The Canon: Studies in Classic American Literature. By D.H. Lawrence

March 11, 2010

I took a course in D.H. Lawrence from the critic Marvin Mudrick when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate. We read the three great novels, all the stories and poems, a few travel books, and the hodgepodge in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence. I loved Lawrence, but I didn't seek out Studies in Classic American Literature until I was in graduate school. During a training session for new teaching assistants, where we were reviewing "typical" student essays, a wily professor contributed as a sample anonymous essay a few pages he had typed up by Lawrence on Moby-Dick, and left it for us to discover the reckless, hilarious genius among the reckless, clumsy or staid freshmen essays.

One young teacher, nonplussed when the joke was revealed, then insisted that she, in any case, no matter who wrote it, would not have accepted such a piece from one of her students: "This ignores all my standards!" (Verboten!: brilliance, personal responsiveness, irreverence.) She was braver in expressing her stupidity than others, as most of my colleagues and graduate professors would not have tolerated such an offering either: "One wearies of the grand serieux. There's something false about it. And that's Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays! But he was a deep, great artist, even if he was rather a sententious man. He was a real American in that he always felt his audience in front of him. But when he ceases to be American, when he forgets all audience, and gives us his sheer apprehension of the world, then he is wonderful, his book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe."

What heartened me in grad school, during those foetid swamp days of structuralism, was reading my heroes, Mudrick and Lawrence, who gleefully, as if at a dash (but is brilliance ever slow?), wrote with delight, amazement and irritation about the authors and literature they encountered. The excellent Lawrence biographer John Worthen makes me aware, however, of how long and purposefully Lawrence planned, wrote and then, having arrived in 1922 in America, thoroughly rewrote (in an "abrupt and pithy style", says Worthen) the 12 essays that became the book in 1923. (How or why Lawrence skipped Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson, I don't know.)

In less than 200 pages Lawrence fires off about a thousand rounds of crackling remarks: "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it." I once built a course based on Studies in Classic American Literature, and we tried to be methodical and put off reading Lawrence's relevant chapter until we had finished the work he wrote about. Finding Lawrence after the ever-wearying Scarlet Letter (which he admired) was like having the sun break through the clouds. He saves The Scarlet Letter from Nathaniel Hawthorne.

While Lawrence's criticism is still quoted for flavouring by flavour-deficient critics, it should at every opportunity be the entree, with our plainer or muckier dishes either optional or more modestly presented.

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