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D.H. Lawrence

Born: 9-11-1885 9-11-1885 - Died: 3-2-1930 3-2-1930

by Suzanne Stamatov

David Herbert Lawrence was born on 11 September 1885 in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England. His father, John Arthur Lawrence, had been a miner at Brinsley Colliery since he was seven years old. His mother, Lydia Beardsall Lawrence, tried to lift her children out of poverty and save them from a life in the mines. She was a dominant force in her children’s lives. At the age of thirteen, Lawrence won a scholarship and attended Nottingham High School. After graduating from high school at age sixteen, he briefly worked at a surgical goods manufacturer. He had to leave this employment when he began to suffer from a pulmonary ailment. He turned to teaching and received a teaching certificate from Nottingham University College. He briefly taught at Davidson Road School at Croyden. During this time he had begun to write his first novel, The White Peacock. When a publisher accepted the novel, Lawrence decided to leave teaching and to earn a living by writing. By 1913, Lawrence’s most famous book, Sons and Lovers, was published. Once Lawrence freed himself from the ties of employers, he began to travel. Throughout the rest of his life, he visited various countries including the United States of America. After experiencing a new place, he was always anxious to move somewhere else. Yet each new experience offered him fresh perspectives and enriched his work as an artist. His brief sojourns in New Mexico had a lasting impact on the author and his work.

After traveling briefly in Italy and Germany, Lawrence returned to England in 1912 and met Frieda von Richthofen. Frieda, wife of a university professor, left her husband and began a life with Lawrence. After her husband granted her a divorce, Lawrence and Frieda married on 13 June 1914. Frieda profoundly influenced Lawrence. She believed in the necessity of a sexual revolution based on values of love, growth and spontaneity and rejected the patriarchal values of law, order, and material wealth prevalent in England and most of Europe. Frieda hoped to inspire Lawrence and through him, regenerate society.

During World War I, the Lawrences resided in Cornwall, England. The local authorities were very suspicious of the Lawrences because Frieda was German and that Lawrence opposed the war. His persecution for opposing the war, ill health, the war itself, and personal poverty embittered Lawrence. In a letter from Cornwall to Lady Cynthia Asquith, dated 26 April 1914, Lawrence wrote: “It seems as if we were all going to be dragged into the danse macabre. One can only grin, and be fatalistic. My dear nation is bitten by the tarantula, and the venom has gone home at last. Now it is dance, mes amis, to the sound of the knuckle-bones.” He wanted to leave England and live in a better place. In another letter from Cornwall, dated 7 February 1916, he wrote: “The only thing now to be done is either to go down with the ship, sink with the ship or, as much as one can, leave the ship, and like a castaway live a life apart. As for me, I do not belong to the ship; I will not, if I can help it, sink with it. I will not live any more in this time. I know what it is. I reject it.”

Lawrence also had difficulties on the artistic front. In his books, The Rainbow, The Lost Girl, and Women in Love, Lawrence openly wrote about sexual relations, both heterosexual and homosexual. His books met with controversial and critical reviews, censorship, and poor sales. His desire to leave England increased and he sought a respite in the warm sun to ease his perpetual pulmonary problems. Growing up the son of a coal miner, Lawrence may also have wished to leave behind the rigid class society of England.

Lawrence sought a place in the sun that would regenerate him and shield him from a society that he viewed as archaic and cold. He named this longed-for place Rananim. In his utopia, men and women who shared similar intellectual underpinnings would practice a simplified economy and live by organic consciousness. In 1919, after the war, Lawrence and Frieda traveled to Italy. In Capri, Sicily, and Sardinia, the warm sun in fact revitalized Lawrence. He wrote prodigiously, including a travelogue called Sea and Sardinia (published 1921) and a collection of poetry published later as Birds, Beasts and Flowers. Although he and Frieda enjoyed their stay in Italy, D.H. was restless to experience new places.

In the fall of 1921, Lawrence received a letter from Mabel Dodge Luhan. Luhan, a wealthy intellectual who had recently settled in Taos, tried to entice the Lawrences saying that Taos was “like the dawn of the world.” After reading Sons and Lovers and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, Mabel believed that Lawrence could help her achieve her goals; to unlock “the lost Atlantis” of her being and to discern the “secret” of Pueblo life. She gave the Lawrences an open invitation to visit saying that she would provide them a house for as long as they wished to stay.

Lawrence was not opposed to visiting America. In fact, he had believed that his Rananim might be in America. In an essay entitled “America Listen to Your Own” published in the New Republic, Lawrence wrote of the importance of the country’s lack of a past and traditions. America, he believed, had the opportunity to achieve a new aesthetic that would lead to a regeneration of its art and society. Even though he longed to visit America, he was also wary of Luhan’s intentions. Nevertheless, the Lawrences left Australia and set sail for San Francisco in August 1922.

After a train ride from San Francisco and an overnight stay in Santa Fe, Mabel Luhan and her husband Tony Luhan drove the Lawrences to Taos. The dramatic landscape of the vast high plain and the majestic Rocky Mountains greatly impressed the Lawrences. They settled in at Mabel’s new guest-house. Almost immediately, Tony Luhan took Lawrence on a trip to see a Navajo dance. Upon his return, the Luhans kept their guests occupied. They visited the Taos Pueblo, they bathed in hot springs, and D.H. Lawrence learned how to ride a horse.

Mabel Luhan and D.H. Lawrence began to collaborate on a novel that would be based on Luhan’s life. The novel was to begin at the time when Mabel left New York to come to New Mexico. The two agreed that Mabel would supply Lawrence with all the details of how she had left her husband, Maurice Sterne, and had met and fell in love with her last husband, Tony Luhan. The novel would include some of Mabel’s poems and a fragment of her autobiography. The two authors met on the flat roof of Mabel’s house, but their plan never came to fruition. Frieda disliked the way the two sequestered themselves and insisted that they work in her kitchen. Mabel felt that little work could be accomplished while Frieda swept the floor. In an effort to continue the project, Mabel decided to communicate her ideas to Lawrence in letters. When she discovered that Lawrence was allowing Frieda to read them, the collaboration ended. Later, however, Lawrence based his heroine of The Plumed Serpent and his heroine of the story The Woman Who Rode Away on Mabel Dodge Luhan.

Tensions between the Lawrences and Mabel increased, and the Lawrences left Taos and moved to the Del Monte Ranch, seventeen miles away from Taos. Although Lawrence relished the outdoor life, he once again became restless and anxious to move along.

We have an old 5-room log cabin on this big wild ranch on the Rocky foothills—the snow mountains behind, a vast landscape below . . . desert, and then more mountains west, far off in Arizona . . . The coyotes come down howling in the evening. . . . We all chop down trees for our burning, and go off riding together. Altogether it is ideal. But innerlich, there is nothing. . . . All this outside life—marvelous country—and it all means so little to one. I don’t quite know what it is one wants because the ordinary society and “talk” in Europe are weary enough. . . . I know now I don’t want to live anywhere very long. . . . I seem to have a fair sale over here—Women in Love going into 15,000. Why do they read me? But, anyhow, they do read me, which is more than England does.

In March 1923, the Lawrences left Taos and journeyed to Mexico. In Mexico, the author worked feverishly on The Plumed Serpent and wrote over 450 pages of the manuscript within a month. His temper, however, often flared. As the tuberculosis advanced, Lawrence suffered mood swings. By mid-June, Lawrence was ready to move again. Frieda wanted to see her children and traveled alone to England to visit them. Then after four years of traveling by way of Italy, India, Australia, the United States, and to Mexico, Lawrence went back to England to join his wife.

Their stay in England was not happy. After arriving, he wrote Mabel Dodge Luhan asking her if he and Frieda could come back to Taos. Although their previous relationship had been rocky, Mabel had tried to patch things by writing to him while he was in Mexico. He agreed to forget the “bad things” because of his beautiful memories of Taos. While in England, he wrote to her that he needed her love and understanding. Assured that Mabel would welcome them again, he once again thought about establishing his Rananim. Before he and Frieda left for America, he invited some of his closest friends to accompany him. Although they all agreed to go with him, only one person, the artist Dorothy Brett, accompanied them across the Atlantic.

Once again Mabel Dodge Luhan welcomed the Lawrences to New Mexico. In order to prolong their visit, she gave Frieda the Flying Heart Ranch on Lobo Mountain. In exchange, Frieda insisted on giving Mabel Lawrence’s manuscript of Sons and Lovers. This was the first property that the Lawrences ever owned. They renamed it Kiowa Ranch. Lawrence seemed delighted with their new home. D.H., Frieda, and Dorothy worked hard to repair the damaged cabins, to clean out the well, to construct an adobe horno, and to build fences. He wrote: “There is something savage, unbreakable in the spirit of the place out here—the Indians drumming and yelling at our camp fire at evening. . . there is the pristine something, unbroken, unbreakable. . . It is good to be alone and responsible. But it is also very hard living up against these savage Rockies.”

Their life in northern New Mexico offered much to Lawrence and his wife. Outside their cabin stood a towering pine tree that affected Lawrence deeply. “The tree’s life penetrates my life, and my life the tree’s. We cannot live near one another, as we do, without affecting one another.” Yet personality clashes between Mabel, Lawrence, and Frieda once again flared. Frieda also disliked having Brett living with them on the ranch. And by the time the air began to turn cold in October, Lawrence was once again ready to go south to Mexico.

D.H. Lawrence left New Mexico, never to return. In 1925, he became sick with malaria, and for the first time, was officially diagnosed with tuberculosis. In 1926, he began writing his last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Published two years later, the United States and England banned the book claiming it to be obscene. On 5 July 1929, Lawrence suffered a violent tubercular hemorrhage in Italy. He sought a cure in Bavaria that proved unsuccessful. He subsequently entered a sanatorium in Vence, France. There too the treatment failed, and he died on the night of 2 March 1930. He was buried in a local cemetery. His widow, Frieda, had his body disinterred and cremated. She brought his ashes to New Mexico where she had them mixed with concrete and built into a small shrine.

Sources Used:

Baca, Elmo. Mabel’s Santa Fe and Taos: Bohemian Legends (1900-1950). Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 2000.

Fay, Eliot. Lorenzo in Search of the Sun. New York: Bookman Associates, Inc., 1953.

Huxley, Aldous, ed. The Letters of D.H. Lawrence. New York: Viking Press, 1932.

Rudnick, Lois Palken. Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New World. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.

Spender, Stephen, ed. D.H. Lawrence: Novelist, Poet, Prophet. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973.