Lawrence in Love

D.H. Lawrence: The Early Years, 1885–1912

by John Worthen
Cambridge University Press, 626 pp., $35.00

“There were several million facts of Lawrence’s short life and long work, of which Dubin might master a sufficient quantity. He’d weave them together and say what they meant—that was the daring thing. You assimilated another man’s experience and tried to arrange it into ‘thoughtful centrality’—Samuel Johnson’s expression. In order to do that honestly well, you had to anchor yourself in a place of perspective; you had as a strategy to imagine you were the one you were writing about, even though it meant laying illusion on illusion: pretend that he, Dubin, who knew himself passing well, knew, or might know, the life of D.H. Lawrence…. Though the evidence pertains to Lawrence, the miner’s son, how can it escape the taint, the subjectivity, the existence of Willie Dubin, Charlie-the-waiter’s son, via the contaminated language he chooses to put down as he eases his boy ever so gently into an imagined life? My life joining his with reservations. But the joining—the marriage?—has to be, or you can’t stay on the vicarious track of his past or whatever ‘truth’ you think you’re tracking…. There is no life that can be recaptured wholly; as it was. Which is to say that all biography is ultimately fiction.”

So muses William Dubin, the fictional biographer of D.H. Lawrence whose midlife crisis is recounted in Bernard Malamud’s Dubin’s Lives (1979). It’s a passage that focuses many of the anxieties—professional, ethical, psychological—of the modern biographer: the obsessive and almost perverse nature of the enterprise; the felt need to try to “become” the subject of one’s work, and the impossibility of succeeding; the straining to be comprehensive while knowing that selectivity is inevitable; the desire to give the biographical narrative unity and shapeliness, and the recognition that this is inevitably to deform the “truth.”

Dubin’s conclusion that “all biography is ultimately fiction” is one with which most contemporary theorists of literature would concur. It is a post-structuralist commonplace that language constructs the reality it seems merely to refer to; therefore all texts are fictions (some more useful than others), whether they acknowledge it or not. Even in the groves of academe, however, a distinction between empirical and fictional narrative stubbornly persists. Granted that any interpretation is partial, subjective, and open to revision—therefore a kind of “fiction”—nevertheless there is a difference, many would argue, between facts that are recovered by historical research, and “facts” that are invented by the creative imagination. This distinction is the foundation of literary biography, which is constantly occupied in showing the process by which the first type of fact was turned into the second. Modern theory, in contrast, is suspicious or dismissive of the idea that a writer is the unique origin of the meanings of the texts he or she inscribes. Literary biography thus constitutes the most theoretically conservative branch of academic literary scholarship today. By the same token, it is the one that remains most accessible to the “general reader.”

One respect in which modern biography resembles fiction that…

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