D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature is by no means a comprehensive analysis of the American classics at the time Lawrence wrote his collection of essays. The works of Harriet Beecher-Stowe and Mark Twain are notably missing. But Lawrence's aim was not to analyze all the seminal works of American literature. He chose specific authors who fit his agenda and constructed an evolutionary argument around them. Lawrence's main thread is that America can't emerge as a culture in its own right until it discards completely the influence of Old Europe and finds its own "spirit of place"--the sense of who the people are and what drives them. The author's search for this spirit of place results in a more or less disparaging analysis of each American author in turn, with few exceptions of genuine praise.
We begin with Benjamin Franklin. Lawrence derides him for advocating "the perfectability of man" (Lawrence 15) and creating a list of virtues, and proceeds in doing the same himself. "I will try always to recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women." This is of course merely a symbol; Lawrence was not pagan. But it begs the question: If we are supposed to accept all these new rules at face value, based only on Lawrence's discursive analyses and often abstract philosophizing, doesn't it stand to reason that Benjamin Franklin's rules were open to symbolic interpretation as well? I marvel at Lawrence, actually. He makes a good deal of sense, but he too hits a wrong note sometimes. And then speaks entirely in absolutes for the whole book, as if his opinion truly is the only one. Suffice to say Benjamin Franklin was a good deal more intelligent than Lawrence makes him out to be and was horrifically underserved by Lawrence.
From Franklin onward, Lawrence hardly has a good thing to say about any of the American authors. Sometimes they deserve it. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur gets slammed for oversimplifying nature and idealizing the frontier lifestyle in his Letters from an American Farmer. Fenimore Cooper really gets it for romanticizing the frontier, the relations between white men and Native Americans, and for utilizing the 1800's literary conventions of his contemporaries when concocting a love triangle. I agree that the conventions were stale and unrealistic, but what can one expect when everyone wrote their historical fiction with those same tired conventions? I'm pretty sure somebody out there thinks The Last of the Mohicans is a classic of 1800's historical fiction right up there with Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis.
Poe is "rather a scientist than an artist," because he "reduc[es] his own self as a scientist reduces a salt in a crucible." Lawrence seems to like him until he accuses Poe of trying to make his "disease" (love) fair and attractive--which, as it turns out, is the "duplicity of art, American art in particular." Good to know.
Nathaniel Hawthorne writes hellish romance, says Lawrence, and has such a fixation with sin that it becomes stale. Thank you, Lawrence, for going after The Scarlett Letter with a vengeance. That one deserved it. Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast is where Lawrence starts getting very metaphysical. (I wouldn't advise anyone to read individual chapters out of order. This really must be read as a consecutive whole or you won't understand a thing.)
But Lawrence likes sea voyages. He has praise for Herman Melville--and criticisms. Melville is criticized for finding a tropical paradise and wanting to return to civilization. Then Moby Dick comes along, and we find out the white whale is a symbol of the "deepest blood-being of the white race...our deepest blood-nature." We hunt him because we want to "subject him to our will." That is, the men hunt him. Lawrence doesn't have much to say to us women other than criticize us for wearing our American suits.
Walt Whitman. Lawrence really likes Whitman. He derives from Whitman the concept of true American Democracy, souls meeting on the Open Road, free to do as they please. But he still criticizes him for following the Christian doctrine in his philosophy, confounding `sympathy' with "Jesus' LOVE, and with Paul's CHARITY."
Lawrence was a very brilliant individual, a devoted critic, and an insightful analyst. I enjoyed Studies in Classic American Literature immensely upon my first reading. For the most part, if there are faults to find in American literature he will point them out. That's all right, somebody had to do it. But I wish he'd rein it in just a little. No need to antagonize the ladies, Lawrence--or couldn't you predict that women would read your book some eighty years into the future? His trick of using he exclamation mark to prove a point was fun at first, and got really old by the time I got to Walt Whitman, though this could possible be attributed to the fact that Lawrence starts out very concrete and moves so far into the abstract that readers may have trouble following him unless they read the entire book in one sitting and keep all the cross-references fresh in their memories. He's also a little too self-important for my liking. We all know there are problems with the American classics. Did Lawrence never consider that we wouldn't like to be preached at the same way he didn't take to the self-righteous Americans like Benjamin Franklin and Nathaniel Hawthorne?