Monday, August 12, 2013

Lawrence searches for the strange - The great Americans I mention just were it.

Why do I read?  To remind myself that any good idea I might have is not original to me, as when D. H. Lawrence begins Studies in Classic American Literature:

We like to think of the old-fashioned American classics as children’s books.  Just childishness, on our part.  The old American art-speech contains an alien quality, which belongs to the American continent and nowhere else.  But, of course. so long as we insist on reading the books as children’s tales, we miss all that.  (Ch. 1, 7)

Well, he actually begins with a kind of rhapsody on America, in which Americans reject their own literature as unreal, by which they mean “tinned meat, Charlie Chaplin, water-taps, and World-Salvation, presumably” (3), even though the best American writers “seem to me to have reached a verge, as the more voluminous Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Artzibashev reached a limit on the other side” (4).  I love lists like that.  Nobody reads Nabokov or Fulmerford anymore.  Where was I?

The European moderns are all trying to be extreme.  The great Americans I mention just were it.  Which is why the world has funked them, and funks them to-day.  (4)

Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman.  The fact is, and I knew this from the act of reading them, not reading about them, that the first great generation or two of American writers form as odd a crew as can be found anywhere in world literature, even in France.  I am also including Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, perhaps Emerson at his most peculiar, and the truly insane Jones Very, a weird bunch of weirdos if I ever saw one.  Lawrence never mentions Thoreau, which is strange, and perhaps telling, or Dickinson, probably less strange.  The post-Civil War generation – James, Twain, Alcott, Howells, Jewett, and Chopin – seem to be, whatever else, they might be, sane.  That earlier crowd can make you wonder.

Hawthorne – I am digressing – is the odd man out.  In life, he was thoroughly normal and sane, but what a strange imagination he possessed.  So he goes in with the oddballs.

What Lawrence is doing is discovering the strangeness of these writers.  He is doing what Modernist writers and critics were doing all over the world with all sorts of older literature.  Thus, for example, the Melville Revival, the return of the strangest of the strange.  Lawrence anticipates Viktor Shlovksy and his dictum to “make it strange” – that was in 1925, I think.  Lawrence is looking for strangeness.  Everyone is looking for strangeness.

I hardly know Lawrence’s work.  At the time of the publication of Studies, he had written nine novels, if I am counting correctly, along with many other books – short stories, poetry, travel, essays, translations.  I feel like I am misreading his bibliography.  How on earth did Lawrence write so much?  My actual point is that Lawrence likely is making an argument about his own work’s strangeness, too, but  someone else will have to fill me in.

Lawrence spends a couple of early chapters on Benjamin Franklin and Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, eighteenth century writers.  He does not find them to be strange.  How Lawrence hates them (“And now I, at least, know why I can’t stand Benjamin,” 24).  He loathes the Enlightenment.  That sounds like the Lawrence I know, even if I admit I do not know him well. 

He wanted his ideal state.  At the same time he wanted to know the other state, the dark, savage mind.  He wanted both.

Can’t be done, Hector.  The one is the death of the other.  (36)

There he is, there’s Lawrence.


  1. I read quite a bit of Lawrence once upon a time. And I still don't know him. He was a sstrange as they got. When he puts his mind to it, he writes at least as well as anyone I can think of. At other times, I don't know what on earth he's on about.

    I feel I *ought* to like him, though - if for no better reason than that he is not very popular amongst contemporary literati.

  2. No Charles Brockden Brown? He belongs in any list of early American oddballs. Our literature was strange from the start.

  3. I have not read Brown. Nor, I guess, had Lawrence. Or perhaps Brown violates Lawrence's thesis by being a strange 18th century author.

    Lawrence's reputation has sagged, but I would hope that it is now easier to read him well. No more worries about obscenity or freaking out the squares.

    1. Well, Brown wrote his novels between 1798 and 1801, so he's right on the join. His reputation has also gone up and down over the centuries. But his fiction is wildly Romantic, stuffed with sleep-walkers, spontaneous human combustion, homosexuality, feminism -- and Carwin, literature's foremost Rosicrucian ventriloquist. (All of this is, of course, a suggestion that you read him...)

    2. Rosicrucian ventriloquist, you don't say? Hmm hmm hmm. That does sound good.

      All right, I have made myself a reminder for my next library visit.

  4. I think the trouble with Lawrence now (I mean: the reason people argue against him) isn't so much the obscenity, it's his idea that the only true woman is a smouldering earth-lump, passionately dominated. And, skimming over the commentary at the Guardian when they read Lawrence a little while ago, it sounds as if a lot of readers can't handle his style. They think he's too earnest and too weird.

    The earth-lump idea grew as he went on, and so did his interest in other kinds of domination. The Plumed Serpent starts with bullfighting like a grouchy but delicate anti-Hemingway and climaxes with misogynist nationalist Mexican shaman fascists going into frenzies over Quetzalcoatl. If anyone's ever looking specifically for "strange" Lawrence then The Plumed Serpent is a contender.

  5. Curiously, I know Lawrence better from his poetry than his prose. His 'Pansies,' as he called his later poems (after Pascal's pensées) are strangely fascinating. When I have time I intend to write a post about them.

  6. Oh good, people who know Lawrence.

    A Lawrence poetry post would be great.

    Lawrence's style in The Rainbow is characterized by many signifiers that I identify with bad writing. How was that for a hedge? Looking through that book, I conclude: original and bad. So that's a problem.

    And then the earth mother ideas - I have trouble taking that seriously. The key, next time I read that book, or try more Lawrence, is to see if I can read him with sympathy without taking him seriously. Studies in Classic American Literature suggests that I can.

    Boy, Lawrence was a weirdo. Good for him.

  7. The observations about the weird and strange I think are telling. There is often, not always but often, something weird and strange in that which is brilliantly creative.

    I must admit that I find it difficult to really take the ideas of many great thinkers, artists and even belief systems all that seriously. I still enjoy them immensely.

  8. You and me both! I guess I take their aesthetic ideas seriously.