I am providence the life.., p.12

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 12


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

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  Although Lovecraft may have been solitary, he was by no means devoted merely to indoor activities. The year 1900 saw the commencement of his career as bicyclist, something he would keep up for more than a decade. He tells the story piquantly:

  Good old 1900—will I ever forget it? My mother gave me my first bicycle on Aug. 20 of that memorable year—my tenth birthday—and I found myself able to ride it without lessons . . . although I couldn’t get off. I just rode around and around until pride vanished and I confest my technical limitation—slowing up and letting my grandfather hold the wheel still whilst I clamber’d down with the aid of the horse-block. But before the year’s end I was master of my steed—burning up all the roads for miles around.[66]

  Late in life he referred to himself as a “veritable bike-centaur” at this time.[67]

  Lovecraft’s attendance at the Slater Avenue School (located at the northeast corner of Slater Avenue and University Avenue, where St Dunstan’s Prep School now stands) changed all this, at least to some degree. I am not entirely clear on the exact period or duration of Lovecraft’s attendance, as his records from the school (which was abandoned as early as 1917[68]) do not seem to survive. Lovecraft says that he entered the Slater Avenue School for the first time in 1898, adding: “Hitherto it had been deemed unwise to subject so irritable & sensitive a child to discipline of any sort. I entered the highest grade of primary school, but soon found the instruction quite useless, since I had picked up most of the material before.”[69] By the “highest grade of primary school” Lovecraft presumably means the fourth or perhaps even the fifth grade, one or two grades higher than the level expected of a boy of his age. In an earlier letter he notes: “About this time I tried attendance at school, but was unable to endure the routine.”[70] In other words, it appears that Lovecraft’s initial stint at Slater Avenue lasted only for the school year 1898–99.

  In any event, it was at this time that Lovecraft finally began developing some playmates outside of his immediate family. His friendship with Chester Pierce Munroe (one year older than Lovecraft), Harold Bateman Munroe (one year younger), and Stuart Coleman can be dated to this time. These friendships seem to have developed over the next several years, and I shall discuss them in greater detail in the next chapter.

  Lovecraft does not seem to have returned to Slater Avenue until the 1902–03 school year. What he did during the interim in regard to schooling is not easy to ascertain; at a later period he received private tutoring, but apparently not in the period 1899–1902. I suspect that Lovecraft was, as before, left to satisfy his intellectual curiosity in his own way: his family could hardly have failed to see that the boy was naturally bookish and did not need much incentive to investigate any subject that caught his fancy. One extremely odd remark which Lovecraft made in passing is that he frequented the Providence Athletic Association in 1899–1900, where he took shower-baths for the first time.[71] I have no idea what he could have been doing here: Lovecraft certainly never displayed any interest in sports, either as a participant or as a spectator. Could his mother have urged him to use the gym simply to get him out of the cloistered confines of that “black, windowless attic room” and make him a somewhat more “normal” nine-year-old boy? The impetus could also have come from Whipple, who perhaps wished his grandson to develop more “normal” or “masculine” interests, or may have simply felt that a little exercise was a good thing for a boy too exclusively given to intellectual pursuits. But this athletic experience did not, apparently, last very long, for as Lovecraft notes in a late letter: “My family kept me away from gymnasiums after I had a fainting fit in one at the age of 9.”[72]

  If Lovecraft was by no means idle as a reader—he even remarks that his mother urged him around 1899 (perhaps during their summer in Westminster) to read, of all things, Little Women, which “bored me to death”[73]—he continued to experiment as a writer. Fiction, poetry, and scientific treatises emerged from his pen; and he now even ventured on some historical works. The 1902 catalogue lists two lost items, “Early Rhode Island” and “An Historical Account of Last Year’s War with SPAIN.” The latter, at any rate, must date to 1899, and the former probably also dates to around that time. Lovecraft’s interest in the antiquities of his native city and state began, as we have seen, from as early as the age of three; and there seems little doubt that he began absorbing the history of his state through books from an early period. “Early Rhode Island” was priced at 25¢, suggesting that it was a substantial work. Among the books in his library that might have served as sources for it are Alice Earle’s In Old Narragansett: Romances and Realities (1898), James Davis Knowles’s Memoir of Roger Williams, the Founder of the State of Rhode-Island (1834), and two volumes of the Rhode Island Historical Society Collections: John Callendar’s An Historical Discourse on the Civil and Religious Affairs of the Colony of Rhode-Island (1838) and William Reed Staples’s Annals of the Town of Providence, from Its First Settlement to the Organization of the City Government, in June, 1832 (1843). Some of these works may seem a little weighty for a nine-year-old, but I would not wish to discount Lovecraft’s ability to comprehend any of them. If “Early Rhode Island” dates to as late as 1902, then Lovecraft may also have benefited from a landmark three-volume work compiled by Edward Field, State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century (1902).

  Of the treatise on the Spanish-American war much might be said, in spite of the fact that we have absolutely no idea of its contents. The work is significant if only because it is the first clear indication we have of Lovecraft’s interest in contemporary politics.

  H. P. Lovecraft was born in the entirely undistinguished administration of the Republican Benjamin Harrison—whose birthday, oddly enough, he shared. His year of birth coincides with the emergence of the Populist movement in the South and West, which initially dominated the Democratic party and later formed its own party. In part as a result of its influence, the Democrat Grover Cleveland won the election of 1892. We have already seen Lovecraft’s declaration at the age of six that he did not own allegiance to President Cleveland, as the rest of his family (grudgingly, no doubt, since they were almost certainly Republicans) did, but to Queen Victoria. His entire family (the male members, at any rate) would surely have voted for McKinley against William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1896.

  Part of the backlash against Cleveland and the Democrats—aside from an economic crisis in 1893–96 that hit working people very hard—was Cleveland’s unwillingness to intervene in Cuba’s revolution against Spain in 1895, a cause many Americans supported. McKinley himself was reluctant to become entangled in the matter, but he had no option after the battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbour on February 15, 1898, with the loss of 260 Americans. Although Spain was willing to yield to American ultimatums, public pressure forced McKinley to go to war. It was not much of a contest. The war was over in ten weeks (May–July 1898), and was highlighted by Theodore Roosevelt’s leading of the Rough Riders into battle. The Americans demanded the independence of Cuba (which then became a U.S. protectorate in 1901) and the cession of Puerto Rico and Guam; McKinley also decided at this time to annex the Philippines. It was, of course, partly this military triumph that allowed the McKinley-Roosevelt ticket to prevail over the hapless Bryan in 1900.

  I have no doubt that Lovecraft, who was probably already engaging in imitations of historical battles with his toy figures on tabletops, found the easy triumph of the American forces over Spain inspiring. For all his Anglophilia, he always took pride in American political and cultural victories over the rest of the world (except England). His treatise is not likely to have delved much into the political or diplomatic background of the war, but would probably have been a stirring narrative of the principal battles. And yet, if the words “historical account” in its title are to be taken literally, perhaps Lovecraft did engage in some historical description of Spanish influence in the Caribbean or perhaps in the whole of the Americas, a subject he f
ound compelling in later life.

  If Lovecraft is accurate in stating that he discovered Russell’s The Frozen Pirate at the age of eight or nine, then that melodramatic novel—along, perhaps, with the scarcely less melodramatic but more artistically finished Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe—may have helped to inspire his interest in geography, particularly the Antarctic, an interest that led not merely to several works of fiction both early and late but several works of nonfiction as well.

  Lovecraft is unclear on when he became interested in geography in general and Antarctica in particular: in two letters (1916, 1935) he dates his interest to 1900,[74] while in two others (1915, 1926) he dates it to the age of twelve, or 1902.[75] I am inclined to accept the earlier date, for in the 1916 letter he goes on to say: “The Borchgrevink expedition, which had just made a new record in South Polar achievement, greatly stimulated this study.” The Norwegian Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink’s great achievement was to have established the first camp on actual Antarctic soil. He had sailed from England in August 1898, established the camp in February 1899, stayed all through the long Antarctic night (May–July 1899), walked on the Ross Ice Shelf on February 19, 1900, and returned to England by the summer of 1900.[76] In his 1935 letter Lovecraft explains: “I think it was the newspaper accounts of Borchgrevingk’s [sic] second expedition of 1900 . . . which first captured my attention & interest.”

  It is not surprising that Lovecraft’s interest would have been aroused by the Borchgrevink expedition, for this was the first important Antarctic voyage since the 1840s. It is also for this reason that the three lost treatises on Antarctic exploration which Lovecraft wrote around this time—“Voyages of Capt. Ross, R.N.” (1902), “Wilkes’s Explorations” (1902), and “Antarctic Atlas” (1903)[77]—discuss those 1840s expeditions: there were no others in recent memory he could have written about. In fact, I am wondering whether the dates of writing supplied (in 1936) by Lovecraft are entirely accurate: I would like to date them to an even earlier period, say 1900, for reasons I shall supply presently.

  The history of Antarctic exploration can rightly be said to begin with Captain James Cook, who attempted in 1772–74 to reach the South Pole but had to turn back because of the ice fields. It was on the second of his journeys (1774) that he stumbled upon Easter Island when heading north. Edward Bransfield of England actually sighted the Antarctic continent on January 30, 1820, and Alexander I Island (a large island off the coast of what is now called the Antarctic Peninsula) was discovered by Fabian von Bellingshausen on January 29, 1821; because of the heavy ice field in which it is embedded, it was not known to be an island until 1940, thereby creating considerable controversy over who had actually discovered the continent of Antarctica.

  In the late 1830s three separate expeditions did much to chart various portions of Antarctica. The American Charles Wilkes (1798–1877) went to the Antarctic, bizarrely enough, to test the hollow earth theory proposed in 1818 by John Cleves Symmes (a theory Lovecraft attacked in a letter to the Providence Journal of 1906). An expedition mounted in 1829 by Symmes and Jeremiah N. Reynolds was a failure, but some years later Reynolds managed to persuade Wilkes, then only a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, to lead another voyage. Wilkes’s expedition—with six ships, eighty-three officers, and 345 crewmen—got under way on August 18, 1838, reaching the Antarctic zone in March 1839. One group attempted to enter the frozen Weddell Sea on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, but could not get very far because of the ice. Another group, after wintering in Sydney, skirted the western coast of the Antarctic, actually sighting land on January 19, 1840 (Edgar Allan Poe’s thirty-first birthday, incidentally). By January 30 Wilkes had seen enough of the land mass to be certain that an actual continent was involved, not merely a series of islands or a huge frozen sea, and he made a momentous pronouncement: “Now that all were convinced of its existence, I gave the land the name of the Antarctic Continent.” Wilkes returned to Sydney on March 11, 1840.

  The Englishman James Clark Ross (1800–1862) left England on September 25, 1839, for the purpose of exploring the huge ice shelf that now bears his name. In doing so, he discovered the small island at the mouth of the ice shelf now called Ross Island, and named the two enormous volcanoes there (Mt Erebus and Mt Terror) after his two ships, the Erebus and Terror. Dr Joseph Hooker, one of the ship’s doctors, gives a vivid impression of the first sight of Mt Erebus: “This was a sight so surpassing everything that can be imagined . . . that it really caused a feeling of awe to steal over us at the consideration of our own comparative insignificance and helplessness, and at the same time, an indescribable feeling of the greatness of the Creator in the works of His hand.”[78] Lovecraft would certainly have echoed the first half of that utterance, but demurred about the second half. In any event, Ross made two further expeditions (1841–43), but they accomplished little. His great achievement was the discovery of the Ross Ice Shelf, “the grim barrier which in later years would prove to be the gateway to Antarctica.”[79] It is interesting to note that Ross did not believe the Antarctic continent to be a single land mass—a view in which Lovecraft persisted until it was finally disproven in the 1930s.

  There was, at this time, yet another Antarctic expedition, this one conducted by the Frenchman Jules Dumont d’Urville (1837–40), which covered some of the same territory as Wilkes; in fact, the two expeditions encountered each other by accident, and in a not very friendly manner, on January 29, 1840. I do not know why Lovecraft did not bother to write a treatise about d’Urville; perhaps his prejudice toward Anglo-Saxons led him to minimise the French explorer’s accomplishment.

  Lovecraft reports that by 1902 “I had read virtually everything in fact or fiction concerning the Antarctic, & was breathlessly awaiting news of the first Scott expedition.”[80] This latter remark must refer to the expedition by Robert Scott on the Discovery that left New Zealand in August 1901, the high point of which was an attempt by Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Edward Wilson to traverse the Ross Ice Shelf beginning on November 2, 1902; the team, ill-equipped for so arduous a journey, was forced to turn back on December 30 and almost died on the return trip.

  As for having read everything ever written on the Antarctic, I don’t imagine Lovecraft means the accounts left by the explorers themselves, some of which are enormous and not likely to have been available to him: Captain James Cook’s Voyage towards the South Pole (1777), James Weddell’s A Voyage towards the South Pole (1825), Charles Wilkes’s Narrative of the Exploring Expedition, by Authority of Congress, During the Years 1838–1842 (1845), James Clark Ross’s A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions (1847), F. A. Cook’s Through the First Antarctic Night (1900) (Cook was a member of Adrien de Gerlache’s expedition of 1898–99); C. E. Borchgrevink’s First on the Antarctic Continent (1901). Then again, perhaps Lovecraft did read some of these. In terms of treatises on the subject, there is only one found in his library: Karl Fricker’s The Antarctic Regions (1900) (Prescott Holmes’s The Story of Exploration and Adventure in the Frozen Sea [1896] deals with the north pole) aside from such fictional treatments as Frank Cowan’s Revi-Lona (1879), James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888), and Frank Mackenzie Savile’s Beyond the Great South Wall: The Secret of the Antarctic (1899), as well as Poe and W. Clark Russell, of course.

  I want to date Lovecraft’s three lost treatises to around 1900, since it would seem odd for Lovecraft not to have chosen to write up the Borchgrevink and Scott expeditions, so fresh as they would have been in his mind, rather than the expeditions of the 1840s, some of whose discoveries had been superseded by the work of these later explorers. His correspondent C. L. Moore actually saw a copy of “Wilkes’s Explorations” in late 1936,[81] although it was not found among his papers after his death a few months later. “Antarctic Atlas” must have been an interesting work, and presumably consisted largely of a map of the continent; but so little exploration of the land mass had been done by th
is time that large parts of it were utterly unknown and unnamed.

  In addition to “composing ‘learned’ treatises on the real facts” of Antarctic discovery, Lovecraft admitted to writing “many fanciful tales about the Antarctic Continent” in youth.[82] Aside from those inspired by The Frozen Pirate, we have no information on what these are. The fact that they—like the treatises—do not appear on the catalogue of works appended to Poemata Minora, Volume II (1902) need not indicate that they were written after that date, since we have already noted that some extant works written earlier do not appear on the list. Suffice it to say that Lovecraft found the Antarctic a fascinating land for fictional composition precisely because so little was then—and for many years later—known of it. One might imagine almost anything existing in that bleak world of ice and death.

  Lovecraft reports in “A Confession of Unfaith” that “my pompous ‘book’ called Poemata Minora, written when I was eleven, was dedicated ‘To the Gods, Heroes, and Ideals of the Ancients’, and harped in disillusioned, world-weary tones on the sorrow of the pagan robbed of his antique pantheon.” I wonder whether Lovecraft has temporarily forgotten that there were two volumes of Poemata Minora, only the second of which survives; this second volume does in fact bear the dedication Lovecraft mentions, but the preface is dated to September 1902, meaning that the completed book dates to just past his twelfth birthday. Perhaps the poems themselves were written just before August 20, 1902. In a 1929 letter he dates Volume I of Poemata Minora to 1900, but later in the letter refers to its “publication” as occurring in 1901.[83]

  Poemata Minora, Volume II is Lovecraft’s most finished and aesthetically satisfying juvenile work. The five poems bear comparison with any of his later verse, although this is an indication not so much of the merit of these early poems as of the mediocrity of his later ones. It is telling that he allowed three of them—“Ode to Selene or Diana,” “To the Old Pagan Religion,” and “To Pan”—to appear (albeit with different titles and under pseudonyms) in the amateur paper the Tryout for April 1919. The other two—“On the Ruin of Rome” and “On the Vanity of Human Ambition”—could as well have been chosen.

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