I don’t read a lot of fiction. I write a lot of it according to my colleagues among historians, who think my accounts of pragmatism are “fanciful” or “imaginative,” which is to say untethered to the non-fictional texts that are supposed to serve as our common denominator. Ever so politely, they suggest that I make shit up. Maybe they’re right, I always thought I’d be a novelist.

But I’m not. Nor am I a literary critic. Still, I’m here to report on a remarkable fiction that came my way by the enthusiasm of friends, who have huddled around it for the past few weeks, exclaiming its many virtues and discussing its internal articulation. “The perfect novella,” said an accomplished novelist to a friend, who thereupon read it and recommended it to her circle of friends, in whose orbit I move. So I read it slowly, taking notes for God’s sake.

I refer to D. H. Lawrence’s novella, St. Mawr (1925), written late in his two-year stay in the United States, 1922-24.

I furtively read Lady Chatterly’s Lover in high school, as everyone else my age did, but beyond that my acquaintance with Lawrence was limited to his brilliant non-fiction, Studies in Classical American Literature (n.d., probably 1912), which remains, to my mind, the single most important contribution to the making of an American literary canon. Lewis Mumford said as much in The Golden Day (1926) and Herman Melville (1929), two books that validated Lawrence’s extravagant and yet plausible claims about the sources and significance of this canon, so I don’t feel too far out on a limb here.

For the record, the congruent “vitalism” of Mumford and Lawrence is telling, because the American literary canon was defined by men who, like the lonesome heroes of the filmic west, were in flight from the suffocating, bureaucratic character of corporate capitalism, and not incidentally from the philistines who had commandeered both popular culture and pragmatism. (The contemporary antidote to their elegiac periodization of self-determination, which amounts to a worship of pioneer individualism, was concocted by Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts [1924], John Dewey, Individualism Old and New (1929), Constance Rourke, American Humor [1931], and Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History [1937]. Robert Warshow’s later essays, collected and published in 1962 as The Immediate Experience, are also part of this cultural counterinsurgency. I borrow the notion of “vitalism” from John McClure, one of those friends who’s been reading St Mawr.)

St Mawr is a mesmerizing read. If you weren’t interested in the how and the why of Lawrentian technique, as against the what—the plot, what the book is “about”—you could speed through it in 90 minutes. I took two days because there’s so much arresting detail, too much to savor. But let me do the book report and then get down to the real things.

It’s a story of a wealthy young woman, Louise, called Lou by the narrator, marooned in a sexless marriage to Rico, a man who will someday be Sir Henry, after his father, an Australian knighted by the British crown. She was born and raised in Louisiana, then Texas. Now here she is, a character straight out of Henry James or Edith Wharton, stuck in London, starting too late on a search for the meaning of life.

All the dramatis personae, the human beings with the speaking parts anyway, are from the margins of the British Empire on the eve of its eclipse—“We seem to be living off old fuel,” Lou says—and they’re all resolutely headed for the territory, like Huck Finn, which is to say backward in time, away from “civilization,” toward the emotional frontier that still thrives on the most primitive, physical impulses of the human species. In short, they’re gladly regressing.

Except for Rico, they’re all headed away from the metropolis, outward bound, toward the place they came from, first to Wales, “where the spirit of the old aboriginal England still lingers, the old savage England,” then on toward “wild America.” No wonder they eventually land near Taos, New Mexico, where one of Lawrence’s real-life mentors, Mabel Dodge Luhan, held court after retiring from the salon at 23 Fifth Avenue that made Greenwich Village the site of intellectual innovation and bohemian rebellion before the Great War.

Phoenix the groom of Lou’s horse is a half-breed Indian from Arizona; Lewis the groom of Rico’s horse is a Welshman whose utterance in English is barely intelligible. But these servants are no less clearly etched characters than their masters, Lou’s husband, or Mrs. Witt, her mother.  

Lou explains for herself, and for us readers, why the servants must speak for themselves in this story: “I’m dying of these empty, danger-less men, who are only sentimental and spiteful . . . And I should be dead if there weren’t St. Mawr and Phoenix and Lewis in the world.” Her mother replies: “St. Mawr and Phoenix and Lewis! I thought you said they were servants.” Lou knows how to respond: “That’s the worst of it. If only they were masters!”

But the central figure is St. Mawr himself—the renegade horse Lou falls for, the extraordinary animal that cripples her husband, the irresistible Id that drives the narrative. But he’s not what you might expect from an instinctual bodily urge. He can think for himself: “Even St. Mawr felt himself strange . . . in this rough place.”  That would be Texas. More astonishing, this irrepressible horse is a stallion who refuses to mate with the mares he’s offered—he keeps to himself in a post-sexual, self-fashioned world that Lawrence identifies as pre-historical. By the time Lou buys him, he’s already killed two men with his random, reckless antics. By accident, says the man who sells him. She knows better—she loves him as if he were a new man, but a husband nonetheless: “No, it was the slavish malevolence of a domesticated animal that kept cropping up in St. Mawr.”

The text is, then, so centrifugal that it’s always on the verge of coming apart; for everyone and everything has a point of view, including the animals, from horses to goats. Even the pine trees, those archaic sentinels of a world before sex and human history, see something readers—and Lou herself—must acknowledge, which is the old, old world that came before the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings, males as well as females. The landscape itself has a speaking part because it’s alive, according to Lawrence, it’s a sentient form of being in the world. So the prose veers between matter-of-fact Orwellian description and incantatory evocations of what we typically treat as a set of inert, external objects—“Nature,” we call it.

In this sense, the novella is filmic, or cubist. My guess is that Lawrence would prefer the cinematic designation, because he reduces Texas to a western movie adapted from Zane Grey. The cowboys perform as if they’re on screen, playing their roughneck roles self-consciously, and perfectly: “It was all film-psychology.”

The text scans every scene from plural points of view, and, although there’s plenty of past tense, the narrative doesn’t feel retrospective—instead it circles or whirls, shifting from this to that perspective. I’m sure Lawrence understood what this technique might do to the fabled interiority that underwrote the modern novel:

“Lou could not get over the feeling that it all meant nothing. There were no roots of reality at ll. No consciousness below the surface, no meaning in anything save the obvious, the blatantly obvious. It was like life enacted in a mirror. Visually, it was wildly vital. But there was nothing behind it. Or like a cinematograph: flat shapes, exactly like men, but without any substance . . . .”

When Hollywood stands in for America, when it presides even over Texas—the cinematic frontier of western movies, but once upon a time the real thing—why then, the self-made man, a “proud living animal” as Lou puts it, has become an endangered species. Lawrence’s question is, can it be saved? Or rather, where might men be found? In a word, nowhere.

Rico calls his mother-in-law “Belle Mere,” the sound of which makes the nickname insulting. But Mrs. Witt always holds her own in the foreshortened battle of wits with her wounded son-in-law—she’s quite vicious, delightfully so—and she joins her daughter in the epic passage to the old frontier, Texas and then New Mexico, along with St. Mawr and Phoenix, absent Rico, the husband crushed by Lou’s love of the horse.

They’re quite purposefully headed west of everything, bound for a world without men. This seems an unlikely itinerary because in both scholarship and folklore, that frontier was the place where men could become self-reliant—they could rise from the ranks of abjected proletarians, to become self-employed proprietors of their own labor-time. Women could not, except as wives or daughters.

But Phoenix the half-breed knows the frontier is no longer the scene of upward mobility for men, from wage labor to self-ownership. Like Lewis, and like the mythic western hero, he’s a figure of repose, almost imperturbable, and yet he seethes with the anger that comes of knowing he hasn’t chosen his future, not out here on this cultural margin, and not back there in the stables of Europe. “But underneath [his stillness, his equanimity] there was an unchanging hatred. He submitted circumstantially, he worked for a wage.” In the same register, Lewis explains his abjection to Mrs. Witt in the most pitiful terms: “even your sleep you have to pay for.”

The escape from men on the sere frontier of New Mexico is predicted and staged by Mrs. Witt’s symbolic castration of Lewis. With flashing scissors, she insists on cutting his thick black hair and then offers—or rather threatens—to trim his beard as well. Samson never had it so bad. Lewis the groom, the servant, finally protests and flees. And then Mrs. Witt proposes marriage to him, as if domestication is the prerequisite rather than the product of matrimony, monogamy, and heterosexual life as such. As Lou puts it, “But you’ve no idea how men just tire me out: even the very thought of them. You say they are too animal.  But they’re not, mother. It’s the animal in them has gone perverse, or cringing, or humble, or domesticated, like dogs.”

Lewis turns Mrs. Witt down and immediately disappears from the story, as does St. Mawr, another domesticated animal. Then, on the bumpy way to buy a ranch called Las Chivas (which translates as “the female goats”), Lou silently considers and rejects Phoenix as a husband: as he drives up and down these back roads, he feels her close scrutiny, and he takes his own moral inventory as an item on the shelf of the marriage market.

Why are these lowly men—mere grooms, wage workers—the only objects of the women’s sexual desire (it has nothing to do with love)? Because they’re marked racially, as exotic offspring of the British Empire, not yet having been “pithed,” that is, plucked and deboned—enervated, unmanned—as Lawrence puts it, citing Kipling to imperial effect? Yes, except that the racial boundaries are less obvious than the class divisions, and that neither Lewis nor Phoenix nor St Mawr are, or can be, “proud living animals,” undomesticated males free of female intention. Lewis stands up to Rico by saying he answers only to Mrs. Witt, only to be humiliated—groomed, subjected, dominated—by his boss.   

When Mrs. Witt finally surveys the unforgiving landscape of Las Chivas, where the goats and the pack rats and the pine trees preside, she says, “a world not of men.” Lou replies: “They don’t count.” St. Mawr is a story for our time, then, the age of the “end of men,” as Hannah Rosin and others would have it. Or is it?

In those glorious Studies, Lawrence wrote about James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales as the frontier setting in which a “hard, stoic, isolate killer”—the real American, a real man—first comes of age. Something else is happening here. These women without men, these women who refuse men, are regressing, to be sure, they’re leaving civilization behind, but, unlike previous pioneers on the outskirts of this precarious achievement, they’re not equipping themselves for the slaughter of anything or anybody who’s already there, and they don’t have to.

Because now they can neither conquer the landscape nor leave it alone, because now they have to cultivate it—they bought the ranch, after all, goats included. Lawrence’s imaginary femininity could have stopped there. But it doesn’t.

Having given up on men, Lou says: “There’s something else even that loves me and wants me. I can’t tell you what it is. It’s a spirit. And it’s here, on this ranch. It’s here, in this landscape. It’s something more real to me than men are, and it soothes me, and it holds me up. . . . It’s something to do with wild America.”

Wild America now begins to look more like a peaceful respite from civilization than a gunfighter nation bent on self-destruction. That would be a place where what Lou wants is what we could have, if we wanted it: “And suddenly she craved again for the more absolute silence of America.”


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