D. H. Lawrence: Studies in Classic American Literature
Source of the oft-quoted The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.
The essence of American literature, according to Lawrence, is the conflict between puritan ideals and violent impulse. The old clash. The best American writers are often the most torn. A giddy annihilating violence lurks beneath The Scarlet Letter. Cooper was frequently foolish, yet his books contain passages that genuinely move Lawrence. Poe, despite his many faults, his overwrought style, was "an adventurer into vaults and cellars and horrible underground passages of the human soul." Melville was a "tiresome" man but a great artist (Lawrence's two pieces on Melville are justifiably classic, and helped rekindle interest in the forgotten author).
Benjamin Franklin is a bore, according to D. H. Hard to disagree. Any man who could come up with a bit of wisdom as loathsome as "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today" is a bore, and worse. But Lawrence wasn't opposed to work (consider the incredible amount he penned during his short life), and one of the funniest bits of the book relates to the modern aversion to work:
The cultured, highly-conscious person of today loathes any form of physical, 'menial' work: such as washing dishes or sweeping a floor or chopping wood. This menial work is an insult to the spirit. 'When I see men carrying heavy loads, doing brutal work, it always makes me want to cry,' said a beautiful, cultured woman to me.
'When you say that, it makes me want to beat you,' said I, in reply. 'When I see you with your beautiful head pondering heavy thoughts, I just want to hit you. It outrages me.'
Though I got a right hearty guffaw out of it, many people would not find the above funny. Many people probably deserve a good beating. Speaking of which, reacting to Richard Dana's horror at the sight of a man being flogged in Two Years Before the Mast:
In my opinion there are worse insults than floggings. I would rather be flogged than have most people ‘like’ me.
Many such comments are sure to have a few folk heading for the aisles. Gasping, appalled: "How could he not want people to like him?" Lawrence could be a really nasty, hateful chap. This is one of the primary sources of his appeal. He would likely view our current age with the proper horror. Not too many accumulated unseen electronic "friends" for sourpuss. Not one for the modern age, old D. H., not even back in 1923:
The more we intervene machinery between us and the naked forces the more we numb and atrophy our own senses. Every time we turn on a tap to have water, every time we turn a handle to have a fire or light, we deny ourselves and annul our being.
The last chapters, on Melville and Whitman, are the finest. These are also the chapters that are most likely bring the earnest guardians of sensitive ears, in their infinite boredom, to trot out the old cries of racism and sexism. One can glean what Lawrence makes of such folk without terribly much effort.
But Melville stuck to his ideal. He wrote Pierre to show that the more you try to be good the more you make a mess of things: that following righteousness is just disastrous. The better you are, the worse things turn out with you. The better you try to be, the bigger mess you make. Your very striving after righteousness only causes your own slow degeneration.
Well, it is true. No men are so evil today as the idealists, and no women half so evil as your earnest woman, who feels herself a power for good. It is inevitable.
And the Whitman chapter, by Jove! Lawrence's typical odd duck way of doing things. Start by writing about your favorite poet by heaping scorn on him ("portentousness," "post-mortem effects," "false exuberance" and the like). The entire first part of the essay would lead you to believe that Lawrence positively loathes the "good grey poet." Then how it shades to admiration, to end in adoration. Among the terrific, nutty "studies" in the book, this is certainly the nuttiest and, finally, the most moving.
This is Whitman's message of American democracy.
The true democracy, where soul meets soul, in the open road. Democracy. American democracy where all journey down the open road, and where a soul is known at once in its going. Not by its clothes or appearance. Whitman did away with that. Not by its family name. Not even by its reputation. Whitman and Melville both discounted that. Not by a progression of piety, or by works of Charity. Not by works at all. Not by anything, but just itself. The soul passing unenhanced, passing on foot and being no more than itself. And recognized, and passed by or greeted according to the soul's dictate. If it be a great soul, it will be worshipped in the road.
The love of man and woman: a recognition of souls, and a communion of worship. The love of comrades: a recognition of souls, and a communion of worship. Democracy: a recognition of souls, all down the open road, and a great soul seen in its greatness, as it travels on foot among the rest, down the common way of the living. A glad recognition of souls, and a gladder worship of great and greater souls, because they are the only riches.
Love, and Merging, brought Whitman to the Edge of Death! Death! Death!
But the exultance of his message still remains. Purified of MERGING, purified of MYSELF, the exultant message of American Democracy, of souls in the Open Road, full of glad recognition, full of fierce readiness, full of the joy of worship, when one soul sees a greater soul.
The only riches, the great souls.
It is among the very best writing by a writer about other writers. A classic about classics.
Last edited by liehtzu; 17-Jul-2011 at 13:17.
The maker of kitsch does not create inferior art, he is not an incompetent or a bungler, he cannot be evaluated by aesthetic standards; rather, he is ethically depraved, a criminal willing radical evil. - Hermann Broch