Black History Month: The influence of D.H. Lawrence on Claude McKay 

claude and DHL

“Is life strife, is it the long combat?
Yes, it is true. I fight all the time.
I am forced to”
The Battle of Life, D.H Lawrence

“If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!”
If We Must Die, Claude McKay

As a rebel writer, D.H. Lawrence spent his entire life fighting against people and systems. Ideas expressed in early novels, such as The Rainbow (1915), took on the ideologies of religion, marriage, family, sexuality, and national identity. In the subsequent Obscenity Trial, Judge Sir John Dickinson went as far as to describe the novel as anti-British, claiming that Lawrence was mocking the very principles that British soldiers were defending. Lawrence was very good at winding people up.

To compound matters, Lawrence married a German woman on the outbreak of WWI and moved to Cornwall, where he was accused of being a spy and had his passport removed. On and on the battles went throughout his short life – and not just with his novels. When he turned his hand to painting and exhibited works at the Warren Gallery in 1929, 13 were seized and placed in a prison cell! The Daily Telegraph reported the paintings were “gross and obscene” the likes of which had “never been seen in London before”.

Understandably, Lawrence came to resent intellectualisation and what he described as “mental consciousness”. This form of thinking produced “ugliness, ugliness, ugliness” and was responsible for the “iron machine” of industrialisation and the subsequent exploitation of workers in favour of profit. A world in which people lived in their heads had a dehumanising effect, further removing man from his natural connection with the environment. It is little wonder, then, that Lawrence developed a philosophy of “blood consciousness”, a more sensuous and guttural connection with the world which was incorrectly interpreted as smut by the censor.

Given that Lawrence fought the establishment throughout his life, it is perhaps not such a surprise that he was an influence on black American poets of the 1940s and 1950s, specifically Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, or so argues Leo Hamalian in a journal article from 1990. As Langston Hughes put it, “Negro writers, just by being black, have been on the blacklist all our lives”. If it was difficult for a miner’s son with a provincial accent to be accepted by the literati, imagine how difficult it was for a black person.

Claude McKay (September 15, 1889 – May 22, 1948), one of the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, detailed the intense racial violence against black people in poems such as ‘If We Must Die’. Originally attracted to communist ideas, he helped form the African Black Brotherhood as a means of achieving social emancipation. Like Lawrence, he travelled far afield to find peace. He lived in the UK and USA, experiencing every form of racism imaginable, had an “ecstatic welcome” in Russia due to his political beliefs, before heading to the more open-minded Parisian backstreets. However liberal Paris was, there was still a lot of work to be done. He wasted no time highlighting the stereotyping of sexualised black figures in the art world which he argued helped to reproduce social hegemonic values that legitimated (European) white supremacy over Afro-Caribbean identities.

claude and dhl quote

Like Lawrence, McKay’s novels outlined an instinctual/intellectual duality. But the two writers had very different reasons for doing this: Lawrence was desperate to escape modernity and so outlined a philosophy of spiritual individualism which he called Rananim – a search for a community of like-minded people. It could be argued, for example, one of his main objections to the war was not moral, rather resentment at being told what to do and where to go!

McKay wanted to empower black people. He implored individuals to stand up for their rights and to be accepted as equals. It goes without saying this came with real risks, most notably lynching and murder. McKay’s travels, then, were not so much about escape but rather finding acceptance within modernity. This is perhaps best exemplified in his 1928 novel Home to Harlem which gave voice to romantic homosexual relationships while forging a distinctive black identity for the “uprooted black vagabonds” – such as himself – who found themselves exploited and used in Western communities.

Writing in his autobiography, McKay states that in Lawrence “I found confusion – all of the ferment and turmoil, the hesitation and hate and alarm, the sexual inquietude and the incertitude of this age, and the psychic and romantic groping for a way out.” Lawrence’s appeal, “lay instead in his compulsive and impassioned struggle to overcome the psychological traps that threatened to imprison and destroy man’s direct appreciation of life and it’s mysteries in the modern age.”

Lawrence grew up in a mining village, McKay came from a family of peasant farmers. They both understood what it meant to struggle. They knew what it was like to have a domineering matriarch in the family. McKay expressed this in poems such as ‘December 1919’ and ‘Mother’, Lawrence addresses it in just about every novel he ever wrote. They also shared similarities in their social status as outsiders in the world of Literature, as well as being young men with strong ideas on how to forge their way in the brave new world. But the trait that McKay felt best mirrored his own was a “psychological restlessness that drove him steadily towards artistic achievement and away from marginal existence of his natal community in his own life.”

home to harlemIn 1977, McKay was posthumously awarded the Order of Jamaica for his contribution to literature. As a left wing liberal he paved the way for future generations of black writers, such as James Baldwin, who would continue his fight. His natal community was proud of what he achieved. The same can’t be said of Lawrence, despite being part of the canon, and paving the way for everyone to swear more freely. He famously wrote, “I can be anywhere at home, except home”. Eastwood has never forgiven him.

Article source: D.H. Lawrence and Black Writers Author(s): Leo Hamalian Source: Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Spring, 1990), pp. 579-596 Published by: Indiana University Press

dhl-trunk blackIn November 2019 we will launch our D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. It will be comprised of artefacts that piece together Lawrence’s life, offering an alternative to the linear biography. How do we represent his influence on writers such as Claude McKay? How do we get across complex ideas like blood consciousness? Get involved and help us bu submitting an artefact here.

Why World War I cultivated an obsession with insects

Allied forces wearing gas masks at Ypres, 1917.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Rachel Murray of University of Bristol explains how a craze for popular entomology developed around World War I with films and popular insect books a source of fascination for modernist writers and thinkers, including Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield, and Marianne Moore.

“The soldier is no longer a noble figure,” observed the war poet Siegfried Sassoon while serving on the Western Front. “He is merely a writhing insect among this ghastly folly of destruction.” 

It is little surprise that Sassoon turned to insects to express the plight of the World War I soldier. Many did. Bugs – both real and metaphorical – came to shape the way people thought and wrote about the experience of war, and this prompted a surge of popular interest in insects more generally.

This was the first fully industrialised, long-range conflict, in which the enemy was reduced to minute specks. On the front line, soldiers wore bug-like gas masks and camouflage uniforms for the first time, were strapped into new prototypes of military body armour, and crawled through the mud in tanks. The optics of war even caused the modernist writer Wyndham Lewis, who served as an artillery officer, to remark: “These battles are more like ant fights than anything we have done in this way up to now.”

The striking resemblance between humans and insects also stemmed from their close proximity on the battlefield. Lice, mosquitoes and flies thrived in the trenches, quickly becoming one of the main sources of illness and death among soldiers. Faced with the rapid spread of typhus, malaria, and trench fever (spread by lice), the War Office teamed up with entomologists to tackle this enemy within.

This led to a campaign of insect extermination, in which troops were regularly disinfected with chemicals designed to halt the spread of lice. Yet while this was going on, soldiers were also being subjected to poisonous gases from the enemy, some of which had previously been used as insecticides. One Dutch newspaper was quick to notice the parallel treatment of soldiers and insects.

De Groene Amsterdammer, May 9, 1915.
__De Groene Amsterdammer Archive__

In this satirical illustration from May 1915, the female embodiment of Germany, “Germania”, sprinkles insect powder over a tiny group of soldiers. At first glance, she appears to be delousing them, but she is in fact exterminating them with chlorine.

Yet if the conditions of war reduced human beings to bugs, then it was to these life forms that people turned in search of ways of understanding their predicament.

Bug mania

Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre.
_Wikimedia Commons_

Perhaps because people felt closer to insects than ever, in the period around World War I a craze for popular entomology developed.

Studies of insect life were in high demand, with more books devoted solely to bugs than ever before. Of particular interest to the British public was the work of French entomologist Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre, whose groundbreaking and often gruesome studies of the behaviour of wasps, beetles, mantises, and flies sold widely in the years surrounding the war. Fabre was a pioneering figure in the life sciences who demonstrated that more could be learnt about insects as living entities observed in their natural habitats than as dead specimens pinned in display cases.

The development of new film technologies also meant that the sophisticated behaviour of insects could be made visible to the human eye. In November 1908, nature documentary maker F. Percy Smith’s The Acrobatic Fly caused a stir when it was screened at a London cinema. Advertised on the front page of The Daily Mirror, the short film consisted of remarkable footage of a fly juggling various miniature items with its front legs.

After the war, the public appetite for bugs on screen continued to grow. From 1922, a series of nature shorts called Secrets of Nature was screened in British cinemas. Many of the films focused on the hidden lives of ants, wasps and beetles.

Modernist insects

This popular bug interest was also seen in the more canonical cultural output of the period. The films and popular insect books mentioned above were a source of fascination for modernist writers and thinkers, including Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield, and Marianne Moore, who listed Fabre’s ten-volume collection, Souvenirs entomologiques (Entomological memories), in a list of “great literary works”. The poet William Carlos Williams even remarked: “Henri Fabre has been one of my Gods.”

Some writers were inspired by the remarkable ability of insects to thrive in inhospitable environments. Set during the war, DH Lawrence’s novella The Ladybird draws on Fabre’s account of the “sacred beetle” (also known as the dung beetle), which sculpts the waste products of larger animals into a home for its offspring. The text highlights the ingenuity of the dung beetle, emphasising its ability to transform death and decay into a source of new life.

Scanning electron microscope image of an ant.
Wikimedia commons

Others were drawn to Fabre’s account of the unique ways that insects perceive their surroundings. One of Wyndham Lewis’s characters remarks enviously that “the insect sees a different world to us, and possesses other means of apprehending it”, while in Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse, artist Lily Briscoe longs to experience the compound vision of ants: “One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with.”

The turn to popular entomology in the years surrounding the war was no coincidence. While insects may have come to represent the degraded nature of human existence, studies of bug life helped writers and artists, as well as the public at large, to look beyond the wartime atmosphere of destruction, and to develop new ways of seeing themselves and the world around them.The Conversation

Rachel Murray, PhD Candidate, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk energyIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we capture the modernists’ fascination with entomology? What insects should be crawling through our draws? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here

 

How huge gamble by Lady Chatterley lawyers changed obscenity law forever

Step this way … PA/PA Archive

In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Sue Rabbitt Roff of University of Dundee, explains how “a watershed in British obscenity law had been achieved without any discussion about the illegal sex acts central to the novel”. Skip to page 258 of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to see if you would have made the same gamble as barrister Jeremy Hutchinson…

Jeremy Hutchinson, who has died at 102, was one of England’s finest criminal barristers. He was counsel of choice for some of the most high-profile cases of his era. He defended the likes of Christine Keeler and Great Train robber Charles Wilson and also obscenity cases against novels like Fanny Hill and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Later known as Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, his role defending Penguin Books after it published the unexpurgated version of the DH Lawrence classic is particularly memorable. It remains the landmark case in British obscenity law.

But look at the details and something extraordinary emerges: Penguin’s decision to publish 200,000 copies on the advice of Hutchinson and joint lead counsel Gerald Gardiner was a massive gamble. It set up a case that were it not for the incompetence of the prosecution could easily have gone the other way.

Obscenity and England

Lady Chatterley’s Lover had only ever been legally published in abridged versions in the UK, starting in 1932. Though by 1960 the unexpurgated edition was sold in Europe and America and could be obtained under the counter in London if you knew where to go, Penguin co-founder Allen Lane wanted to publish a cheap paperback of the full thing.

The idea was to put it out at 3s 6d, the same price as ten cigarettes, to make it affordable for the “young and the hoi-polloi”. The excuse was the 30th anniversary of Lawrence’s death from tuberculosis at the age of 45.

When Penguin consulted Hutchinson and Gardiner, the lawyers retreated to reflect. A trial under the new Obscene Publications Act seemed inevitable. The act’s first paragraph stated that material will be deemed obscene if it contains elements that tend as a whole “to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely … to read, see or hear” it.

Jeremy Hutchinson. PA/PA Archive

The act included a new defence in cases where the offending segments were “for the public good on the ground that [they are] in the interests of science, literature, art or learning”. In consultation with several literary experts, Hutchinson and Gardiner felt most of the racy scenes and bad language – including (30) “fucks” and (14) “cunts” – could fall under this defence. Lawrence, after all, was one of the most highly regarded writers of his era.

Hutchinson was concerned about page 258, however, where anal sex crops up – albeit obliquely. It has Oliver Mellors, the lover in the book’s title, trying to divorce his wife Bertha Coutts and being accused by her “of all unspeakable things”. Clifford Chatterley writes a letter to his own wife saying that Coutts has aired details about her marriage to Mellors which are “usually buried down in the deepest grave of matrimonial silence”.

But, he comments:

Humanity has always had a strange avidity for unusual sexual postures, and if a man likes to use his wife, as Benvenuto Cellini says, ‘in the Italian way’, well that is a matter of taste.

Lady Chatterley has pause for thought:

Connie remembered the last night she had spent with [Mellors], and shivered. He had known all that sensuality, even with a Bertha Coutts! It was really rather disgusting. It would be well to be rid of him, clear of him altogether.

Her friend Duncan Forbes then makes light of it:

If he’s made love to his wife all ends on, hasn’t he a right to? She ought to be proud of it.

While homosexual anal sex between consenting men was legalised 50 years ago in the UK, the heterosexual equivalent became legal only at the millennium in England and Wales and was highly illegal in 1960. (The 2001 film Bridget Jones’ Diary celebrated legalisation with a pretty explicit scene between Renée Zellweger and Hugh Grant.)

Illegal acts could still potentially use the public good defence, but Hutchinson feared it made the case much harder to win. Gardiner and the experts at the meeting dismissed his fears. In these more innocent times, they were betting that the prosecution wouldn’t grasp the point and omit it from their case. Hutchinson agreed to go ahead and advised Penguin accordingly.

Allen Lane and the edition. PA/PA Archive

Your witness

The defence called 35 professors of literature, authors, journalists, editors, critics, publishers and child education experts, and four Anglican churchmen. Each declared the book had sufficient literary merit to deserve publication for the public good. (Those less convinced of Lawrence’s genius begged off – Enid Blyton declared she had never read the book and “my husband said no at once”.)

Lead prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones cross-examined only 14 of the 35. He lost most of those rounds, and sometimes his temper in the process. It was only in his closing speech he said to the jury:

Would you look at page 258. It is a passage which I have not – and I do not think anybody has – referred to during the course of cross-examination, or indeed at any time during this trial. It … describes what is called the ‘night of sensual passion’.

He read out the whole passage remarking: “Not very easy, sometimes, not very easy, you know, to know what in fact he is driving at in that passage.”

It’s not clear how many jurors understood the passage; some were said to be visibly shocked. Certainly Griffith-Jones had missed the significance entirely, having referenced it only to underline the book’s general depravity. Mr Justice Byrne summed up with no reference to anal sex either. The issues were, he said, promiscuity and adultery described in words that were “normally obscene”.

The jury returned in three hours and found Penguin not guilty. Neither the clergy nor any of the other experts had been examined on anal sex and it is not clear whether they realised they were implicitly defending it or not. A watershed in British obscenity law had been achieved without any discussion about the illegal sex acts central to the novel.

In the wake of this case, publishing in Britain became considerably more liberal. Had Hutchinson not agreed to advise Penguin to take that extraordinary gamble, things could have panned out very differently.

Sue Rabbitt Roff, Part time tutor in Medical Education, University of Dundee.This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.