I am providence the life.., p.108

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 108


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

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  Harré bought the story for $15.00[36]—apparently not a bad deal for second rights. Wandrei lent considerable assistance to Harré in the selection of contents, and Lovecraft expressed disappointment that Harré did not see fit to acknowledge this help. The volume appeared from the Macaulay Co. in the fall of 1929; it is a notable volume. Lovecraft is in very good company—with Ellen Glasgow, Hawthorne, Machen, Stevenson, and Lafcadio Hearn—and “The Call of Cthulhu” is one of only five stories from Weird Tales to be included. Harré remarks in his introduction: “H. P. Lovecraft, one of the newer fantasy writers, has done some of the best things in such fiction; only limited editions of his tales have been published. His ‘Call of Cthulhu,’ in its cumulative awesomeness and building of effect to its appalling finale, is reminiscent of Poe.”[37] Lovecraft later met Harré in New York.

  Another anthology appearance—“The Horror at Red Hook” in Herbert Asbury’s Not at Night! (Macy-Masius, 1928)—was less happy. This matter is somewhat confused, but it appears that Asbury—a noted journalist and editor, author of the celebrated Gangs of New York (1928)—had pirated the contents of several of the Christine Campbell Thomson “Not at Night” anthologies published by Selwyn & Blount and illegally published an American edition. “The Horror at Red Hook” had already appeared in Thomson’s You’ll Need a Night Light (1927). In an early 1929 letter to Wright, Lovecraft gave grudging permission to lend his name in a list of plaintiffs in a lawsuit, “so long as there is positively no obligation for expense on my part in case of defeat. My financial stress is such that I am absolutely unable to incur any possible outgo or assessment beyond the barest necessities . . .”[38] Lovecraft certainly did not lose any money on the matter, but he did not gain any either; he later mentioned that Macy-Masius withdrew the book rather than pay any royalties or damages to Weird Tales.[39]

  In the fall of 1928 Lovecraft heard from an elderly poet named Elizabeth Toldridge (1861–1940), who five years earlier had been involved in some poetry contest of which Lovecraft was a judge. I do not know what this contest was, but presumably it was either part or an outgrowth of his amateur critical work. Toldridge was a disabled person who lived a drab life in various hotels in Washington, D.C. She had published—no doubt at her own expense—two slim volumes earlier in the century, The Soul of Love (1910), a book of prose-poems, and Mother’s Love Songs (1911), a poetry collection. Lovecraft wrote to her cordially and promptly, since he felt it gentlemanly to do so; and because Toldridge herself wrote with unfailing regularity, the correspondence flourished to the end of Lovecraft’s life. Toldridge was, indeed, one of the few later correspondents of Lovecraft not involved in weird fiction.

  The correspondence naturally focused on the nature of poetry and its the philosophical underpinnings. Toldridge was clearly a Victorian holdover both in her poetry and in her outlook on life; and Lovecraft, while treating her views with nothing but studied respect, made it clear that he did not share them at all. It was just at this time that he was beginning a revaluation of poetic style; and the barrage of old-fashioned poetry Toldridge sent to him helped to refine his views. In response to one such poem he wrote:

  It would be an excellent thing if you could gradually work out of the idea that this kind of stilted & artificial language is “poetical” in any way; for truly, it is not. It is a drag & hindrance on real poetic feeling & expression, because real poetry means spontaneous expression in the simplest & most poignantly vital living language. The great object of the poet is to get rid of the cumbrous & the emptily quaint, & buckle down to the plain, the direct, & the vital—the pure, precious stuff of actual life & human daily speech.[40]

  Lovecraft knew he was not yet ready to practice what he preached; but the mere fact that he had written very little poetry since about 1922 meant both that prose fiction had become his chief aesthetic outlet and that he had come to be profoundly disappointed in his earlier poetic work. It was in an early 1929 letter to Toldridge that he heaped abuse upon himself for being “a chronic & inveterate mimic”; although he even extended this condemnation to his prose work: “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces & my ‘Dunsany’ pieces—but alas—where are any Lovecraft pieces?”[41]

  But if Lovecraft could not yet exemplify his new poetic theories, he could at least help to inculcate them in others. Maurice Moe was preparing a volume entitled Doorways to Poetry, which Lovecraft in late 1928 announced as provisionally accepted (on the basis of an outline) by Macmillan.[42] As the book developed, he came to have more and more regard for it; by the fall of 1929 he was calling it

  without exception the best & clearest exposition of the inner essence of poetry that I’ve ever seen—& virtually the only work which comes anywhere near the miracle of making novices able to distinguish good verse from cheap & specious hokum. The method is absolutely original with Moe, & involves the insertion of many columns of parallel specimens of verse of varying badness & excellence, together with a key containing critical & elucidative comment. The answers in the key will be largely my work, since Moe thinks I can express subtle differences between degrees of merit better than he can. I am also preparing specimen bits of verse for illustrative use in the body of the text—unusual metres, stanzaic forms, Italian & Shakespearian sonnets, & so on.[43]

  This gives us some idea of the nature of Lovecraft’s work on the book, for which he refused to accept any payment.[44] It is, as a result, unfortunate that the manuscript of the volume does not seem to survive; for, as with so many projects by Lovecraft and his friends, Doorways to Poetry was never published—neither by Macmillan, nor by The American Book Company, to which Moe had then marketed it, nor even with the Kenyon Press of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a small pedagogical firm that did issue a very slim pamphlet by Moe, Imagery Aids (1931), which may be the final pathetic remnant of Doorways. The specimens of verse to which Lovecraft alluded do survive in an immense letter to Moe of late summer 1927 on which he must have worked for days, and in which he collects all manner of peculiar metres and rhyme-schemes from the standard poets.[45]

  Another bit survives as a typescript (probably prepared by Moe) entitled “Sonnet Study.” This contains two sonnets, written by Lovecraft, one in the Italian form, the other in the Shakespearean form, with brief commentary by Moe. Neither of the poems amounts to much, but at least they begin to exemplify Lovecraft’s new views on the use of living language in poetry.

  In late summer 1927 Wilfred B. Talman, in gratitude for Lovecraft’s assistance on his fiction, offered to design a bookplate for a nominal fee. Lovecraft was enraptured by the idea: he had never had a bookplate, and I know of none possessed by any member of his family; up to this point he had merely signed his name in his books. Some of the volumes in his library also bear a cryptic code or numbering sequence—perhaps a shelf arrangement scheme of some kind. Talman was an accomplished draughtsman and, as we have seen, an ardent genealogist. He made two suggestions for a design: a vista of colonial Providence or Lovecraft’s coat-of-arms. In a long series of letters back and forth the two men debated these choices, but finally Lovecraft opted for the former. What was actually produced, around the summer of 1929, was certainly worth waiting for: a sketch of a Providence doorway with fanlight, and the simple words “EX LIBRIS / HOWARD PHILLIPS LOVECRAFT” in the lower left-hand corner. Lovecraft waxed rhapsodic when he saw the proofs: “Mynheer, I am knock’d out . . . I grow absolutely maudlin & lyrical . . . the thing is splendid, beyond even those high expectations which I form’d from a survey of your pencil design! You have caught perfectly the spirit that I wished to see reproduced, & I can’t find anything to criticise in any detail of the workmanship.”[46] Lovecraft initially ordered only 500 to be printed, since that was the number of books he felt were in decent enough condition to merit a bookplate. He justifiably showed the thing off wherever he went.

  At the very beginning of 1929 Sam Loveman came to Providence, and the two went to Boston, Salem, and Marblehead for a few days before Loveman took the boat back to New York. But befo
re Lovecraft could undertake the southern tour he was planning for the spring, he had one small matter to take care of—his divorce from Sonia.

  Around the end of 1928 Sonia must have begun pressing for a divorce. Interestingly enough, Lovecraft was opposed to the move: “. . . during this period of time he tried every method he could devise to persuade me how much he appreciated me and that divorce would cause him great unhappiness; and that a gentleman does not divorce his wife unless he has a cause, and that he has no cause for doing so.”[47] It is not, certainly, that Lovecraft was contemplating any return to cohabitation, either in New York or in Providence; it is simply that the fact of divorce disturbed him, upsetting his notions of what a gentleman ought to do. He was perfectly willing to carry on a marriage by correspondence, and actually put forth the case of someone he knew who was ill and lived apart from his wife, only writing letters. Sonia did not welcome such a plan: “My reply was that neither of us was really sick and that I did not wish to be a long-distance wife ‘enjoying’ the company of a long-distance husband by letter-writing only.”

  What subsequently happened is still not entirely clear. According to Arthur S. Koki, who consulted various documents in Providence, on January 24 a subpoena was issued by the Providence Superior Court for Sonia to appear on March 1. On February 6 Lovecraft, Annie Gamwell, and C. M. Eddy went to the office of a lawyer, Ralph M. Greenlaw, at 76 Westminster Street (the Turk’s Head Building), and presented the following testimony:

  1Q: Your full name?

  A: Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

  2Q: You have resided in Providence for more than two years prior to the 24th day of January, 1929?

  A: Since April 17, 1926.

  3Q: And you are now a domiciled inhabitant of the City of Providence, State of Rhode Island?

  A: Yes.

  4Q: And you were married to Sonia H. Lovecraft?

  A: Yes.

  5Q: When?

  A: March 3, 1924.

  6Q: Have you a certified copy of your marriage certificate?

  A: I have.

  (Same received in evidence and marked by the Magistrate Petitioner as Exhibit A.)

  7Q: Now have you demeaned yourself as a faithful husband since your marriage?

  A: Yes.

  8Q: And performed all the obligations of the marriage covenant?

  A: Yes.

  9Q: Now, has the respondent, Sonia H. Lovecraft, deserted you?

  A: Since the 31st of December, 1924.

  10Q: You gave her no cause for deserting you?

  A: None whatever.

  11Q: There were no children born of this marriage?

  A: No.

  Koki adds: “The testimony of Mrs. Gamwell and Mr. Eddy corroborated Lovecraft’s assertion that his wife had deserted him, and that he was not to blame.”[48]

  All this was, of course, a charade; but it was necessary because of the reactionary divorce laws prevailing in the State of New York, where until 1933 the only grounds for divorce were adultery or if one of the parties was sentenced to life imprisonment. The only other option in New York was to have a marriage annulled if it had been entered into “by reason of force, duress, or fraud” (the last term being interpreted at a judge’s discretion) or if one party was declared legally insane for five years.[49] Obviously these options did not exist for Lovecraft and Sonia; and so the fiction that she “deserted” him was soberly perpetrated, surely with the knowledge of all parties in question. Lovecraft acknowledged the legal difficulties in a letter to Moe later that year:

  . . . in most enlightened states like Rhode Island the divorce laws are such as to allow rational readjustments when no other solution is wholly adequate. If other kinds of states—such as New York or South Carolina, with their mediaeval lack of liberal statutes—were equally intelligent in their solicitude for the half-moribund institution of monogamy, they would hasten to follow suit in legislation . . .[50]

  The overriding question, however, is this: Was the divorce ever finalised? The answer is clearly no. The final decree was never signed. Sonia may or may not have come to Providence on March 1, in accordance with the subpoena; if she did not, it would only emphasise her “desertion.” The decree was probably signed at a later date, and Sonia must have signed it, as she was the one pressing for the divorce. But how could she have allowed Lovecraft not to sign it himself? In any case, this seems to be the state of affairs. One can only believe that Lovecraft’s refusal to sign was deliberate—he simply could not bear the thought of divorcing Sonia, not because he really wanted to be married to her, but because a “gentleman does not divorce his wife without cause.” This purely abstract consideration, based upon social values Lovecraft was already increasingly coming to reject, is highly puzzling. But the matter had at least one unfortunate sequel. It is certain that Sonia’s subsequent marriage to Dr Nathaniel Davis of Los Angeles was legally bigamous—a fact that disturbed her considerably when she was told of it late in life. It was a fittingly botched ending to the whole affair.

  Lovecraft’s spring travels commenced on April 4. On that day he reached New York early in the morning, spent most of the day with Frank Long and his parents, then met his host, Vrest Orton, who drove him up to a home in Yonkers which he was occupying with his wife, child, and grandmother. (I am not sure whether or why the farm in Vermont was abandoned.) The place, built around 1830 and set in an idyllic rural area, charmed Lovecraft: “Flagstone walks, old white gate, low ceilings, small-paned windows, wide-boarded floors, white-mantled fireplaces, cobwebbed attic, rag carpets & hooked rugs, old furniture, centuried Connecticut clock with wooden works, pictures & decorations of the ‘God-bless-our-home’ type—in short, everything that bespeaks an ancient New England hearthside.”[51] One need hardly remark the fact that Lovecraft is staying with Orton rather than Sonia; now that they were (at least in their own minds) divorced, it would hardly have been suitable for him to stay with her. Indeed, I cannot find any evidence that he even saw her during his three weeks in New York, although he may well have done so and not informed anyone (even—or especially—his aunt Lillian, to whom he was writing frequently) of the fact.

  Lovecraft spent his time visiting the gang, going to various literary gatherings arranged by Orton, and generally enjoying his freedom from responsibility and work. On April 11 Lovecraft and Long looked up old Everett McNeil, now finally out of Hell’s Kitchen and dwelling in a comfortable flat in Astoria. McNeil was working on a new novel, about Cortez, but he would never finish it. Not long afterward he had to go to the hospital, and Lovecraft and Long visited him there several times. On the 24th Lovecraft visited Morton in Paterson. On the 25th was a large gang meeting at the Longs’, with Loveman, Wandrei, Talman, Morton, and others showing up. The next day the Longs took Lovecraft on a motor trip north of the city and over into Connecticut.

  As before, Lovecraft played the outdoorsman by helping Orton about the farm: “We cleared the grounds of leaves, changed the course of a brook, built 2 stone foot bridges, pruned the numerous peach trees, (whose blossoms are exquisite) & trained the climbing rose vines on a new home-made trellis.”[52]

  Random business propositions of a nebulous sort emerged, but none of them amounted to anything. Talman spent the wee hours following the gang meeting discussing the possibility of Lovecraft’s working for a newspaper. Orton declared that he could get Lovecraft a job with a Manhattan publisher at any time, as he appears to have done for Wandrei, who was working in the advertising department of E. P. Dutton; but Lovecraft made a typical response: “a job in New York is a very dubious substitute for a peaceful berth at the poorhouse in Cranston, or the Dexter Asylum!”[53] T. Everett Harré had given Lovecraft a letter of introduction to Arthur McKeogh, editor of the Red Book, and Lovecraft went to see him toward the end of the month; but he rightly concluded that “I don’t think McKeogh of the Red Book can use any of my stuff, for the tone of his magazine is very different from mine.”[54] Lovecraft was right: although Red Book (founded in 1903 and later to
become metamorphosed into the women’s magazine we know) was at this time largely a fiction magazine, the material it published was of the usual cheap adventure or romance sort with very little emphasis on the weird and much emphasis on conventionality of outlook.

  On May 1 Lovecraft’s travels began in earnest. He went right down to Washington, stayed overnight at a cheap hotel (he got a room for $1.00), then caught the 6.45 A.M. bus the next morning to Richmond, Virginia. He stayed in Virginia for only four days but took in an astonishing number of sites—Richmond, Williamsburg, Jamestown, Yorktown, Fredericksburg, and Falmouth. All were delightful. Richmond, although it had no one colonial section, nevertheless revealed substantial traces of antiquity to the diligent searcher; of course, it had suffered terrible damage during the Civil War, but was rapidly rebuilt shortly thereafter, and Lovecraft—sympathetic as he always was to the Confederate cause—found the frequent monuments to the Confederate heroes heartwarming. But it was the colonial remains that most pleased him: the State Capitol (1785–92), the John Marshall house, and especially the many old churches throughout the city.

  He did not forego seeing the Valentine Museum, which contained the then recently discovered letters by Poe to his guardian, John Allan, used by Hervey Allen in his biography (really a sort of biographical novel) Israfel (1926). He also saw the farmhouse—built either in 1685 or 1737, and probably the oldest surviving structure in Richmond—that formed the Poe Shrine (now the Edgar Allan Poe Museum), which had also opened only recently. Aside from actual furniture owned by Poe, this place had a delightful model of the entire city of Richmond as it was around 1820; this made it much easier for Lovecraft to orient himself and to locate the surviving antiquities. “I never set eyes on the place till yesterday—yet today I know it like an old resident.”[55] He saw the churchyard of St. John’s Church, where Poe’s mother is buried. Inside he noted the pew where, in 1775, Patrick Henry “uttered those cheaply melodramatic words which have become such a favourite saw of schoolboys—‘Give me liberty or give me death!’”; but “as a loyal subject of the King I refused to enter it.”[56]

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