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Greenspan, Vasey and Worthen : D.H. Lawrence: Studies in Classic American Literature

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E. GREENSPAN, L. VASEY and J. WORTHEN,eds. D.H. Lawrence: Studies in Classic American Literature Cambridge University Press, 2002 712 pages. ISBN: 0521550165. £80

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1This book is, among other things, a reminder of how large a part chance plays in the emergence of classic works of literature. The book that was eventually published as Studies in Classic American Literature in 1923 was the outcome of a longer period of  gestation and drafting than any book of Lawrence’s other than Women in Love—about seven years in all. For some of that time, at least, Lawrence considered it (or one of the forms that it passed through) as his most important work after The Rainbow and Women in Love. For a long time Lawrence enthusiasts have been aware that these essays existed in an earlier form, and many of them will have possessed the book published in 1962 and edited by Armin Arnold with the title The Symbolic Meaning, which gathered together what was in effect a completely new book of essays by Lawrence, so different are these essays from the final versions. (One of my few quarrels with the present edition is its ungenerous notice of Arnold’s service to Lawrence’s readers.) The final version is notoriously flippant, opinionated, disrespectful and informal. The earlier version is much more sober, considered and carefully argued. Lawrence tried to get the earlier version published by Benjamin Huebsch and Thomas Seltzer, but both men prevaricated and delayed, and by the time Seltzer finally agreed to publish, Lawrence had transformed the book. Both versions, plus other variants of individual essays, are gathered in this magisterial piece of scholarship. Studies in Classic American Literature has infuriated as many readers as it has delighted, but it is an indispensable model of one of the ways in which criticism might be written. If Huebsch or Seltzer had agreed to publish earlier, some of Lawrence’s classic formulations, such as ‘Art speech is the only truth’ and ‘Never trust the artist. Trust the tale’ would never have been written.

2As the Cambridge editors remind us, the notion of Classic American Literature was almost an oxymoron at the time Lawrence wrote his book, and he was right to say that ‘We like to think of the old-fashioned American classics as children’s books.’ Of the writers Lawrence discusses, Franklin, Hawthorne, Poe and Whitman were widely recognised at the time, but Crèvecoeur, Cooper, Dana and –unbelievably today—Melville were ignored or considered as children’s writers. Lawrence made a major contribution to the establishment of American literature as a canonical subject and, moreover, his critical manner, challenging and even insulting as it may have been to some American sensibilities, was a refreshing contrast to the staidness and pomposity of much British criticism, and in its way a deliberate act of homage to the New World.

3Regarding Lawrence’s own development as a writer, the various versions of Studies in Classic American Literature were of profound and complex importance. First there is Lawrence’s own attraction to the idea of America. After the outbreak of war, and especially after the banning of The Rainbow in 1915, he became terminally disenchanted with his native country and despaired of finding an audience there. He increasingly looked to American publication for the re-establishment of his career as a writer, and the Studies were part of a campaign to win an American readership. Ironically, the final version was written in the first few months of his residence in America, when his experience of the circle of Mabel Dodge Luhan had already begun to disillusion him, and his aversion to the American ambience in which he was actually writing accounts for much of the changed tone of the book.

4Lawrence regarded the earlier versions of Studies in Classic American Literature as versions of his ‘philosophy’, which began in 1914 with ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’ and developed through ‘The Crown’, a perhaps fortunately lost work titled ‘Goats and Compasses’, and Fantasia of the Unconscious. The American essays are one of the most appealing versions of this ‘philosophy’, though they are occasionally afflicted by the turgid style and even jargon that characterises these writings at their worst. The most interesting previously unpublished text is an early (1919) version of his essay on Whitman, of all these writers the one who was most important to Lawrence, which includes the following passage, in the context of male comradeship:

The vagina, as we know, is the orifice to the hypogastric plexus, which, in the old words “is situated amid the waters”. It is the advent to the great source of being, and it is the egress of the bitter, spent waters of the end. But beyond all this is the cocygeal centre. There the deepest and most unknowable sensual reality breathes and sparkles darkly, in unspeakable power... And the port, of egress and ingress, is the fundament, as the vagina is the port of the other centre.

5Lawrence’s use of the words ‘plexus’ and ‘ganglion’ in works such as Fantasia of the Unconscious may be bogus physiology, but it provides him with a vocabulary for representing the unity of mind and body. Here, bizarrely, it provides him with a vocabulary for overcoming his earlier hysterical homophobia and acknowledging that his ideal of male comradeship includes buggery. It may lack the elegance of ‘Love has pitched her mansion in/ The place of excrement’, but it anticipates Yeats’s sentiment. Not surprisingly, he never even offered this version of the essay for publication.

6The earlier versions of the essays, particularly the ones on Crèvecoeur, Poe and Cooper, are notable for Lawrence’s explicit use of the term ‘otherness’, which for him signified the recognition of the not-self. This contrasts with later, post-Lacanian uses of this term, most particularly in post-colonial discourse, where it signified rather the impossibility of such recognition. In these essays Lawrence rehearses imaginatively some of the themes and encounters of his years of travel and of the texts that emerged from those years, such as Sea and Sardinia, Kangaroo, Mornings in Mexico and The Plumed Serpent, in which otherness is a difficult, if not intractable problem.

7Even more than other volumes of the Cambridge edition, this is a book for the Lawrence scholar more than for the general reader. The chronology of composition, and the variant versions, are bewildering. But the less specialised reader should not be put off, since the ‘First Version (1918-19)’ is one of Lawrence’s finest and most interest pieces of discursive prose, available here in a reliable text for the first time.

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Neil ROBERTS, « Greenspan, Vasey and Worthen : D.H. Lawrence: Studies in Classic American Literature », E-rea [En ligne], 2.2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2004, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL :

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