Sunday, September 25, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller says: "In the interview included in THE BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE (edited by Diane Osen) you use the term creative philosophy. Could you define this? Also in this interview one of the books you list that shaped your writing life is THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES of D.H. Lawrence. What do you like about Lawrence's work?"

I'd like to divide my answer for this question into two posts. In this one, I'll talk about D.H. Lawrence. 

I didn't become interested in Lawrence until I took a course at SUNY Stony Brook with English professor Homer Goldberg, who didn't have us study one of his major works, but instead The Plumed Serpent. Of that work Katherine Anne Porter wrote, "For sheer magnificence of writing, Lawrence has surpassed himself. His style has ripened, softened, there is a melancholy hint of the over-richness of autumn. Who looks for mere phrases from him? He writes by the passage, by the chapter, a prose flexible as a whiplash, uneven and harmonious as breakers rolling upon a beach, and the sound is music. His language rises from the page not in words but in a series of images before the eye; human beings move in vivid landscapes, wrapped in a physical remoteness, yet speaking with a ghostly intimacy, as if you were listening to the secret pulse of their veins. All of Mexico is here, evoked clearly with the fervor of things remembered out of impressions that filled the mind to bursting. There is no laborious building up of local color, but an immense and prodigal feeling for the background, for every minute detail seen with the eyes of a poet. He makes you a radiant gift of the place."

Lawrence sensitized me the possibilities of poetic description in prose, especially for landscapes. (He was one of many writers who did that.) I encountered his work in the year between the acceptance of Faith and the Good Thing for publication in fall, 1973 and its release a year later in 1974. And after that encounter I was so dissatisfied with the descriptive work in my manuscript that I rewrote 20% of that novel---mainly descriptions---based on what I had learned from Lawrence.
When I discover an author who interests me, I binge on that writer's work. I read everything in print. I gorge myself on it. (My wife will tell you I have a tendency to do that with everything that interests me, that I'm excessive or obsessive that way until I exhaust my interest.) And I'm especially delighted if that author has a large body of work that is highly diversified across different fields of creative expression. (I've done this binge exercise with quite a few authors over the last 40 years, among them and to name just a few, Charles Dickens, John Gardner, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Hermann Hesse, Herman Melville, and certainly the philosophers I had to study.) So over the course of my first year in Stony Brook's doctoral program, I read all of Lawrence's novels. All of his short stories. (The short stories were one of my evening pleasures for months after a day of classes.) And in my writer's notebooks I took pages and pages of notes on his techniques, his narrative strategies, the workings of his mind when it came to creating metaphors and descriptive passages, what he chose to show and not show, and how he showed it.

Then I read works about him like D.H. Lawrence and His World by Harry T. Moore and Warren Roberts (The Viking Press, 1966). I read his poetry, his travel pieces, sketches, and his letters (there one sees the uniqueness of his literary style even in his quickly composed similes), his book reviews, introductions, and miscellaneous pieces in Phoenix II: Uncollected Writings of D.H. Lawrence, edited by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (The Viking Press, 1970). I took a look at his drawings and paintings (e.g., "Boccaccio's Story" and "Red Willow Trees"), comparing the visual workings of his imagination to its operations when his medium was words. Such a total examination of a creator's oeuvre is helpful for a young writer because you see an artist at his best, technically, and less than best, by which I mean you see him fall just a hair (or a great distance) short of his finer performances, and that reveals the logic of his intention, what he was trying to do. You see him repeat himself, trying with varying degrees of success to nail down a particular feeling or image. You see him when he is handling his literary tools clumsily, and sooner or later you understand how to use such tools yourself. 
I also read his essays. And it was with one of his racist essays, "On Being a Man," which appeared in the June, 1924 issue of Vanity Fair that my disappointment and disillusionment with Lawrence began. In his time he was controversial for his frankness in regard to sexuality; and he had champions who regarded him as a "towering genius." But after the Civil Rights Movement, and especially the rise of feminism and the Women's Movement, his literary stock has taken a real---and much deserved----beating.

I've always been saddened to discover racism, sexism, intolerance or the like in the work of literary writers I learned something from in terms of craft, or in the writers I admired for their storytelling prowess. But it is almost impossible not to stumble on something like that in white, Western authors working before 1970. Like us, they are creatures of their time, often guilty of the myopia and limitations of their moment in history. But my feeling is that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water. I wouldn't want to take a cross-country bus trip sitting next to D.H. Lawrence. (He could be a rather nasty fellow.) And these days I have no interest in reading his work. Yet and still, I do appreciate what I was able to take away from the experience of his work when I was in my mid-twenties.


  1. Wow--a really interesting post. I didn't know the extent of Johnson's immersion in Lawrence (also didn't recall a binge reading by him of Dickens--that's interesting, too). Good call on the problem of racism in an author--we can still learn from his craft, but must be cognizant of the blindnesses he was victim to (in Ellison's phrase, "take the best and leave the rest").

  2. Concluding that Lawrence is a racist & someone to be ashamed of because of his essay 'On Being A Man' is a little wrongheaded I think. Lawrence is more accurately addressing the alien feeling people from different cultures have/had for each other. He uses the 'N' word because it was used amongst whites at that time & if Lawrence & his culture was a more racist culture than our own you'll notice that it was a much less global/international community in those days as well & Lawrence would have NEVER seen a black man or ANY other kind of man who wasn't British for most of his life. I really don't think Lawrence was showing a racist side in this essay, actually, a deeper side of almost regional energy in confrontation with another, different regional energy . . . this is the level Lawrence talked at & Johnson should know that as a thorough reader of his work.