In the 1930s there were a spate of memoirs about D.H. Lawrence. Knud Merrild’s account of his time spent with Kai Gøtzsche on the Del Monte Ranch in the winter of 1922 is one of the most objective, mainly because he didn’t want to write it…   

Knud Merrild opens his account with a disclaimer: He is a painter, not a writer, and this is one of the reasons he put off writing his memoir until 1938. He was also conscious of being lumped into a literary category that Lawrence disparagingly dismissed as ‘smoking, steaming shits[i]’. The subtext is he didn’t want to cash in as numerous others had done. He is bemused by the contradictory accounts written about Lawrence so far and quotes H.C. Orstead that ‘our wishes ought not to determine what we shall accept as truth[ii]’. However, Lawrence was a contradictory character led by his mood, and therefore we should not be surprised he is viewed so differently by various people.  

To avoid misquoting Lawrence from memory, Merrild quotes from books written during the period they knew each other, as he had witnessed the conversations which would be fictionalised in his novels, and because Lawrence ‘wrote as he spoke[iii]’. Quoting from fiction to ensure his memoir is truthful is a contradiction of sorts. But it does work and there is a certain degree of validation to this process. For example, Merrild had not read Lawrence when they met in the winter of 1922. But when he read his work years later, ‘I noticed he talked novels, his own novels, only more elaborately so. In reading most of his books, I have not found anything that was not encountered in our many discussions. To quote Lawrence is to quote his books. To know him, read his books.[iv]’ The inclusion of letters in the memoir provides context and helps Merrild achieve a degree of authenticity. But his main objective is to avoid any psychoanalysis of Lawrence which may further add to his mythology.  

The preface is written by Aldous Huxley, a close friend of Lawrence during his later years. Huxley presents an overview of New Mexico which is scathing in places, particularly how deforesting the lower slopes of the mountains has increased the area of desert and intensified its aridity. ‘The chief result of man’s interference with the New Mexican landscape has been to make it even more alien and anti-human than nature originally intended it.[v]” Less than half a million people inhabit New Mexico, which is a territory twice the size of England and Wales. Yet ‘New Mexico is almost as empty and alien as the moon[vi].’ Above the desert are luscious mountain valleys that seem ‘positively Nordic[vii]’ in comparison. ‘What a relief to find oneself living where nothing has ever happened, where the land is untameable and where nature either ignores its human parasites or is actively hostile towards them[viii].’ To Europeans used to man-modified environments, this wildness could feel alienating, depressing, or freeing – depending on your mood at the time. Lawrence was typically ambivalent. He craved the ‘undomesticated desert’ when in domesticated Europe and resented it when there. This discontent, of course, is what propelled him to move so often.

Huxley notes that Merrild has not cobbled together a story of some eventful months living on the Del Monte Ranch in the winter of 1922. And that the very thing that gives his memoir objectivity is his complete disinterest in writing it. This, he suggests, is in stark contrast to Catherine Carswell, Dorothy Brett, and Mabel Dodge Luhan – the ‘holy women’ to use Philip Heseltine’s expression – whose recollections are distorted on account of their infatuation with their subject.

It is true. There is ‘no devotional sense of proprietorship[ix]’ in Merrild’s account and you get the sense that he feels obliged, out of respect for Lawrence and Lawrence devotees, to share his memories, and therefore the tone over the proceeding seventeen chapters is objective. For example, Merrild details the many ways in which Lawrence liked to instruct on how to ride a horse, tack a roof, or simply live your life, but this did not make him a leader. ‘He was more of a seer or a prophet. And how could he be a leader of men? He contradicted himself at almost every turn. He did not believe in dogmas or doctrines, but he made them himself anyhow, only to break them sooner or later (…) Despite his shortcomings, he had a superiority that one could not deny and one had to admit that he had both straightened and released something in one’s life for which one could have only the deepest veneration[x].’ 

The Danes – Knud Merrild and Kai Gøtzsche – were enamoured by Lawrence’s knowledge and spent many an evening around the fire listening to his views on everything from art to the formation of the universe. But they found his obsession with death a bit wearing. ‘He breathed death, spake and saw death everywhere, and only darkness (…) And when he spoke of new creations, his creations, his gods, his souls, his ideas, they were always shrouded in darkness not yet visible[xi]‘. He even mocked the nearby Sunshine Valley, renaming it Death Valley[xii]. These conversations stayed with them when they returned to their cabin and had to be ironed out before they could sleep. 

When he wasn’t mithering on about death, Lawrence never got tired of talking about the ‘new life’ and his desire for Rananim. ‘He wanted to find a place away from civilisation where he felt that the possibility of growth would be fairly secure[xiii]‘ All they needed was soil. They could grow bananas. It would be the beginning of a colony where, ‘when we have ourselves firmly established, then we can add one or two more of our friends at a time and let the thing grow slowly into full being, and the new life will grow and spread until it embraces the whole world.[xiv]

Although the Danes knew such a venture was destined to fail – as would any with Lawrence at the helm – they did respect his visions for society. ‘There is a great change coming, bound to come, the whole money arrangement will undergo a change: What, I don’t know. The whole industrial system will undergo a change. Work will be different and pay will be different. The owning of property will be different. Class will be different, and human relations will be modified and perhaps simplified. If we are intelligent, alert and undaunted, then life will be much better, more generous, more spontaneous, more vital, less loosely materialistic.[xv]’ 

Despite circulating half the globe, Lawrence still hadn’t found the peace he desired. Thus, plans were made for a trip to Old Mexico in March 1923. But Merrild couldn’t do it. He felt indebted to Lawrence who had done everything he could to look out for them, including commissioning him to produce covers for some of his books. ‘He had such friendly, even fatherly, concern for us, and it touched us deeply[xvi].’ But he had his own ambitions and his own dreams and knew to follow Lawrence would ruin the great experience they had just had. If only Kai Gøtzsche had listened to this advice…

Merrild, Knud A Poet and Two Painters: A Memoir of D.H. Lawrence. George Routledge & Sons, London, 1938  



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