Lawrence And The Spirit Of Red America

"According to Lawrence, the Pilgrim Fathers did not come to America for freedom. They were Puritans, opposed to the life impulse"

Lawrence And The Spirit Of Red America

DH Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature is an extraordinary collection of essays on eight American writers—Franklin, Crèvecoeur, Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Dana, Melville and Whitman. The book is quite contentious; Lawrence himself referred to it as “this ten-barrelled pistol of essays of mine,” and described them to Amy Lowell as “very keen essays in criticism—cut your fingers if you don’t handle them carefully.”

That is indeed the impression one gets after reading this book. Lawrence calls classical American writers “hopeless liars,” but also “artists, in spite of themselves.” He sees a dual consciousness in their writing, where they might be overtly preaching or moralising--as in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter--but their art-speech as Lawrence calls it reveals a deeper, hidden truth: “The curious thing about art-speech is that it prevaricates so terribly, I mean it tells such lies. I suppose because we always all the time tell ourselves lies. And out of a pattern of lies art weaves the truth.” He sees the Americans as great dodgers, “because they dodge their own very selves.”

Lawrence holds that the Pilgrim Fathers did not come to America for freedom. They were Puritans, opposed to the life impulse. In fact, they initiated “the most cruel religious tyranny in America.” They “were not Christians at all—not in any reasonable sense of the word.” They wanted not liberty but power, and were filled with “a gloomy passion…to destroy or mutilate life at its very quick.” They were “anti-life,” repressive and vindictive. The Pilgrim Fathers fell prey to the “motion of vindictive repression of the living impulse, the utter subjection of the living, spontaneous being to the fixed, mechanical, ultimately insane will.” Human beings, instead of humbly recognising that “the life-mystery precedes us,” try their utmost to have control over it. “This craving, once admitted, becomes a lust.” For Lawrence, “the great field for the lust of control in the modern world is America.” He claims that North Americans have replaced their blood-consciousness with mental-consciousness and mechanisation, but he also prophesies that this “mechanical monstrosity” is temporary and will disappear soon: “There will come an America which we cannot foretell, a new creation on the face of the earth, a world beyond us.”

Since the time of the Pilgrim Fathers, Americans have existed in a frictional state with the continent of America. They have “moved on in one line of inexorable repression,” repressing all natural impulse in favour of producing ideal, homogeneous beings

For Lawrence, since its inception, America has proceeded in a linear fashion, getting more and more ideal and automatised, and less free. In order to become rational, productive citizens, Americans have had to suppress their intuitive, impulsive selves. In the essay on Melville’s Moby Dick he says:

What then is Moby Dick?—He is the deepest blood-being of the white race. He is our deepest blood nature.

            And he is hunted, hunted, hunted by the maniacal fanaticism of our white mental consciousness…The last phallic being of the white man. Hunted into the death of upper consciousness and the ideal will. Our blood-self subjected to our own will. Our blood-consciousness sapped by a parasitic mental or ideal consciousness.

Hot-blooded sea-born Moby Dick. Hunted by monomaniacs of the idea.

This blood-self implies what Lawrence calls elsewhere “the kinship of flesh and blood [that] keeps the warm flow of intuitional awareness streaming between human beings.” Those who trample upon this blood-self, this phallic self, are anti-life, makers of poison gas and atomic bombs, purveyors of death. They have suppressed their warm, emotional selves and developed instead their material, ideal and machine selves. Lawrence asserts that the most idealistic people are the most materialistic. It is to be remembered that for Lawrence, an ideal means a ready-made pattern to which human beings try to adapt themselves, often at the cost of mutilating their wholeness. It is mental-consciousness against blood-consciousness. Contrary to Bertrand Russell’s conclusions in his Autobiography, Lawrence’s blood-consciousness didn’t lead to Auschwitz; it was the Nazis’ mental ideal of a pure, blue-eyed race that did. Americans, being puritans and idealists, embody for Lawrence the mental consciousness that is out to hunt down and obliterate warm blood-consciousness in Americans themselves and in others. Americans want, “not only to dethrone, but to murder the lower consciousness…This very murder of the lower consciousness means, of course, the killing of the creative reality in man altogether and the triumph of the material dynamic will.”

Lawrence calls Fenimore Cooper’s character Natty Bumppo in Deerslayer “the stoic American killer of the old great life” and calls the story “the myth of the essential white American. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” In his discussion of Poe, Lawrence states: “The American has got to destroy. It is his destiny. It is his destiny to destroy the whole corpus of the white psyche, the white consciousness. And he’s got to do it secretly.” The same theme is explored in the works of the other writers.

Still, Lawrence asserts that America can regenerate itself if it embraces the Red spirit which pervades the land:

Let Americans turn to America…Do they want to draw sustenance for the future?…America must turn again to catch the spirit of her own dark, aboriginal continent.

That which was abhorrent to the Pilgrim Fathers and to the Spaniards, that which was called the Devil, the black Demon of savage America, this great aboriginal spirit the Americans must recognise again, recognise and embrace. The devil and anathema of our forefathers hides the Godhead which we seek.

Since the time of the Pilgrim Fathers, Americans have existed in a frictional state with the continent of America. They have “moved on in one line of inexorable repression,” repressing all natural impulse in favour of producing ideal, homogeneous beings who would be “dispassionate, rational, utilitarian,” so that they would set themselves to production. The great danger for Americans, as Lawrence foresaw, was falling into, or rather continuing the legacy of puritanism, idealism and production, which have nothing to do with life or creation: “The difference between production and creation is the difference between existence and being, function and flowering, mechanical force and life itself.” Regeneration for the White American can come only when he takes responsibility for the Native American race he has destroyed, otherwise he might end up destroying himself.

Americans must not look back to Europe for a tradition, but must take up the tradition that belongs properly to the American continent, and let the spirit of place work upon them. According to Lawrence, the great classical American writers have written about this very idea without knowing about it; they have written about it “uncannily, unconsciously, blindfold as it were.” Lawrence calls on Americans to become fully aware of their responsibility to the future in embracing this spirit of place.

Naveed Rehan, PhD, is an independent scholar