Guess who this is? D. H. Lawrence launching into Herman Melville in Chapter 10 of his 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature:
Melville has the strange, uncanny magic of sea-creatures, and some of their repulsiveness. He isn’t quite a land animal. There is something slithery about him. Something always half-seas-over. In his life they said he was mad – or crazy. He was neither mad not crazy. But he was over the border. He was half a water-animal, like those terrible yellow-bearded Vikings who broke out of the waves in beaked ships. (139, 1977 Penguin edition)
So this is one highly distinctive writer on another, one eccentric stylist enjoying another. The book is uncompromisingly Lawrentian, I will say that. Did Lawrence have any insights into Herman Melville, or any other American writers, or was they just subjects for his riffs? Yes, lots of insights, some of which are now so commonplace as to be almost invisible. But, yes.
This is the end of the same chapter. You can see why I raised some doubts:
Melville was, at the core, a mystic and an idealist.
Perhaps, so am I.
And he stuck to his ideal guns.
I abandon mine.
He was a mystic who raved because the old ideal guns shot havoc. The guns of the ‘noble spirit’. Of ‘ideal love’.
I say, let the old guns rot.
Get new ones, and shoot straight. (152)
Literary criticism by means of metaphor, with Lawrence himself right up front.
Lawrence gives Melville two of his twelve little chapters, a favor he also grants to Cooper and Hawthorne (so, yes, Cooper, Hawthorne and Melville are, by weight, half of the American literature that interests Lawrence). The first chapter covers Typee and Omoo, Melville’s first two books, fictionalized accounts of his adventures in the South Seas, and he really did have one crazy adventure. The second chapter in on Moby-Dick. No “Bartleby,” no poetry, no Billy Budd, which would bit be published for another year. Melville’s name had survived, to the extent that it had, as a kind of travel writer, so those first two titles were the ones that were still read. Only a few connoisseurs knew about Moby-Dick. Lawrence was one of them.
His chapter on Moby-Dick is largely an extended, oddly inflected plot summary, with long quotations from the novel. Lawrence cannot assume that any of his readers have read the novel or have any real idea of what is in it. So that fills his space. Lawrence was writing at the very beginning of the Melville Revival, so Studies in Classic American Literature is part of the revival, part of the reason Moby-Dick is now a famous book. Thus, the obviousness of many of the insights – yes, everyone knows that now.
The strangest thing is that Lawrence had not read the entire novel. The English edition was originally published without the last page, which is also the short last chapter. That last bit does explain a thing or two. Lawrence seems to have known only this mangled version. The ship sinks, dragging an eagle-angel down into the sea with it, and:
So ends one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world, closing up its mystery and its tortured symbolism. It is an epic of the sea such as no man has equalled; and it is a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of considerable tiresomeness.
But it is a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul. (168)
I hope that, after Classic Studies was published, one of Lawrence’s American friends was able to supply him with that last page.