I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 139
It is an open question whether Lovecraft’s entire economic, political, and cultural system—moderate socialism; restriction of the vote; increased education and aesthetic appreciation—is inherently unworkable (perhaps people are simply not good enough—not sufficiently intelligent, unselfish, and culturally astute—to function in such a society) or whether it may be effected if the people and government of the United States ever make a concerted effort to head in that direction. The prospects at the moment certainly do not look good: a fair number of his economic proposals (Social Security, unemployment insurance, fair labour and consumer laws) are now well established, but his political and cultural goals are as far from realisation as ever. Needless to say, a fairly broad segment of the population does not even acknowledge the validity or propriety of Lovecraft’s recommendations, so is not likely to work toward bringing them about.
The interesting thing about these speculations of the 1930s is that they gradually enter into his fiction as well as his letters and essays. We have seen that “The Mound” (1929–30) contains searching parallels between the political and cultural state of the underground mound denizens and Western civilisation; and in At the Mountains of Madness (1931) there is a fleeting mention that the government of the Old Ones was probably socialistic. These tentative political discussions reach their culmination with “The Shadow out of Time.”
The Great Race is a true utopia, and in his description of its political and economic framework Lovecraft is manifestly offering his view as to the future of mankind:
The Great Race seemed to form a single, loosely knit nation or league, with major institutions in common, though there were four definite divisions. The political and economic system of each unit was a sort of fascistic socialism, with major resources rationally distributed, and power delegated to a small governing board elected by the votes of all able to pass certain educational and psychological tests. . . .
Industry, highly mechanised, demanded but little time from each citizen; and the abundant leisure was filled with intellectual and aesthetic activities of various sorts.
This and other passages can be seen as virtually identical to those in Lovecraft’s later letters on the subject and with “Some Repetitions on the Times.” The note about “highly mechanised” industry is important in showing that Lovecraft has at last—as he had not done when he wrote “The Mound” (1929–30) and even At the Mountains of Madness—fully accepted mechanisation as an ineradicable aspect of modern society, and has devised a social system that will accommodate it.
Lovecraft’s specific responses to contemporary mainstream literature are certainly worth studying in detail. Around 1922 he made a concerted effort (perhaps egged on by Frank Belknap Long and other younger associates) to keep up on the fashionable highbrow literature of the day, although we have seen that he admitted never actually having read Joyce’s Ulysses. By the 1930s Lovecraft grudgingly felt that perhaps another refresher course was necessary, but he was rather less enthusiastic than before—it was less important to him to be literarily contemporary (even though he always remained scientifically and philosophically contemporary), since he was generally out of sympathy with the now entrenched trend of modernism. In 1930 he called Dreiser “the novelist of America,” even though by this time Dreiser was little more than an elder statesman with his best work decades behind him (his 1925 behemoth, An American Tragedy, received generally mixed reviews, even from such devoted advocates as H. L. Mencken). Sinclair Lewis—whose Babbitt and Main Street he presumably read, if one gauges by the frequency with which those terms are peppered through his writings in his épater le bourgeois period—he considered more a social theorist or even propagandist than a creative artist, although he felt that Lewis’s receiving the Nobel Prize in 1930 was “not as bad as it might be.” He mentioned F. Scott Fitzgerald, the laureate of the Jazz Age, only twice in all the correspondence I have seen, and in a manner that is both disparaging and suggestive that he never actually read Fitzgerald. He did not run a temperature over Willa Cather, although he read her historical novel Shadows on the Rock (1931) for its Quebec setting. Aside from “A Rose for Emily,” it does not seem as if Lovecraft read much of William Faulkner, although he wanted to read more. Gertrude Stein he understandably dismissed: “I must admit that I’ve never read any book of hers, since scattered fragments in periodicals discouraged any interest I might otherwise have acquired.” Hemingway came in for random discussion, but only to be scorned for the “machine-gun fire” of his prose; but Lovecraft added cogently:
I refuse to be taken in by the goddam bunk of this aera just as totally as I refused to fall for the pompous, polite bull of Victorianism—and one of the chief fallacies of the present is that smoothness, even when involving no sacrifice of directness, is a defect. The best prose is vigorous, direct, unadorn’d, and closely related (as is the best verse) to the language of actual discourse; but it has its natural rhythms and smoothness just as good oral speech has. There has never been any prose as good as that of the early eighteenth century, and anyone who thinks he can improve upon Swift, Steele, and Addison is a blockhead.
This is certainly a good attack, in principle, on the skeletonic prose of Hemingway or Sherwood Anderson; but whether Lovecraft himself followed some of its recommendations is more open to question. Even his later prose can hardly be called “unadorn’d”; and although some of his friends remarked that his writing (in correspondence, at least) did in fact duplicate his speech, this is only because Lovecraft was generally given to formality in both writing and discourse.
Lovecraft was relatively conservative on British novelists, choosing those writers who had already well established themselves in the early part of the century. He defended Galsworthy against J. Vernon Shea’s iconoclastic attack by remarking: “Galsworthy, I think, will survive. His style at times halts one, but the substance is there.” The day before he discovered the robbery of his Brooklyn flat in 1925, he was reading Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and came away tremendously impressed. He admitted having previously read “only the shorter and more minor productions” of the author (among which one hopes Heart of Darkness might have been included, although Lovecraft never mentions it), but now he declares:
Conrad is at heart supremely a poet, and though his narration is often very heavy and involved, he displays an infinitely potent command of the soul of men and things, reflecting the tides of affairs in an unrivalled procession of graphic pictures which burn their imagery indelibly upon the mind. . . . No other artist I have yet encountered has so keen an appreciation of the essential solitude of the high-grade personality—that solitude whose projected overtones form the mental world of each sensitively organised individual . . .
This may be a trifle self-serving, too, since Lovecraft axiomatically regarded himself as one of those solitary, high-grade personalities (as, indeed, he was). Hardy he considered overrated and sentimental—a rather surprising judgment (made, apparently, on the basis of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure) on a writer whose bleakness of vision Lovecraft might have been expected to appreciate. D. H. Lawrence, too, he not surprisingly thought overrated: “his fame was fortuitously boosted by the fact that he was a biassed neurotic in an age generally permeated by the same neurosis.” This was not an uncommon accusation in Lovecraft’s day, and indeed there is some validity in it. Interestingly enough, Lovecraft once declared, “Writers I’d call morbid are D. H. Lawrence & James Joyce, Huysmans & Baudelaire”; but this did not stop him from relishing the latter two as powerful weird writers. Aldous Huxley’s fiction did not appeal to him, but he did charitably refer to him as an “arresting social thinker.” He admitted that he had not read Brave New World (1932), and it is unlikely that he would have cared for it if he had, for (as he remarked in “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction”) “Social and political satire [in science fiction] is always undesirable.” I find no mention of Evelyn Waugh or Virginia Woolf anywhere in Lo
As it is, the chief contemporary novelist of the day, for Lovecraft, was neither American nor British but French—Marcel Proust. Although he never read more than the first two volumes in English (Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove) of Remembrance of Things Past, he nevertheless doubted that “the 20th century has so far produced anything to eclipse the Proustian cycle as a whole.” Proust occupied the ideal middle ground between stodgy Victorianism and freakish modernism; and Lovecraft’s fondness for Derleth’s mainstream work rested in large part on his belief that it reflected that sense of delicate reminiscence which was Proust’s own chief feature.
Lovecraft, indeed, repeatedly vaunted the entire French novelistic tradition as far superior to the English or American:
The French are the real masters of that field—Balzac, Gautier, Flaubert, de Maupassant, Stendhal, Proust . . . Nobody can beat them unless it is in the 19th century Russians—Dostoievsky, Chekhov, Turgeniev—& they reflect a racial temper so unlike ours that we really have much difficulty in appraising them. On the whole, I believe that Balzac is the supreme novelist of western Europe.
There is much truth to this, but part of Lovecraft’s preference may have been his relative coolness for the eighteenth-century British novelists, who reflected so different a world from the polished British essayists and historians of the period on whom he doted, and his utter detestation of Dickens, whose sentimentality he abhorred and whom he even claimed did not draw character well: “Dickens never drew a real human being in all his career—just a pageant of abstractions, exaggerations, & general characters. Each ‘character’ is merely an abstraction of a single human instinct. Character—motivation—values—all false, artificial, & conventional.” Lovecraft would probably not be much impressed if one were to counter that Dickens wasn’t aiming for “realism” as such, and that his characters are meant to be “larger than life.” On one occasion Lovecraft could even give some moderate praise to writers he did not otherwise care for merely as a stick with which to beat Dickens over the head: “I certainly loathe sentimental hypocrites like Dickens and Trollope far more than honest portrayers and intelligent interpreters like Zola and Fielding and Smollett and Flaubert and Hemingway.”
Lovecraft could be pretty shrewd in assessing the real merits of the popularly acclaimed novels of his day. At a time when all the world (especially August Derleth) was vaunting Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) as a masterwork, Lovecraft, who read the novel several years after its publication, remarked more soberly: “That book is clever & striking, but undeniably artificial & in places even mawkish. It was absurdly overrated upon its appearance, & now seems to be receding into something more like its proper niche.” Even though the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, this judgment now seems sound. Sometimes there is a virtue in not being so “desperately contemporary,” as Lovecraft once quoted Brown University President W. H. P. Faunce. And yet, he could waste five days reading Hervey Allen’s enormous best-seller Anthony Adverse—solely, it appears, because of its portrayal of the late eighteenth century (and, perhaps, because of Lovecraft’s admiration of Allen’s landmark biography of Poe, Israfel ). Lovecraft, of course, had no intention of keeping up with best-sellers or even with critically acclaimed recent works; not only was the inclination not there, but his very lean purse prohibited purchase of expensive new books of doubtful permanent value.
And yet, even if Lovecraft did not enjoy much of the actual prose work of his day, he had a healthy respect for the social realism that had become the characteristic style of the novels of the 1920s and 1930s. He expressed regret—sincerely, I think—at his own inability to write this sort of realism, because of his lack of wide experience in life and, perhaps more importantly, his inability (or disinclination) to invest the ordinary phenomena of life with the importance and vitality that a realistic writer must be able to do:
When I say that I can write nothing but weird fiction, I am not trying to exalt that medium but am merely confessing my own weakness. The reason I can’t write other kinds is not that I don’t value & respect them, but merely that my slender set of endowments does not enable me to extract a compellingly acute personal sense of interest & drama from the natural phenomena of life. I know that these natural phenomena are more important & significant than the special & tenuous moods which so absorb me, & that an art based on them is greater than any which fantasy could evoke—but I’m simply not big enough to react to them in the sensitive way necessary for artistic response & literary use. God in heaven! I’d certainly be glad enough to be a Shakespeare or Balzac or Turgeniev if I could! . . . I respect realism more than any other form of art—but must reluctantly concede that, through my own limitations, it does not form a medium which I can adequately use.
There is nothing new here, but it leads to two celebrated and resounding utterances:
Time, space, and natural law hold for me suggestions of intolerable bondage, and I can form no picture of emotional satisfaction which does not involve their defeat—especially the defeat of time, so that one may merge oneself with the whole historic stream and be wholly emancipated from the transient and the ephemeral.
There is no field other than the weird in which I have any aptitude or inclination for fictional composition. Life has never interested me so much as the escape from life.
That last utterance in particular is in great danger of misinterpretation, since one might easily conclude from it—if one knew nothing else about its author—that Lovecraft was an escapist who had no active interest in the world. It should by now be sufficiently obvious that this is manifestly false: even if his late and consuming interest in the problems of society, economics, and government were not evidence enough, then the intense pleasure he took at the very real sites he witnessed on his far-flung travels emphatically proves that Lovecraft was one for whom the real world existed. It is simply that the mundane activities of human beings were not intrinsically interesting to him (recall In Defence of Dagon: “Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy”), and that he required a literature that might allow for a sort of imaginative overlay upon the events of the real world. Lovecraft wanted to see beyond or through reality—or, more specifically, behind it, temporally and imaginatively. And yet, his own most characteristic work is indeed realism except where the supernatural enters.
Lovecraft’s views on contemporary poetry are a little mixed. Although he flayed T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land in 1923, he grudgingly went to see Eliot give a reading of some of his poetry in Providence in February 1933. He reported that the reading was “interesting if not quite explicable.” But regarding poetry as a whole, Lovecraft came to a perhaps surprising conclusion: “. . . verse is spectacularly and paradoxically improving; so that I do not know any age since that of Elizabeth in which poets have enjoy’d a better medium of expression.” I think, though, that the remark needs interpretation and contextualisation. Lovecraft was contrasting the present age of poetry in comparison with what he regarded as the hollowness and insincerity of his favourite whipping-boy, late Victorianism; and he did not come out and say that there actually were as many great poets in his day as in that of Elizabeth, merely that there was the possibility of greatness. The above remark is followed by this: “One can but wish that a race of major bards surviv’d to take advantage of the post-Victorian rise in taste and fastidiousness.” In other words, poets like Tennyson and Longfellow would have had the potential to be authentically great if they had lived longer and shed the crippling affections—both in terms of style (inversions, investing of spurious glamour upon certain words and
It might be thought that one could accurately gauge Lovecraft’s opinion of modern literature by examining certain passages in the document known as “Suggestions for a Reading Guide”—the final chapter of Lovecraft’s revision of Renshaw’s Well Bred Speech (1936), which was excised from the published version. But in fact it is abundantly clear that he has listed in this bulky article a good many works of literature that he has not read, and on whose merits he is relying only on the word of others, or by general reputation. Hence, among British novelists he lists Galsworthy, Conrad, Bennett, Lawrence, Maugham, Wells, Huxley, and some others; among British poets, Masefield, Housman, Brooke, de la Mare, Bridges, and T. S. Eliot. The Irish Yeats he again calls “the greatest living poet.” Among American novelists, we find Norris, Dreiser, Wharton, Cather, Lewis, Cabell, Hemingway, Hecht, Faulkner, and Wolfe; among American poets, Frost, Masters, Sandburg, Millay, and MacLeish. But consultation of his letters shows that, while he had indeed read a good many of these, others he either was planning to read but apparently never did or knew merely by reputation. In hindsight this list may perhaps seem, even by the standards of 1936, a little old-fashioned; but Lovecraft felt that in an elementary treatise of this kind it was better to be conservative and list those authors who had genuinely stood the test of time. He opens his discussion of twentieth-century literature in English with the caveat: “Crossing into the present century, we are confronted by a flood of books and authors whose relative merits are still undetermined . . .”
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