THE early novels of David Herbert Lawrence burst on the 20th century as suddenly, and explosively, as the first World War. Just as the cadence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the free verse of Walt Whitman signaled a sea change for English verse, so did Lawrence revolutionize the way English literature described the relations between men and women. In literary circles, he achieved instant status as artistic genius and cultural prophet. But it is a daunting task to record the life of a genius and prophet, to distill his spirit in a single volume, all the while remaining faithful to the cardinal dictum of literary biography - connecting the life and times of the writer to the inspiration and works of the writer.
Jeffrey Meyers, the author of a well-received biography on Ernest Hemingway, is up to the task. He presents both new material about Lawrence's life, as well as a cogent summation of what we already know. His is the first biography of Lawrence in more than a decade. It is a scholarly, lucid, and comprehensive account of the writer whom E.M. Forster called, ``the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation.''
Throughout, Meyers balances the two traits most characteristic of Lawrence: passion and intellect. He chronicles Lawrence's many travels, global wanderings really, driven as much by insatiable curiosity as a search for a healthful climate. He reveals Lawrence's life as the source for some of the most original writing in the English language.
Born in 1885 to a Nottinghamshire miner, the fourth of five children, Lawrence was never healthy and ultimately succumbed to tuberculosis at age 44. He spent the first half of his life in the coal-mining village of Eastwood.
There was little likelihood he would follow his father into the pits. His mother, for whom he was the favorite, would hear of no such thing. The young boy did well at school and rose above his social class, completing a university degree, even teaching for awhile. He received critical attention for his first novel in 1911 and never worked for wages again.
Mercifully, Meyers does not bury the reader in domestic battles or psychoanalytic minutiae. A cottage industry in Lawrence scholarship, as overworked and exhausted as the mines Lawrence's father sweated in, exists in retelling the irreconcilable differences and violent clashes between his uneducated working-class father and educated middle-class mother.
Coverage of Lawrence's life in Eastwood is precise, compressed, focused on the essential formative experiences: the possessive nature of his mother, tensions arising from his native intelligence, his illnesses, and the limited expectations inculcated by his social class.
In 1912, Lawrence married a German woman six years his elder, Baroness Frieda von Richthofen Weekley, and the relative of the World War I German fighter-pilot ace, the Red Baron. She was also the wife of his favorite university teacher. The marriage marks the turning point in his life. His rather conventional existence turns, not just onto a path less traveled, but also to one unimagined by most men.
The detached elan with which Meyers analyzes and makes familiar the tempestuous, yet binding relationship between these two fiercely independent souls is one of the more engaging aspects of the book. Lawrence and Freida share expanding and contracting circles of friends. They wander from home to home and country to country in search of a suitable climate for Lawrence's physical, as well as emotional, wellbeing.
However eloquent Lawrence is on the topic of love, however mystical he might appear in discussing sex, by sketching Freida's numerous marital infidelities, Meyers gives us Lawrence rooted in the human clay of marriage.
Meyers finds the homosexual smoking-gun that has both intrigued and bedeviled Lawrence scholars. He documents in letters and interviews Lawrence's brief homosexual affair with a man from Cornwall. To his credit, Meyers makes no more nor less of the incident than it warrants. He sets forth the literary trail of Lawrence's attraction to, and repugnance with, homosexuality.
With Lawrence, there is always need for demythologizing. Meyers routinely rends the prophetic veil bedecking the author of the major novels - ``Sons and Lovers,'' ``The Rainbow,'' and ``Women in Love.'' He presents a man who could joyously lose himself in scrubbing floors or washing dishes, one who soared into metaphysical speculations after shooting a porcupine, made outlandish racial generalizations, even designed a utopian educational system.
A passing account of Georgia O'Keeffe's first impression of Freida (they met in New Mexico some four years after Lawrence had died) is typical of how Meyers shows us Lawrence through the eyes of others, planting both his feet on mortal ground: ```I can remember clearly the first time I ever saw her, standing in a doorway, with her hair all frizzed out, wearing a cheap red calico dress that looked as though she had just wiped out the frying pan with it. She was not thin, not young, but there was something radiant and wonderful about her.'''
The book bristles with conflict: Lawrence and his mother, his father, his wife, Freida, friends, literary elites, publishers, and British and American civil authorities.
Lawrence called the novel the purest, truest form of expression. One could not lie about life in its pages without being discovered. He chose the Phoenix as a symbol to describe himself. It is not flattery to say of this biography what Katherine Mansfield said about Lawrence himself: ``It seems to me whatever he writes, no matter how much one may `disagree,' is important. And after all even what one objects to is a sign of life in him. He is a living man.'' Meyers gives us the ``living man,'' the author of great and original literature.