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Kilby, Clyde S. (1902-1986) | Archival Collections at Wheaton College

Name: Kilby, Clyde S. (1902-1986)

Historical Note:

Clyde Samuel Kilby, author and professor, was born in the hill country of Johnson City, Tennessee in 1902, the youngest of eight. A book-loving, talented young man, he emerged from impoverished circumstances and entered the University of Arkansas, graduating in 1929. A year later he married Martha Harris, attracted to her gracious manner and warm smile. They moved north where he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, completing his Master's degree. Kilby was then hired as Dean of Men and Assistant Professor of English at Wheaton College before departing for New York University, there pursuing his doctorate on Horace Walpole, the eighteenth-century British man of letters. He returned to Wheaton as an English teacher, acting as Chairman of the English Department from 1951 to 1966.

During his tenure, Kilby was responsible for initiating the annual Writing and Literature Conference, in addition to composing his own numerous articles, reviews and books, including a textbook, Poetry and Life: An Introduction to Poetry (1953), an anthology of classic texts interwoven with Kilby's commentary.

His next book, Minority of One (1959), relates the life of Wheaton's first president, the redoubtable Jonathan Blanchard. Ever diligent, Kilby's research took him to the road as he carefully traced Blanchard’s journeys, uncovering diaries and courthouse records from Vermont to Ohio to Illinois.

When not traveling, the Kilbys lived at the edge of campus on the second floor of a big house surrounded by towering elms. It was not uncommon for early morning passers-by to spot him sitting on the back porch, typing his voluminous correspondence with dizzying accuracy.

For years, until the task of hospitality became too burdensome, students met regularly in the Kilby home, enjoying cookies, punch and robust conversation. Delighted, Kilby performed tricks with parakeet Peter perched atop his nose and glasses. Generations of students fondly recall the warmth and intellectual stimulation they received during these evening soirees. Aside from adoring friends, the Kilbys had no children.

Probing concerns, he ascertained a distinct need for challenging students toward innovative, courageous creative endeavor. They valued affirmation from a man of his maturity and intellect, a soothing, stabilizing voice from a generation who had often discouraged artistic flexibility among the 1960s counterculture. If his students balked at the challenge, he felt the testimony of the church was imperiled. These energetic, idealistic young people represented tomorrow’s leadership.

Kilby’s determination to vivify the slumping Christian imagination received additional boosts from a concentrated reading of C.S. Lewis, whose work Kilby encountered in the early 1940s. “When you read a book by C.S. Lewis,” he said, “you have the feeling that you’ve got hold of something bottomless.”

He met Lewis only once in 1953 at Magdalen College, Oxford. Kilby, not wishing to offend, sent Martha shopping while he chatted privately with the bachelor don. For the remaining hour or so they discussed literature, art and the Renaissance. The two scholars corresponded until Lewis’s death in 1963.

In 1962 Kilby published The Christian World of C.S. Lewis, a classic introduction to the author and his works. Related titles written or edited by Kilby include Christianity and Aesthetics (1961), Letters to an American Lady (1967), C.S. Lewis: Images of His World (1973) and Images of Salvation in the Fiction of C.S. Lewis (1978). Kilby’s readable prose is characterized by sympathetic, enthusiastic engagement with his subject.

After Lewis, Kilby’s most aggressively pursued subject was J.R.R. Tolkien, whom he met in 1966 after a brief correspondence. In Oxford, Kilby assisted Tolkien with assembling the sprawling portions of the then-unpublished The Silmarillion, which saw print in 1977, four years after Tolkien’s death. Kilby tells the tale of his visit to Mr. and Mrs. Tolkien in the charming memoir Tolkien and The Silmarillion (1977).

Before its release, Tolkien’s son and literary executor, Christopher, requested that one chapter be removed, sensing that Kilby had misinterpreted aspects of the plot. It is seen for the first time in SEVEN: An Anglo-American Review, published by the Wade Center.

During his Oxford trip, Kilby also saw Major Warren Hamilton Lewis, C.S. Lewis’s brother, and requested bequeathal of additional letters, manuscripts and personal items upon Lewis’s death. Lewis, who called the whimsical American “a really nice man,” gladly consented, maintaining a bureau full of papers conveniently labeled, “Property of Clyde S. Kilby.”

In 1965, Kilby established the Marion E. Wade Center, using his correspondence with C.S. Lewis as its nucleus. From there he worked toward acquiring the manuscripts and scattered memorabilia of those British authors who influenced Lewis’s faith, such as G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald from generations earlier; and those who associated with Lewis in academic and social circles, specifically Owen Barfield, Charles Williams and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Initially the Wade Center received funding through class gifts, later through donations from the family of Marion E. Wade, the founder of ServiceMaster. Expanding, the Wade moved from a small room in Blanchard Hall to offices in Buswell Library, and to its permanent location in 2001, two doors south of the former Kilby home.

Clyde Kilby loved his students, and they abundantly returned the sentiment. Thomas Howard, Roman Catholic author of several elegantly written books, writes that he “…studied aesthetics under a great and good man named Kilby…” Dr. Mark Noll, historian, author and McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College writes that Kilby had shaken him from “dogmatic slumbers.” Luci Shaw, poet and publisher, declares, "…I'm convinced I'm in literature and writing today because of him."

Note Author: Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections staff

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