Death in Disguise

The 1950's were the high point of D.H. Lawrence's critical reputation. In those days university English professors were keen teachers of Lawrence's message of "life" and emotional honesty, and he was a popular subject for undergraduate theses. He now appears less frequently on reading lists, and the other day I heard a highschool teacher say that her students found Sons and Lovers funny. Jeffrey Meyers' objective, dispassionate approach to Lawrence reflects this change of atmosphere, and two things in particular emerge from reading his well-documented, fascinating book: how influential Lawrence has been, and how dated his writing now looks.

These are not irreconcilables. Lawrence, a working-class boy from a mining village out of the mainstream of English life, was really a 19th-century figure, more preacher than artist, more like Ruskin, Kingsley, and Carlyle than his modernist contemporaries. A successful preacher, too: his message can be read on bumperstickers from coast to coast, the creed of the counterculture. Jeffrey Meyers documents its main points: the preference for nature over people, and for the primitive over the civilized; hatred of rational Europe and Christianity; a hankering for "the other," wherever one might find it; a deep belief in the regenerative powers of sex and the simultaneous orgasm; and an equally deep dislike of America and its belief in liberty and democracy.


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