Studies in Classic American Literature. DH Lawrence.

Lawrence, David (DH). Studies in Classic American Literature. Penguin, London 1971 (first published 1923). NF; 06/12.

I lost my copy of this somewhere over the years, along with a lot of other beloved books which I still dream of discovering in a cardboard box left under the stairs somewhere. So I got another one and reread it.

My earlier go at it was during a fourth-year American fiction course in 1970. I was dazzled and I defaced the paperback with underlining and marginal notes. I see it a little differently this time, but it’s still wonderful stuff.

Wonderful but of course staggeringly politically incorrect. God help me I can’t resist the sexually ground-breaking post-Victorian nasty old Englishman enjoying an erudite uninhibited instinctive psychoanalytic literary tear at the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville. And early feminism.

All the time there is this split in the American art and art-consciousness. On the top it is as nice as pie, goody-goody and lovey-dovey. Like Hawthorne being such a blue-eyed darling, in life, and Longfellow and the rest such sucking doves… Serpents they were. Look at the inner meaning of their art and see what demons they were. You must look through the surface of American art, and see the inner diabolism of the symbolic meaning. Otherwise it is all mere childishness.

and

“We are the masterless.” That is what the American Eagle shrieks. It’s a Hen-Eagle.

As he takes on the United States and Women almost everybody reading his opinions today has to be scandalized at what we can only see as chauvinism. Trying to read it with an imaginary historic perspective, he looks to me prescient with his angry strident warnings about America, its two-faced puritanical morality, and the destructive side of what would eventually emerge as feminism. “This split in the American… consciousness”.

What would old Lawrence think if he could see the United States today, split in half and scapegoating to avoid the very difficult task of being gracious in its decline, and us men stunned and vaguely guilty, trying to find ourselves in a post-successful-feminism world? Since Lawrence wrote this book, America has vastly benefited humanity technically and in some ways culturally, and seeing women as men’s equals as humans has righted a terrifying thousands-of-years-old wrong. But I think he guessed right about certain unintended divisive consequences. The differences between the sexes will never go away, but they should be complementary. Men and women enlarge one another as long as there is mutual trust and respect. Without that understanding, if we have to live in the incriminating atmosphere of blame we see between America’s right and left, the differences are destructive. Love is the answer, of course, if we can only see our way to it.

Not for everybody, but lots of roaring old-fashioned fun from one of the early-modern greats. 7.4/9.6

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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