Studies in Classic American Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

D. H. Lawrence’s STUDIES IN CLASSIC AMERICAN LITERATURE, at first glance a puzzling book, survives nonetheless for its powerful insights into our literature. It is puzzling because of its style, so informal, so impulsive, and so seemingly self-contradictory. It is full of exclamations, words all in capital letters, choppy sentences. But it is impressive in the great task it undertakes, and it will leave the reader shaken with new ideas about our literature, upset enough to force him to a reconsideration and re-evaluation not only of American classics, but also of the quality of the American experience. Lawrence believed that criticism, like literature in general should be written with passion and with moral purpose.

In these essays the reader will find controlling ideas familiar in other books by Lawrence. Lawrence applies to American literature his apparatus of the deeper soul and the blood-impulses, and to it also he brings his sensitive response to nature and his appreciation of honesty and delicacy in the description of nature. One can see the preoccupations of Lawrence’s thought in his key words: democracy, love, sex, death, and savagery. Thus, bringing to our classics his own convictions, Lawrence sees American literature in a fresh way, as an outsider looking with a special perspective.

In this extended essay the works of eight American authors are studied: three novelists (Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville), three prose writers (Franklin, Crevecoeur, and Dana), two poets (Poe and Whitman), all but two belonging to the first seven decades of the nineteenth century. The selection follows what has become since Lawrence the standard authors or classics of the beginnings and the renaissance of American literature, except for the surprising inclusion of Dana and the omission of Jefferson, Irving, and the Transcendentalists. The selection was probably dictated by the origin of the articles which after periodical publication came to make up the book. About 1915-1916 Lawrence, contemplating emigration to the United States, reread some of the American books of his youth and wrote out his findings in some salable articles. Also, being Lawrence, he used his reading of the texts to propound his ideas, this accounting for the important opening chapter “The Spirit of Place” which more or less directs the argument, and probably for the omission of Emerson, who must have been anathema to him.

The book could be alternatively subtitled “D. H. Lawrence on the American.” He uses what evidence attracts him in the literature to answer the question propounded by Crevecoeur—“What is an American?”—and the literature is a substitute for actual experience of the country itself. This attempt to discover the psyche of the race which produced the works has not until recently recommended Lawrence’s study to students of American literature; in scholarship one can make little of the dazzling apercus, however stimulating they may be. But the book was written by a common reader for his like, and the more we contemplate it the more remarkable it seems. Its style is deliberately fragmented to preserve Lawrence’s hortatory tone; it is his only book of literary criticism; it is the only writing on American literature by a great English writer; and the essay on “The Spirit of Place” is significant in the study of Lawrence, the most world-wide geographer in English fiction.

The different extant versions of this opening essay are described in Armin Arnold’s D. H. LAWRENCE AND AMERICA. The general argument of the essay, developed in the book, is typically an exhortation to Americans to become Americans by responding to the spirit of the place, America; this spirit was represented variously in “classic American literature” but has since become obscured; one way of regaining such a response is to reread the American classics as Lawrence would have us read them, without any first-hand experience of America or Americans, as impressionistic criticism valuable to Lawrence in coping with his love-hate relationship to the Old World. The argument uses Lawrence’s common notion that Christianity imposed on the simple blood-knowledge of primitive peoples a mild-body antagonism, a crux represented by the...

(The entire section is 1735 words.)