In D. H. Lawrence: The Early Fiction Michael Black seeks to prove what he feels F. R. Leavis often merely asserted, that Lawrence is a great artist, a writer who takes his place within, and extends, the "Great Tradition" of English fiction. In the first chapter of his book, "The Criticism of Lawrence," Black describes how Leavis' revision of the Great Tradition canon to include Charles Dickens, alongside Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad, provided further justification for the inclusion of Lawrence. According to Black, the addition of Dickens led Leavis to develop a "valuable corrective" to the Great Tradition of puritan moralism, because Dickens emphasized, as did Blake, the self as not "a finished thing in a shell of selfhood, but as a growing identity which has to fulfill its own nature or be essentially frustrated." Thus, it was easier for Lawrence to assume his place in this modified tradition because Lawrence believes, again in Black's words, "that a living being should be seeking to be more and more itself—unique."
How Lawrence came to realize himself through his art, through the metaphoric language of his art, is the specific focus of this book. By concentrating on Lawrence's early fiction, and by proceeding pretty much chronologically (from The White Peacock to "New Eve and Old Adam"), Black describes the early stages of Lawrence's "life-long search" for satisfactory images as well as how, because we now have virtually all of Lawrence's work available to us, his "personal universe can finally be seen as a system."
The problem, or limitation, with Black's method is the gradual loss of the personal, and disruptive, Lawrencean universe as the "parallels, continuities and developments" are tallied. (The other problem, of course, is that much of this work has been done before.) Black argues that Lawrence is a different kind of writer from his contemporaries of 1910-1920, but Black fails to give us much sense of this new being, Lawrence, who created such an original body of work. Black [End Page 351] offers little more than repeated references to the famous sensual/spiritual duality of Lawrence's early period. Of course this larger task, relating man, milieu, and work, is fraught with difficulties, often leading to wild assertions and theories, strained analogies, and biographical, psychological, and cultural suppositions, but this approach (as evidenced by two of the best books on Lawrence, Henry Miller's The World of Lawrence and L. D. Clark's The Minoan Distance) is a more promising way of dealing with a writer who expresses himself in so many voices, levels of discourse, and genres, and who has become, as well, a figure of transliterary importance as a thinker and prophet. We are often better served by an eschatological than by a systematic reckoning of this man's work.
Yet Black's primarily New Critical method does provide useful, clear, and at times resonant critiques of Lawrencean symbolism. When Lawrence's fiction is heavily symbolic, as much of his early fiction is, Black ably reveals the conscious artistry of Lawrence, exposing simultaneously, as Black himself notes, the self-consciousness of much of Lawrence's early work. For Black, a shift away from this self-consciousness signals the arrival of Lawrence's mature style, as in "The Daughters of the Vicar":
It is a narrative of strange internal events. The characters are not allowed to speak for themselves, or not able to; so that one gets a version of the stream of consciousness which is not that of an 'I'. This is a sign of his clarity about what he is doing.
Yet Lawrence is often at his best when he allows himself to be fully and forcefully present. Lawrence's most natural rhythm is sermonlike, chantlike ("Biblical" in Black's terms), a level of discourse that needs to be "voiced," allowing Lawrence's unconscious (visionary) desires to break through and disrupt the perfect texture of the "story." As Black correctly notes, prior to "Love Among the Haystacks" Lawrence often writes in a too...