I am providence the life.., p.10

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 10


I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)

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  There must have been many more very early stories than those enumerated above. Late in life Lovecraft admitted to being enthralled with W. Clark Russell’s The Frozen Pirate (1887): “I read it in extreme youth—when 8 or 9—& was utterly fascinated by it . . . writing several yarns of my own under its influence.”[24] The Frozen Pirate is a wild, improbable story of a man, Paul Rodney, who comes upon a ship in the ice floes near Antarctica whose crew are all frozen; one becomes unfrozen by the heat of a campfire lit by Rodney and discovers that he has been frozen for forty-eight years. At some point, and for no apparent reason, he ages forty-eight years in a few days and dies. Even this novel, be it noted, is not explicitly supernatural; it is more in the tradition of the scientific romance or extravaganza, in that there is at least a thin—even if grotesquely implausible—scientific rationale behind the events of the tale. It is possible, then, that Lovecraft’s own tales inspired by The Frozen Pirate were similarly not definitively supernatural.

  Aside from discovering Poe and giving his fledgling fictional career a boost, Lovecraft also found himself in 1898 fascinated with science. This is the third component of what he described as his tripartite nature: love of the strange and fantastic, love of the ancient and permanent, and love of abstract truth and scientific logic. It is perhaps not unusual that it would be the last to emerge in his young mind, and it is still remarkable that it emerged so early and was embraced so vigorously. Lovecraft gives an engaging account of his discovery:

  The science of chemistry . . . first captivated me in the Year of Our Lord 1898—in a rather peculiar way. With the insatiable curiosity of early childhood, I used to spend hours poring over the pictures in the back of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary—absorbing a miscellaneous variety of ideas. After familiarising myself with antiquities, mediaeval dress & armour, birds, animals, reptiles, fishes, flags of all nations, heraldry, &c., &c., I lit upon the section devoted to “Philosophical & Scientific Instruments”, & was veritably hypnotised with it. Chemical apparatus especially attracted me, & I resolved (before knowing a thing about the science!) to have a laboratory. Being a “spoiled child” I had but to ask, & it was mine. I was given a cellar room of good size, & provided by my elder aunt (who had studied chemistry at boarding school) with some simple apparatus & a copy of “The Young Chemist”—a beginner’s manual by Prof. John Howard Appleton of Brown—a personal acquaintance. . . . The laboratory “work”—or play—seemed delightful, & despite a few mishaps, explosions, & broken instruments, I got along splendidly.[25]

  A later account states that “my father [was] no more”[26] by the time he became interested in chemistry, so that this must date to after July 1898. This account also identifies the Webster’s dictionary as the edition of 1864, an edition he retained in his own library. As with his enthusiasm for the Arabian Nights, his chemical tastes led his family to indulge the boy in whatever tools he needed. The Young Chemist (1876) also remained in his library to the end of his life. Lovecraft identifies Appleton as a professor of chemistry at Brown and “a friend of ours.”[27] Appleton (1844–1930) graduated from Brown in 1863 and then taught at the university from that time until his retirement in 1914. It is difficult to know which member of Lovecraft’s family he was actually friends with; it is likely that the medical doctor Franklin Chase Clark (Class of 1869) encountered Appleton at Brown, and although he would not marry Lillian Phillips (the “elder aunt” mentioned above) until 1902, he perhaps was already acquainted with her and her family.

  In any event, the immediate result was a spate of literary work. Lovecraft began the Scientific Gazette on March 4, 1899. This first issue—a single sheet—still survives, although it is now nearly indecipherable; it contains an amusing report: “There was a great explosion in the Providence Laboratory this afternoon. While experimenting some potassium blew up causing great damage to everyone.” Incredibly, this magazine was initially a daily, but “it soon degenerated into a weekly.”[28] No subsequent issues survive until the New Issue Vol. I, No. 1 (May 12, 1902), and I shall postpone discussion of it until the next chapter.

  Lovecraft also wrote a number of chemical treatises, which are also by now almost illegible. There was a six-volume series with the general title Chemistry (as announced in the catalogue of works in the Poemata Minora, Volume II), of which four volumes survive: Chemistry (10¢); Chemistry, Magic, & Electricity (5¢); Chemistry III (5¢ [this price remains after 25¢, 20¢, 19¢, and 10¢ were all crossed out]); and Chemistry IV (15¢ [25¢ crossed out]). These volumes discuss such things as argon, gunpowder, a carbon cell battery, gases, acids, tellurium, lithium, explosives, “explosive experiments” (see the mention of the “explosion” above), and the like. There is also a small work called A Good Anaesthetic (5¢). Judging by the handwriting, these works probably all date to around 1899. Non-extant works (as listed in the 1902 catalogue) include Iron Working (5¢), Acids (5¢), Explosives (5¢), and Static Electricity (10¢).

  It appears that Lovecraft’s early scientific interests engendered some practical experimentation, if the following account—related to W. Paul Cook by one of Lovecraft’s neighbours—dates to this period. It is one of the most delightful and celebrated anecdotes about Lovecraft that has come down to us; let Cook tell it in his own inimitable way:

  That section [of Providence, in which Lovecraft lived] was then open fields, rather swampy here and there, with very few houses. One day this neighbor, Mrs. Winslow Church, noticed that someone had started a grass fire that had burned over quite an area and was approaching her property. She went out to investigate and found the little Lovecraft boy. She scolded him for setting such a big fire and maybe endangering other peoples’ property. He said very positively, “I wasn’t setting a big fire. I wanted to make a fire one foot by one foot.” That is the little story in the words in which it came to me. It means little except that it shows a passion for exactitude (in keeping with him as we knew him later)—but it is a story of Lovecraft.[29]

  This anecdote is, as I say, not dated; but the mention of “open fields” suggests that it occurred while Lovecraft was at 454 Angell Street, since the area was already being built up during his early teenage years. A Winslow Church is listed in the Providence city directories as living at 292 Wayland Avenue all throughout Lovecraft’s youth; this would be about five blocks from 454 Angell Street.

  Another rather anomalous discovery Lovecraft made at this time was anatomy—or, rather, the specific facts of anatomy relating to sex. Here is his account of it:

  In the matter of the justly celebrated “facts of life” I didn’t wait for oral information, but exhausted the entire subject in the medical section of the family library (to which I had access, although I wasn’t especially loquacious about this side of my reading) when I was 8 years old—through Quain’s Anatomy (fully illustrated & diagrammed), Dunglison’s Physiology, &c. &c. This was because of curiosity & perplexity concerning the strange reticences & embarrassments of adult speech, & the oddly inexplicable allusions & situations in standard literature. The result was the very opposite of what parents generally fear—for instead of giving me an abnormal & precocious interest in sex (as unsatisfied curiosity might have done), it virtually killed my interest in the subject. The whole matter was reduced to prosaic mechanism—a mechanism which I rather despised or at least thought non-glamourous because of its purely animal nature & separation from such things as intellect & beauty—& all the drama was taken out of it.[30]

  This is an intensely interesting statement. First, when Lovecraft says that he did not wait for “oral information,” he is suggesting (perhaps without even knowing it) that his mother would certainly not have told him the “facts of life”—at least not at the age of eight, and perhaps not at any age. Perhaps even his grandfather might not have done so. It is remarkable to note that Lovecraft was already so keenly aware of the “strange reticences & embarrassments of adult speech” at this time that he sensed something was not being told him; we shall see that at least up to t
he age of eight, and perhaps beyond, he was a solitary child who largely spent time in the company of adults. And as one who was already a prolific reader (and a reader of material rarely given to the very young), he may have become early aware of anomalies in some of his books also (perhaps his edition of the Arabian Nights had, after all, included some of the bawdier stories!). And as for his declaration that his knowledge of the matter killed his interest in sex: this is certainly an impression Lovecraft consistently conveyed to his friends, correspondents, and even his wife. He does not seem to have had any romantic involvements in high school or at any time prior to about 1918 (and even this one is, as we shall see, a matter of inference). It took three years for Sonia Greene to convince Lovecraft to marry her; the impetus was clearly on her side. There has been much speculation on Lovecraft’s sex life, but I do not believe there are sufficient grounds for much of an opinion beyond the testimony given by Lovecraft himself—and his wife.

  In any event, Lovecraft’s initial enthusiasm for chemistry and physiology would lead to further interests in geography, geology, astronomy, anthropology, psychology, and other sciences that he would study over a lifetime. He may have remained a layman in all these branches of knowledge, although his absorption of many of them—especially astronomy—was prodigious for a literary man; but they helped to lay strong foundations for his philosophical thought and would provide the backbone for some of his most powerful works of fiction.

  Lovecraft reports that he began learning Latin around 1898.[31] Elsewhere he says that “My grandfather had previously [i.e., previous to his entering high school] taught me a great deal of Latin,”[32] which suggests that he had begun the study of Latin independently prior to his attendance at the Slater Avenue School in the fall of 1898. Indeed, I am not sure that Lovecraft was taught Latin at all at Slater Avenue, for among the first courses he took at Hope Street High School in 1904–05 was “Latin (First Book),”[33] suggesting that his formal training in Latin began only then. It was natural for a boy so enthralled with the classical world to learn Latin, although to have begun it so early—and, evidently, to have mastered it in a few years, without much formal instruction—was an incredible feat even at a time when knowledge of Latin was far commoner than it is now.

  Lovecraft’s collection of Latin texts—almost all derived, surely, from his grandfather’s library—was an entirely adequate one. It included most of the standard poets (Horace, Juvenal, Lucretius, Martial, Ovid, Persius, Vergil) and prose writers (Caesar, Cicero [selected orations only], Livy [selections], Nepos, Sallust), although many of these are simplified school texts with interlinear translations, a technique upon which classicists now look with horror. Of course, he had a wide array of translations, including some classic ones: Dryden’s Virgil, Murphy’s Tacitus, Francis’s Horace, and the like. One work, Alfred Gudeman’s two-volume Latin Literature of the Empire (1898–99), contains many handwritten interlineations, including the charming note on the Pervigilium Veneris: “Mr Parnell hath made a very elegant translation of this poem, tho’ he ascribes it to the classic age and to Catullus.”[34] Lovecraft also had a sound collection of reference works on classical literature, history, and antiquities. Some of them were a little out of date even in his day—he had Ethan Allan Andrews’s Latin-English Lexicon (1854) rather than Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary (1879), which remained the standard work until the publication of the Oxford Latin Dictionary—but they were sound enough for his purposes.

  We will find that the poetry of Virgil, Horace, and Juvenal left a lasting impression upon Lovecraft, and that the Epicurean philosophy embodied in Lucretius was a central influence in his early thought. One remarkable instance of the classical influence on Lovecraft’s juvenile writing is the piece entitled “Ovid’s Metamorphoses.”

  This 116-line work is nothing less than a literal pentameter verse translation of the first 88 lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The date of composition of this piece is, unfortunately, in doubt. We have seen that in the catalogue of works appended to “The Poem of Ulysses” (1897) this work is listed as “Soon to Be Published”; in the catalogue appended to Poemata Minora, Volume II (1902) it appears, anomalously, in a list of “Works by H. Lovecraft in Prose.” In both catalogues, however, it is priced at 25¢, so that I am led to believe that the item was simply placed erroneously in the 1902 catalogue. The handwriting of the autograph manuscript is, moreover, consistent with other of Lovecraft’s juvenilia, so that I am inclined to date this work to 1900–1902.

  The first thing to note about this translation is how different it is from Dryden’s (he translated the first book of the Metamorphoses in “Garth’s Ovid”). Here is the Latin:

  In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas

  corpora: di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)[35]

  adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi

  ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

  Here is Dryden’s:

  Of bodies changed to various forms, I sing:

  Ye gods, from whom these miracles did spring,

  Inspire my numbers with celestial heat,

  Till I my long laborious work complete;

  And add perpetual tenor to my rhymes,

  Deduced from Nature’s birth to Caesar’s times.[36]

  Here now is Lovecraft’s:

  I tell of forms transmuted into new;

  And since, ye Gods, these deeds were wrought by you,

  Smile on my task, and lead my ceaseless lay

  From Earth’s beginning to the present day.

  The differences are clear: Lovecraft attempts a more literal, line-for-line translation (in spite of Dryden’s archaic use of “deduced” for deducite [to bring down]), adhering as closely to the Latin as he can. Lovecraft has two subdivisions in his essay, with the headings “The Creation of the World” (ll. 5–84) and “The Creation of Man” (ll. 85–116). There are, admittedly, similar divisions and headings in Dryden, but his first one (“The Golden Age”) appears just where Lovecraft’s poem leaves off.

  On the whole, Lovecraft’s is a highly felicitous rendition. The opening—in which Ovid, clearly imitating Lucretius, presents the spectacle of the rudis indigestaque moles (“a raw unfinish’d mass”) of elements slowly brought to order by “kind Nature & a God” (deus et melior . . . natura in Ovid)—displays a cosmic scope not unlike Lovecraft’s later fiction, even though in later years he scorned the idea of vaunting the human race as some special creation of Nature:

  Though animals of less exalted birth,

  With drooping glances eye the lowly earth,

  The man is bid to lift his lofty face;

  Enjoy the blue, & view the starry space.

  Terrestrial matter, rough & undefin’d,

  Thus chang’d, gave rise to stately humankind.

  And yet, perhaps even here there is a connexion with some of his later views. In arguing in 1920 with Rheinhart Kleiner about the role of eroticism in human affairs, he declared with conscious bombast: “The primal savage or ape merely looks about his native forest to find a mate; the exalted Aryan should lift his eyes to the worlds of space and consider his relation to infinity!!”[37]

  There is one other remarkable thing about “Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” and that is the possibility that it may be a fragment. The autograph manuscript covers 5 sheets, and the text proceeds to the very bottom of the fifth sheet. Could Lovecraft have translated more of Ovid’s text, and could this portion have been lost? I think the probability is strong: this item, priced at 25¢, is currently not much longer than “The Poem of Ulysses,” priced at 5¢. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to think that Lovecraft might have translated the entire first book of Ovid (779 lines in Latin, hence perhaps about 1000 lines in a translation). The translation as it stands admittedly ends at a clear break in the Latin text, as at line 89 Ovid is about to begin the account of the four ages of man; but I still believe there was once more to this work than we have.

  The year 1898 was certainly an eventful
one for Lovecraft: he discovered Poe and science, and began learning Latin; he first began attendance at school; and he had his first nervous breakdown. In a late letter he refers to it as a “near-breakdown”;[38] I have no idea what it means. Another “near-breakdown” occurred in 1900. There certainly does not seem to have been anything physically wrong with the boy, and there is no record of his admission into a hospital. The history and nature of Lovecraft’s early nervous condition are very vexed issues, largely because we have only his words on the matter, most of them written many years after the fact.

  Lovecraft reports that “I didn’t inherit a very good set of nerves, since near relatives on both sides of my ancestry were prone to headaches, nerve-exhaustion, and breakdowns.” He goes on to cite the case of his grandfather (who had “frightful blind headaches”), his mother (who “could run him a close second”), and his father, whom at the time of the writing of this letter (1931) Lovecraft still believed to be affected by “paralysis” from overstrain. Then he adds: “My own headaches and nervous irritability and exhaustion-tendency began as early as my existence itself—I, too, was an early bottle baby with unexplained miseries and meagre nutriment-assimilative capacities . . .”[39] (As Kenneth Faig wryly remarks, “So, in addition to all her other worries, Susie had her infant’s colic.”[40]) Early weaning was common practice at the turn of the century and for a long time thereafter; but Lovecraft’s remark suggests that his weaning occurred even earlier than was the custom.

  In an earlier letter Lovecraft stated that “As an infant, I had been restless & prone to cry.” He refers to the effect of his maternal grandmother in correcting “my increasingly boorish deportment—for my nervousness made me a very restless & uncontrollable child.”[41] One remarkable admission Lovecraft made late in life was as follows: “My own nervous state in childhood once produced a tendency inclining toward chorea, although not quite attaining that level. My face was full of unconscious & involuntary motions now & then—& the more I was urged to stop them, the more frequent they became.”[42] Lovecraft does not exactly date these chorea-like attacks, but context suggests that they occurred before the age of ten. All this led J. Vernon Shea to suspect that Lovecraft might actually have had chorea minor, a nervous ailment that “manifests itself in uncontrollable facial tics and grimaces” but gradually dissipates by puberty.[43] Certainty on the matter is, of course, impossible, but I think the probability of this conjecture is strong. And although Lovecraft maintains in the above letter that “in time the tendency died down” and that his entrance into high school “caused me to reform,” I shall have occasion to refer to possible recurrences of these chorea-like symptoms at various periods in Lovecraft’s life, even into maturity.

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