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“The Great Death-Continent”: 
D. H. Lawrence on America

[1]

David Herbert Lawrence, 1885–1930

529 words

Editor’s Note:

The following passage on America is from D. H. Lawrence’s novel The Plumed Serpent (1926). The Plumed Serpent tells the story of Kate Leslie, an Irish widow of 40, who, to escape her unhappy life, decides to travel to Mexico. She is horrified at Mexico’s ugliness, degeneracy, and backwardness. Eventually she encounters Don Ramon and General Cipriano, whose goal is to rid Mexico of Christianity, restore the religion of the Aztecs, and institute a new social and political order, in which women are subordinate to men and all are subordinated to a divine-human leader. The Plumed Serpent explores the connections between Lawrence’s Nietzschean philosophy, which can be described as a “psycho-sexual vitalism,” and the themes of neo-paganism, male dominance, nationalism, and fascism.

It should be noted that in spite of Lawrence’s evident horror of miscegenation, in the end of the novel, he has Kate marry General Cipriano, a pure-blooded Indian. Thus The Plumed Serpent can also be read as a meditation on the sicknesses of the European mind that lead to social and sexual dalliances with primitive non-whites. Lawrence believed that European civilization had made European man devitalized and decadent. This caused Europeans to be attracted to the psychological and sexual vitality of less civilized races and peoples.

In the passage quoted below, Lawrence uses “America” to refer not just to the United States, but to the Americas in general. The whole of The Plumed Serpent can be found online here [2].

And sometimes [Kate] wondered whether America really was the great death-continent, the great No! to the European and Asiatic, and even African Yes! Was it really the great melting-pot, where men from the creative continents were smelted back again, not to a new creation, but down into the homogeneity of death? Was it the great continent of the undoing, and all its peoples the agents of the mystic destruction! Plucking, plucking at the created soul in a man, till at last it plucked out the growing germ, and left him a creature of mechanism and automatic reaction, with only one inspiration, the desire to pluck the quick out of every living spontaneous creature.

Was that the clue to America? she sometimes wondered. Was it the great death-continent, the continent that destroyed again what the other continents had built up? The continent whose spirit of place fought purely to pick the eyes out of the face of God? Was that America?

And all the people who went there, Europeans, Negroes, Japanese, Chinese, all the colours and the races, were they the spent people, in whom the God impulse had collapsed, so they crossed to the great continent of the negation, where the human will declares itself ‘free’, to pull down the soul of the world? Was it so? And did this account for the great drift to the New World, the drift of spent souls passing over to the side of Godless democracy, energetic negation? The negation which is the life-breath of materialism. And would the great negative pull of the Americans at last break the heart of the world?

from D. H. Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent, chapter 4