D.H. Lawrence's letters: fresh impressions behind the scenes

The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Vol. IV, June 1921-March 1924, edited by Warren Roberts, James T. Boulton, and Elizabeth Mansfield. New York and Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 627 pp. Illustrated. $59.50. Mention D.H. Lawrence and you are likely to unleash a torrent of charges, most of them specious. Prophet of the irrational, advocate of unrestrained sexuality, protofascist: To these in recent years has been added the epithet ``male chauvinist.'' Lawrence often expressed disdain for the leveling tendencies of democracy and of ``bolshevism'' (as he called it), but disdain for ``mass man'' is a prevalent feature of the modern psyche, from patricians like Henry Adams alarmed at the encroachments of the lower orders to the innumerable Bohemians scornful of bourgeois conformity.

Lawrence's strong belief in the importance of the individual and his perception of the differences among people predisposed him, like Carlyle and Nietzsche before him, in favor of a cult of personal, charismatic leadership. But one cannot imagine Lawrence, with his love of sensitivity and delicacy and his vigilant suspiciousness of ideologies and ``isms,'' falling for the brutality of Nazism, with its thugs on the one hand and its intellectual sliminess on the other.

In his letters, as in his other writings, we can observe the contrast between the clusters of words - and qualities - he values and those he associates with the malaise of modern life: delicate, sensitive, live, dark, deep, soft, wild, trust, single, pure, intelligent, on the one hand; self, bully, mechanical, ego, crude, willful, iron, gray, and mental, on the other. The distinction between ``intelligent'' and ``mental'' is a vital one. Lawrence never celebrates blind irrationality: He prizes the action of the human intelligence, the ability to draw analogies and to make fine distinctions, to see through falsehood and to seek the truth. But he constantly warns against imposing preconceived ``mental'' patterns or formulas on experience, just as he denounces self-conscious posturing and ideologizing. He was distressed to be perceived as a kind of primitivist: ``Oh leave off saying I want you to be savages,'' he exclaims in one of his late poems. ``All I want of you ... is that you shall achieve your own beauty/ as the flowers do.''

His letters record his impressions freshly, as he feels them: admiration for the soft, pale ``Puvis de Chavannes'' colors of Australia; revulsion from the tropical heat of Ceylon; approval of Einstein's relativity theory ``for taking out the pin which fixed down our fluttering little physical universe''; ambivalence toward James Joyce (``they usually mention us together ... and I feel I ought to know in what company I creep into immortality''). He is only able to read ``bits'' of ``Ulysses,'' which ``wearied me: so like a schoolmaster with dirt and stuff in his head: sometimes good, though: but too mental.''

He writes to publishers, agents, friends: even to near-strangers. There are a number of kind, charming letters in German to his mother-in-law, Baroness Anna von Richthofen, whom he also helps out financially during this time, when the German economy is in dire straits. To Alice Corbin Henderson, co-editor with Harriet Monroe of Poetry, he addresses a lecture on fidelity: ``And fidelity to yourself means fidelity single and unchanging, to one other one.... Woman can be truly true to one man only: and man the same to one woman. The rest is lapses. ... Of course it's absurd of me to write to you like this....''

``The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H. Lawrence'' is proceeding apace. Seven volumes of the letters are planned, covering the years 1901 to 1930. The present volume is the product of a period when Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, traveled in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Ceylon, Australia, the South Pacific, the United States, and Mexico. In this period also, they first visit Taos, N.M., at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Sterne (later Luhan), whose generosity and willfulness inspire Lawrence's gratitude and anger.

Reading the letters, one feels a great affection for the man who wrote them: for his thoughtfulness, honesty, spontaneity, responsiveness, energy, humor, even his irritability. Reading, one feels the pulse of the productivity of those years, and a deep admiration and liking for the resilience - indeed, the cheerfulness - behind the productivity.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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