Reading in the Arroyo: An Occasional Column About Books

'The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays by DH Lawrence'

I've always had a soft spot for the British writer DH Lawrence (1885-1930). But even at the tender age when I first picked up Lady Chatterley's Lover, curious about its illicit history, I knew to read him with tongue lodged firmly in cheek.

That's because Lawrence is by turns both brilliant and absurd. For example, I can't think of two more hilarious—and intentional—euphemisms for genitalia than John Thomas and Lady Jane, the main characters of Lady Chatterley. (In fact, the book was originally supposed to be titled John Thomas and Lady Jane. Lawrence can be unsubtle that way.)

Reading The Rainbow and Women in Love cemented Lawrence as a guilty pleasure. His novels have a quality akin to what I dig about objectively bad '90s erotic thriller movies like Sliver and Body of Evidence. In both genres, sex is a short circuit to psychological shenanigans and intrigue, and the reactions to the kinds of sex the characters are having tend to reveal the small-mindedness of society at large. They're like naughty—and often clunky—PSAs about exercising your right to kinky freedoms.

But Lawrence was also a blazingly transcendent writer on a constant quest for universal human connection, and there is an aching clarity in his descriptions of the natural world.

A few essays in The Bad Side of Books (New York Review Books Classics, 2019), a new-old collection of selected Lawrence nonfiction published last fall, contain his reflections on New Mexico. In the fall of 1922, ol' David Herbert and his wife Frieda came to Northern New Mexico. They were heeding the siren song of the bohemian socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan, who writes in Lorenzo in Taos that her psychic transatlantic call to Lawrence, "Come, Lawrence! Come to Taos!" was "not prayer, but command. Only those who have exercised it know its danger."

Luhan had never met Lawrence in person, but she wanted him to come to Taos to connect with and write about the Pueblo people, in part to foster resistance to the Bursum Bill of 1922. The bill, introduced by New Mexico senator Holm Bursum, would allow non-Natives to claim squatter's rights to Pueblo land.

Lawrence had a reputation as a loner and a rebel, to paraphrase Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. He left Britain after his novels were banned for obscenity, along with accusations that he and Frieda were spies for Germany. In Taos, he entangled himself in a tempestuous throuple with Frieda and artist Dorothy Brett, who had followed him there. (The throuple became a square when Mabel developed the hots for him, too. No word on how Mabel's soon-to-be-husband, Tiwa man Tony Lujan, felt about that.)

Lawrence also fell in love with the spirit of Northern New Mexico—so much so that his ashes are entombed in an enchanting chapel at the University of New Mexico-owned DH Lawrence Ranch near San Cristóbal, despite his having lived there for less than two years. "The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fé," he writes in The Bad Side of Books, "something stood still in my soul."

Lawrence penned poetic odes to the only home he ever owned outright (he traded the manuscript of Sons and Lovers to Luhan for the ranch). "The ranch is lonely, there is no sound in the night, save the unnumerable noises of the night, that you can't put your finger on; cosmic noises in the far deeps of the sky, and of the earth." Did Lawrence hear the Taos Hum?

In the essay "Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine," he describes a midnight intruder: "The animal had raised all of its hairs and bristles, so that by the light of the moon it seemed to have a tall, swaying, moonlit aureole arching its back as it went." So weird, so sensual, so very Lawrence.

But reading Lawrence means experiencing dissonance, particularly on the subject of the people he found in New Mexico. In the 1922 essay "Indians and an Englishman," he attempts to reconcile his own place in the world with that of New Mexicans. His romanticizations and reductions are a wincing read in 2020: "Mexicans insist on being Mexicans, squeezing the last black drop of macabre joy out of life; and Indians wind themselves in white cotton sheets like Hamlet's father's ghost, with a lurking smile." He has the unique ability to make these distinctions because he is "a lone lorn Englishman, tumbled out of the known world of the British Empire onto this stage," which is "not like the proper world."

"You are then thinking that 'Indians and An Englishman' is very racist," Feroza Jussawalla says to me over the phone. I'd called the UNM professor of English, a Lawrence specialist, to chat about how she teaches him.

Jussawalla maintains that the author is a post-colonialist.

"The way we look at him is not as a colonizer who is being racist," she says. "I also do this with Joseph Conrad. That there is this animated spirit, that primal energy that Conrad's character Marlowe connects to. Lawrence, if you start seeing him as his own character that he writes about, that's that primal energy and connection. Even though he seems like a colonialist, he really isn't. What he's got is an underlying love for the people."

Nonetheless, some of Lawrence's observations are undeniably thorny, and he way overuses the word "strange." But the essays still make for fascinating reading, conjuring images of him in the woods with Frieda, that rich hippie Luhan, the adoring acolyte Brett and Tony Lujan instructing all of them in Taos Pueblo ways.

"He made more sense when we actually went up to the ranch," Jussawalla says of teaching Lawrence to undergrads. She laments the loss of funding for UNM class field trips to the Lawrence property, which remains open to visitors two days a week, but is in serious need of financial endowment.

Visiting the ranch in 1939, poet WH Auden wrote, "Cars of women pilgrims go up every day to stand reverently there and wonder what it would have been like to sleep with him." On a recent chilly visit to the rickety cabins and Lawrence's chapel, not a groupie was in sight. I laid on a bench under the famous "Lawrence tree," a -riotously intersecting ponderosa pine that Georgia O'Keeffe painted in 1929. I -daydreamed not of a naked David Herbert, but of what a lovely writer's retreat the ranch could be.

According to Sharon Oard Warner, a UNM professor who oversees the Lawrence Ranch Initiatives, that kind of residency "could be a real asset to Northern New Mexico. But it would take millions of dollars." Of the ongoing fundraising efforts for the ranch, she says, "I've had some very close calls with some very big names, but I haven't managed to make it happen."

Paging some literary superfunder! (George R R Martin can sit this one out; he's done enough.)

The 15th annual international DH Lawrence Conference takes place July 12-17, 2020, in Taos.

Molly Boyle is a former editor of crime fiction at Penguin and Random House. She has worked at five bookstores and only been fired by one.

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