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D. H. Lawrence:
Studies in Classic American Literature

It's an odd feeling now to read a book like Cooper's Deerslayer . There is hardly much left of that place, and I wonder how far one would have to look, in the United States, to find timber still standing in its first growth. It must have been a fantastic world. We are, of course, the heirs to it.

So Lawrence says: ". . . it seems to me that the things in Cooper that make one so savage, when one compares them with actuality, are perhaps, when one considers them as presentations of a deep subjective desire, real in their way, and almost prophetic." Beyond the prose, heavy as it now seems, a man like Natty Bumppo is familiar enough: "This is Natty, the white forerunner. A killer."

Cooper was one root, or evidence, of the 'classic' American literature which Lawrence, and few others, had eyes to see. Even a present reclamation of Hawthorne will not judge, clearly enough, that the "prettiest of all sensations [is] the sensation of UNDERSTANDING ."

     The Scarlet Letter  gives the show away.
    You have the pure-pure young parson Dimmesdale.
    You have the beautiful Puritan Hester at his feet.
    And the first thing she does is to seduce him.
    And the first thing he does is to be seduced.
    And the second thing they do is to hug their sin in secret, and gloat
over it, and try to understand.
    Which is the myth of New England.
    Deerslayer refused to be seduced by Judith Hutter. At least the
Sodom apple of sin didn't fetch him.

Origin , Summer 1954.


    But Dimmesdale was seduced gloatingly. O, luscious Sin!
    He was such a pure young man.
    That he had to make a fool of purity.
    The American psyche.

For Lawrence The Scarlet Letter was ". . . perhaps, the most colossal satire ever penned." It is not a comfortable implication for any of us, but there it is.

You have the pure-pure young parson Dimmesdale.
You have the beautiful Puritan Hester at his feet.

Not one of Lawrence's implications can give us very much peace, if that, in fact, is what we are after. The "great grey poet" (and/or Whitman) is given the roughest ride ever accorded him. And yet it is incredibly right, all of it. The "I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE  . . ." is a bore of immense proportions—or no one ever indulged himself so emphatically at such length. But Crane's Whitman is also seen, again clearly, without innuendo or tenuousness: "Now Whitman was a great moralist. He was a great leader. He was a great changer of the blood in the veins of men." That is fact.

And Franklin: "Benjamin had no concern, really, with the immortal soul. He was too busy with social man." Crèvecoeur: "NATURE. I wish I could write it larger than that. NATURE."

Franklin is the real practical prototype of the American. Crèvecoeur is the emotional. To the European, the American is first and foremost a dollar fiend. We tend to forget the emotional heritage of Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. We tend to disbelieve, for example, in Woodrow Wilson's wrung heart and wet hanky. Yet surely these are real enough. Aren't they?

At a time when so much 'revaluation' and 'revisiting' are the practice, Lawrence can serve the very actual function of showing how it might be done. We have valued, foolishly, the perspective of time alone. And lost the very thing we claim to have gained, namely, understanding of any of these men Lawrence cites for a classic American literature. For one example, Melville. God knows there has been enough talk around and about him to satisfy any of his admirers. But—how many come up with such a simple statement as this: "Melville knew. He knew his race was doomed. His white soul, doomed. His great white epoch, doomed. Himself, doomed. The idealist, doomed. The spirit, doomed."

To have a literature Lawrence adjudged it necessary to have a


soul. And so we have laughed at him—how funny. How funny is it now?

"The old American literature. Franklin, Cooper, Hawthorne & Co.? All that mass of words! all so unreal!" cries the live American.

Heaven knows what we mean by reality.


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