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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Lovecraft in His Grave, Pondering Race

HPL with Books

HPL

Whenever Lovecraft’s racism is discussed, a common point made is that, had he lived longer, his beliefs may have evolved along with society in general’s. Certainly, we can’t know for sure what Lovecraft’s perspectives would have become, so it’s difficult to either accept or reject this speculation outright. And he did shift his views on any number of subjects, including matters of politics and culture. But I don’t believe his racism would have diminished anywhere near as much as some people hope.

The idea that Lovecraft would have become less racist isn’t the dismissal of the subject that saying Lovecraft was simply a product of his time is. Often, that argument is an attempt at a final word–the late 19th and early 20th centuries were inherently racist, so Lovecraft naturally was; therefore, castigating him for his views is pointless.

Instead, the theory that Lovecraft would have changed continues the conversation at least a little longer. It is generally made by someone grappling with their admiration for a writer who held repugnant views. It is borne of the hope that Lovecraft was capable of becoming better.

I can appreciate this hope. Finding out that someone we admire holds beliefs diametrically opposed to ours can be upsetting. If we regard someone as a hero, we want them to be wholly and fully a hero. But in reality, people are complicated. They can and will embody things we agree with and cherish, along with things we find ugly and disappointing. It’s up to us to decide, on balance, whether we admire them still.

One idea used to bolster the position that Lovecraft would have changed is that he had already done so to some degree. In his later years, so this notion goes, he moved incrementally away from the more shocking written declarations of his younger years. My perspective is that the nature and expression of his racism, including his rationale for it, changed over time. But the bigotry didn’t really diminish or soften.

Lovecraft left behind an incredible amount of writing, and this is from where we can draw many of our conclusions regarding the degree and character of his racism. His fiction reveals his racism in a number of ways, often minor and often easily missed. If that’s all we had, we might indeed think of it as a product of its time. But we have his letters.

So far, at least twenty thousand of his letters have been recovered (and that’s apparently only a fifth of what he actually wrote). In recent years, scholarship on Lovecraft and the publication of a number of these letters have revealed more and more details to an audience hungry for them. Correspondence and juvenilia that might otherwise go unnoticed become record. Lovecraft would be astonished by this. He didn’t expect his stories to survive him, printed as they were in disposable pulp magazines, let alone letters to friends.

Selected Letters

The original five volumes of selected letters, a mere smattering. Many specialized volumes, focusing on correspondence with certain people, have been published since.

Of the things uncovered that shed a brighter light on his racism, one of the earliest and most upsetting examples is not a letter but a poem, written in 1912. The title alone gives you a good idea of what you’re in for: On the Creation of Niggers. I argue that this poem is more baldly racist than any of Lovecraft’s stories, including “He” and “The Horror at Red Hook.” Some have pointed out that paying attention to the poem is unfair–it wasn’t published in his lifetime, and it isn’t a mature work. And indeed, few people knew about it until recently, including his fans. But this is the downside to increasing awareness of an author. The poem survived; and, with the Internet, it is easily sought after or stumbled upon. I don’t think we can dismiss it as a youthful indiscretion. He was twenty-two when he wrote it, which hardly makes him a child. While he may not have written anything quite like it in the remaining twenty-five years of his life, he wrote plenty in public and private that reveals his racism.

As I say, his letters, thousands of which have been published, highlight his thought and its development and changes over the forty-six years of his life, including his racism. I certainly have not read all of the letters that have survived, but, between the ones I have and various biographies and essays, I think I have a good handle on him. And I definitely don’t need to provide mention and analysis of every single one of his statements regarding race that I’ve read. We’ll all be here a long time if I do that.

Lovecraft and Sonia Greene

The married couple walking in Brooklyn

In 1925, thirteen years after writing the infamous poem, Lovecraft married and moved to New York. The initial excitement of the new city and larger circle of friends soon wore off. A large portion of his dissatisfaction came from being surrounded by foreigners, Jews, and black people, and he expressed it strongly in letters during and after the time he spent there. In January of 1926, while still ostensibly married to his Jewish wife, Sonia Greene, he wrote the following in a letter to his aunt Lillian Clark:

The mass of contemporary Jews are hopeless as far as America is concerned. They are the product of alien blood, and inherit alien ideals, impulses, and emotions which forever preclude the possibility of wholesale assimilation . . . . The fact is, that an Asiatic stock broken and dragged through the dirt for untold centuries cannot possibly meet a proud, play-loving, warlike Nordic race on an emotional parity . . . . Two elements so discordant can never build up one society–no feeling of real linkage can exist where so vast a disparity of ancestral memories is concerned–so that wherever the Wandering Jew wanders, he will have to content himself with his own society till he disappears or is killed off in some sudden outburst of mad physical loathing on our part . . . . Superior Semites . . . can be assimilated one by one by the dominant Aryan when they sever all ties of association and memory with the mass of organized Jewry.

He goes on to talk about how disgusting and unassimilable various other “races” are (though the “Nordic Irish of Eastern Ireland and such of the French-Canadians as are of Norman extraction” may assimilate after a very slow process).

For Lovecraft during this period, other races were scum both physically and culturally. And genetics and history inextricably intertwined with each other (note the references to “ancestral memories” above). Race was a product of genetics and heredity, and the races were almost separate from each other, following different paths of evolution (and therefore different levels of humanity). Lovecraft was hardly alone in using this now-discredited science to prop up his notions about “mongrels.” But even scientists and intellectuals of his time were moving far past these theories from the 19th century.

Lovecraft continued to speak of race over the years, and, in 1933, he wrote to J. Vernon Shea:

The problem of race and culture is by no means as simple as assumed either by the Nazis or by the rabble-catering equalitarian columnists of the Jew-York papers. Of course Hitler is an unscientific extremist in fancying that any racial strain can be reduced to theoretical purity, that the Nordic stock is intellectually and aesthetically superior to all others, and that even a trace of non-Nordic blood–or non-Aryan blood–is enough to alter the psychology and citizenly potentialities of an individual . . . . But the anti-Hitlerites are too cocksure when they maintain that the fallacy of theses points justifies a precisely opposite extremism . . . . Anybody can see for himself the difference between a tall, straight-nosed, fine-haired dolichocephalic Teuton or Celt (be he blond or dark) on the one hand, and a squat, swarthy Latin, aquiline Semite, or brachychephalic Slav on the other hand . . . . It is of course true that the cultural heritage is more influential than the biological, but only a freakish extremist would reduce the biological to neglibility . . . . The races are equal, but infinitely different–so that the cultural pattern of one is essentially unadaptable to any other. The ancient civilisation of China is not inferior to ours–yet it could not possibly suit us, any more than ours could suit a race of essentially Mongol descent.

While Lovecraft still appealed to outmoded science (note all the references to skull shape and size), he appears to have switched emphasis here and elsewhere to cultures as the main point of contention. These are what should not be mixed.

Despite this shift, premier Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi claims that he believed in the biological inferiority of black people (and “Australoids”) until he died. Lovecraft also maintained his sympathies for the Southern side of the Civil War. He did, however, repudiate the Ku Klux Klan, which he had previously approved of, and his initial admiration for, if not full support of, Hitler seems to have evaporated.

Some champion the idea that Lovecraft actually recanted his racism at the end of his life, but I see no real evidence of it. He may have realized that his scientific justifications for his views were wanting, but he merely admitted that his personal tastes were for an unsullied Anglo-Saxon culture-stream. To some extent, he admitted that he valued the “Nordic” above all else because it suited him, in much the way he liked a fine antique chair. He knew, ultimately, that he had a choice in admiring ancient Rome or Georgian England. He may not have fully realized that he had some say in how he regarded other human beings.

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Lovecraft as Georgian gentleman, envisioned by pulp artist Virgil Finlay

When he wrote that letter to Shea, he was forty-three years old. He died less than four years later. If his views on race changed so little over three decades, how much can we expect them to had he lived longer? Would the Civil Rights Movement have really moved him, while he would be in his sixties and seventies? Again, as much as we might hope he would have changed, I have serious doubts. We, of course, will never know for sure.

And as it is, I may be giving Lovecraft too much credit. Fred Ludnow recently wrote an article on his blog, Lovecraftian Science, entitled “H.P. Lovecraft and the Pseudoscientific Study of Racism,” which states that Lovecraft’s scientific views regarding race never really changed (this is basically Joshi’s position as well). Ludnow surely has a better understanding of the matter than I do; perhaps Lovecraft’s backpedaling was mere rhetoric. Nonetheless, Ludnow’s frustration with Lovecraft’s myopia in this one area aligns with mine.

I have a bit more to say about the legacy of Lovecraft’s racism, which I will post soon.