With the ongoing publication of the Cambridge edition of Lawrence's letters and the promise of a three-volume biography under the general editorship of Mark Kinkead-Weekes (who will write the middle volume), the transformation of Lawrence into a canonical figure in English literature has reached its final phase. Although virtually every aspect of Lawrence's life and art seems to have been given microscopic examination, the fact remains that it has been a good while since we have had a major critical study that forces us to reconsider our basic assumptions about Lawrence's fiction. On the whole, Lawrence criticism has not been seriously touched by the deconstructive ethos or the more progressive strains of what I call humanistic formalism.
Regular readers of MFS review pages, recalling that I have in the past few years reviewed two volumes devoted to Lawrence's life and work in Italy (see 29:2; 29:4), will not be surprised to learn that Lawrence's three visits to Mexico are the subject of a book. But they may be a little bemused that a work of over 400 pages is devoted to Lawrence's 1924-25 sojourn in Oaxaca, Mexico. Ross Parmenter has written an incredibly detailed, chatty, and digressive study of a period that lasted a little more than three months. To be sure, during those months Lawrence not only wrote four of the pieces in Mornings in Mexico and rewrote The Plumed Serpent, but suffered a serious illness in January, 1925.
A retired former music editor of the New York Times, Parmenter has been living in Oaxaca since 1965. Reading between the lines of his justification for writing this study, I suspect that not too many figures whose lives would be of interest to an English reading audience have lived in Oaxaca: "It was fortunate that the Lawrence chapter I wanted to write for love of Oaxaca had validity as a biographical unit." Although Parmenter's interviews of people living in Oaxaca during that period some sixty years ago may at times, I am afraid, recall the Woody Allen movie Zelig, his major resource is Lawrence's own words from his fiction, letters, and nonfiction as well as the written testimony of the two women who accompanied him to Oaxaca, his wife Frieda and Dorothy Brett.
To his credit, Parmenter has a real interest in his subject and avoids jargon. He can tell a story, has read Lawrence carefully, and has done some serious research. But that is not enough to rescue this prolonged and repetitious book from being consigned to the margin of Lawrence study. Perhaps the best way to give the flavor of Parmenter's idiosyncratic volume is to quote the entire dedication: "To the memory of Luisa Linder de Martinez (1894-1984) creator and animator of the Pension Suiza in Oaxaca within whose sheltering tranquility this book was written."
Parmenter's premise is that he has discovered an exciting and neglected chapter in the life of one of the more flamboyant writers of the twentieth century. He oscillates between addressing a general audience and a scholarly audience who would be interested in the minor tributaries of Lawrence's literary career. Parmenter's focus shifts uneasily from writing about Lawrence to writing about the history and current life of Oaxaca, including his own responses to the practices and customs of that city. After quoting a letter of Brett's, Parmenter writes: [End Page 808] "Meanwhile, any one who has enjoyed the friendliness and quick understanding of the vendors and the appeal of their big-eyed children will recognize how precisely Brett caught elements that make marketing such a pleasure is Oaxaca." Or, he writes: "I have often wished Lawrence had seen and described the ancient ritual dance." Often Parmenter writes in a journalistic style as if he were addressing an audience of nonprofessional readers who would care how accurate Lawrence's descriptions of local customs were. But will he find such an audience when much of his book...