Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Selected Letters of D.H. Lawrence III

I looked over the remainder of the book and found some things of interest, but there are limitations to correspondences compared to fiction or memoirs. As Lawrence's literary career advanced, he additionally befriended Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley and Alfred Stieglitz, among others, and maintained a fairly large correspondence, which, however, frequently pertained to publishing matters or minor travel anecdotes. He was surprisingly energetic and alive for a man of wavering health, and it is difficult to keep track of his peregrinations in this book. During World War I he and Frieda stayed in England, living in Cornwall and Derbyshire. From 1919 to 1922 they lived in Sicily and traveled to Sardinia and Switzerland. From 1922 to 1924 they traveled to Ceylon and Australia and settled in Taos, New Mexico, and they then traveled to Mexico, New York, Los Angeles, England, France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. In 1924-1925 he spent time in Mexico City but left when he became ill. They spent most of 1926 in Italy. In 1927-1928 they visited France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Germany, finally settling in the South of France in 1929, where he died the following year.

It isn't clear to me why he and Frieda traveled so much. Part of it had to do with their finances. Free housing provided by a wealthy patron seems to have been one of the motivating factors behind moving to Taos. There were also legal and other pressures which may have kept them unusually mobile. While living in England, Frieda was accused of being a German spy. Censors found passages in Lawrence's novels pornographic, particularly in Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Lawrence became one of the most controversial writers of the century. He also wrote poems and plays and painted, and some of his paintings were seized because they were considered obscene. However, Lawrence also seems to have liked travel for its own sake, and it constituted part of his philosophy of living to the fullest and experiencing the world.

I am always surprised by people like Lawrence who are prodigious yet are still able to produce excellent work. However, I think that in every case high productivity eventually leads to lower quality. Lawrence seems to be bound by his early experiences in England, and he will mainly be remembered for his English novels. I did not find Aaron's Rod, which is set in Florence, particularly well done, and it seems likely that most of the fiction derived from his travels is not as good as his major novels, all of which are set in England. If you realistically consider how good fiction is produced, it soon becomes apparent how limited any writer is likely to be: you can't simply travel around and churn out top-quality writing pertinent to each location, because, during a short period of time, no individual can absorb a deep enough understanding of an unfamiliar environment to capture its essence, regardless of his or her skill as a writer. As I mentioned earlier, George Eliot made the same mistake, but it was limited to just one novel, Romola, which was set in Renaissance Florence. I have no desire to read Lawrence's novels set in Australia or Mexico.

Like every intelligent writer I know, Lawrence's initial reaction to America, when he arrived in Taos, was negative. He wrote to Else Jaffe, his sister-in-law, in 1922:

...I think America is neither free nor brave, but a land of tight, iron-clanking little wills, everybody trying to put it over everybody else, and a land of men absolutely devoid of the real courage of trust, trust in life's sacred spontaneity. They can't trust life until they can control it. So much for them – cowards! You can have the Land of the Free – as much as I know of it. – In the spring I want to come back to Europe.

Later, in 1925, he wrote to Kyle Crichton, an American journalist:

I have been thinking of what you say about not having had the courage to be a creative writer. It seems to me that may be true – America, of all countries, kills that courage, simply because it sees no value in the really creative effort, whereas it esteems, more highly than any other country, the journalistic effort: it loves the thrill of a sensation, but loathes to be in any way moved, inwardly affected so that a new vital adjustment is necessary. Americans are enormously adaptible: perhaps because inwardly they are not adjusted at all to their environment. They are never as American as a chipmunk is, or as an Indian is: only as a Ford car or as the Woolworth building.

That's why it seems to me impossible almost, to be purely a creative writer in America: everybody compromises with journalism and commerce. Hawthorne and Melville and Whitman reached a point of imaginative or visionary adjustment to America, which, it seemed to me, is again entirely lost, abandoned: because you can't adjust yourself vitally, inwardly, to a rather scaring world, and at the same time, get ahead.

Obviously I was delighted to read the above lines.

Still, Lawrence embodied some aspects of the culture of his period that no longer interest me. He was writing at a time when Freud, Jung and psychoanalysis were trendy, and artsy people were interested in Eastern religions and native cultures, prefiguring the 1960's – all of which I think led nowhere. I have been trying to determine what, if anything, was so great about Frieda, and I can't come up with anything. The impression I have is that she was sexually uninhibited with Lawrence, which offered him something that he had not found with British women. She was socially skilled and reasonably well-read, but both of them were opinionated, headstrong and argumentative, and they often had loud fights that disturbed their friends and acquaintances. Rather than poring over biographies or letters, the answers may have been available if Lawrence had lived to write memoirs. As it is, I am inclined to see Frieda as a hedonistic woman who abandoned a conventional life and her children in order to have a good time. Lawrence seems to have had no interest in children, and this offered her an assurance that she wouldn't be weighed down again. In her case, however, I don't see an artist as much as reveler, and she left behind nothing of note. Sometimes it is easy to feel nostalgic about the now nonexistent artistic and literary colonies of the past, but I sense that, had I been there, many weaknesses would have been in full view.

This experiment in literary correspondences was not a complete failure, but I don't think that, in general, they are likely to be reliable enough to become a fixture of my reading habits.

No comments:

Post a Comment