- D. H. Lawrence's Discovery of American Literature
Lawrence believed that the distinctive quality of American literature was not appreciated by the older English and European civilizations because their readers were unable to respond to the native genius of the American writer. According to him it expressed a new experience in an "alien" accent, an accent which belonged to "the American continent and to nowhere else." He discovered in American literature what even the Americans themselves had missed—the "classic" quality which he thought had fled from his own literature. He told Amy Lowell, "your classic American literature, I find to my surprise, is older than our English. The tree did not become new, which was transplanted. It only ran more swiftly into age, impersonal, non-human almost. But how good these books are!"
Lawrence decided to write on this subject during the First World War to provide a means of escape to America. He published eight articles on American writers in Ford Madox Ford's English Review in 1917-18. He failed to sell them to American periodicals, and he did not succeed in coming to America when the war ended. And when he eventually arrived in the U.S. in September 1922 he decided to rewrite them. As he had previously told his agent, J. B. Pinker, "I can't write for America here in England. I must transfer myself." After "transferring" himself, he told his new American agent, Thomas Seltzer, that he was "doing Studies again—Americanising them: much shorter." He fully revised the eight essays which he had been working on and off for four years, wrote four new ones, and presented them in book form. Studies in Classic American Literature was published in New York in 1923 and in London the next year.
Lawrence's personal observations on life in America gave him a new and more authentic perspective on the American people and their literature. He had always believed that the positive vision of the writers had come to them from their native American ancestors. In the opening chapter, "The Spirit of Place," he explains that the content and the manner of a writer's work can be directly related to the spirit of the place of his native birth and abode: "Every continent has its own great spirit of place. Every people is polarized in some particular locality, which is home, the homeland. Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality." Lawrence believed that the spirit of the land instilled in the American writer a sense of "the unfulfilled, [End Page 469] unrealized purpose," and he set out to seek it. The "invisible winds" around him inspired him to look into his innermost self, "the deepest whole self of man," and to "realize" this purpose. He could do so only in America where he would enjoy the "liberty to do what his deepest self like[d]."
Lawrence did not believe that the liberty that the Pilgrim fathers sought was religious or political. They simply wanted the freedom to get away from their European selves and to divest themselves of their European ancestry, ideas, and ideals. They created their own American democracy through which they undermined the ideals and politics of the older continent, and their writers like Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman created their own distinctly American literature. They saw life from a new perspective, one different from the European viewpoint, and this new vision turned out to be of older vintage; it was elemental and viewed the human being as a natural spontaneous creature who was uninhibited by religious or rational constraints. Lawrence himself had been nurturing such a vision, which may at least partly explain his fascination with American literature; the studies contained his "whole Weltanschauung," he said. He felt that the American writers reflected the same vision that he himself had been espousing, the celebration of the older, natural, and spontaneous life—something similar to what Montaigne had reported about the newly discovered life in Brazil, which was marked by...