Review: Lee M. Jenkins, The American Lawrence

Gillian Groszewski

Lee M. Jenkins’s The American Lawrence is an arresting book. The title is printed in a stylised font that invokes the ‘Wanted’ posters of John Ford westerns and takes its place above a 1925 portrait of Lawrence by Dorothy Brett. The cover serves as a visual introduction to the concept of Lawrence as outlaw. Indeed, this book-cover-judgement seems appropriate given that, ten years before Brett completed her portrait, the sheriffs had been up-in-arms over The Rainbow. Later, of course, they attempted to drive Lady Chatterley out of town in a trial which required a gun-slinging posse of literati to defend their outlawed hero. Actual Lawrentian encounters with law-enforcement aside, the outlaw cover of The American Lawrence points to a central concern of Jenkins’s book: Lawrence’s outsider status as an Englishman writing in, and of, America and its literature. That this concern is initially presented to us visually – through the typeface and the use of Brett’s portrait on the cover – highlights another of Jenkins’s preoccupations within the book: Lawrence’s relationship with the visual arts. Jenkins very skilfully uses the intersection between literature and art that characterised Lawrence’s residence in New Mexico to consider the collaborative roles played by two groups in fostering Lawrence’s talent in America and in securing his posthumous reputation. These were the influential American literary women of means, such as Amy Lowell and Mabel Dodge Luhan, with whom Lawrence surrounded himself, and visual artists, such as Brett, Alfred Steiglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, some of whom he never met.

The pool of books which consider the experiences of influential, twentieth-century British writers in America is surprisingly small. Notable among them are John Malcolm Brinnin’s Dylan Thomas in America: An Intimate Journal (1955) and Armin Arnold’s D. H. Lawrence and America (1958). Significantly, both of these books were post-war publications, appearing at a time when national boundaries were more fluid than they had ever been before. Although the blurb on Jenkins’s book refers to Lawrence as ‘a distinctly English author’, her introduction repeatedly questions that description and Jenkins explores in detail the canonical consequences of taking seriously Lawrence’s claim that he was ‘more than half American’ (1). The intervening half-century between Armin Arnold’s book and Jenkins’s have seen the rapid development of international and transnational approaches to literature that challenge the imperialist, mono-national force behind phrases such as ‘distinctly English’ and encourage considerations of previously underemphasised literary contexts and connections. In this spirit, Jenkins does not seek to claim Lawrence as an Englishman or an American or an Englishman-become-American. Neither does she suggest that the man behind the writing as a convenient explanation for Lawrence’s American output and focus. Rather, Jenkins takes into account all aspects of Lawrence’s stay in America – the literary, personal, artistic and environmental – and provides a holistic appraisal of his American writing. In doing so, Jenkins negotiates two straits of literary theory that are in seeming opposition: local modernism and transnationalism. However, Jenkins is well placed to conduct this negotiation considering her work as co-editor of The Locations of Literary Modernism: Region and Nation in British and American Modernist Poetry (2000). Ultimately, Jenkins demonstrates that these two literary tributaries eventually flow into one another and that discussion of the local should not come at the exclusion of the global – or vice versa. This approach facilitates Jenkins’s repeated return within the book to Lawrence’s 1921 claim; ‘I always really write towards America’, allowing her to unpick all the implications of this statement (10). Through careful contextualisation, Jenkins assesses many of Lawrence’s American texts on their own terms allowing for a multitude of influencing factors ranging from the local and personal to the global.

The aim of Jenkins’s chapter on Studies in Classic American Literature is to return that book ‘to the horizon of its contemporary reception’ and Jenkins entirely succeeds in this endeavour. The strongest of all the chapters, it is painstakingly researched and fills lacunae which Jenkins suggests have distorted the literary-historical record since the Cold War resulting in an unfair denigration of Lawrence’s book solely as a propagator of American exceptionalism that is  ‘encoded in the “classic” canon’ (3). Jenkins demonstrates the influence of Studies on New Americanism, post-nationalism and transnationalism attesting to the book’s appeal, not just as a ‘myth and symbol’ interpretation of a classic national literature, but as the initiator of a ‘decomposition of a national narrative in the American classics’ that would later characterise post- and transnational writing (4). The chapter provides thorough political and literary critical contexts for Lawrence’s contribution to America’s poor stock of ‘creative criticism’ (27).

In her second chapter, on Lawrence and American modernism, Jenkins helpfully continues the interrogation of what constitutes an American book and what literary citizenship might mean. This chapter goes on to look closely at the influence of poets such as Walt Whitman, H.D. and William Carlos Williams on Lawrence and is most instructive on the Whitman connection. The end of this chapter, however, becomes a little overwhelmed by theory. Ecopoetics, ‘thing’ theory and phenomenology are all invoked within a few pages and the fine balance that Jenkins had struck in her presentation of literary history, theory and close-reading in the previous chapter is, temporarily, lost.

In chapter three, Jenkins analyses Lawrence’s New Mexico tales, exploring generic intersections and relationships which, she demonstrates, are heavily influenced by conceptions of gender. Again, this is Jenkins at her strongest as she opens up the readings by considering all kinds of connections and, consequently, suggests interesting contextual possibilities for the stories. This chapter is very nicely balanced by the book’s conclusion in which Jenkins emphasises the personal and artistic influence of Dorothy Brett, Frieda Lawrence and Mabel Dodge Luhan on Lawrence while also considering the influence of Lawrence on work by Brett and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Jenkins’s book is both imaginatively and geographically wide-ranging. That there is no chapter on The Plumed Serpent then seems like a glaring omission. The key to this may lie in Jenkins’s description of the book as Lawrence’s ‘Mexican novel’ (10). However, given the great lengths to which Jenkins goes in her introduction to situate her approach in transnational terms, this distinction seems bizarre. The transnational foundations laid in her introduction should have given Jenkins complete license to write on the book formerly known as Quetzalcoatl which, she acknowledges, Lawrence considered to be his ‘real novel of America’ (81).  However, The Plumed Serpent is only mentioned in passing throughout begging the question: what kind of a book would more appropriately contain a complete chapter on that novel? The English Lawrence? Probably not. The Transnational Lawrence? Perhaps. Despite this omission, Jenkins’s book is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in Lawrence, Anglo-American literary history and the transnational. At only 160 pages, it is also a quick read. The length and depth of this book, however, should recommend it to students who would do well to consider Jenkins’s well-researched and wide-ranging approach to Lawrence as a model for critical inquiry.

 

The American Lawrence, by Lee M. Jenkins, Gainsville, University Press of Florida, 2015, 160 pp., £48.67 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-8130-6050-7