THESE 579 PAGES contain 579 letters, and constitute the first of seven volumes that will give us the complete Letters of D.H. Lawrence . These letters come from the years 1901-1913; in the latter year Lawrence published Sons and Lovers , and became a major English novelist -- in the year before he had eloped with Frieda Weekly and become "Lorenzo," a hero of the internation erotic movement -- but he was still at the very beginning of his careet. He died only 17 years later, and he was in 1913 already 28, but there are six times as many letters yet to come -- 5,5000 altogether. Of course, it isn't only that he wrote more letters in the last 17 years of his life, it's that everyone kept everything he sent them.

Besides the letters themselves, and a preface, an introduction, etc., this edition gives us a Lawrence genealogy, a Lawrence chronology and several maps of places he visited during these years.

It is a solemn moment when a complete edition comes out, especially when the writer is of that special kind who seems to defy the canons, and to speak directly across genres and in definace of literary laws. In this book we watch Lawrence being canonized, in more than one sense. A solemn moment rather than a serious one, for after all it doesn't make very much difference: Lawrence is still Lawrence. The editing is very modern in spirit, unobtrusive and far from eager to bowdlerize or impose respectability upon the text. One does not hear even muted trumpets blowing, or the Westminster Abbey organ. This edition forms a striking contrast with the Soviet Complete Edition of Tolstoy, where the editors must forever intrude to guide us to a just estimate of the author, to emphasize this and explain away that. Russia is still a responsible society. (We might add also that there are 32 volumes of Tolstoy's letterss, in a 90-volume edition of which War and Peace takess up only four. Tolstoy of course lived to be 82, while Lawrenced died at 45. We have much to be thankful for.)

One of the ways in which this edition doesn't make very much difference is that our image of Lawrence remains the same. None of the new letters alter the main lineaments, except that some to his sisters and women friends from 1908 to 1912 display a falser Lawrence than I remember dealing with inearlier collections of his letters. In those years Lawrence was, like other people of his age, trying on a number of roles, and some of them were, as his sister Ada said to his fiancee in 1912, "flippant and really artificial." She added, "I wouldn't marry a man like him, no, not if he were the only one on earth." This criterion of judgment is more appropriate to Lawrence than it would be to most aurthors, for a great many of his female readers have been attracted to Lawrence as an ideal husband. So it is rather unpleasant to have to contemplate these phases of self-betrayal: but such unpleasantnesss is the inevitable penalty of the impartial truth-telling, the operating-theater illumination, of a complete edition.

What we gain from this elaborate documentation is biographical and perhaps historical in interest. Through Lawrence we see in great detail the socio-cultural milieu of aspiring young writers in places like Eastwood and Nottingham in the first decade of this century. We see for instance the Congregational Literary Society founded in Eastwood in 1899 by the Reverend Robert Reid, a great friend of Lawrence's mother, and a counselor to her children. There were three to four hundren members, who paid a shilling a year, and in the first year of its existence they heard papers on Burns, Hood, Browning, Goldsmith, Tennyson, Longfellow. We see also the 20-volume International Library of Famous Literature, edited by Richard Garnett in 1899. This set originally belonged to Lawrence's older brother Ernest (the William of Sons and Lovers ); Jessie Chambers (the Miriam of Sons and Lovers ) says it was "regarded with a reverence amounting to awe." It included substantial extracts (often over 30 pages at a time) from not only English and American classics, but Greek and Roman, French and German, even Russian and Chinese: Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Verlaine, all were here for Lawrence to encounter in the miner's living room.

Finally we see Ford Madox Hueffer's English Review , founded in 1908 and publishing Lawrence from 1909 to 1923 (35 issues contained work of his). The first issue had contained Tolstoy and Hardy, James and Wells; on the political/ideological side, it took a great interest in Russia and the revolutionary party there. Thus when Lawrence was published by Hueffer, and advertised to everyone as a genius, he stepped into one of the avant-gardes of English literature then, well before publishing or even writing Sons and Lovers .

This, ultimately, is the effect of his being canonized: Reading Lawrence, we no longer think about Lawrence, but about his milieu and the other writers of his time, and so on. The apparatus of scholoship that surrounds him -- sensible and relevant as it is -- does not lead us to a renewed encounter with the sharpest challenge of Lawrence's thought. But it does lead us to a broader and more detailed knowledge of the world he had to live in, and that is interesting too.