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The writings of D. H. Lawrence, Bernard Malamud once remarked, are like a vast mountain—a mountain we might occasionally pick at or feel disinclined to climb but a mountain all the same. Increasingly, an appreciation of Lawrence's immense oeuvre is considered essential to an understanding of the modern literary landscape. Even Joyceans such as Anthony Burgess and David Lodge have recently paid their respects to Lawrence's genius. Paradoxically, one way of dealing with this man and the huge ramparts of his work is to place this mountain within the even vaster range of English and American literary traditions. According to Jeffrey Meyers, the editor of D. H. Lawrence and Tradition, "Lawrence's work, like T. S. Eliot's, represents a humane continuity between past and present." The seven essays included in this volume compare Lawrence to Blake, Carlyle, Ruskin, George Eliot, Hardy, Whitman, and (the single exception to the English and American focus) Nietzsche, respectively. Meyers believes these essays represent "the most dominant influences in Lawrence's intellectual background. . . ." [End Page 315]
Not coincidentally, Meyers' Introduction to D. H. Lawrence and Tradition begins and ends with references to T. S. Eliot. One might think Lawrence was finally able to fight for a bit of his own ground, but fifty years after Eliot's idiotic assertions about Lawrence some still feel the need to make Lawrence acceptable to the formalist wing of English and American university life. This is a weakness in Meyers' otherwise thoughtful introduction, a weakness implicit in the tone and subject matter of several of the included essays. Lawrence, you see, isn't really a fascist—he is one of us!
Yet the book's weakness is also a kind of strength. The volume is, on the whole, a defense of Lawrence's sanity and humanity as well as of his positive uses of significant authors of the nineteenth century (in hopes of refuting Harold Bloom's claim that Lawrence is among the "great deniers of influence"). We will have to wait for a volume of essays that gives us a "new Lawrence" (much as a recent collection of poststructuralist essays has presented a "new Nietzsche"), but D. H. Lawrence and Tradition does provide a historical Anglo-American context for further studies in Lawrencean modernism and postmodernism. There is one primary thread that runs through most of these essays, the line of Protestant dissent: more specifically, a tradition of Protestant noncomformist readings that is, to some extent, set off against an Anglican-Catholic social tradition.
The thrust of most of the essays is Lawrence's reevaluation and transformation of this traditional line of dissent; no one argues in favor of any kind of radical break between Lawrence and his forebears or emphasizes any element that clearly distinguishes Lawrence from the nineteenth-century line. Robert Langbaum closes his "Lawrence and Hardy" with the claim that "Hardy, with his sensitivity to historical change, would, had he been born a generation later, have become a novelist very much like D. H. Lawrence." Well, who's to say? Would Hardy have left the heath for his own kind of "savage enough pilgrimage," as Lawrence did?
But the Lawrence we are generally observing in D. H. Lawrence and Tradition is a writer who supposedly ended his serious literary career, especially as a novelist, with Women in Love (with Lady Chatterley's Lover representing a brief, final return to the Great Tradition). One turns to the last two essays in this volume with the hope that the "other" Lawrence (among many Lawrences really), who kissed England goodbye for a good ten years of his life, might make an appearance. Roberts W. French in "Whitman and the Poetics of Lawrence" admirably demonstrates the sexual, spontaneous "urge" toward utterance that shapes both Whitman's and Lawrence's poetry, but Kingsley Widmer's "Lawrence and the Nietzschean Matrix," in rejecting criticism that tends to make Lawrence part of "some sort of English-y 'great tradition,'" performs its own disservice to Lawrence by failing to see how Lawrence made the first steps...