Digging Up Lovecraft and Sifting Through His Remains

Previously, I wrote about Lovecraft’s views on racism and how they may have changed. This post focuses on the legacy of that racism, both for those who knew him and later readers. I also look a little closer at the idea that Lovecraft was a product of his time.

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Clark Ashton Smith

Lovecraft’s era was a dire time for race relations. People from across all political and social stripes held and expressed views most of us now find repugnant and startling. And many of them looked to science to prove their already deeply held beliefs. If we look at the correspondence of the other two authors in “the big three” of Weird Tales in the 1930s, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, we see similar sentiments and comforting scientific rationales to HPL’s.

But whether it was the norm or understandable given Lovecraft’s upbringing, it cannot be said that beliefs such as his were universal. Take for example James F. Morton, one of Lovecraft’s closest friends and an activist committed to equality with African Americans. Nevertheless, a lot of Americans thought as Lovecraft did; they just didn’t commit so much of those thoughts to paper. (For more on Lovecraft and Morton’s discussions on race, as well as a response to some questions about HPL’s changing scientific perspective, see my post “A Brief Addendum.”)

I’ve seen a number of defenses of Lovecraft that amount to his actions being more important than his beliefs. That’s true to an extent, but considering how much he expressed these beliefs to others, some receptive, some not, I think that lets him off far too easy. He didn’t exactly keep this to himself.

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H. P. Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long on the Streets of New York

Sonia Greene later related that Lovecraft would become livid with rage when encountering crowds full of minorities in New York. She didn’t mention if this anger was noticeable to anyone else. And, indeed, Lovecraft prided himself on his public composure, reassuring his aunt Lillian in a letter subsequent to the one I quoted previously: “Incidentally–don’t fancy that my nervous reaction against alien N.Y. types takes the form of conversation likely to offend any individual. One knows when & where to discuss questions with a social or ethnic cast, & our group is not noted for faux pas‘s or inconsiderate repetitions of opinion.” Good friend and fellow writer Frank Belknap Long corroborated this; well aware of Lovecraft’s racism (which he didn’t share), he mentioned that he never witnessed Lovecraft be anything but polite to any minority he encountered on their frequent walks, even out of earshot of them.

So, he was polite in his later years, at least. In 1916 (age 26), he bragged about how he was a well-known anti-Semite while in high school. This was when he first knowingly encountered Jews, who were among his classmates. We don’t know how aware the targets of his anti-Semitism were of his loathing for them or whether all the rest of the students approved of it (they were largely less well known for hating Jews, apparently, since Lovecraft makes a point of his own fame/infamy).

And if Lovecraft’s public persona was the important one, and he would never be cruel to someone’s face, what should we make of Samuel Loveman? Loveman was a poet who became good friends with Lovecraft. He appeared in two dreams of Lovecraft’s that were turned into the stories The Statement of Randolph Carter and Nyarlathotep,” and Lovecraft dedicated “Hypnos” to him. He was also a Jew.

Samuel Loveman

Samuel Loveman

The relationship of Loveman and Lovecraft is a testament to how well the latter maintained not only cordiality with people he considered inferior but could look past it. Lovecraft greatly admired Loveman and considered him one of his dearest friends. In 1947, a decade after Lovecraft died, Sonia Greene informed Loveman of her ex-husband’s anti-Semitism. Loveman was shocked, later burning the letters he’d saved from Lovecraft and writing an essay, “Of Gold and Sawdust,” wherein he repudiates Lovecraft as a racist and hypocrite.

If Howard Phillips Lovecraft was simply an exemplar of the racist era he lived in, why should Loveman have been surprised and hurt by Lovecraft’s attitude toward Jews? It’s possible that Loveman’s attitudes are the ones that changed over time, in the wake of the Holocaust and with the expansion of civil rights; he no longer accepted the casual racism of society at large. As with much of this, we can only speculate. Nonetheless, I doubt it’s simply that Loveman became less tolerant over such treatment or that he was blithely unaware that a lot of people distrusted and reviled Jews.

So, this is what Lovecraft’s supposedly ordinary and polite racism brings. It’s up to us how much we think Loveman was justified in his response to the revelation of his dear friend’s beliefs. But should he have been grateful when people of the dominant culture treated him with pleasant disdain, because at least they weren’t spitting directly in his face?

Likewise, Greene once told her husband while trying to calm him down while they were on the streets of New York (Lovecraft’s “Pest Zone” full of uncouth foreigners) that he didn’t have to love people different than him, but he didn’t need to froth with hatred, either. “It is more important to know what to hate than it is to know what to love,” was his response. When she pointed out to him that she was one of the aliens, he told her that she no longer belonged to the mongrels. Should she have been content with his acceptance of her as a higher class of assimilable Jew–a credit to her race?

It isn’t, by the way, only Lovecraft’s racial “lessers” who were hurt by later finding out what Lovecraft really thought of them. Donald Wandrei, who, with August Derleth, saved Lovecraft’s work from dying with him by founding Arkham House, worked on those early volumes of selected letters. While doing so, he discovered some of the things his friend and colleague had said about his later work to other correspondents. Wandrei was “both depressed and annoyed” by the low opinion that Lovecraft had of what he saw as his protégé’s increasingly commercial writing, an opinion that he had kept secret from Wandrei. Lovecraft is hardly alone in any era of sharing negative opinions behind the subject’s back. But the notion that being polite to a person’s face and that deeds, not thoughts or words, are all that matters, seems decidedly wanting to me.

Again, Lovecraft hardly kept his opinions to himself, though he never expected that his private words would be made so incredibly public. So, here we are in an era that some would claim to be “post-racial,” with Lovecraft the racist. We’ve gone beyond simply letting the work speak for itself; the fascinating figure of Lovecraft is combed over do tease out the least detail.

Well, what do we do? That’s up to each of us. While I have and will continue to enjoy and work with the worlds he created, I can’t fault anyone who wants nothing to do with him. In recent years, as knowledge of his racist views increases, there have been a number of controversies and heated opinions on all sides.

wfawardPerhaps most famously, there’s been the fight over whether a bust of Lovecraft should continue to be the World Fantasy Award. That fight didn’t end how many of Lovecraft’s devotees wanted. Personally, I don’t see why the award for an entire field should look like anyone, no matter how important they are to it. It certainly doesn’t help when a number of people in the running for it are neither admirers nor racially pure in Lovecraft’s eyes. Appeals to tradition and pointing out that the first convention celebrated Lovecraft don’t hold up for me. Tradition is important. As important is knowing when tradition should change.

Last year, another controversy arose during the opening ceremonies at NecronomiCon Providence when Robert M. Price gave his speech. Many people were taken aback by his words, which praised Lovecraft’s foresight of the clash between a decadent, sleepily tolerant West and an anti-rational, superstitious East. Price asserts that his warnings about jihadists threatening Western Civilization are not racist. But using loaded terms like “affirmative-action epistemology” and “the real life “Horror at Red Hook“” in a muggy wooden church whirring with electric fans caused, at best, confusion as people tried to figure out what they just heard. Price is a powerful and interesting speaker, and his complex words here definitely need untangling. And even if they hold interest, the opening to a festival celebrating weird fiction and its practical founder doesn’t seem like the best venue for a call to arms against another culture–or even a dangerous portion of it.

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Robert E. Howard

One thing that strikes me is how reminiscent the speech is of the debates by H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard over the respective qualities of civilization and barbarism. Briefly, Lovecraft was a proponent of the benefits of civilization, while Howard favored the purity and naturalness of barbarism and the frontier. Price certainly speaks out against “barbarians” here, but he is also critical of civilization, at least ours in its current state. We are “effete,” “Eurocentric,” and “senescent.” We have lost our way, apparently, practically welcoming the hordes. Of course, Lovecraft as a reader of Spengler knew all about cultural decline, and examples of once-mighty civilizations sliding into decadence and oblivion appear throughout his fiction.

Speaking oheroes-of-red-hookf both “The Horror at Red Hook” and Price’s speech, one of a recent surge in weird fiction that addresses Lovecraft’s racism in some ways is Heroes of Red Hook, an anthology from Golden Goblin Press currently on Kickstarter. The short stories star protagonists from groups either underrepresented, absent, or negatively portrayed in Lovecraft and weird fiction of the era. Another recent anthology (which I copyedited) that addresses Lovecraft’s beliefs (of various kinds), this time through responses to his survey “Supernatural Horror inLetters_to_Lovecraft_cover_280 Literature,” is Letters to Lovecraft from Stone Skin Press. A few stories touch on racism, particularly the disturbing tale of the “normality” of racism, “The Horror at Castle of the Cumberland” by Chesya Burke. And the editor, Jesse Bullington, is the creator of the Lovecraft Apologist Bingo game, the perfect diversion next time you are part of or witness a debate on Lovecraft’s racism and its effects.

I’ve wondered how much of the vigorous defense of Lovecraft and dismissal of his racism is due to concern that if Lovecraft is believed to be racist than his fans must be by association. I have indeed seen a couple of people speak online about having just this worry. But I think it better to meet Lovecraft’s racism head-on. Acknowledging it is not the same as approving of or sharing it.

Related to this, some people say excuse Lovecraft’s racism as intrinsic to his work. Without his odious perspective, they say, we would be robbed of the power of his writing, since his anxieties suffused it. I’m not convinced. Yes, Lovecraft’s racism appears often in his work. But it could stand without it in almost all cases.

There is only one vital story I can think of where Lovecraft’s racism is a necessary component: “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Without those aspects of his personality, Lovecraft may not have written this tale of a declining fishing town and the terrible pact its inhabitants made with a decidedly different culture-stream. Despite whatever inspiration HPL’s bigoted anxieties gave him, the story, for me, transcends them. As with a lot of Lovecraft’s work, what I personally get from the story is not necessarily what he put in there. I don’t need to share Lovecraft’s racism to share in the universality of fear and wonder he imparts.

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