Sheldon Vanauken (1914–1996)


Sheldon Vanauken was a poet and novelist best known for his memoir A Severe Mercy (1977), about converting to Christianity and his wife’s unexpected death at age forty. A less famous sequel, Under the Mercy, was published, to less acclaim, in 1985.

Vanauken, the son of Glenn and Grace Hanselman Vanauken, was born Frank Sheldon Vanauken in DeKalb County, Indiana, on August 4, 1914. Van, as he preferred to be called, first visited Virginia when he attended Staunton Military Academy during the 1928–1929 school year. He also attended Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana, and in 1938 he graduated from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Vanauken served as a naval officer during World War II (1939–1945) and was at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. (In 1991, on the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he recalled in a letter to the Washington Times that “a friend of mine on the [battleship USS] Tennessee was to find his entire record collection melted in the head.”) Following the war, he earned a master’s degree from Yale University (1948) and a Bachelor of Letters from England’s Oxford University (1957). It was at Oxford that Vanauken and his wife Jean befriended the Irish author and scholar C. S. Lewis, under whose guidance they converted to Christianity. From 1948 until his retirement in 1980, Vanauken served as professor of history and English at Lynchburg College.

A Severe Mercy is the story of Vanauken’s passionate love affair with Jean Palmer Davis (1915–1955), or Davy as she was nicknamed. He recounts their spiritual journey, begun at Oxford, from what he calls a “pagan love” to a new, Christian one, and even worries that he might be jealous of Davy’s new relationship with God. After Davy’s death in 1955, Lewis counsels Vanauken in a series of eighteen previously unpublished letters (Lewis wrote of his own wife’s death in A Grief Observed), telling his friend that Davy “was further on than you, and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth.” Her death, Lewis writes, “is a severe mercy.” Vanauken’s memoir was well received by critics, the Washington Post worrying that its review could not “do justice to the human depth of his book.” A Severe Mercy received the National Religious Book Award in 1978.

Vanauken continued to publish. Gateway to Heaven (1980), the novel he had put aside to write A Severe Mercy, was an old-fashioned love story set partially in Virginia. In 1985, Under the Mercy, the long-awaited sequel to A Severe Mercy, received mixed reviews, with critics suggesting it borrowed from his other writings. Mercies, a collection of is poems, was published in 1988.

Vanauken’s final major work was a history based on his Oxford thesis. The Glittering Illusion: English Sympathy for the Southern Confederacy (1986) examined the British reaction to the American Civil War (1861–1865), concluding that most British people endorsed military intervention on the side of the Confederacy. Vanauken’s historical method was not particularly sound, however, and some parts of the book merely amounted to little more than romantic speculation on what-ifs.

Sheldon Vanauken died of cancer on October 28, 1996. His ashes, like those of his wife, were scattered at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the town of Forest, Virginia, and in Oxford, England, where he and Davy had experienced their spiritual rebirth.

Major Works

  • A Severe Mercy (1977)
  • Gateway to Heaven (1980)
  • Intellectuals Speak out about God (contributor, 1984)
  • Under the Mercy (1985)
  • Mercies: Collected Poems (1988)
  • The Glittering Illusion (1989)
  • The Little Lost Marion and Other Mercies (1996)
August 4, 1914
Sheldon Vanauken is born in DeKalb County, Indiana.
1928 to 1929
Sheldon Vanauken attends Staunton Military Academy in Virginia.
Sheldon Vanauken graduates from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana.
Sheldon Vanauken earns a master's degree from Yale.
1948 to 1980
Sheldon Vanauken serves as a professor of history and English at Lynchburg College.
Sheldon Vanauken earns a Bachelor of Literature from Oxford University.
Sheldon Vanauken's memoir A Severe Mercy is published to much acclaim.
October 28, 1996
Sheldon Vanauken, a poet and novelist, dies of cancer.
  • Ramshaw, Walter “Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy.” Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society 10:9 (1979): 1–6.
APA Citation:
Potter, Clifton. Sheldon Vanauken (1914–1996). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/vanauken-sheldon-1914-1996.
MLA Citation:
Potter, Clifton. "Sheldon Vanauken (1914–1996)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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