I had always thought of D.H Lawrence as a writer of moldy-smelling novels you would find in your uncle’s garage by a stack of Horizon magazines and a can of paint thinner, ones whose cover might feature a lady in a wicker chair by a potted plant wearing only a silk scarf. But because Lawrence has a shelf of first editions in Dr. Rosenbach’s library (along with a manuscript and two autograph letters), I began to wonder if there was more to him. Looking to some writers whose literary judgements I trust, I found superlatives from E.M. Forster alongside tempered but enthusiastic praise from Virginia Woolf, which suggested that Lawrence might have more to offer than heteroerotica for straight men who listen to Edith Piaf while wearing black turtlenecks.
I explored further, and came to enjoy Lawrence’s lovely, surprisingly omnisexual novels and absorbing short stories, though I did not enjoy his unreadable ranting essays and criticism. I found a Lawrence who deserves Forster and Woolf’s accolades every bit as much as he deserves the giant J.K. Rowling-sized dumpster of problematic that rolls along after him. I cannot unpack in this blog post or as yet fully comprehend all of D.H. Lawrence—his novels, short stories, essays, travel writing, and poetry—but setting my personal reckoning with Lawrence aside, let’s look at how he came to be at the Rosenbach.
Our story starts with this genial fellow:
That’s David V. Lederhandler, a Philadelphia clothing merchant who began corresponding with Lawrence in the last year of Lawrence’s life and came to amass a significant Lawrence collection. Mr. Lederhandler’s niece and nephew, Ruth Ostroff and Burton Wellenbach, donated their uncle’s collection to The Rosenbach in 1979 with an amiable letter saying that it came “with the knowledge of Mr. Lederhandler’s lifelong interest in literature and respect for books.” Lederhandler’s Lawrence collection at the Rosenbach includes one manuscript, two autograph letters, and 48 books—many of which are limited editions and many of which are signed.
Lederhandler’s relationship with D.H. Lawrence began in 1929, when he wrote Lawrence to ask if he had any first editions of his work to sell. Lawrence wrote him back
in a letter dated April 5, 1929 from the resort town of Rottach Germany saying that all of his own copies of his first editions had been stolen, but he might be able to track down some manuscripts. The rest of the letter is an index of what was on Lawrence’s mind in 1929, essentially, money. Lawrence complains bitterly about various pirated editions of his work and makes two requests for Lederhandler—whom he knows from one letter—to be his industrial counter-spy in the U.S.A. Lederhandler, for instance, might pop up to New York to see book dealer Harry F. Marks, who sold a pirated edition of Lawrence’s short story Sun. “I wish you’d ask him about it,” Lawrence says, and gripes that the fifth pirated edition of Lady Chatterly’s Lover is now out, and adds “I was very upset when I heard Harold T. Mason of the Centaur Bookshop in Phila. was back of the first pirated edition of Lady Chatterly. He is a friend, so I hated to hear such a thing & am loath to believe it. Do you think there is anything in it? Do tell me. A certain circumstance makes me suspicious.” The next Lawrence letter to Lederhandler, of May 25, 1929, is at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin: “Thanks for the news about the pirates. Perhaps we shall succeed in something more definite later on,” Lawrence says, suggesting that Lederhandler was as genial as he looks and was game to participate in a bit of espionage for his new friend D.H. Lawrence. I like the image of this Philadelphia businessman gamely putting on his deerstalker cap and going sleuthing for D.H.L.
The third letter from Lawrence to Lederhandler is above in its entirety. This one is significant to scholars and Lawrence fans, as it contains Lawrence’s explanation of his process in writing and sounds the symbolic depth of Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Responding to an insightful question from Lederhandler about the paralysis of Sir Clifford—Lady Chatterly’s cuckolded husband—Lawrence responds:
Yes, the paralysis of Sir Clifford is symbolic — all art is au fond symbolic, conscious or unconscious. When I began Lady C., of course I did not know what I was doing — I did not deliberately work symbolically. But by the time the book was finished I realised what the unconscious symbolism was. And I wrote the book three times — I have three complete MSS. — pretty different, yet the same. The wood is of course unconscious symbolism — perhaps even the mines — even Mrs. Bolton.
So that may be the real meat of our Lederhandler/Lawrence letters, the part that gets quoted in biographies, but for me Lawrence inviting himself to stay at Lederhandler’s house is equally interesting, and even charming: “I will remember you when I want to do something really privately in the USA,” Lawrence wrote, to a man he had never met, “which might be fairly soon.” We gain an insight into Lawrence the person here. The rapidity with which Lawrence enlists a relative stranger to put him up when he’s in the states and to spy for him shows an expectation of instant intimacy free of pesky boundaries. The skinny ginger author springs into the Philadelphia businessman’s personal space with the entitled innocence of Tigger springing into Pooh’s, and though I find this endearing I am aware that some, Lederhandler included, might have felt invaded—if flattered.
To look at the epistolary friendship of Lederhandler and Lawrence, the story of Lederhandler’s Lawrence collection and how it came to be at the Rosenbach through Lederhandler’s niece and nephew’s generosity, I set my personal reckoning with Lawrence aside. But now, the smelly Lawrentian dumpster of problematic rolls into the frame. If you’ve had your fill of Lawrence at the Rosenbach and would prefer not to hear about my frustration and disappointment with D.H.L. this would be a good time to close this tab. If you’re sticking with me, the first thing I’ll pull from the D.H. Lawrence dumpster is the manuscript Lawrence offered in his first letter to Lederhandler and which now resides at the Rosenbach—a short story called None of That:
I read None of That as I was researching this blog post and immediately wished I hadn’t. It is the most misogynistic fiction I’ve suffered through since Kipling’s The Light That Failed, and is, in fact, even more repulsive. None of That makes Hemingway look like John Stuart Mill. Useless as a work of art, None of That can only serve as an index of how deep, vicious, and normalized the hatred of women has been in our patriarchal culture. I’ll say no more about it except that None of That should come with a giant Vegas-sized neon trigger warning, and that will do for Lawrence’s much-noted sexism–for this blog post at least. Lawrence’s fascistic leanings seem to live in the lunatic “prophetic” essays I find unreadable, so we can set that aside for now, or forever. That leaves his anti-Semitism and internalized homophobia. Let’s start with the latter, shall we? Fun!
If my excitement at holding a D.H. Lawrence manuscript was doused in the trash soup at the bottom of his demolition-sized dumpster of problematic, my excitement was further confused by what I’ve learned about his internalized homophobia. Lawrence was bisexual, but I should warn you up front that the heteropatriarchal sex police are all over this like ants on a dead opossum. The way that openly bisexual artists get wrestled safely back into the hetero zone (he was young it was only once he grew out of it I don’t care what he said to Dick Cavett Daddy loved Mommy only) inspires words in me that are not fit for the Rosen-blog; after straights have colonized the world, destroyed the environment, endangered us with deadly gender reveal parties, and imprisoned, bullied into suicide, castrated, hanged, and lobotomized generations of queer people are they seriously going to quibble over Shakespeare, Marlon Brando, Lou Reed, Dave Davies, and D.H. Lawrence, all of whom said they loved men, or in Shakespeare’s case, at least one man?
Yes. The answer is yes. Heteropatriarchy will give no ground.
Though considered the apostle of heterosexual liberation, Lawrence’s writings include characters with gay and lesbian sentiments that are sometimes drawn from his own lived experience. Lawrence confided in his friend, the writer Compton MacKenzie, that the nearest he had come “to perfect love was with a young coal-miner when I was about 16.” Unless the 16-year-old Lawrence and his coal-miner paramour were coyly chaste this admission gives the lie to biographer Brenda Maddox’s assertion that Lawrence experienced sex with a man “only once” in 1916, when he was 31 and hooked up with a Cornish farmer named William Henry Hocking. Lawrence’s wife Frieda affirmed this episode after Lawrence’s death, bless her, so that makes twice by my count. “I should like to know why nearly every man that approaches greatness tends to homosexuality, whether he admits it or not,” Lawrence wrote in a 1913 letter, a sentiment with which I heartily agree. Lawrence honored gay desire in his works—most famously in Women in Love, but also in this beautiful passage from his first novel, The White Peacock, in which our gay narrator, Cyril Beardsall, is happily wrapped in the arms of the magnificently handsome George Saxton after a swim:
He saw I had forgotten to continue my rubbing, and laughing he took hold of me and began to rub me briskly, as if I were a child, or rather, a woman he loved and did not fear. I left myself quite limply in his hands, and, to get a better grip of me, he put his arm round me and pressed me against him, and the sweetness of the touch of our naked bodies one against the other was superb. It satisfied in some measure the vague, indecipherable yearning of my soul; and it was the same with him. When he had rubbed me all warm, he let me go, and we looked at each other with eyes of still laughter, and our love was perfect for a moment, more perfect than any I have known since, either for man or woman.
So there you have it, an Edwardian novel with a queer protagonist to put alongside Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh. But to paraphrase Pee-Wee Herman, it seems like everyone has a big But, and it’s time to talk about D.H. Lawrence’s big But. Lawrence grappled with his homosexual feelings, unnecessarily and stupidly, and from his smoldering ball of internalized homophobia shot burning darts at a friend, the bisexual writer and publisher David Garnett. In 1910 Lawrence wrote Garnett:
It is foolish to say that it doesn’t matter either way—the men loving men… it matters so much David, to the man himself—any rate to us northern nations—that it is a blow of triumphant decay, when I meet Birrel [gay writer and publisher Frankie Birrel] or the others. I simply can’t bear it. It is so wrong, it is unbearable. It makes a form of inward corruption which truly makes me scarce able to live.
That racism (“to us northern nations”) is folded into Lawrence’s revelation of internalized homophobia makes it even more embarrassing and ugly. To use Lawrence’s own words, “I hated to hear such a thing, & am loath to believe it.” But if D.H. Lawrence’s internalized homophobia wounds me, the wound is muted. In a heteropatriarchal society many a queer person is caught in an undertow of self-loathing, despises himself, and bullies other queers; the villain here is heteropatriarchy. But without the defense of being a confused bisexual Lawrence’s misogyny and anti-Semitism hurt me more deeply. I encounter bigotry, sexism, and transphobia among queer friends and acquaintances but find I am still unable to discard the dream that being LGBTQIA inoculates one against hate. I am naïve, I know, but hate from the bisexual Lawrence stings me. How can queer people, victims of bigotry ourselves, cosign bigotry against any other?
Lawrence’s anti-Semitism, though it likely exists elsewhere, I first saw in his novella The Captain’s Doll. Lawrence’s main character, Captain Alexander Hepburn, four times laments the presence of “Jews of the wrong sort” at a mountain resort in Austria. Lawrence does not contextualize these comments as a symptom of lamentable bigotry on the part of his protagonist, but allows them to stand, apparently expecting the reader to accept that “Jews of the wrong sort” exist and we would prefer not to share public spaces with them. If Lawrence had unraveled the bezoar of internalized homophobia that rotted in his gut would he have been able free himself from misogyny, anti-Semitism, and incipient fascism, and truly become a prophet?
Who knows? I play a game with myself where I imagine the Apostle Paul living to ninety instead of dying at sixty, outgrowing his bigotries, and honoring Jews, women, and LGBTQ people in his next epistle. Lawrence died at 45 of tuberculosis; I can play the same game with him, but it will only ever be only a game. Lawrence is admired as a poet and travel writer and his prose fiction rivals the beauties of Joyce, Forster, and even Woolf, but though critics I admire sometimes speak of him as a prophet, I strip him of that title. No true prophet can harbor self-loathing and hatred of others.
I’ll end this post with a palate-cleansing verse from the real English poet-prophet, William Blake: I am heartened by this takedown of his countrymen’s anti-Semitism and overall xenophobia (Edward I, Chaucer, Elizabeth I, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Dickens, Lawrence, Churchill, Woolf, Eliot, Dahl, Rowling, Brexit, will England ever grow up?) and though Blake’s philo-Semitism could be clumsily convertist, I cherish this cheeky verse he penned for the admirably abolitionist ur-Gothic artist demi-god Henri Fuseli whose canvas Adam and Eve resides at the Rosenbach, and whose work Blake influenced:
The only man that ever I knew
Who did not make me almost spew
Was Fuseli: he was both Turk and Jew –
And so, dear Christian Friends, how do you do?