Lawrence, Leavis, America, Dos Passos, and Modernism

TitleLawrence, Leavis, America, Dos Passos, and Modernism
Publication TypeConference Proceedings
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsTambling, J
Conference NameLeavis and the Confrontation with Modernity
Date Published05/2017
Conference LocationCentre for Modern Studies at the University of York

Lawrence’s interest in American literature is an essential part of his writing, marking Women in Love and Kangaroo, while his interest in America shows itself in such texts as St Mawr ,The Plumed Serpent and Mornings in Mexico, and numerous journalistic pieces and reviews of which his comments on Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer are an instance. Leavis was also to review Dos Passos favourably in Scrutiny, as well as USA, for which another review was also provided by Q.D. Leavis. Writing this paper took its hint from Richard Poirier’s sense of America as ‘a world elsewhere’, a title taken from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, as the hero goes into exile, and I was interested in speculating how much of a Coriolanian spirit there was in the Pilgrim Fathers and their like, as discussed in ‘The Spirit of Place’, and in thinking about American culture as that of the ‘isolato’, a term used by Cooper and Melville, and descriptive, perhaps of Coriolanus too. Poirier’s reading of Lawrence’s style, and of the place of style in American literature comes in here, while Poirier himself is taken as writing inside Leavis’ broad influence.

Discussion of the generating of Lawrence’s interest in America from Twilight in Italy also provided the opportunity for thinking of Coriolanus in comparison with Hamlet, so essential to Lawrence’s reading of America and of the Italian who has to go to America under a powerful historical impulse that cannot be quite accounted for. I wanted to compare that compulsion with Leavis’ insistence that Pip in Great Expectations must leave the forge, and in that way, be committed to a modernity (city-based) that Lawrence and Leavis both struggle with in terms of their sympathies, though there is nothing simple to be said about that and the extent to which Leavis or Lawrence underwrites a city-based ‘modernism’ in Dos Passos, and the extent to which Dos Passos requires thinking about film as an analogous art to his own.

The crisis which causes the impulse for America is both obscurely, and openly, related to the Great War, as a crisis for Europe, as well as the USA, and as marking the necessity of a ‘modernism’ which takes leave of ‘organic’ roots, in favour of the modern.