Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Nobody has muddy boots in The Scarlet Letter - Lawrence's Hawthorne - My father hated books

How about one more rummage through D. H. Lawrence’s little book.

A couple of years ago I puzzled over a strange book by William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (1925), an obscurely written historical counterpart to D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (1923).  Although Williams and Lawrence only directly overlap with chapters on Franklin and Poe, and despite Horace Gregory insisting that Williams’ book does not resemble Lawrence’s (p. xiv), I now see that the Williams book is highly derivative of Lawrence.

WCW briefly turns to Hawthorne, to attack him,  in his Poe chapter, for his realism (“his willing closeness to the life of his locality in its vague humors; his lifelike copying of the New England melancholy,” 228) and his traditionalism (“by doing what everyone else in France, England, Germany was doing for his own milieu, is no more than copying their method with another setting,” 229), meaning that Williams chooses to badly misread Hawthorne (and to give the highly original Poe too much credit for originality).  His misreading was, and perhaps still is, a common one, taking The Scarlet Letter as a treatise on Puritan thought and The Blithedale Romance as an investigation of the Brook Farm utopia and so on – heaven knows what the realist crowd thinks is going on in The Marble Faun – when he is really – I will turn to Lawrence:

Nathaniel Hawthorne writes romance.

And what’s romance?  Usually, a nice little tale where you have everything As You Like It, where rain never wets your jacket and gnats never bite your nose, and it’s always daisy-time.  As You Like It and Forest Lovers, etc.  Morte D’Arthur.
Hawthorne obviously isn’t that kind of romanticist: though nobody has muddy boots in The Scarlet Letter, either.  (Ch. 7, 88)

What on earth is Forest Lovers?  A bestselling 1898 historical novel by Maurice Hewlett, a writer with a style distinctive enough to earn him a parody in Max Beerbohm’s Christmas Garland, a great honor.

Romance, Hawthorne, Morte D’Arthur – this sounds familiar for some reason.  Perhaps because Lawrence stole it from a post I wrote three years ago!  Reading Studies in American Literature has been a disheartening experience.

Lawrence takes The Scarlet Letter as a parable of sin, primal Adam and Eve stuff.  “Hester Prynne was a devil” (100), but the men are worse, and the elf child Pearl will likely be worse than the men.

And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe.

And then from hour to hour we rot and rot.  (103)

“[O]ne of the greatest allegories in all of literature” (106), Lawrence judges.  That sounds about right.

Listen to this bit.  It is in the Scarlet Letter chapter.  It is a surprising digression. What is it doing here?:

My father hated books, hated the sight of anyone reading or writing.

My mother hated the thought that any of her sons should be condemned to manual labour.  Her sons must have something higher than that.

She won.  But she died first.  (92)

I almost forgot to mention that Jessica at so very very recently read a later (earlier?) version of Lawrence’s book, which inspired me to read it for myself.


  1. That is an odd interpretation of the Scarlet Letter on Lawrence's part. I guess in some quarters it is somewhat common though I do not hear that take on it much in 21st century America. It kind of surprises me when I think of Lawrence's attraction to natural and ancient forces. It has been a long time since I read the Scarlet Letter for me but I do remember thinking that Pearl represented a somewhat similar primal force.

    You need to watch out for that sneaky Lawrence ripping off people's blogs.

  2. I would guess - I am not sure - that Lawrence is thinking of sin as a primal source, and that he is pro-sin, pro-devil, at least as far as sex goes. The whole interpretation is inverted.

    But this chapter moves Lawrence into the world of women - female characters at least - and I suspect we are all safer when he is in Melville's all-male world.

  3. I admit to being a bit turned off to Lawrence by his treatment of Katherine Mansfield. The last Lawrence I read was his story "The Fox" which seemed a little heavy handed. But I have read no longer Lawrence in decades.

  4. Lawrence comes with so much baggage, especially with women - women characters and actual women. Even in this chapter on The Scarlet Letter, there were a few places where I thought "Where are you going, pal"?

  5. Will you please quit bashing DHL. Don't forget, his LCC was banned in some quarters for being sensitive to women... in a then, thinly veiled 'tolerant' society.