One’s understanding of D. H. Lawrence cannot be considered complete without a careful perusal of The Collected Letters. For there is a side of Lawrence that, while it is found elsewhere, receives its fullest expression only in the letters—a side that, beneath all the tensions of his life, is cheerful, optimistic, affirmative. Lawrence’s belief in the ultimate sanctity of physical being finds its embodiment not only in formal essays and narratives, but in these informal meditations that reflect his day-to-day existence.
This aspect had already been revealed in 1932, when Aldous Huxley published an impressive collection of Lawrence letters. Moore draws heavily on Huxley’s edition in the expanded collection. Appearing less than two years after Lawrence’s death, the Huxley book was a great achievement, and many Lawrence scholars have an almost sentimental attachment to the pioneer volume of letters. But the time has long been ripe for a more comprehensive collection, one that would include not only many unpublished letters, but items in the myriad volumes of memoirs and biographies. The Collected Letters, however, is scarcely complete; no collection could be. Many letters will still have to be consulted in the Huxley volume and from other sources; secondary items and duplicative letters were, as Moore ruefully points out, excised.
The earliest item is a postcard dated 1903, shortly after Lawrence had turned eighteen. At this point he was still very much the miner’s son seeking a way out by attending a pupil-teacher center. The girl to whom the postcard is addressed is one of a group of friends known as the Pagans. The last letter, dated 1930, is from a sanatorium at Vence, France, a few days before his death. The intervening pages form the most complete epistolary record we have thus far of a major modern writer: his private life, his struggles with public and publishers, his friends—who often came and went in a rather kaleidoscopic way—his thought, the temper of his mind. They remind one most forcefully of the extent to which a writer is an intuitive register of his time, and therefore of time to come. Depressed and disgusted with the outbreak of World War I, Lawrence, from the beginning, is concerned with what is to follow, and in his musings he foreshadows the disillusionment of the 1920’s. The society that could produce such a war is obviously sick, wrote Lawrence, but the society that is to follow, one that will contain the moral cripples blasted by the war, is almost too horrible to comprehend.
The Collected Letters creates a distinct persona. Rarely do his letters provide us with the sort of immediate, unfiltered reactions to experience that we find in other letters. His are more mediative and reasoned in tone. That fact might imply distortion. Nevertheless, the Lawrence we get is clearly a genuine Lawrence, one who persists below the surface of daily events. This Lawrence possesses the serene face of the man who has the capacity and the courage simply to be, who has discovered his own center of existence and refuses to be disturbed too much by the trivia and the peevishness of others, who is concerned that others learn, not certain rules and regulations, but how to live, and who is, therefore, fiercely against anything he considers a denial of life. Oddly, for the comparison would be shunned by the earlier author, he reminds one in these pages of an earlier idealist, Thoreau, who asserted: “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” Thus, in one letter, we find Lawrence asserting that one ought to fulfill as the deepest of all desires the wish to avoid the extraneous, to live only for pure relationships and living truth. The point is made over and over again in the letters: the need to put aside extraneous pressures, those of money and property, and to cultivate one’s soul. This idea would not be foreign to the author of WALDEN , though, of course, Thoreau would scarcely have...
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