Yesterday’s post was written, like most, on the fly. I was intrigued to learn, after a little more digging, that Stephen King is openly a big fan of D.H. Lawrence, having mentioned him in a few interviews.
Suddenly King’s dramatising of Lawrence’s “IT” doesn’t seem like a moment of literary serendipity — but of course it isn’t. King’s fingers have long been on the pulse of the American psyche. He feels its rhythms more deeply than his reputation for pulp suggests, and it is precisely his reputation for pulp horror that tells us this.
The same is true of Lawrence too, of course; his reputation for smut proceeds him. And yet people are still surprised that his surgical dissections of the national unconscious still ring true.
Intriguingly, King came to Lawrence’s posthumous defence in 2005, following Francine Prose’s very bizarre review of John Worthen’s incredible Lawrence biography for The New York Times. (For what it’s worth, I read Worthen’s book at the end of last year and found his unpacking of his life to be incredible, despite the fact my exploration of Lawrence’s works is still only just beginning.)
Prose says she doesn’t really get Lawrence, but she knows how well regarded he is, and so she’s optimistic that she might discover something new to like in this biography. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get beyond the cliches. Not for lack of trying, she seems to say, but then whether the fault is hers or Worthen’s is unclear. Either way, King does not take kindly to her middling book report. He writes:
To the Editor:
The problem with Francine Prose’s review of D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider (Dec. 4) isn’t that she came to Lawrence through a book (Lady Chatterley’s Lover) she glommed from her Dad’s sock drawer, or that she seems not to have renewed her acquaintance with Lawrence’s work since her undergraduate days; the problem is her not uncommon assumption that she may be better able to understand a great writer by reading about him than by reading him.
A critical examination of Lawrence’s work makes it possible to understand that by saying explicitly what Thomas Hardy only implied in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure — that marriage is the heart of modern society, and sex is the heart of marriage — Lawrence novels such as The Rainbow (published long before Lady Chatterley) were almost certain to be suppressed. But that is a dry bone indeed, and antithetical to everything for which Lawrence lived. It was feeling he cared for, and the heart at which he aimed, not the loins that attracted Prose’s attention as a teenager.
I suspect Lawrence would have clutched his head at the idea of anyone turning to biography as a way of finding “new ways of understanding” his work. Prose might have done better to glance at one of Lawrence’s poems — also titled “The Rainbow,” and probably not coincidentally. It closes with these radiant lines:
But the one thing that is bow-legged
and can’t put its feet together
is the rainbow.
Because one foot is the heart of a man
and the other is the heart of a woman.
And these two, as you know,
Save they leap
Oh hearts, leap high!
— they touch in mid-heaven like an acrobat
and make a rainbow.
The writer’s rainbow is always found in his work, and students seeking gold would thus do well to start there.
It is an intriguing turn of events. Lawrence, as both author and critic, had defended the role of the latter in his poetically critical work on American literature:
The artist usually sets out — or used to — to point a moral and adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way, as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, the artist’s and the tale’s. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.
Now we know our business in these studies; saving the American tale from the American artist.
It is precisely in dissecting “the American tale” that Lawrence’s uncovers IT. King’s novel IT is an intriguing response to Lawrence’s symptomatology. Indeed, with all this in mind, IT, particularly at its most “purple”, feels quite explicitly Lawrencean. Or, alternatively, it reads like a tribute to Poe via Lawrence’s reading of him.
Poe is interesting for Lawrence because he abjures the Other that so many other novelists — James Fenimore Cooper in particular — rely on to interrogate the national unconscious. There are no overtly racialised forces here (although Lovecraft, of course, brings them back); for Lawrence,
Poe has no truck with Indians or Nature. He makes no bones about Red Brothers and Wigwams.
He is absolutely concerned with the disintegration-processes of his own psyche. As we have said, the rhythm of American art-activity is dual.
(1) A disintegrating and sloughing of the old consciousness.
(2) The forming of a new consciousness underneath.
The entire chapter is surreal in the present context. It reads like a dissection of IT out of time… I could go through and pull quotes left, right and centre. But I won’t.
Lawrence proclaims to know the American intimately, because he knows that he himself represents what the emigrant European hoped to get away from. In remaining anchored to that point of egress and following the American out into the desert — he spent most of 1922 in New Mexico — he felt he had a perspective on their nation that the New Americans had forgotten. He was the phantom of old consciousness coming back to haunt the frontier, and yet he was also on the frontier of a new European consciousness himself, that has reflected on modernity and transformed itself anew.
King seems to take Lawrence’s insights in this regard very seriously, dramatising the latest phase of the horror (which I’ve discussed previously), the latest twist in America’s dialectical consciousness. Considering all the work he has done in this regard, it is little wonder that, for King, almost a century after Lawrence’s initial diagnosis, Prose’s extension of a national amnesia cannot be tolerated.