Monday, July 11, 2011

STUDIES IN CLASSIC AMERICAN LITERATURE by D. H. Lawrence

"The furthest frenzies of French modernism or futurism have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached. The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it." -- D. H. Lawrence

The biggest problem facing readers of D. H. Lawrence's nonfiction is the separation of the author's invaluable insights from his errant crackpottery. Studies in Classic American Literature contains a surprising number of the former and far too much of the latter. As a testy, polemical, provocative examination of several essential 18th and 19th century American books, this 88 year-old text remains highly valuable. As a basic primer on how to read these books--trust the tale, not the teller; great advice for reading anything--it is probably unbeatable. As an exercise in American cultural criticism, it is a fundamental and prescient volume. "Can you make a land virgin by killing off its aborigines?" Lawrence asks at one point, posing the question of American genocide at a time when Wounded Knee remained a living memory. In his essays on James Fenimore Cooper, Lawrence anticipates (and perhaps exceeds) Leslie Fiedler's signature insights into race and myth in American literature. He uses the Leatherstocking novels to define an endlessly suggestive 'myth of America': "[the novels] go backwards, from old age to golden youth. That is the true myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth." Near the end of the same essay, Lawrence gives us his darkest reflection upon the obsidian mirror of American fiction: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." These two sentences can teach us much about the contemporary American right and its psychotic, suicidal, anti-American cruelty--a psychosis that often manifests itself in a drive to smear all liberal aspects of government and society with rhetorical excrement and then complain that they stink. Sarah Palin brandishes all the firearms, but the telegenically cruel Paul Ryan (who eerily reminds me of Bret Easton Ellis's Patrick Bateman) is the real Natty Bumpo of contemporary American fascism. That old fascist cyborg Dick Cheney is so enamored of Ryan's hard, isolate stoicism that he has stated, "I worship the ground Paul Ryan walks on." (Which I guess clears up all the confusion about the true religion of the American right, n'est-ce pas?) As this brief digression suggests, the best parts of Lawrence's book remain more relevant than anything in any other octogenarian work of criticism. But these best passages are embedded in far too much of the aforementioned crackpottery: long anti-feminist tirades, a bit of anti-semitism, pages and pages of blather about the Lawrencian "Holy Ghost," a bunch of bizarre, bitchy non sequiturs... Amazingly, the book is still worth reading. It is worth our time to separate the true Lawrencian gold from the resentful, forgettable dross.