Why do I read? To remind myself that any good idea I might have is not original to me, as when D. H. Lawrence begins Studies in Classic American Literature:
We like to think of the old-fashioned American classics as children’s books. Just childishness, on our part. The old American art-speech contains an alien quality, which belongs to the American continent and nowhere else. But, of course. so long as we insist on reading the books as children’s tales, we miss all that. (Ch. 1, 7)
Well, he actually begins with a kind of rhapsody on America, in which Americans reject their own literature as unreal, by which they mean “tinned meat, Charlie Chaplin, water-taps, and World-Salvation, presumably” (3), even though the best American writers “seem to me to have reached a verge, as the more voluminous Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Artzibashev reached a limit on the other side” (4). I love lists like that. Nobody reads Nabokov or Fulmerford anymore. Where was I?
The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it. Which is why the world has funked them, and funks them to-day. (4)
Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman. The fact is, and I knew this from the act of reading them, not reading about them, that the first great generation or two of American writers form as odd a crew as can be found anywhere in world literature, even in France. I am also including Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, perhaps Emerson at his most peculiar, and the truly insane Jones Very, a weird bunch of weirdos if I ever saw one. Lawrence never mentions Thoreau, which is strange, and perhaps telling, or Dickinson, probably less strange. The post-Civil War generation – James, Twain, Alcott, Howells, Jewett, and son – seem to be, whatever else, they might be, sane. That earlier crowd can make you wonder.
Hawthorne – I am digressing – is the odd man out. In life, he was thoroughly normal and sane, but what a strange imagination he possessed. So he goes in with the oddballs.
What Lawrence is doing is discovering the strangeness of these writers. He is doing what Modernist writers and critics were doing all over the world with all sorts of older literature. Thus, for example, the Melville Revival, the return of the strangest of the strange. Lawrence anticipates Viktor Shlovksy and his dictum to “make it strange” – that was in 1925, I think. Lawrence is looking for strangeness. Everyone is looking for strangeness.
I hardly know Lawrence’s work. At the time of the publication of Studies, he had written nine novels, if I am counting correctly, along with many other books – short stories, poetry, travel, essays, translations. I feel like I am misreading his bibliography. How on earth did Lawrence write so much? My actual point is that Lawrence likely is making an argument about his own work’s strangeness, too, but someone else will have to fill me in.
Lawrence spends a couple of early chapters on Benjamin Franklin and Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, eighteenth century writers. He does not find them to be strange. How Lawrence hates them (“And now I, at least, know why I can’t stand Benjamin,” 24). He loathes the Enlightenment. That sounds like the Lawrence I know, even if I admit I do not know him well.
He wanted his ideal state. At the same time he wanted to know the other state, the dark, savage mind. He wanted both.
Can’t be done, Hector. The one is the death of the other. (36)
There he is, there’s Lawrence.