I am providence the life.., p.11
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 11
If, then, it is true that Lovecraft suffered some sort of “near-breakdown” in 1898, it seems very likely that the death of his father on July 19, 1898, had much to do with it. We have already seen how a cloud of gloom hung over the household upon the death of Robie Phillips in January 1896 (Lovecraft notes that his family was still in mourning during the winter of that year); and the long-expected but still shocking and tragic death of Winfield can only have been traumatic for the entire family and especially for a boy not yet eight. I have already conjectured that Lovecraft probably attended his father’s funeral and burial in Swan Point Cemetery two days later. The effect on his mother of her husband’s death—and, indeed, of his increasingly worsening condition over the last year or two of his life—can only be imagined. It may be well, then, to summarise the relations between Lovecraft and his mother up to this time, as best we can piece them together.
There is no question but that his mother both spoiled Lovecraft and was overprotective of him. This latter trait appears to have developed even before Winfield’s hospitalisation in 1893. Winfield Townley Scott tells the following story:
On their summer vacations at Dudley, Massachusetts . . ., Mrs. Lovecraft refused to eat her dinner in the dining room, not to leave her sleeping son alone for an hour one floor above. When a diminutive teacher-friend, Miss Ella Sweeney, took the rather rangy youngster to walk, holding his hand, she was enjoined by Howard’s mother to stoop a little lest she pull the boy’s arm from its socket. When Howard pedaled his tricycle along Angell Street, his mother trooped beside him, a guarding hand upon his shoulder.
Scott derived this information from Ella Sweeney (via her friend Myra H. Blosser), a Providence woman who became associate superintendent of schools and who met the Lovecrafts in Dudley. The mention of “summer vacations” (plural) is apparently an error copied by Scott from Blosser’s letter to him. Lovecraft admits that “My array of toys, books, and other youthful pleasures was virtually unlimited” at this time; whatever he wanted, he seems to have got. We have already seen how his mother was dragged to all the curio-shops in Providence to satisfy Lovecraft’s early enthusiasm for the Arabian Nights, and how he instantly got a chemistry set when his interest turned in that direction. Another instance of how far his family would go to indulge the boy occurred about this time: “When I was very small, my kingdom was the lot next my birthplace, 454 Angell St. Here were trees, shrubs, and grasses, and here when I was between four and five the coachman built me an immense summer-house all mine own—a somewhat crude yet vastly pleasing affair, with a staircase leading to a flat roof . . .” This helped to foster Lovecraft’s interest in railroads, as I shall note later.
At this point it may be well to mention a remarkable bit of testimony provided by Lovecraft’s wife. In her 1948 memoir Sonia H. Davis states the following:
It was . . . at that time the fashion for mothers to start “hope-chests” for their daughters even before they were born, so that when Mrs. Winfield Scott Lovecraft was expecting her first child she had hoped it would be a girl; nor was this curtailed at the birth of her boy. So this hope-chest was gradually growing; some day to be given to Howard’s wife. . . . As a baby Howard looked like a beautiful little girl. He had, at the tender age of three years, a head of flaxen curls of which any girl would have been proud. . . . These he wore until he was about six. When at last he protested and wanted them cut off, his mother had taken him to the barber’s and cried bitterly as the “cruel” shears separated them from his head.
I suppose one must accept this statement for the most part, although I think rather too much has been made of it—and also of the apparent fact that Susie dressed her son in frocks at an early age. The celebrated 1892 photograph of Lovecraft and his parents shows him with the curls and the frock, as does another picture probably taken around the same time. Lovecraft remarks on the curls himself, saying that it was this “golden mane” that partly led Louise Imogen Guiney to name him “Little Sunshine.” But another photograph of Lovecraft, probably taken at the age of seven or eight, shows him as a perfectly normal boy with short hair and boy’s attire. In fact, it cannot be ascertained when Susie ceased to dress Lovecraft in frocks; even if she had persisted up to the age of four, it would not have been especially unusual.
There are two other pieces of evidence one can adduce here, although their purport is not entirely clear. R. H. Barlow, in his jottings about Lovecraft (mostly taken down in 1934 but some made evidently later), writes: “Mrs. Gamwell’s stories of how HPL for a while insisted ‘I’m a little girl’ . . .” Annie Gamwell could not have made this observation later than early 1897, as that was when she married and moved out of 454 Angell Street; and the context of Barlow’s remark (he adds the detail of how Lovecraft would spout Tennyson from the table-top) could date the event to as early as 1893. Then there is a letter from Whipple Phillips to Lovecraft, dated June 19, 1894: “I will tell you more about what I have seen when I get home if you are a good boy and wear trousers.” Whipple has underscored the last two words. The implication is, I suppose, that Lovecraft at this time was not fond of wearing trousers.
In spite of the above, I see little evidence of gender confusion in Lovecraft’s later life; if anything, he displayed quick and unwavering prejudice against homosexuals. Susie may have wanted a girl, and may have attempted to preserve the illusion for some years, but Lovecraft even in youth was headstrong and made it early evident that he was a boy with a boy’s normal interests. It was, after all, he who wanted his flowing curls cut off at the age of six.
In addition to being oversolicitous of her son, Susie also attempted to mould him in ways he found either irritating or repugnant. Around 1898 she tried to enrol him in a children’s dancing class; Lovecraft “abhorred the thought” and, fresh from an initial study of Latin, responded with a line from Cicero: “Nemo fere saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit!” (“Scarcely any sober person dances, unless by chance he is insane”). Evidently Lovecraft had developed a certain skill in getting his own way, for—like his initial Sunday school attendance (perhaps the previous year), which he was allowed to forego—he evidently escaped the dancing lessons. But what he did not escape were violin lessons, which lasted a full two years, between the ages of seven and nine.
These lessons were, however, initially at his own insistence:
My rhythmic tendencies led me into a love of melody, and I was forever whistling & humming in defiance of convention & good breeding. I was so exact in time & tune, & showed such a semi-professional precision & flourish in my crude attempts, that my plea for a violin was granted when I was seven years of age, & I was placed under the instruction of the best violin teacher for children in the city—Mrs. Wilhelm Nauck. For two years I made such progress that Mrs. Nauck was enthusiastic, & declared that I should adopt music as a career—BUT, all this time the tedium of practising had been wearing shockingly on my always sensitive nervous system. My “career” extended until 1899, its summit being a public recital at which I played a solo from Mozart before an audience of considerable size. Soon after that, my ambition & taste alike collapsed like a house of cards . . . I began to detest classical music, because it had meant so much painful labour to me; & I positively loathed the violin! Our physician, knowing my temperament, advised an immediate discontinuance of music lessons, which speedily ensued.
Lovecraft’s later accounts of this episode do not differ greatly in details. One interesting elaboration occurs in a letter of 1934:
. . . I had a very irregular heart action—badly affected by physical exertion—& such acute kidney trouble that a local practitioner would have operated for stone in the bladder had not a Boston specialist given a sounder diagnosis & traced it to the nervous system. That was when I was 9, & reduced to a very irritable state of pressure of violin lessons. On the specialist’s advice those lessons were stopped . . .
Now it appears that this specialist, and not the family doctor, w
It may be worth engaging in some idle speculation as to what the “solo” was that Lovecraft performed in front of a sizeable audience. Mozart wrote no works for unaccompanied violin—such as Bach’s six spectacularly difficult sonatas and partitas, BWV 1001–06—so that one assumes he played one of Mozart’s sonatas for violin and piano; Mrs Nauck presumably accompanied him on the piano. If this assumption is correct, then we may be limited to some of Mozart’s very early—and very easy—sonatas, e.g. K. 6–15 (where the keyboard part is actually substantially more difficult than the violin part). Even among this group we can eliminate some of the harder sonatas (K. 11–15) as being well beyond the capabilities of a young violinist of two years’ experience, as these works involve relatively advanced techniques (rapid string-crossings, triple- or even quadruple-stops, rapid succession of trills, tremolos, shifts into second or third position, etc.) that Lovecraft is not likely to have learnt. Indeed, Lovecraft may have played only one movement (probably the slow movement or the minuet, since even the allegros of the early sonatas are demanding to a very inexperienced player) of the sonata in C, K. 6, in D, K. 7, or in B-flat, K. 8. Lovecraft’s description of a “solo from Mozart” implies that only part of a work was performed.
One does not wish to minimise Lovecraft’s accomplishment, however. Most violinists of his age are nowadays not given any works in the standard repertoire to play, but are rather trained on workbooks involving scales, arpeggios, and the like. Probably Lovecraft used these as well (and they are very likely what led him to loathe practising, as they are indeed quite dull and repetitious), but to perform any work of Mozart at the age of nine bespeaks considerable natural ability. A moot question is whether Lovecraft actually learnt to read music: he may have and later forgot; if he did not, he could still have played the Mozart piece by having the proper fingerings “coded” to the proper strings.
One would like to date Lovecraft’s second “near-breakdown” to the termination of his violin lessons, but he clearly asserts that the first occurred in 1898 and the second in 1900. In any event, Lovecraft manifestly continued to be under considerable nervous strain; a situation in part relieved and in part augmented by his first attempt at school attendance, in which he was withdrawn after a year’s term (1898–99). Indeed, his casual remark in 1929 that “I spent the summer of 1899 with my mother” in Westminster, Massachusetts, must lead one to speculate on the purpose of such a trip, and to wonder whether health reasons were a factor. Faig suspects that the vacation may have been taken to relieve the stress of Lovecraft’s father’s death; but this had occurred a full year before, and even if that event had caused Lovecraft’s “near-breakdown” of 1898, he seemed well enough to begin school in the fall of that year. I am therefore inclined to connect the trip with the trauma of his first year of school and also of his violin lessons, which probably ended in the summer of 1899.
Westminster, incidentally, strikes me as an odd place for Lovecraft and his mother to spend a vacation. It is in north central Massachusetts, near Fitchburg, and not at all near Dudley, where the Lovecrafts had vacationed in 1892. Perhaps they had relatives there. We know almost nothing about this trip; thirty years later, when revisiting the spot, he wrote: “. . . we looked up Moses Wood’s ‘Harvard Cottage’ . . . Wood is dead, & so is old Mrs. Marshall who kept the gaol at the foot of the hill, but Wood’s widow is still living. . . . It was certainly interesting to leap back 30 years & recall the summer of 1899 when I was so bored with rusticity that I longed for the sight of a town!” That last remark is telling: for all Lovecraft’s yearning to be a country squire, he was really a city boy. As a permanent residence, he wanted something between the vacancy of unspoilt Nature and the cacophonic phantasmagoria of New York City—something very like Providence, in fact.
From all that has gone before it will be evident that Lovecraft led a comparatively solitary young childhood, with only his adult family members as his companions. Many of his childhood activities—reading, writing, scientific work, practising music, even attending the theatre—are primarily or exclusively solitary, and we do not hear of any boyhood friends until his entrance into grade school. All his letters discussing his childhood stress his relative isolation and loneliness:
Amongst my few playmates [at the age of five] I was very unpopular, since I would insist on playing out events in history, or acting according to consistent plots.
You will notice that I have made no reference to childish friends & playmates—I had none! The children I knew disliked me, & I disliked them. I was used to adult company & conversation, & despite the fact that I felt shamefully dull beside my elders, I had nothing in common with the infant train. Their romping & shouting puzzled me. I hated mere play & dancing about—in my relaxations I always desired plot.
One confirmation of this comes from the recollections of Lovecraft’s second cousin Ethel M. Phillips (1888–1987), later Mrs Ethel Phillips Morrish. Ethel, two years older than Lovecraft, was living with her parents Jeremiah W. Phillips (the son of Whipple’s brother James Wheaton Phillips) and his wife Abby in various suburbs of Providence (Johnston, Cranston) during the 1890s, and was sent over to play with young Howard. She confessed in an interview conducted in 1977 that she did not much care for her cousin, finding him eccentric and aloof. She became very irritated because Lovecraft did not apparently know how a swing worked. But she does have a delightful image of Lovecraft, at about the age of four, turning the pages of some monstrously huge book in a very solemn and adult manner.
Lovecraft provides one remarkable glimpse of some of the solitary games he played as a young boy:
My favourite toys were very small ones, which would permit of their arrangement in widely extensive scenes. My mode of play was to devote an entire table-top to a scene, which I would proceed to develop as a broad landscape . . . helped by occasional trays of earth or clay. I had all sorts of toy villages with small wooden or cardboard houses, & by combining several of them would often construct cities of considerable extent & intricacy. . . . Toy trees—of which I had an infinite number—were used with varying effect to form parts of the landscape . . . even forests (or the suggested edges of forests). Certain kinds of blocks made walls & hedges, & I also used blocks in constructing large public buildings. . . . My people were mainly of the lead-soldier type & magnitude—frankly too large for the buildings which they presumably tenanted, but as small as I could get. I accepted some as they were, but had my mother modify many in costume with the aid of knife & paint-brush. Much piquancy was added to my scenes by special toy buildings like windmills, castles, &c.
No doubt Lovecraft once again pestered his mother into both procuring these toys from various shops and helping him to decorate them. But there was more to it than just a static landscape; with his inveterate feel for plot, and his already developing sense of time, history, and pageantry, Lovecraft would actually act out historical scenarios with his miniature cities:
I was always as consistent—geographically & chronologically—in setting my landscapes as my infant store of information would allow. Naturally, the majority of scenes would be of the 18th century; although my parallel fascination with railways & street-cars led me to construct large numbers of contemporary landscapes with intricate systems of tin trackage. I had a magnificent repertoire of cars & railway accessories—signals, tunnels, stations, &c—though this system was admittedly too large in scale for my villages. My mode of play was to construct some scene as fancy—incited by some story or picture—dictated, & then to act out its life for long periods—sometimes a fortnight—making up events of a highly melodramatic cast as I went. These events would sometimes cover only a brief span—a war or plague or merely a spirited pageant of travel & commerce & incident leading nowhere—but would sometimes involve long aeons, with visible changes in the landscape & buildings. Cities would fall & be forgotten, & new cities would spring up. Forests would fall or be cut down, & r
Lovecraft does not give an explicit date for the commencement of this fascinating exercise, but one imagines it dates to his seventh or eighth birthday.
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