- “Jews of the Wrong Sort”: D.H. Lawrence and Race
In The Captain’s Doll, a novella from the early 1920s, D.H. Lawrence takes his protagonist, Captain Alexander Hepburn, from post-war occupied Germany to Tyrolean Austria in amorous pursuit of the much younger Countess Johanna zu Rassentlow, familiarly known as Hannele, after the captain’s wife has died under suspicious circumstances. The two travel together to a mountain glacier and stay at a hotel full of tourists, among whom are “many Jews of the wrong sort and the wrong shape.” As is often the case in Lawrence’s fiction, it is unclear here whether the comment is the narrator’s free indirect rendering of the thoughts of the protagonist or the narrator’s own description separate from Hepburn’s perception. In any case, these Jews are people who, on the one hand, are condemned for pretending to be something they are not—“so that you might think they were Austrian aristocrats, if you weren’t properly listening, or if you didn’t look twice”—but, on the other hand, are appreciated somehow, for “they imparted a wholesome breath of sanity, disillusion, unsentimentality to the excited ‘Bergheil’ atmosphere.” 1 In isolation, the remark might seem frivolous, even quite common by between-the-wars standards, but, together with many other racist statements in Lawrence’s writings, the rather off-hand description raises questions about a major twentieth-century author who remains in some respects enigmatic. For one thing, it raises the question of what, for Lawrence, would be Jews of the right sort and shape.
The issue of Lawrence and race is entangled in his writing within a nexus of competing ideological and psychological formulations, and to untangle it is no easy task. In my view, race for Lawrence is one of many related categories that make up a worldview that is keyed upon gender concerns, specifically as those concerns arise out of an adult reaction against the early dependency of a highly sensitive male child upon his mother. Long ago, Christopher Caudwell cuttingly used Lawrence’s own pseudo-scientific phraseology to express Lawrence’s view of [End Page 209] the human dilemma as “the yearning of the solar plexus for the umbilical connexion.” 2 I believe that the vexed issue of Lawrence and race can be brought into sharper focus than has previously been the case if it is positioned within the context of his struggle, in the displaced form of his fiction, to free himself from the debilitating aspects of that umbilical connection. At the very time when Lawrence was frequently crossing national boundaries in his life, there is in his writing an ongoing exploration of the boundaries that serve to protect the vulnerable self’s integrity, alongside a defensive aggression in the form of misogyny or racism when the boundaries of the self are threatened. Lawrence’s negative attitude toward Jews is obdurate because he associates them with both a female threat to the self and with a more general tendency to breach category confines, a tendency whose dynamic recalls the more immediate female threat.
There are times, mostly fairly early on in his life, when Lawrence seems anxious to rise above the racism of his era. In a 1913 letter to Gordon Campbell, Lawrence writes that “[i]t is no use hating a people or a race or humanity in mass. Because each of us is in himself humanity.” 3 He was even capable of imagining himself becoming racially other in the poem “Tropic” from Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923): “Behold my hair twisting and going black./ Behold my eyes turn tawny yellow/ Negroid;/ See the milk of northern spume/ Coagulating and going black in my veins.” 4 Even here, however, an element of escape from maternal dependency can be read into the white milk turning black, an image, conceivably, of maternal lactation negated as much as of racial otherness. Similarly, Lawrence was capable of identifying with Jews, if in a decidedly negative manner: “[Gibbon] says the Jews are the great haters of the human race . . .” he writes in a letter of May, 1918, “I feel such profound hatred myself, of the human...