful vanity, [and] youthful contempt of the 'stupid people' who seemed to be running society . . . " (Davidman 19), led to her joining the Communist Party in 1938, the same year that her first book of poetry, Letter to a Comrade, was published.

Although the volume's title is clearly Marxist, prospective readers err if they dismiss the 45 poems as propaganda thinly disguised as poetry.  For this work, Davidman received the coveted Yale Younger Poets award in 1938, and she was named joint recipient (with Robert Frost) of the $1,000 Loines Memorial Fund in 1939 (Pilat 6 Nov. 1949, 4).  Letter to a Comrade is remarkable for its well crafted traditional and free verse, a wide-ranging intertextuality, and Davidman's willingness to engage serious current issues--the inequities of class structure, the Spanish Civil War, and male-female relationships.   For instance, Davidman's title poem and "Survey Mankind" have been influenced in style and substance by Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.  She writes in free verse, uses catalogs to describe characters' journeys across landscapes, and extends Whitman's democratic spirit to poor working class people.  Perhaps Whitman's greatest influences on Davidman are the philosophical unification of different life forms and the role of the reader.  Both poets use some form of pantheism, and by making the reader a character in their texts, they enable her (him) to have an individual learning experience while accompanying the speaker on a journey.  This technique is crucial for Davidman because she advocates a classless society in which the more affluent middle class helps the disadvantaged, and she uses the reader as a character to persuade audiences to accept her beliefs or to reaffirm their political commitment.

In poems exploring male-female relationships, Davidman's unusual metaphors and similes echo the English Metaphysical poets.  For example, in "Night Piece" Davidman portrays an overbearing lover by using an architectural metaphor that compares a female lover to a fortress and by reworking the simile of a geometer's compass and marriage in John Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning."  Although Davidman is clearly influenced by earlier writers and poetic traditions, her poems must be read carefully because she reshapes this material--sometimes radically-- for her own purposes.  Davidman's intertextuality also forges links with later American feminists who rewrite fairy tales to give women a voice in gender issues.  By retelling the Rapunzel story in "The Princess in the Ivory Tower," Davidman joins poets such as Robin Morgan ("The Two Gretels"), Louise Glück ("Gretel in Darkness"), and Olga Broumas (Beginning with O).

Although Letter to a Comrade evidences artistry and intellectual breadth, Davidman does not restrict art to mere aesthetics.  Her poems melding art and political activism underscore that art is instrumental in shaping cultural mores and creating social change.  Whether she challenges class hierarchies, denounces General Francisco Franco and honors freedom fighters opposing his regime, or probes relationships between men and women, Davidman doggedly faces serious issues and gives her readers much to ponder as they faced (and still face) economic and gender issues in attempting to create a better world.

From the late 1930s through the mid 1940s, Davidman led an active professional and private life.  In addition to writing for the communist New Masses, she was a screen writer for M-G-M and published her first novel, Anya (1940), which focuses on female self-determination.  In 1942 Davidman married William Gresham by whom she had two sons, David and Douglas.   She continued opposing fascism by contributing to the anthology, Seven Poets in Search of an Answer (1942) and publishing War Poems of the United Nations (1943).  The latter, a collection of three hundred poems protesting the fascist tyranny in the Spanish Civil War and World War II, ostensibly represents the work of "One Hundred and Fifty Poets from Twenty Countries."  Davidman's contributions--soliciting manuscripts, translating, editing, contributing her own poems, and a bit of ghost writing-- were crucial to the anthology's publication.  Her minimal ghost writing aside, War Poems of the United Nations is a poetic-political monument of almost 400 pages.  In 1950, Davidman published a proletarian novel, Weeping Bay.

During her troubled marriage, Davidman read the apologetics of C. S. Lewis, and these works influenced her conversion to Christianity.  Her autobiographical essay, "The Longest Way Around," (1951) details her turning from communism to religion.  Davidman corresponded with Lewis and visited him in England where she and her sons eventually settled after her divorce.   Davidman and Lewis were married in a civil ceremony on April 23, 1956 and united in a religious ceremony the following year.  She died of cancer on July 13, 1960.

Letter to a Comrade is currently available from AMS Press.

Information about Davidman's early life and Letter to a Comrade has been excerpted from Donna M. Allego.  The Construction and Role of Community in Political Long Poems by Twentieth-Century American Women Poets.  Diss.  Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1997.   Ann Arbor: UMI, 1997.

      Works Cited

Davidman, Joy. "The Longest Way Around." These Found the Way, Thirteen Converts to Christianity.  Ed. David Wesley Soper.  Philadelphia: Westminster, 1951. 13-26.

Dorsett, Lyle W. And God Came In. Rev. ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991.

Pilat, Oliver. "Girl Communist." New York Post 31 Oct-13 Nov 1949.

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