Lady Chatterley in America

The tolerance of American readers Uncord mailers of sex has broadened perceptibly since those far-off days in the 1920s when JURGEN was regarded as a naughty book and when LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER in its original edition leas banned. Judge Woolsey’s classic decision on ULYSSESwas in part responsible for the new tolerance, and so too teas the effect of World War II. In this essay ALFRED KAZIN, the well-known critic, re-examines D. H. Lawrence’s masterpiece.


RENTLY Grove Press of New York sent me a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the unexpurgated text of Lawrence’s third and final version, with an introduction by Mark Schorer and a preface by Archibald MacLeish; on the jacket were admiring testimonies to the book’s nobility and lovingness from Jacques Barzun and Edmund Wilson, I hadn’t looked at Lawrence’s book or thought of it particularly since 1956. when I had bought a copy of the unexpurgated edition in a Stockholm department store, and I was pleased and proud that a young American publisher so devoted to twentieth-century literature as Barney Rosset of Grove Press had had the imagination and the courage to bring out the book in this country for the first time.

I had an errand to do. and was not able to turn to the book immediately. I live in a respectable middle-class neighborhood of New York, though in the fashion of middle-class neighborhoods in New York, it is getting slightly “beat,” and so I was irritated not more than usually when a group of mingled white and Negro young men, wearing earrings, very tight narrow trousers, with hair greased back into duck tails, swished past.

At the corner newsstand, where I stopped to pick up my afternoon paper, I could hardly see the papers lor the sex magazine covers. There were at least a dozen females in languishing poses, so hugely uddered and yet so coyly draped that I marveled at the enormous effort it must take to play peekaboo with curtains, aprons, and blouses. While remembering a friend of mine who writes “serious” stories for one of these magazines and who sent me one, to the inexpressible delight of my eleven-year-old son, who hadn’t thought he could decently get to see so much, I noticed that there are now as many homosexual smut magazines as there are heterosexual ones; the number of heavily muscled young men, occasionally arrayed against a Grecian background with hands on their waists, made me wonder what my dour newspaper vender thinks of it all.

But I didn’t ask him; I was too busy thinking of some of the contemporary novels 1 had looked at that week. One was about necrophilia, another on sodomy between priests, a third on incest. Although I had discharged my ideas on the subject in a review of John O’Hara’s From the Terrace, I was still angry and sick about the misuse of this powerful talent on idolatrous descriptions of sexual intercourse. However, thinking of some equally talented but much younger writers, I had to admit that in his old-fashioned way O’Hara was still romantic about sex; like Scott Fitzgerald he thought of it as an upper-class prerogative! By contrast, I recalled Norman Mailer, who wrote the most powerful American novel of Pacific fighting in World War II and whom I had seen on television some weeks before explaining, in a discussion with Dorothy Parker and Truman Capote, that the aim of life should he “personal growth,” that he admired Fidel Castro for looking “beat,” and that it was important to be “good” in bed.

Well, I thought to myself, Lady Chatterley is out of date. Wasn’t it Kinsey who managed to amass statistics on the number of ejaculations certain men have a week, and to sell this stuff to the public as scientific information? I remembered my students — the Smith sophomore who, in a discussion of Hemingway’s characters, tossed her young head contemptuously and announced in a shrill piping voice that they were “afraid of sex.” At Amherst, I had discovered, eighteen-year-olds would discuss the homosexuality of Whitman or Hart Crane as soberly and clinically as psychiatrists at a convention.

In England, during the war, I had heard of an American bureaucrat still old-fashioned enough to turn his wife’s picture to the wall whenever he brought a girl back for the night, but standing on Broadway and 86th Street on a beautiful April day, I remembered how much my friends and I in college had loved Lawrence, I recalled Blake’s insistence,

What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire,

and I felt unbearably nostalgic, middle-aged, passé. O Lord, I thought to myself, is there no room for old-fashioned rebels who still love Lawrence and Whitman and William Blake and Sigmund Freud? Have the yahoos taken over here, as everywhere: the beatniks with their infernal smirks of frankness, the chorus girls who just adore Lolita

—it’s so cute — the sexologists?

I recalled the New fork Times Book Review some weeks before, when I had seen ads for half a dozen manuals on “how to achieve sexual competence,” and thinking of the ex-leftist fanatics turned superanalyst wise guys, of all the sniggers, the sex manuals, the dirty magazines, the selfinfatuated homosexuals, the incest, the necrophilia, the call girls and their businessmen, I not only felt démodé, but glad of it. To hell with sexual “competence” and hurray for the lineaments of gratified desire, for Whitman’s “the sweet hell within.” Down with competence and up with passion!

Is THERE anybody, I wondered, hurrying back to my first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, is there anybody in America who could still think of this book as immoral, who could miss Lawrence’s romantic-religious, antinomian, ecstatic faith that sex is holy? Is there some police chief in Boston or Sioux City, some postal official in Washington, who, though he may know little enough of Lawrence’s seriousness as an artist, may know even less of the actual effect of such books on the mind and think it dangerous? Undoubtedly, I had to admit. Just as the beatniks at one extreme personify the ridiculous ideal of sensation for its own sake, of freedom for the sake of sensation, so there is something about the legal or judicial or clerical mind which assumes that one person can be corrupted by one book —while overlooking the growing development in our culture toward a sexual permissiveness hard to tell from personal desperation, the desperation of juvenile delinquents for whom sex means the thrill of violence. And what would these custodians fix on in this book but certain four-letter words which —while they represent exasperated failure for the unquiet desperation that masses of men feel, lodged together in armies, prisons, ships — represented to D. H. Lawrence, born in 1885 and brought up in the Congregationalist church, his wistful and hoped-for symbols of a new loving frankness between men and women? Despite the external smut — or rather, because of it and the divisions which it symbolizes in ourselves — there is something about the American mind that is quick to identify what it is afraid of or just ignorant of as “immoral.”

Some years ago there came to America a mildly touching Italian film about a weak-minded peasant girl who was seduced by a stranger whom she thought of as “Saint Joseph.” The protest line in front of the New York theater carried placards; one of them, never to be forgotten, read: “We give Europe our wealth and they reward us with filth.” Was it possible that the same people could identify Lawrence’s “daring,” his Derbyshiremincr’s-son horror of English gentility, with filth only because he had used certain words, because he believed that “the holiness of the heart’s affections” (Keats’s phrase) could be realized in sexual intercourse? That this would at last be the path of freedom, of sacred ness, of a new communion which would give men and women their only refuge from the hated abstractions and constant meddling of modern industrial society? Previous objection to the book, in more genteel times, had been conventional responses to Lawrence’s romantic defiance, his cult of love. Was it possible that in our increasingly totalitarian world there would now be a serious political objection to human beings who pursued sexual love too strenuously for its own sake? The crime of hero and heroine in Orwell’s 1984 was literally that they ignored the state, devoted themselves entirely to each other. So the real crime of Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper, in 1959, could be that they were not sufficiently “adjusted to the group,” that they ignored their “social responsibility.” that in devoting themselves wholeheartedly to the act of passion, they were making a contemptuous and unforgettable comment on the triviality and fanaticism of their times.

This “crime” is one of the few lessons of love in contemporary fiction: nowadays a man and a woman meeting to devote themselves to sexual passion make a political criticism which is far more suggestive than the old radicalism. The contempt for ideology that can be expressed by passion, I discovered, is the real sense of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959. Yet how ironic this could be, the unintended fruitfulness of Lawrence’s intelligent genius, since the whole purpose of Lawrence’s tract-novel is to establish sexual love as a revolutionary weapon against our industrial society! Thus far have we traveled in the West, all of us. in the thirty years since Lawrence finished the final version of his book. Before the hardening pattern of our society set in for good with World War II, men still hoped to change our society, not to escape it. Lawrence is in the great tradition of English and American literary radicals, with Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman as surely as with Blake and the young Wordsworth and Shelley, in his belief that “the holiness of the heart’s affections” can revolutionize society, can transform “the mills of Satan.”the hated cities, the industrial reek and blackness which Lawrence saw as the enemy of the free human spirit.

THIS call to the higher powers as revolutionary instrument is indeed the great purpose of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It is a novel in praise of love, of physical love’s exaltations, that symbolizes the union of the old yeoman stock, personified by Mellors the gamekeeper, with the best of the English liberal intellectual class. Lady Chatterley was originally Constance Reid, daughter of a Scottish painter and herself a Fabian, and her passion for Mellors is a protest against the incapable and despotic upper classes, in the person of her husband Sir Clifford, who comes back from the war paralyzed from the waist down. Not only is he unable to give his wife a child, but he becomes increasingly selfish, querulous, “proper, as his paralysis comes to include, as a natural part of his experience, the meanness and helplessness of the old English upper classes. For Lawrence’s most subtle and penetrating perception, Mark Schorer remarks in his introduction, “the knowledge that social and psychological conflicts are identical, is so firmly integrated in the structure of his book that it is almost foolhardy to speak of his having two themes when in fact he had one vision.”

Lawrence is still in the great tradition of the English and American romantic poets, those Protestant radicals for whom the “living intuitive faculty,” the wild and irrepressible call of the spirit, made church authority unnecessary; they automatically interpreted all experience by that belief in the ideal unity of man’s faculties which is typical of the religious imagination. Not only was Lawrence’s novel an effort to give religious value to relations between the sexes; but the sympathy born of sexual happiness would work itself into every part of life, would militate against the purely external relationships, the increasing deadness, of industrial society.

It is because Lawrence’s supreme subject is love, not sex. that he is, in the romantic tradition, political. His argument, like those of all religious reformers, is personalislic; nothing in the image of society avails against it, for it absorbs and grows on everything like itself. The external side of life in our lime is too tierce, heavy, hard; when Lady Chatterley motors through town, the darkness of the industrial Midlands has crept into everything: “the brick dwellings are black with dust, the black slate roofs glisten their sharp edges, the mud is black with coal-dust.”Yet life, in its vulnerability. like the newborn chick which the gamekeeper showed his lady—"there it stood, on its impossible little stalks of legs, its atom of balancing life trembling through its almost weightless feet into Connie’s hands” - is the only measure of the value that one must preserve: above all, that one can respect. Mellors, who looks so much like Lawrence in his last racked years, fragile and dead-white of body, also represents the physical fragility of man in the present era; he gives himself wholly to passion, but he is also sorely hurt by life and often grumbles at how little passion can do against all those “mental states.”absorbed from punishing labor, from the increasing lack of contact with his fellow men. from the habit of separateness and the ease of vice.

Yet Mellors accepts the risks ol passion, the beautiful and terrifying involvement to the depths that comes with carnal knowledge, as opposed to the mythomania, the acting out of fantasies that goes with casual amours and prostitution and smut: “It’s life. There’s no keeping clear. And if you do keep clear you might almost as well die.”He knows, above the harried tenderness that is the message of the novel (and Lawrence’s first title for it was Tenderness), that an even worse time is coming, that society will never get away from its compulsive outlet in war.

Reading the book in 1959, I recognize the political moral of tenderness, present to Lawrence’s mind in lh28, as an alternative still present to us. With all the despondency Lawrence felt in’his last illness, he still believed that honest human realization of man’s physical needs, a resolute struggle against the spite and hatred that he identified with the purely mental life, could make people freer and more loving in a society visibly corrupted by suspicion and distrust. Vet at the same time every new development in Western industrial society, every ebbing away of the strength and sweetness of the old country life, was proving too much for the individual. The note of quiescence, the drooping away, at the end of Lady Chatterleys Lover, as the lovers, temporarily separated,, await their divorces and the birth of their child — this is the natural intermittency of passion. But the long letter from Mellors on which the book closes also brings home to us, as much in Lawrence’s novel does, the final insufficiency of a language too strained for the feelings. Lawrence once wrote that “We have no language for the feelings, because our feelings do not even exist for us.” That is the measure of his original effort, his stand for integral human nature. Yet it is also true that the increasing sense of love as escape, from the allenveloping society and passionless conformism, gives Lady Chatterley s Lover that slightly hysterical edge which results from too determined an effort to capture the feelings.

Lawrence wrote always with passionate urgency; he succeeded in giving his style the quickness of life, the immediacy of breath, the aroused physical rhythm of passion itself. But the more his fatal illness pressed on him, the more he tried to evoke in language those states of feeling, of sexual arousement and ecstasy, which are more successfully revealed by indirection and compression. It is folly to think that words, even D. H. Lawrence’s words, can ever get to the heart of passion. The language of mystics is often unbearable in the tension, the verbal effort to tear through the external surface; if words could even begin to suggest the Divine Presence, the mystic would not have to work so hard at language.

Lawrence’s rushing, swift, extraordinarily keen language for sensations often creates a splendid reality in language, the reality of a poem, which is parallel to the love-making ecstasy it seeks to describe and actually conceals from us. The more one studies art, the more one recognizes that it is not an imitation of life, that it never comes close to actual human experience, but is an independent creation, an addition to nature rather than a description of it. Language so passionate and breathless as Lawrence’s ultimately describes the ecstasy of art, not of passion. To the ultimate of passion, fortunately! there is no bridge in the language of mental consciousness.

Lawrence is not pornographic, as snoopers and censors and moralists would charge; in one sense he is not even “real.”The excitement of the best scenes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and these are not always the love scenes, lies in the beauty with which life is praised. Lawrence is so naturally religious about experience, his motivating purpose is so naturally the Protestant’s exultant identification of his single consciousness with life itself, that behind the matchless freedom and case of his prose is the stirring of language itself, the individual’s embrace of life as he extends his private feelings to external nature. It is an ironic and beautiful fact that the very excess of religious spirit that led Lawrence to identify sex with the Holy Ghost exposed him to the hostility of moralists who believe that sex should be kept in its place. Of course Lawrence made too much of sex, as he made too much of life; we do not have the same keen sense of value. In an age when most writers lack that overwhelming responsibility for the whole human community which Lawrence had, it is Lawrence’s overinsistence, his inability to think of sex as partial or furtive, that is likely to produce the characteristic response today that he is naive rather than dirty.

In this sense, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is out of date, for Lawrence’s last great effort to establish love as a counter-availing power in our society offers us a conception of the novel, as of the sacred symbol of love-making, that is too much for the diminished individual, too lyrical, too unabashed, too free. The external niceness that we have come to value ever since Henry James put the seal of “form” on the contemporary novel militates against Lawrence. So does our belief in psychology as determinism, since to us love is helpless and compulsive. So does the sheer lack in America of that rural mystery, the old English wood in which the lovers make love. Lawrence’s exultant. almost unbearably sensitive descriptions of the countryside can mean little to Americans, for whom the neighborhood of love must be the bathroom and the bedroom, both the last word in sophisticated privacy.

Lawrence’s descriptions of the naked lovers gamboling in the rain, his ability to describe a woman’s sensations and a man’s body with feminine soreness — all this belongs to another world. Lady Chatterleys Lover brings back memories of a time when men still believed in establishing freedom as their destiny on earth, when sex was the major symbol of the imprisoned energies of man, for when that castle was razed, life would break open and flow free.