I am providence the life.., p.136
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 136
This is, oddly enough, one of the few times Lovecraft explicitly mentioned the depression as signalling a radical change in his beliefs on politics, economics, and society; but perhaps he need not have made such an admission, for his letters from 1930 onward return again and again to these subjects.
The stock market crash of October 1929 would not have affected Lovecraft very significantly, or at least directly, since of course the chief victims were those who had invested in stocks, and Lovecraft was so poor that he had little money to invest. Nor did he have any fears of immediate unemployment, since he was working freelance as a revisionist and very occasional contributor to the pulps. It is certainly true that many pulp magazines did not fare well in the depression—Strange Tales (1931–33) folded after seven issues, Astounding temporarily ceased publication in 1933 and did not resume until it was sold to another publisher, and even Weird Tales went temporarily to a bimonthly schedule in 1931—but Lovecraft was not writing much original fiction at this time, so that he had no great concern about the shrinkage in markets. The vast bulk of his revision work did not involve selling stories to the pulps, but rather the revising or copyediting of general fiction, essays, poetry, or treatises, and all through the 1930s he seems to have managed to eke along in no worse a situation than he was before.
It is essential to emphasise all this, for it means that there was little in Lovecraft’s personal circumstances that led him to the adoption of a moderate socialism; he did not—as many impoverished individuals did—become attracted to political or economic radicalism merely because he found himself destitute. Firstly, he was never truly destitute—at least, not in comparison with many others in the depression (including some of his own friends), who lost all their money and belongings and had no job and no roof over their heads; secondly, he scorned communism as unworkable and culturally devastating, recommending an economic system considerably to the left of what this country actually adopted under Roosevelt but nevertheless supporting the New Deal as the only plan of action that had any chance of being carried out.
And yet, Lovecraft’s conversion to socialism was not entirely surprising, first because socialism as a political theory and a concrete alternative to capitalism was experiencing a resurgence during the 1930s, and second because Lovecraft’s brand of socialism still retained many of the aristocratic features that had shaped his earlier political thought. The latter point I shall take up presently; the former is worth elaborating briefly.
The United States has never been an especially fertile soil for socialism or communism, but there have been occasions when they have been a little less unpopular than usual. Socialism had done reasonably well in the first two decades of the century: the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World), founded in 1905, was gaining influence in its support of strikes by a variety of labour unions, and Eugene V. Debs won nearly a million votes in 1912 as a third-party candidate. But in the period immediately after World War I, with its “Red Scare” and virulent suppression of all radical groups, socialism was forced underground for nearly a decade.
The depression led to a resurgence in which socialists teamed with labour to demand reforms in working conditions. The socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas polled a little less than 900,000 votes in 1932—not a very large figure, but a larger one than he achieved during any of his other campaigns (he was a candidate in every presidential election from 1928 to 1948). Intellectuals were also in support of socialism (either of a moderate or Marxist variety) or outright communism, as Lovecraft himself notes on one occasion:
Virtually all the reputable authors & critics in the United States are political radicals—Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Eastman, O’Neill, Lewis, Maxwell Anderson, MacLeish, Edmund Wilson, Fadiman—but the list is endless. . . . The cream of human brains—the sort of brains not wrapped up in personal luxury & immediate advantage is slowly drifting away from the blind class-loyalty toward a better-balanced position in which the symmetrical structure & permanent stability of the whole social organism is a paramount consideration.
The degree to which Lovecraft’s own thought underwent a radical shift in just over a decade is strikingly illustrated by contrasting his snide reference to the “lawless I.W.W.” in “Bolshevism” (Conservative, July 1919) with his echo of the I.W.W. song “Hallelujah, I’m a bum!” in a 1936 letter.
And yet, that shift was in many ways very slow, even grudging at the outset. It seems jointly to have been the result of observation of the increasingly desperate state of affairs engendered by the depression and by more searching thought on what could be done about it. President Hoover’s staunch belief in voluntarism had made him unwilling to permit the government to give direct relief to the unemployed. In later years Lovecraft flayed the man he had supported in 1928 with the vicious and commonly used soubriquet “Let-’em-Starve Hoover”; Hoover was, however, not an evil man but merely a basically timid politician who did not realise the extraordinary difficulties into which the country had fallen and did not have the flexibility of imagination to propose radical solutions for them. Even Roosevelt was only just radical enough to advocate policies that kept the country from total economic collapse, and everyone knows that it was really World War II that pulled the United States and the world out of the depression.
It is in January 1931 that we first find an inkling of a change. Lovecraft wrote:
Ethical idealism demands socialism on poetical cosmic grounds involving some mythical linkage of individuals to one another and to the universe—while hard-fact realism is gradually yielding to socialism because it is the only mechanical adjustment of forces which will save our culture-fostering stratified society in the face of a growing revolutionary pressure from increasingly desperate under-men whom mechanisation is gradually forcing into unemployment and starvation.
But it can be seen from the tone of this passage—and of the whole letter in which it is embedded—that Lovecraft was advocating the second motive for socialism, and that what really concerned him was not the welfare of “the rabble” but the civilisation-ending revolution this rabble could cause if it was not appeased. For after all, “All that I care about is the civilisation”: “The maintenance of [a] high cultural standard is the only social or political enthusiasm I possess . . . In effect, I venerate the principle of aristocracy without being especially interested in aristocrats as persons. I don’t care who has the dominance, so long as that dominance remains a certain kind of dominance, intellectually and aesthetically considered.” In other words, Lovecraft sought a state of culture that allowed for the free exercise of thought and imagination, the production of vital works of art, and a general ambiance of “civilised” values and modes of behaviour. Up to the last few years of his life, Lovecraft believed that only a socially recognised aristocracy could ensure such a condition—either through actual patronage of the arts or through a general climate of refined civilisation that would axiomatically be regarded as a condition toward which all society would aspire. Revolution of any kind was the last thing he wanted, and this is why he loathed Bolshevik Russia to the end of his days—because it had fostered a cultural destruction that was in no way necessary to the economic reform that its leaders were claiming as their paramount goals. It would take some years for Lovecraft to modify his position on aristocracy, but I may as well note here how that modification was finally articulated in 1936:
. . . what I used to respect was not really aristocracy, but a set of personal qualities which aristocracy then developed better than any other system . . . a set of qualities, however, whose merit lay only in a psychology of non-calculative, non-competitive disinterestedness, truthfulness, courage, and generosity fostered by good education, minimum economic stress, and assumed position, AND JUST AS ACHIEVABLE THROUGH SOCIALISM AS THROUGH ARISTOCRACY.
Lovecraft’s debate with Robert E. Howard on the relative merits of civilisation and barbarism clarifies his political concerns while at the same time lin
Lovecraft began the debate—and at the same time justified his advocacy of a political system that encourages what he felt to be the highest fruits of civilisation, aesthetic and intellectual development—by saying:
We cannot, in view of what the cultural capacity of mankind has been shown to be, afford to base a civilisation on the low cultural standards of an undeveloped majority. Such a civilisation of mere working, eating, drinking, breeding, and vacantly loafing or childishly playing isn’t worth maintaining. None of the members of it are really better off than as if they didn’t exist at all. . . . No settled, civilised group has any reason to exist unless it can develop a decently high degree of intellectual and artistic cultivation. The more who can share in this cultivation the better, but we must not invidiously hinder its growth merely because the number of sharers has to be relatively small at first, and because it can perhaps never . . . include every individual in the whole group.
Howard—although he admitted (perhaps disingenuously) that the physical side of human beings was “admittedly inferior to the mental side”—objected to what he believed to be Lovecraft’s exaltation of the artist or intellectual as the summit of humanity; but in doing so he seriously distorted Lovecraft’s point: “Of all snobberies, the assumption that intellectual endeavors, attainments and accomplishments are the only worth-while and important things in life, is the least justifiable.” Lovecraft countered:
No one has ever claimed that the artist is more important in the maintenance of some sort of civilisation than is the farmer, mechanic, engineer, or statesman. . . . However, when we consider the vast enlargement of life made possible by the expansion of the personality under the influence of art; and realise how infinitely more worth living is a life enriched by such an expansion; we are certainly justified in censuring any civilisation which does not favour this process. It is not that we regard art or any other thing in life as “sacred”, but that we recognise the importance of something which naturally forms the chief life-interest of the most highly evolved types. Art certainly is more intrinsically removed from the unevolved protoplasmic stage of organic reaction than any other human manifestation except pure reason—hence our grouping of it as one of the “highest” things in life. By “highest” we do not mean “most important to survival”, but simply “most advanced in intrinsic development”.
At this point Howard became angry, feeling insulted because of Lovecraft’s suggestion (very implicit, but probably real in some sense) that Howard was somehow “inferior” for not being able to appreciate the “highest” fruits of culture; and the debate lost steam thereafter, as both sides apparently decided it would be politic to suspend it to preserve amity. Nevertheless, Lovecraft’s conception of his ideal society is etched strongly in these and other letters of this period.
During the early years of the depression Lovecraft actually fancied that the plutocracy—now about the only thing equivalent to an aristocracy in this country—might itself take over the role as patron of the arts: “The chances are that our future plutocrats will try to cultivate all the aristocratic arts, and succeed at a fair number of them. The new culture will of course lack certain emotional overtones of the old culture which depended on obsolete views and feelings—but . . . there’s no need of mourning about that too deeply.” My feeling is that this view was derived from observation of Samuel Insull, the Chicago electricity magnate who—at least before the spectacular collapse of his utilities empire in 1932 and his later indictment on embezzlement and larceny charges—was a leading patron of the arts (he had, among other things, been the chief financial backer of the new Chicago Civic Opera Building). Lovecraft also believed that the plutocrats would willingly make concessions to the masses simply in order to stave off revolution:
Being men of sense at bottom despite their present confused myopia, they will probably see the need of some new division of the fruits of industry, and will at last call in the perfectly disinterested sociological planners—the men of broad culture and historic perspective whom they have previously despised as mere academic theorists—who have some chance of devising workable middle courses. Rather than let an infuriated mob set up a communist state or drag society into complete anarchical chaos, the industrialists will probably consent to the enforcement of a fascistic regime under which will be ensured a tolerable minimum of subsistence in exchange for orderly conduct and a willingness to labour when labouring opportunities exist. They will accept their overwhelmingly reduced profits as an alternative preferable to complete collapse and business-social annihilation.
These views may strike us as quite naive, but perhaps we have become too cynical from the rebirth of an appallingly consumeristic capitalism following World War II, in which the “captains of industry” are anything but cultivated in their artistic tastes or interested in anything but personal aggrandisement. In any case, in the course of time Lovecraft saw the error of his ways and discarded this approach to the solution of the problem.
There were probably no specific events that led Lovecraft to the shift, but rather an accumulation of many. He was well aware of the furore caused by the Bonus Army in the summer of 1932. The Bonus Army was a pathetic group of desperately poor unemployed World War I veterans who marched across the country to Washington in late May to demand the early distribution of a bonus that was not scheduled for payment until 1945. They hung about in makeshift tents for months; eventually their numbers swelled to about 20,000. On July 28 the police provoked a confrontation with the veterans, and in the ensuing riots two veterans were killed. In the end they disbanded without achieving their aim.
Lovecraft, commenting in August, believed that the government had no choice but to act with vigour (“The idea of marching on a capital with the idea of influencing legislation is at best a crazy one and at worst a dangerously revolutionary one”), but he nevertheless sympathised with the marchers and felt that the issue of the bonus itself was not easily resolved: “I find myself sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other.”
More significant, perhaps, was the so-called Technocracy survey of 1932. The term technocracy was coined by an inventor, William H. Smith, to mean rule by technologists. Elaborated by Howard Scott, an economist and intellectual, the notion led to what is perhaps Lovecraft’s most important conclusion about the economic state of the nation: that technology had made full employment impossible even in principle because machines that required only a few workers to tend them were now doing the work previously done by many individuals, and this tendency would only increase as more and more sophisticated machines were developed:
Do you attempt to account for the magnitude of the present depression? In surveying the effects of mechanis’d industry upon society, I have been led to a certain change of political views. . . . With the universal use and improvement of machinery, all the needed labour of the world can be perform’d by a relatively few persons, leaving vast numbers permanently unemployable, depression or no depression. If these people are not fed and amused, they will dangerously revolt; hence we must either institute a programme of steady pensioning—panem et circenses—or else subject industry to a governmental supervision which will lessen its profits but spread its jobs amongst more men working less hours. For many reasons the latter course seems to m
Here again, of course, the danger of revolt seems uppermost in Lovecraft’s mind. Although the Technocracy movement fizzled by early 1933, its influence on this aspect of Lovecraft’s thought was permanent; and its real significance was in bringing emphatically home to Lovecraft the brutal truth—one that he had tried to prevent himself from acknowledging at least through 1930—that the machine age was here to stay. Any sensible and realistic economic and political system must then be based on this premise.
The election of 1932 was of course a landmark. Lovecraft actually declared just before the election that he didn’t think there was much to choose between Hoover and Roosevelt, since he claimed to believe that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats were bold enough to propose sufficiently radical measures to solve the long-term problem of capitalism; but he also knew that the election was a foregone conclusion. Roosevelt won in one of the largest landslides in American history; but his inauguration would not occur until March 4, 1933, and on February 22 Lovecraft wrote one of his most concentrated and impassioned pleas for political and economic reform—the essay “Some Repetitions on the Times.”
The timing of the piece is no accident. The few weeks preceding Roosevelt’s inauguration could well be said to have been the closest this country ever came to an actual revolt by the dispossessed. The depression had reached its nadir: banks were failing across the country; troops were actually deployed in many major cities to guard against riots; the economy seemed at a near-standstill. Lovecraft’s fears of a culture-destroying revolution seemed quite realistic, and they no doubt account for the urgent, even harried tone of his essay.
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