Beginning his Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence questions the perceived “childishness” of the old American classics.
The old American art-speech contains an alien quality, which belongs to the American continent and to nowhere else. But, of course, so long as we insist on reading the books as children’s tales, we miss all that.
American literature requires — deserves even — a reappraisal, because it is we who are missing out when we patronise those writers of the new world with new things to say. And yet it is hardly surprising that so many would treat American art-speech so scathingly. Lawrence continues:
It is hard to hear a new voice, as hard as it is to listen to an unknown language. We just don’t listen. There is a new voice in the old American classics. The world has declined to hear it, and has babbled about children’s stories.
As I sat reading this opening chapter on a humid Sunday afternoon, I found my mind drifting to Stephen King’s IT and the notorious scene where the children all have sex with Beverly Marsh as they attempt to leave the sewers.
The scene came under fresh scrunity a few years ago, following the recent film adaptations, which drew more attention to it only by leaving it out.
What does it mean? Why is it included? Is it appropriate?
The general interpretation I see is that the Losers require some kind of end of innocence moment before they return to the outside world. Sex is a doorway out of innocence and childhood. But once they leave the sewers, having defeated IT, the children “regress” to a normal suburban existence; to a normal childhood. Their memories are repressed.
I wonder if King is illuminating the same tension that Lawrence is here, in a suitably immoral fashion. The scene is inappropriate because of the age of the children but, like so many American novels, perhaps the issue remains the same. This is not a children’s book — that is, a book for or about children — not really. America is defined, in its adolescence, by sex and violence; it is fitting, if nonetheless disturbing, that the characters in IT are too.
What the children really require is an end to fear. In defeating IT, they defeat fear, but they are nonetheless disconnected by their ordeal. Desire overwhelms them. The sexual experience reunites them but it is nonetheless contaminated by the drives that brought them there.
For Lawrence, IT is not to be feared but embraced. IT is freedom. Freedom is not doing whatever you like on a whim but “doing what the deepest self likes.” (Interestingly, for Lawrence, the “most unfree men go west, and shout about freedom” — a shout that “is a rattling of chains, always was.”)
IT is the deepest self. IT is our deepest fears and desires both — because, of course, sometimes we fear what we want the most. Indeed, even as Lawrence affirms IT, he paints IT as a horror, as if to fully comprehend it would ruin us, but comprehend it we must. He writes:
If one wants to be free, one has to give up the illusion of doing what one likes, and seek what IT wishes done.
But before you can do what IT likes, you must first break the spell of the old mastery, the old IT.
[…] The true liberty will only begin when Americans discover IT, and proceeds to fulfil IT. IT being the deepest whole self, the self in its wholeness, not idealistic halfness.
That’s why the Pilgrim Fathers came to America, then; and that’s why we come. Driven by IT. We cannot see that invisible winds carry us, as they carry swarms of locusts, that invisible magnetism brings us as it brings the migrating birds to their unforeknown goal. But it is so. We are not the marvellous choosers and deciders we think we are. IT chooses for us, and decides for us. […] We are free only so long as we obey.
The same is true of the Losers. Indeed, when Beverly recalls their copulation in the grey waters beneath the town, her memories are broken up and punctured by birds.
All of them . . . I was their first love.
She tried to remember it — it was something good to think about in all this darkness, where you couldn’t place the sounds. It made her feel less alone. At first it wouldn’t come; the image of the birds intervened — crows and grackles and starlings, spring birds that came back from somewhere while the streets were still running with meltwater and the last patches of crusted dirty snow clung grimly to their shady places.
It seemed to her that it was always on a cloudy day that you first heard and saw those spring birds and wondered where they came from. Suddenly they were just back in Derry, filling the white air with their raucous chatter. They lined the telephone wires and roofpeaks of the Victorian houses on West Broadway; they jostled for places on the aluminum branches of the elaborate TV antenna on top of Wally’s Spa; they loaded the wet black branches of the elms on Lower Main Street. They settled, they talked to each other in the screamy babbling voices of old countrywomen at the weekly Grange Bingo games, and then, at some signal which humans could not discern, they all took wing at once, turning the sky black with their numbers . . . and came down somewhere else.
Yes, the birds, I was thinking of them because I was ashamed. It was my father who made me ashamed, I guess, and maybe that was Its doing, too. Maybe.
The memory came — the memory behind the birds — but it was vague and disconnected. Perhaps this one always would be. She had —
Her thoughts broke off as she realized that Eddie comes to her first, because he is the most frightened. He comes to her not as her friend of that summer, or as her brief lover now, but the way he would have come to his mother only three or four years ago, to be comforted; he doesn’t draw back from her smooth nakedness and at first she doubts if he even feels it. He is trembling, and although she holds him the darkness is so perfect that even this close she cannot see him; except for the rough cast he might as well be a phantom.
“What do you want? ” he asks her.
“You have to put your thing in me, ” she says.
It is the last fear to break: their fear of each other. If it is disturbing in its rupture of adolescence, so be it. So is the American soul forever adolescent, in both its waywardness and its overarching obedience to an ideal. But adolescence is still where America remains most free. Much like the Losers in Stephen King’s novel, Americans aren’t free when IT is dead. They are at their most free when they are fighting IT.