A Biography of H. P. Lovecraft (Part 1)
Szerző: S. T. Joshi • Dátum: 2003-08-03
Az “An Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft” c. könyv bevezető esszéje.
Why study H. P. Lovecraft? In the minds of some critics and scholars this question still evidently requires an answer, and will perhaps always require an answer so long as standard criticism maintains its inexplicable prejudice against the tale of horror, fantasy, and the supernatural. In the space I have I cannot hope to present a general defense of the weird tale; but I can at least suggest that Edmund Wilson’s condemnation of Lovecraft’s work as „bad taste and bad art” („Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous” ) may, at the very least, have been a little myopic. Wilson wrote his offhand review forty-five years ago, and the vicissitudes of Lovecraft’s recognition—his adulation in the science fiction and fantasy fan magazines of the forties; the stony silence of the fifties; Colin Wilson’s vicious attack of Lovecraft as a neurotic in the sixties; and the systematic clearing away of misconceptions about the man and his work by his many supporters in the seventies and eighties—would make an interesting study in itself.
The ancillary question „Why read H. P. Lovecraft?” seems to have been definitively answered, if the millions of hardcover and paperback copies of his work in this country and the translations of his stories into fifteen or more languages around the world are any testimony. Lovecraft has always had a divided readership—on the one hand youthful enthusiasts of fantasy, on the other hand a small band of writers and critics (from T. O. Mabbott to Jorge Luis Borges) who can see beyond the tentacled monsters that adorn the covers of his books to the philosophical and literary substance of the work itself. It is perhaps this first group of readers that makes the critical establishment so dubious: how can a writer so popular be of literary worth? This is a very real inquiry, not an attenuated relic of literary aristocracy: although we are flooded today with volumes of supposed scholarship on Stephen King, there is still little reason to believe that his work merits much attention.
What we must do, then, is to see what there is about Lovecraft that is worth studying, and why, one hundred years after his birth, he commands so large a popular and a scholarly following. Here are some hints: (1) Lovecraft’s life, although outwardly uneventful, is of consuming interest—thanks to the existence of tens of thousands of his letters, he is one of the most self-documented individuals in human history; (2) his life, work, and thought form a philosophical and aesthetic unity found in few other writers; and (3) the whole of his work—fiction, essays, poetry, letters—is worth study.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on 20 August 1890 in his native home at 454 (then 194) Angell Street in Providence, Rhode Island. He came from distinguished ancestry: his maternal line, the Phillipses, could trace its lineage almost to the Mayflower, and when Lovecraft later visited some erstwhile ancestral estates in western Rhode Island the name of Phillips was remembered with fondness and respect (see SL 2.81f.); his paternal line was of English origin, and Lovecraft could trace the Lovecraft or Lovecroft name well into the fifteenth century. At the time of his birth Lovecraft’s family was quite well-to-do, most of the wealth derived from the extensive business interests of Lovecraft’s maternal grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips. This prosperity, however, was not to last. The death of Whipple Phillips in 1904 had two calamitous effects: it robbed Lovecraft of one of his major early influences (for with the death of Lovecraft’s father in 1898 of paresis the raising of the lad had been entrusted to his mother, his two aunts, and especially his grandfather); moreover, because of the mismanagement of affairs by Phillips’s business associates, Phillips’s fortune was squandered and the Lovecrafts were forced to move out of their palatial mansion. Lovecraft never recovered from the loss of his birthplace: in the short run it drove him almost to suicide, as he took long bicycle rides and gazed wistfully at the watery depths of the Barrington River; in the long run it led to a sense of loss and displacement that his early readings only augmented.
Those readings—done at random in the capacious family library—can be classified into three broad areas: an,iquarianism; fantasy and horror; and science. The first may at this point have been most important. Lovecraft gravitated to the eighteenth century, developing a curious affinity for books with the „long s.” He read all the standard poets and prose writers (especially the essayists; he was less keen on the early novelists), and through the great translations of the Greek and Latin classics of that age (Garth’s Ovid, Pope’s Iliad and Odyssey) he arrived at the ancients themselves. He learned Latin well enough to translate the first eighty-eight lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses into heroic couplets at about the age of ten (1); by the age of twelve he was writing poems heavily saturated in the classicism of Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Juvenal. In the fantasy line Lovecraft early imbibed both Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the Arabian Nights (the latter impelled him to adopt a playful Mohammedanism until it gave way to the groves of Hellas); at age eight he discovered Poe, and this gave his writing the greatest impetus it ever received. But about this time Lovecraft also discovered the world of science—first chemistry, then astronomy. Lovecraft later believed that Hellenism and astronomy were the two central influences of his early years, the latter especially because it led directly to his „cosmic” philosophy wherein mankind and the world are but a flyspeck amidst the vortices of infinite space. Lovecraft long maintained this duality of science and pure literature in his own writing: on the one hand we have his many juvenile treatises on chemistry and astronomy, as well as his amateur periodicals The Scientific Gazette (1899-1909) and The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy (1903-09); on the other hand his youthful stories, poems, and translations. He would harmonize the diverse strains only in his later „scientific” fiction, especially At the Mountains of Madness and „The Shadow out of Time.”
The prodigious fecundity of Lovecraft’s early writing indicates not only precocity but considerable leisure; indeed, Lovecraft’s formal schooling—first at Slater Avenue School, then at Hope Street High School—was always sporadic, and did not in the end lead to a diploma. Poor health was the cause of his frequent absences, but the nature of his malady is not now easy to discern. Lovecraft claimed to have suffered frequent nervous breakdowns in youth, including a serious one in 1908 which led to his withdrawal not only from high school but also from the world at large. He destroyed much of his early writing, and for the next five years retreated into a hermitry from which little could stir him: we know that on his twenty-first birthday in 1911 he rode the trolleys all day, but aside from this the period is largely blank.
Lovecraft was freed from this sequestration in a very curious way. Having fallen into the habit of reading the popular magazines of the day, especially some of the early Munsey pulps (The Argosy, The All-Story, etc.), Lovecraft became so irked at the contributions of a romance writer, Fred Jackson, that he wrote a verse epistle to the editor in protest. No doubt Lovecraft thought nothing of resurrecting the eighteenth-century verse satire in 1913, but the thing must have amused the editor, for he printed it. There followed a series of rebuttals back and forth between Lovecraft and those who defended Jackson, and this battle was observed by Edward F. Daas of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA); he urged the leading participants of the fray to join the order, and Lovecraft promptly did so.
The UAPA (and its rival, the National Amateur Press Association, which Lovecraft later joined) was a group of amateur writers who wrote and published their own journals—some of them very crude, others quite distinguished. Lovecraft joined the organization in early 1914, and for the next decade produced an astonishing amount of amateur writing: he edited thirteen issues of his own paper, The Conservative; he contributed essays and poems to scores of other journals; he edited the official organ of the UA,A, The United Amateur, and served as President and as Chairman of the Department of Public Criticism. It was as if a lifeline had been extended to a drowning man: Lovecraft, of frail health, ashamed of his inability to attend Brown University and gain a college degree, buried in a world of his own making that was increasingly remote from reality, was finally rescued by a band of amateur writers with aspirations like his own—so he fancied—but with viewpoints often differing significantly from his. Lovecraft’s formidable intellect and literary skill raised him quickly to prominence in the field (a prominence he still holds as one of the pillars of the amateur movement), but Lovecraft knew that he had received as much from amateurdom as he gave it:
In 1914, when the kindly hand of amateurdom was first extended to me, I was as close to the state of vegetation as any animal well can be. . . . With the advent of the United I obtained a renewed will to live; a renewed sense of existence as other than a superfluous weight; and found a sphere in which I could feel that my efforts were not wholly futile. For the first time I could imagine that my clumsy gropings at art were a little more than faint cries lost in the unlistening void. (2)
It is in the amateur world that Lovecraft recommenced the writing of fiction. His associates—notably W. Paul Cook—praised the juvenile tales that he allowed to be printed—„The Beast in the Cave” (1905), „The Alchemist” (1908)—and urged him to write more. Lovecraft did so, producing „The Tomb” and „Dagon” in quick succession in the summer of 1917; from then on he maintained a steady if sparse flow of fiction until his death. But until at least 1922 Lovecraft regarded himself more as a poet and essayist than as a fiction writer—in sheer volume his collected verse and nonfiction dwarf his fiction threefold.
Even the professional sale of his work was generated through the amateur world. First, some of his poems were reprinted from amateur journals by the professional National Magazine of Boston; then, in 1921, Lovecraft received an offer to write a series of six „Grewsome Tales” for a professional magazine, Home Brew, launched by an amateur colleague, George Julius Houtain. Lovecraft was to have been paid $5 for each segment of the serial—which we now know as „Herbert West—Reanimator,” universally acknowledged as Lovecraft’s poorest work—but whether he ever was is open to question. The next year he wrote another serial for Home Brew (which was actually largely a humor magazine, and which Lovecraft aptly termed a „vile rag” [SL 4.170]), the much better tale „The Lurking Fear.” In 1923 the founding of Weird Tales seemed to promise a ready market for his work, but Lovecraft was initially reluctant to submit his stories there; then when he did so (remarking in his cover letter that some of the tales had been rejected by Black Mask) and when the tales were accepted, he felt it too bothersome to retype the stories in double-spacing. But he finally made the effort, and from then on his work began to appear there regularly. Lovecraft never wrote (or, rather, sold) enough fiction to be a professional writer; instead, his income was provided by an ever-dwindling family inheritance and by the dreary task of literary revision and ghost-writing. This work ran the gamut from textbooks to poetry to novels to articles; but on occasion Lovecraft attracted revision clients who wished to write horror tales, and his „revisions” of the works of such tyros as Hazel Heald, Zealia Bishop, Adolphe de Castro, and others are often tantamount to original composition.
In 1921, however, Lovecraft’s domestic life was powerfully affected by the death of his mother after a long illness. Mrs. Lovecraft, her frail constitution destroyed by the death of her husband under peculiar circumstances (it is likely that he, a traveling salesman, died from some form of syphilis, although the evidence now seems conclusive that Lovecraft himself was not congenitally syphilitic) and pa,hologically overprotective of her only child, died in a sanitarium; the immediate cause of death, however, was a badly managed gall bladder operation. Lovecraft, stunned by the blow, felt himself again on the brink of suicide, but the sentiment did not last long: a month after his mother’s death he attended an amateur journalism convention in Boston, where he met the woman who was to become his wife. Sonia Haft Greene was a Russian Jew seven years older than Lovecraft, but he was captivated by her devotion to amateur letters and what on the surface appeared to be a similar view of the world. Their courtship cut short a budding romance (of which we know very little) between Lovecraft and the amateur poet Winifred Virginia Jackson, but it took three years for Lovecraft and Sonia to decide on marriage. When they did so Lovecraft told his aunts by letter after the ceremony had taken place at St. Paul’s Cathedral in New York; perhaps he feared that Sonia’s racial heritage, and the fact that she ran a successful millinery shop on Fifth Avenue, would not have met with the approval of two elderly ladies of old New England stock.
Was Lovecraft’s marriage doomed to failure? It is easy to say such a thing after the fact, but there is no reason to believe it. Who knows what might have happened had a series of disasters not hit the couple almost immediately upon their marriage?—the collapse of Sonia’s shop; the inability of Lovecraft to find a job in New York; Sonia’s ill health, which forced her to leave the household and seek recuperation in various rest homes; and, perhaps most important, Lovecraft’s growing horror of New York—its oppressive size, the hordes of „aliens” at every corner, its emphasis on speed, money, and commercialism. The many friends Lovecraft had in the city—Samuel Loveman, Rheinhart Kleiner, Arthur Leeds, and especially the young poet and fantaisiste Frank Belknap Long, Jr.—were not enough to ward off depression and even incipient madness. On 1 January 1925, after only ten months of cohabitation with Sonia, Lovecraft moved into a single room in a squalid area of Brooklyn, as his wife left to seek employment in the Midwest; she thereafter returned only intermittently to New York.
Lovecraft’s fiction turned from the nostalgic—„The Shunned House” (1924), set in Providence—to the bitter: „He” and „The Horror at Red Hook” (1925) laid bare his feelings about New York, and the ending of the former tale encapsulates his yearning to return to the tranquil and familiar world of New England. But that return only took place in April 1926, after a complicated series of arrangements worked out by Lovecraft, his wife, Frank Long, and his aunts: Lovecraft returned ecstatically to Providence, settling at 10 Barnes Street north of Brown University. Where did Sonia fit into these plans? No one seemed to know, least of all Lovecraft: he continued to profess his love for her, but refused to return to New York; and when she proposed to set up shop in Providence, there was equal resistance, this time from Lovecraft’s aunts. Sonia tells it laconically: „At the time the aunts gently but firmly informed me that neither they nor Howard could afford to have Howard’s wife work for a living in Providence. That was that. I now knew where we all stood. Pride preferred to suffer in silence; both theirs and mine.” (3) The family’s social standing (in spite of their poverty) was too precious to be tainted by a tradeswoman wife; the marriage was essentially over, and a divorce in 1929 was inevitable.
Lovecraft settled down to the reposeful existence he had known before Sonia and New York; but it was not the same Lovecraft who saw only the eighteenth century or classical antiquity and ignored the modern world; nor was it a Lovecraft who buried himself away as in the 1908-13 period. Instead, after a flurry of literary activity such as he never experienced before or after—in six months he wrote „The Call of Cthulhu,” „The Silver Key,” The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Case of Charles Dexte, Ward, „The Colour out of Space,” and several other works, as well as completing the treatise Supernatural Horror in Literature begun in late 1925 in New York—he became, in the last ten years of his life, the man who most comes to mind when we hear the name Lovecraft: the author of tales of cosmic horror; the center of a vast and ever-increasing web of epistolary ties with literary figures in the field (August Derleth, Donald Wandrei, Vincent Starrett, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, E. Hoffmann Price, Henry S. Whitehead, and others); the seeker of antiquarian sites all along the eastern part of the continent—Quebec, New England, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Charleston, St. Augustine, New Orleans, Key West; the elder statesman of fantasy who, in the thirties, served as the fountainhead and mentor for many young fans and writers (Robert Bloch, J. Vernon Shea, R. H. Barlow, Charles D. Hornig, Julius Schwartz, Donald A. Wollheim, Duane W. Rimel, Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner, James Blish, and many others).
By 1930 Lovecraft had published many tales in Weird Tales and „The Colour out of Space” in Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories; but when would a book bearing his name appear? There had been a half-dozen pamphlets issued by amateur publishers, and W. Paul Cook’s stillborn edition of The Shunned House (sheets printed in 1928) held Lovecraft in anticipation to his death. In the late 1920s Farnsworth Wright of Weird Tales had toyed with the idea of a collection of Lovecraft’s tales (to be called—prophetically enough—The Outsider and Other Stories), but the plan had come to nothing. Then, in 1931, G. P. Putnam’s Sons asked to look at some of Lovecraft’s stories; their eventual rejection, coinciding with the rejection by Wright of At the Mountains of Madness (regarded by Lovecraft as his most ambitious work), gave Lovecraft a severe setback. Always sensitive to criticism, he later admitted that this double rejection „did more than anything else to end my effective fictional career” (SL 5.224). Later efforts by Vanguard, Knopf, Loring & Mussey, and William Morrow to issue a collection of tales or a novel also came to nothing, and Lovecraft’s later work is increasingly tinged with self-doubt: „The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931) went through two, perhaps three drafts; „The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932), one of his poorest later efforts, was written frenetically in pencil, as was „The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933); „The Shadow out of Time” (1934-35) went through at least two drafts. In 1936 Lovecraft made what to us seems the astonishing assertion that „I’m farther from doing what I want to do than I was 20 years ago” (SL 5.224). Lovecraft may have gained some pleasure at finally moving into a historic house at 66 College Street in 1933 (the house dates to ca. 1825) and at his increasing glorification by the early fantasy fandom movement; but one wonders whether the sense of frustration pervading his later work had anything to do with his failure to seek medical help for the cancer of the intestine that ultimately killed him, and whose symptoms had begun to be evident at least two years before his death. Or did he fear a repetition of the bungled operation that had robbed him of his mother? In any case, when Lovecraft entered Jane Brown Memorial Hospital on 10 March 1937, all that could be done was to give him morphine to ease the pain. He died five days later and was buried in the Phillips family plot in Swan Point Cemetery. Only recently has a separate marker been erected on his grave, the funds contributed by many of his posthumous admirers; the stone reads: „I am Providence.”
What did Lovecraft mean when he wrote:
I should describe mine own nature as tripartite, my interests consisting of three parallel and dissociated groups—(a) Love of the strange and the fantastic. (b) Love of the abstract truth and of scientific logick. (c) Love of the ancient and the permanent. Sundry combinations of these strains will probably account for all my odd tastes and eccent,icities. (SL 1.110)
Whether these are really to be „dissociated,” and whether they make up the totality of Lovecraft’s thought and personality (he wrote this in 1920), is to be wondered. Later he confessed, acutely, that his very love of the past fostered the principal strain in his aesthetic of the weird—the defeat or confounding of time. In any case, the traditional image of Lovecraft—the one we think of when we see Virgil Finlay’s exquisite portrait of him as a periwigged gentleman—as the eighteenth-century fossil completely ignorant of and hostile to the twentieth century has, since the publication of his letters, been shown conclusively to be false. Anyone who reads of Lovecraft’s careful dissection of the political scene prior to the 1936 election—he was a pronounced New Dealer—will know that he was no „stranger in this century,” as the „Outsider” says of himself. Even his fiction, if read carefully, can be seen to be more than the escapist dreams of a doting antiquarian: superficially we have things like the discovery of Pluto cited in „The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930) or the then still controversial continental drift theory in At the Mountains of Madness (1931); more profoundly we have Einstein, Planck, and Heisenberg recurring in significant fashion in the later fiction, or the transparent metaphors for humanity’s future aesthetic, political, and economic development in the alien civilizations in „The Mound” (1929-30), At the Mountains of Madness, and „The Shadow out of Time.”
This does not mean that Lovecraft abandoned his love of the past; it is simply that he justified it more rationally. Lovecraft’s prose style, for example, always bore traces of his early absorption of the Augustans; but in later years he could defend eighteenth-century prose (quite rightly) precisely because it was more natural and direct than either the floridity of Carlyle or the „machine-gun fire” of Hemingway:
I refuse to be taken in by the goddam bunk of this aera just as totally as I refused to fall for the pompous, polite bull of Victorianism—and one of the chief fallacies of the present is that smoothness, even when involving no sacrifice of directness, is a defect. The best prose is vigorous, direct, unadorn’d, and closely related (as is the best verse) to the language of actual discourse; but it has its natural rhythms and smoothness just as good oral speech has. There has never been any prose as good as that of the early eighteenth century, and anyone who thinks he can improve upon Swift, Steele, and Addison is a blockhead. (SL 4.32-33)
What we see, therefore, in the course of Lovecraft’s work as well as his life and thought is a gradual coming to terms with the modern world, but at the same time a belief that that world offered fewer aesthetic riches than certain prior ages of Western civilization. From a naive antiquarian Lovecraft evolved into an informed antiquarian.
His „love of the abstract truth and of scientific logick” compelled him to pursue a wide range of academic interests—-literature, philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, astrophysics, anthropology, psychology, art and architecture—and, more important, to fashion a coherent philosophy that served as the fountainhead for his entire literary work. This is hardly the place for a full exposition of that philosophy; but some aspects of its relation to his literary work can be sketched here.
Lovecraft’s early studies in the natural sciences, as well as his absorption of the atomism of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, led to his espousal of mechanistic materialism. The trump card that ensured the truth of this stance, Lovecraft felt, was the landmark work of nineteenth-century science: the nebular hypothesis of Laplace sufficiently explained the evolution of the universe; the Darwin theory abolished the myth of the „soul” and the argument from design; and—perhaps most important for the atheist Lovecraft—the work of anthropologists like E. B. Tylor and J. G. Frazer accounted with overwhelmi,g completeness for the natural origin of mankind’s belief in the supernatural. For the rest of his life Lovecraft tirelessly worked to accommodate the potentially disturbing findings of twentieth-century science with nineteenth-century positivism. Einstein showed the fundamental equivalence of matter and energy: well, one could still be more or less of a materialist (as, indeed, Lovecraft’s most revered modern thinkers, Bertrand Russell and George Santayana, were), even though the word „materialist” would now be used only in a historical sense:
The truth is, that the discovery of matter’s identity with energy—and of its consequent lack of vital intrinsic difference from empty space—is an absolute coup de grace to the primitive and irresponsible myth of „spirit”. For matter, it appears, really is exactly what „spirit” was always supposed to be. Thus it is proved that wandering energy always has a detectable form—that if it doesn’t take the form of waves or electron-streams, it becomes matter itself; and that the absence of any other detectable energy-form indicates not the presence of spirit, but the absence of anything whatever. (SL 2.266-67)
Then Planck comes along with the quantum theory; this proves to be a little more troublesome, but ultimately Lovecraft takes it in stride:
What most physicists take the quantum theory, at present, to mean, is not that any cosmic uncertainty exists as to which of several courses a given reaction will take; but that in certain instances no conceivable channel of information can ever tell human beings which course will be taken, or by what exact course a certain observed result came about. (SL 3.228)
This is in fact false, even though it was endorsed by Einstein („God does not play dice with the cosmos”) and other leading thinkers of the day. As for Heisenberg, he is actually mentioned in „The Dreams in the Witch House,” but I do not know how well Lovecraft really came to terms with indeterminacy. The point is, however, that he continued to wrestle with these questions with a tenacity few non-philosophers have exhibited. More important, Lovecraft came to believe that any viable literary work—even fiction and poetry—-must derive from a sound and accurate view of the universe. While being entirely opposed to literary didacticism, he sensed that his own work at least was the unconscious embodiment of his metaphysical and ethical thought.
Lovecraft’s hostility to religion—for the principal reason that it made false assertions as to the nature of entity („The Judaeo-Christian mythology is NOT TRUE” [SL 1.60])—seems to have increased with the years, to the point that he expressed contempt that orthodox religionists would continue to brainwash the young into religious belief in the face of such massive scientific evidence to the contrary. And yet, the findings of modern science did not lead Lovecraft to waver on the issue, as when he spoke of
. . . the new mysticism or neo-metaphysics bred of the advertised uncertainties of recent science—Einstein, the quantum theory, and the resolution of matter into force. Although these new turns of science don’t mean a thing in relation to the myth of cosmic consciousness and teleology, a new brood of despairing and horrified moderns is seizing on the doubt of all positive knowledge which they imply; and is deducing therefrom that, since nothing is true, therefore anything can be true.....whence one may invent or revive any sort of mythology that fancy or nostalgia or desperation may dictate, and defy anyone to prove that it isn’t emotionally true—whatever that means. This sickly, decadent neo-mysticism—a protest not only against machine materialism but against pure science with its destruction of the mystery and dignity of human emotion and experience—will be the dominant creed of middle twentieth century aesthetes, as the Eliot and Huxley penumbra well prognosticate. (SL 3.53)
Lovecraft’s ultimate position (derived, as much of the above quotation was, from Josep, Wood Krutch’s The Modern Temper) was one of resigned acceptance of the truths of science—the truth that the world and the human race occupy an infinitesimal and unimportant place in the cosmic scheme of things; the truth that one lives and dies and that’s the end of it. When Lovecraft sought freedom from the constraining bonds of reality, it was not the fact-repudiating freedom of religious belief but the imaginative freedom of weird fiction. It was precisely because Lovecraft felt the universe to be an unswerving mechanism with rigid natural laws that he required the escape of the imagination:
The general revolt of the sensitive mind against the tyranny of corporeal enclosure, restricted sense-equipment, & the laws of force, space, & causation, is a far keener & bitterer & better-founded one than any of the silly revolts of long-haired poseurs against isolated & specific instances of cosmic inevitability. But of course it does not take the form of personal petulance, because there is no convenient scape-goat to saddle the impersonal ill upon. Rather does it crop out as a pervasive sadness & unplaceable impatience, manifested in a love of strange dreams & an amusing eagerness to be galled by the quack cosmic pretensions of the various religious circuses. Well—in our day the quack circuses are wearing pretty thin despite the premature senilities of fat Chesterbellocs & affected Waste Land Shantih-dwellers, & the nostalgic & unmotivated „overbeliefs” of elderly & childhood-crippled physicists. The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, & matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality—when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & mensurable universe. And what, if not a form of non-supernatural cosmic art, is to pacify this sense of revolt—as well as gratify the cognate sense of curiosity? (SL 3.295-96)
But if Lovecraft’s „love of the truth” led him to embrace scientific facts (as he saw them), however unpalatable and destructive of human self-importance they were, his „love of the ancient and the permanent” allowed him to evolve an ethic that placed tradition at its center.
In a cosmos without absolute values we have to rely on the relative values affecting our daily sense of comfort, pleasure, & emotional satisfaction. What gives us relative painlessness & contentment we may arbitrarily call „good”, & vice versa. This local nomenclature is necessary to give us that benign illusion of placement, direction, & stable background on which the still more important illusions of „worthwhileness”, dramatic significance in events, & interest in life depend. Now what gives one person or race or age relative painlessness & contentment often disagrees sharply on the psychological side from what gives these same boons to another person or race or age. Therefore „good” is a relative & variable quality, depending on ancestry, chronology, geography, nationality, & individual temperament. Amidst this variability there is only one anchor of fixity which we can seize upon as the working pseudo-standard of „values” which we need in order to feel settled & contented—& that anchor is tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed to us by the massed experience of our ancestors, individual or national, biological or cultural. Tradition means nothing cosmically, but it means everything locally & pragmatically because we have nothing else to shield us from a devastating sense of „lostness” in endless time & space. (SL 2.356-57)
This seems a little self-serving—there is no reason why everyone should feel the sense of tradition so strongly that its absence would breed a feeling of „lostness”—but it accounts both for Lovecraft’s gentlemanly deportment and for many of his political views. His politics became radically altered in the course of his life—he began as a naive monarchist who lamented the American Revolution and the split with England, and ended as a confirmed socialist who w,shed FDR to proceed even more rapidly with reform—but there are points of contact all along the way. Lovecraft’s aristocratic upbringing never left him, and his suspicion of democracy actually became more pronounced as events following the depression compelled him to adopt socialism. At the heart of Lovecraft’s entire political philosophy was the notion of culture—the massed traditions of each race, society, and region. „All I care about is the civilisation—the state of development and organisation which is capable of gratifying the complex mental-emotional-aesthetic needs of highly evolved and acutely sensitive men” (SL 2.290)—men, one supposes, like Lovecraft. What this means is that anything that stands in the way of the flowering of a rich and harmonious culture—for Lovecraft it was principally democracy and capitalism—must go. The conjoining of these two forces in the early nineteenth century actually led to the shattering of that high level of culture maintained by the aristocracies of the past:
Bourgeois capitalism gave artistic excellence & sincerity a death-blow by enthroning cheap amusement-value at the expense of that intrinsic excellence which only cultivated, non-acquisitive persons of assured position can enjoy. The determinant market for written, pictorial, musical, dramatic, decorative, architectural, & other heretofore aesthetic material ceased to be a small circle of truly educated persons, but became a substantially larger (even with a vast proportion of society starved & crushed into a sodden, inarticulate helplessness through commercial & commercial-satellitic greed & callousness) circle of mixed origin numerically dominated by crude, half-educated clods whose systematically perverted ideals (worship of low cunning, material acquisition, cheap comfort & smoothness, worldly success, ostentation, speed, intrinsic magnitude, surface glitter, &c.) prevented them from ever achieving the tastes and perspectives of the gentlefolk whose dress & speech & external manners they so assiduously mimicked. This herd of acquisitive boors brought up from the shop & the counting-house a complete set of artificial attitudes, oversimplifications, & mawkish sentimentalities which no sincere art or literature could gratify—& they so outnumbered the remaining educated gentlefolk that most of the purveying agencies became at once reoriented to them. Literature & art lost most of their market; & writing, painting, drama, &c. became engulfed more & more in the domain of amusement enterprises. (SL 5.397-98)
The answer was not some rearguard resurrection of the aristocratic principle—Lovecraft was realist enough to understand that this was not possible in the America of the 1930s—but socialism. Aristocracy and socialism were really mirror images of the same thing:
. . . what I used to respect was not really aristocracy, but a set of personal qualities which aristocracy then developed better than any other system...a set of qualities, however, whose merits lay only in a psychology of non-calculative, non-competitive disinterestedness, truthfulness, courage, & generosity fostered by good education, minimum economic stress, and assumed position, & just as achievable through socialism as through aristocracy. (SL 5.321)
Socialism would mean such basic economic rights as old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, and—a vital issue for many economists and lawmakers of the 1930s, but one ultimately rejected by Roosevelt and subsequent administrations—shorter working hours so that all who were able to work could have a chance to do so. Lovecraft came to this position because he felt that the dominance of the machine in his day had made it possible for all needed work to be done by a very small number of people; working hours would therefore have to be arbitrarily reduced to spread what little work there was to the populace at large. For Lovecraft this would have an added benefit: the increased leisure time accruing to all individuals could then be used for increased educat,onal and aesthetic purposes, with a resulting rise in the tone of general culture. Lovecraft seemed genuinely convinced toward the end of his life that such a utopia was within reach, and that FDR was the man to bring it about—„The recent election gratified me extremely” (SL 5.390), he wrote in February 1937—but it now strikes me as somewhat naive for Lovecraft to have expected that socialism would come so readily to this country or that the average citizen, if given more leisure, would use it to uplift himself in a suitably edifying way. As it is, eight years previous he expressed a sentiment that not only was more in keeping with his distrust of the mob and his hatred of mechanization, but is a sadly accurate prediction of our present state of culture:
Granted that the machine-victim has leisure. What is he going to do with it? What memories and experiences has he to form a background to give significance to anything he can do? What can he see or do that will mean anything to him? . . . What has heretofore made life tolerable for the majority is the fact that their natural workaday routine and milieu have never been quite devoid of the excitement, nature-contact, uncertainty, non-repetition, and free and easy irregularity which build up a background of associations calculated to foster the illusion of significance and make possible the real enjoyment of art and leisure. Without this help from their environment, the majority could never manage to keep contented. Now that it is fading, they are in a bad plight indeed; for they cannot hope to breast the tide of ennui as the stronger-minded minority can. There will be, of course, high-sounding and flabbily idealistic attempts to help the poor devils. We shall hear of all sorts of futile reforms and reformers—standardised culture-outlines, synthetic sports and spectacles, professional play-leaders and study-guides, and kindred examples of machine-made uplift and brotherly spirit. And it will amount to just about as much as most reforms do! Meanwhile the tension of boredom and unsatisfied imagination will increase—breaking out with increasing frequency in crimes of morbid perversity and explosive violence. (SL 2.308-9)
Perhaps it is just as well that Lovecraft did not survive into his seventies or eighties.
The final component of Lovecraft’s political philosophy is racialism. We are past the point of trying (as August Derleth did) to brush this under the rug, but we are, I trust, also moving beyond L. Sprague de Camp’s schoolmasterly chiding of Lovecraft for his beliefs without an awareness of their origin and purpose. Indeed, the point at which Lovecraft should rightly be criticized has been misunderstood by many. It is not the mere fact that he expressed obnoxious opinions about blacks, Jews, and just about every other „non-Aryan” race; it is the fact that in this one area of his thought Lovecraft failed to exercise that flexibility of mind that made him come to grips with Einstein and Planck, Eliot and Joyce, FDR and Norman Thomas. In all aspects of his philosophy except this one, Lovecraft was constantly expanding, clarifying, and revising his views to suit the facts of the world; in race alone his attitude remained monolithic. Certainly, his later views are expressed somewhat more rationally (although his comments to J. Vernon Shea in 1933 about the „Jew-York papers” [SL 4.247] do not inspire confidence); but they remained not merely essentially unchanged but—more seriously—impervious to evidence to the contrary. For example, the first volume of Toynbee’s Study of History (1934) had already shattered the „Aryan supremacy” myth; but Lovecraft paid no attention. To the end of his life he regarded blacks and Australian aborigines as biologically inferior to all other human races, and insisted on an impassable color-line. In regard to other races Lovecraft, while attributing to them no inferiority, simply felt that their intermingling would produce a cultural heterogeneity, with deleterious effects on world culture:
No settled & homogeneous nation ought (a) to admit enough of a decidedly alien race-stock to bring about an actual alteration in the dominant ethnic composition, or (b) tolerate the dilution of the culture-stream with emotional & intellectual elements alien to the original cultural impulse. Both of these perils lead to the most undesirable results—i.e., the metamorphosis of the population away from the original institutions, & the twisting of the institutions away from the original people.....all these things being aspects of one underlying & disastrous condition—the destruction of cultural stability, & the creation of a hopeless disparity between a social group & the institutions under which it lives. (SL 4.249)
It is as if Lovecraft wished to freeze culture at a certain stage—the stage at which he knew it and in which he felt comfortable.
All this has been gone into at such length not merely because the subject still appears to embarrass Lovecraft’s apologists—who fail to realize that his attitude was not especially unusual in his time, and at least eventually came into harmony with his general philosophy—but also because it enters into his fiction in a pervasive way. There can hardly be a doubt that the monsters in „The Lurking Fear” (1922), „The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), and „The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931) are thinly veiled projections of his racialist fears of an alien overthrow of Nordic culture through excessive immigration and miscegenation. Indeed, when the narrator of the last tale overhears some Innsmouth denizens „exchang[ing] some faint guttural words . . . in a language I could have sworn was not English” (DH, 341), we are evidently to feel not merely a mild disturbance but a sense of cosmic alienage. Certainly Lovecraft’s two years in the slums of New York did not help to reform him; nor, apparently, did his marriage to a Jew.
Lovecraft’s aristocratic sentiments also led to the central tenet of his aesthetic theory—that of non-commercial self-expression. We are, of course, meant to smile when Lovecraft writes: „A gentleman shouldn’t write all his images down for a plebeian rabble to stare at. If he writes at all, it shou’d be in private letters to other gentlemen of sensitiveness and discrimination” (SL 1.243). But the core notion was one Lovecraft acknowledged from the beginning to the end of his career. Once the act of creation—the act of capturing those moods, images, and conceptions that clamor within the artist for expression—is complete, the task of writing is done. Even publication of the work is of no importance—or, rather, it is an entirely separate process that has nothing to do with writing. We can call this „art for art’s sake” if we wish; but—although Lovecraft certainly drew upon Poe, Wilde, and Pater for this attitude, as well as for his general hostility to overt didacticism—it was really more than that. „Writing after all is the essence of whatever is left in my life, & if the ability or opportunity for that goes, I have no further reason for—or mind to endure—the joke of existence.” (4) To E. Hoffmann Price, the prototypical pulp hack, Lovecraft explained at length why he could not cater to the pulp magazines:
Art is not what one resolves to say, but what insists on saying itself through one. It has nothing to do with commerce, editorial demand, or popular approval. The only elements concerned are the artist and the emotions working within him. Of course, there is a business of magazine-purveying which is perfectly honest in itself, and a worthy field for those with a knack for it. I wish I had the knack. But this isn’t the thing I’m interested in. If I had the knack, it would be something performed entirely apart from my serious work—just as my present revisory activities are. However, I haven’t the knack, and the field is so repugnant to me that it’s about the last way I’d ever choose to gain shelter and clothing and nourishment. Any other kind of a legitimate job would be preferable to my especial tastes. , dislike this trade because it bears a mocking external resemblance to the real literary composition which is the only thing (apart from ancestral traditions) I take seriously in life. (SL 5.19-20)
This whole attitude accounts for a number of things—Lovecraft’s initial reluctance to submit to Weird Tales; his subsequent reluctance to diversify his markets even when Weird Tales rejected some of his best work; his diffidence in approaching book publishers with a novel or story collection. To us it seems like near-criminal folly for Lovecraft never to have even attempted to prepare The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927) for publication, at a time when several publishers would have been more receptive to a novel than to a collection of tales; but it was Lovecraft’s prerogative to feel that that novel was not a success and that it should not see print. His final years were dogged by increasing poverty—in 1936 the providential sale of two stories (arranged by friends acting as agents) to Astounding for $630 essentially saved him from the bread line—but even at that time Lovecraft failed to buckle down to hackwork. It need hardly be said that Lovecraft has been vindicated: no one is writing a doctoral dissertation on the work of E. Hoffmann Price or Seabury Quinn.
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