I am providence the life.., p.14

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 14


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

Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font   Night Mode Off   Night Mode

  We can now finally come to the most significant of Lovecraft’s astronomical periodicals, the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy. Even Lovecraft, with his seemingly boundless energy, must have had difficulty writing his other juvenile treatises and periodicals while the weekly deadline of the Rhode Island Journal continually impended. The journal, of which sixty-nine issues survive, was issued weekly on Sundays beginning on August 2, 1903; this schedule was kept up quite regularly until January 31, 1904 (the end of Volume I). The surviving issues resume on April 16, 1905 (the beginning of Volume III), continuing weekly until November 12, 1905 (the last page of which was written on November 23). Beginning in January 1906, the journal becomes a monthly, until it is abandoned with the issue of April 1907. There are two anomalously late issues, January and February 1909. Lovecraft states that the journal “was printed in editions of 15 to 25 on the hectograph” (“Autobiography of Howard Phillips Lovecraft”).[10] At the moment I wish to study only the issues of 1903–04.

  An average issue would contain a number of different columns, features, and charts, along with news notes, advertisements (both for works by Lovecraft and items from his collection and for others, including Kirtland Brothers and the ubiquitous R. L. Allen), and fillers. They make wholly entertaining reading. Consider the first part of a serial, “How to Become Familiar with the Constellations,” beginning with the issue of January 10, 1904:

  Familiarity with the constellations is an utmost requisite for astronomers.

  There are many treatises that take up the subject in a masterful manner, but they are beyond the reach of many, so this article had better be read carefully by those who wish to gain a knowledge of the constellations.

  Lovecraft then instructs the reader how to identify the pole star, appending four diagrams to the article. It continues for three more issues, and would have continued for more if Lovecraft had not suspended the journal at this point for more than a year.

  The issue for September 20, 1903, announces that “NUMEROUS SERIALS are now appearing in this paper in a form less complete than the original MS. Those who desire to be fully informed must apply at office [i.e., 454 Angell Street], where (,if they can decipher the writing,) they may read the original & complete MS.” The serials are enumerated as follows:

  Title No. Pages

  The Telescope 12

  The Moon 12

  On Venus 10

  Atlas Wld. 7 maps

  Practical Geom. 34


  Solar System 27

  Those last three certainly seem like substantial items. The treatises on “Astronomy” and “Practical Geometry” seem particularly impressive, especially given that Lovecraft had probably not taken geometry at Slater Avenue and would not do so at Hope Street until his second year there (1906–07).

  The issue for November 1, 1903, makes an interesting announcement: “The Ladd Observatory Visited by a Correspondent Last Night.” The correspondent, of course, is Lovecraft. The Ladd Observatory, situated on Doyle Avenue off Hope Street, is a charming small observatory operated by Brown University; the fact that a thirteen-year-old boy who was not even attending school at the time was allowed to use this facility is a testament to the degree of expertise Lovecraft had gained in astronomy, largely on his own. He states that “The late Prof. Upton of Brown, a friend of the family, gave me the freedom of the college observatory, (Ladd Observatory) & I came & went there at will on my bicycle.”[11] He goes on to say that the perpetual craning of his neck to look through the telescope there caused him “much pain” and “resulted in a permanent curvature perceptible today to a closer observer.” Winslow Upton (1853–1914) was a respected astronomer whose Star Atlas (1896), and probably other volumes, Lovecraft owned. One wonders whether he was a friend of Dr Franklin Chase Clark, who had married Lovecraft’s aunt Lillian in 1902. It is not clear when Lovecraft first visited Ladd; he states in 1926 that he was to have met Prof. Upton there in April or May of 1903, but that the worst cold of his life prevented it.[12] Probably, therefore, he did go to Ladd sometime that summer. He may have seen Borelli’s comet in August at Ladd or with his own telescope. In any event, on this October 31 visit Lovecraft was bold enough to find fault with the telescope: “The telescope is a 12 in. equatorial, but does not perform in the manner that a glass of it’s size should. Chromatic aberration is the principal defect. every lunar crater and every bright object is surrounded by a violet halo.” He adds, however, in extenuation: “The observatory has an excellent time system, with 3 siderial clocks, 1 chronograph, 1 telegraph, and 2 transits. The library is excellent, containing all the standard works on astronomy, besides having current issues of all the periodicals of the Science.”

  The issue of 27 December 1903, announces:

  For the past few nights a course of Lectures has been given by this office on the solar system.

  It was illustrated by a dozen lantern slides which were made by Mr. Edwards of the Ladd Observatory. The slides are:

  1: The Solar System.

  2: Sun-spots.

  3: Total Solar Eclipse.

  4: Venus: 2 views.

  5: Full Moon.

  6: Gibbous Moon. (Defective)

  7: Mars.

  8: Jupiter.

  9: Saturn.

  10: Comet of 1811.

  11: Ærolite falling.

  12: Lunar Scenery.

  The Lectures are given at the office of this paper and the admission is free.

  The audience no doubt consisted of his immediate family and probably some of his Slater Avenue friends. Ever the perfectionist, Lovecraft cannot help pointing out that one of the slides made by John Edwards—whom Lovecraft elsewhere describes as “an affable little cockney from England”[13]—was defective; it must have been a mortifying interruption of his lecture.

  Incredibly, while producing the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy every Sunday, issuing other occasional weekly or monthly magazines, and writing separate treatises, Lovecraft resumed his chemical journal, the Scientific Gazette. As I have mentioned, after the first issue (March 4, 1899) we have no issue until May 12, 1902 (labelled Vol. XCI, No. III [New Issue Vol. I, No. 1]). This issue declares: “The Scientific Gazette, so long discontinued, has been resumed. It is better printed, on better paper, &c &c the price is raised [to 2¢], but is subject to reduction at any time[.] The Sunday Gazette has discontinued.” This three-page issue is largely concerned with the causes of volcanism, although there is one odd note: over a picture of a chemical retort is written the bold notice, “KEEP THIS RETORT!” Perhaps this was intended to serve as a coupon of some sort, something that we find occasionally in the Rhode Island Journal. It is difficult to know for how long the journal had been discontinued prior to this issue; in the final extant issue (January 1909) Lovecraft announces that he is returning to the “plan of 1899–1902.” In any event, we again have no more issues for more than a year, but by the issue of August 16, 1903 (two weeks after the commencement of the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy), Lovecraft was ready to resume this journal as a weekly, doing so quite regularly until January 31, 1904, with sundry extra issues. Counting the issues for 1899 and 1902, there are a total of thirty-two surviving numbers. No doubt this was printed on the hectograph like the Rhode Island Journal. (Of the very earliest issues, of 1899 and following, Lovecraft states that he “made four carbon copies for ‘circulation.’”[14])

  The journal strayed from its chemical focus pretty early on in the 1903 sequence, discussing such matters as Venus’ rotation, how to construct a camera obscura, perpetual motion, telescopes (a series taken over from the Rhode Island Journal and later to return there), microscopy, and the like. When the journal was resurrected in October 1906 (for which see below), ads in the Rhode Island Journal declare that it is “A popular epitome of general science”; it had become that long ago.

  These scientific interests also manifested themselves in fictional composition. Lovecraft admits to being a “Verne enthusiast” and that “many
of my tales showed the literary influence of the immortal Jules”. He goes on to say: “I wrote one story about that side of the moon which is forever turned away from us—using, for fictional purposes, the Hansen theory that air and water still exist there as the result of an abnormal centre of gravity in the moon. I hardly need add that the theory is really exploded—I was even aware of that fact at the time—but I desired to compose a ‘thriller.’”[15] This would presumably qualify, if it survived, as Lovecraft’s first authentic tale of science fiction; and the fact that he labelled it a “thriller” evidently means that he was still under the influence of the dime novels of the day, which he—with that bewildering catholicity of taste he displayed throughout his life—was no doubt still reading.

  I have mentioned that Lovecraft was writing most of these scientific treatises and journals while not in school. He attended the Slater Avenue school in 1898–99, but was then withdrawn; he resumed schooling there for the 1902–03 school year, and was withdrawn again. He adds that “In 1903–04 I had private tutors.”[16] We know of one such tutor, A. P. May, although Lovecraft did not have a very high opinion of him. There is an unwontedly sarcastic ad for this person in the January 3, 1904, issue of the Rhode Island Journal, proclaiming May as a “10th rate Private Tutor” who is offering “Low Grade Instruction at High Rates”; the ad concludes: “HIRE ME. I CAN’T DO THE WORK BUT I NEED THE MONEY.” Perhaps May was teaching Lovecraft things he already knew. Years later he spoke of May a little more charitably, if condescendingly, as “my odd, shy private tutor Arthur P. May—a theological student whom I loved to shock with my pagan materialism . . .”[17] In any case, it is not surprising that the flood of scientific periodicals began during the summer of 1903, when he probably had much time to himself.

  We actually do not know much of what Lovecraft did in school during this second stint at Slater Avenue, since the school records do not survive. There was a class photograph taken at the end of the term,[18] but it has not turned up and is not likely to do so. All we know about this school year comes from Lovecraft himself. He observes that when he resumed attendance in 1902, his attitude was very different from what it had been in 1898: he had learnt in the interim that childhood was customarily regarded as a sort of golden age, and so he resolutely set about ensuring that this would be the case. Actually, he did not need much encouragement; for it was in this year of Slater Avenue that he developed two of his earliest but strongest friendships—with Chester and Harold Munroe, who lived about four blocks away from him at 66 Patterson Avenue (corner of Patterson and Angell Streets).[19] Other friends were Ronald Upham, two years younger than Lovecraft,[20] who lived at 21 Adelphi Avenue[21] (about three blocks from 454 Angell Street), and Stuart Coleman,[22] who had known him from his earlier Slater Avenue session. Another friend Lovecraft mentions only by the first name Ken; subsequent research has identified him as one Kenneth Tanner.[23] Twenty-five years later Lovecraft could still rattle off names of other classmates: “Reginald & Percival Miller, Tom Leeman & Sidney Sherman, ‘Goo-Goo’ [Stuart] Coleman & Dan Fairchild the teacher’s pet, ‘Monk’ McCurdy the rough guy whose voice had changed . . . old days, old days!”[24] Lovecraft also reports being friendly with three brothers named Banigan who were neighbours of his, although it is not clear whether they went to school with him.[25] I suspect that these brothers were the sons of John J. Banigan, who from 1898 through at least 1908 lived at 468 Angell Street—not quite “next-door neighbours,” as Lovecraft states, but perhaps two or three houses down from 454. These brothers were the grandsons of Joseph and Mary Banigan, who, I have conjectured (following the research of Kenneth W. Faig, Jr), represent the connecting link between Lovecraft’s mother and Louise Imogen Guiney.

  It is difficult to know which of the Munroe brothers Lovecraft felt closest to. In a 1921 letter he mentions Harold as “my best friend of my youth,”[26] but consider the following passage from a 1915 essay:

  Visitors at the Slater Avenue Primary and Grammar School in Providence, examining the desks and walls of the building, or the fence and the long bench in the boys’ yard, may today discern among the multitude of names unlawfully carved by generations of youthful irrepressibles frequent repetitions of the initials “C. P. M. & H. P. L.”, which the vicissitudes of sixteen years have failed completely to efface. The two friends whose initials are thus early associated have not been separated in spirit during the ensuing years . . . (“Introducing Mr. Chester Pierce Munroe,” Conservative, April 1915)

  Elsewhere Lovecraft remarks: “. . . Chester Pierce Munroe & I claimed the proud joint distinction of being the worst boys in Slater Ave. School . . . We were not so actively destructive as merely antinomian in an arrogant & sardonic way—the protest of individuality against capricious, arbitrary, & excessively detailed authority.”[27] This comment at least is confirmed by another letter: “At school I was considered a bad boy, for I would never submit to discipline. When censured by my teacher for disregard of rules, I used to point out to her the essential emptiness of conventionality, in such a satirical way, that her patience must have been quite severely strained; but withal she was remarkably kind, considering my intractable disposition.”[28] Lovecraft certainly got an early start as a moral relativist.

  This “disregard of rules” came to the fore during the graduation ceremony for Lovecraft’s class in June 1903. He was asked to make a speech for the occasion—which may or may not suggest that he was the valedictorian and therefore ranked first in his class—but had initially refused to do so; then, while the ceremony was actually in progress, he changed his mind. Approaching Abbie A. Hathaway, his teacher, he announced boldly that he wished to make the speech after all, and she acquiesced and duly had him announced. Lovecraft had, in the interim, written a hasty biography of Sir William Herschel, the astronomer; and as he mounted the podium he declaimed in “my best Georgian mode of speech”:

  “Ladies and gentlemen: I had not thought to trespass upon your time and patience today, but when the Muse impels, it becomes a man but ill to stifle her demand. When I speak of the Muse, I do not mean to say that I am about to inflict my bad verses upon you—far be that from my intention. My Muse this day is Clio, who presides over affairs of history; and my subject, a very revered one to me, is the career of one who rose from the most unfortunate condition of insignificance to the utmost height of deserved eminence—Sir William Herschel, who from an Hanoverian peasant became the greatest astronomer of England, and therefore of the World!”

  He adds:

  I think these are nearly the words I used. I kept them long in memory (through egotism) though I have not a copy beside me now. If this version be incorrect, it is because there are not enough long words present. . . . Much to my concern, this offering elicited smiles, rather than attention, from the adult part of my audience; but after I had done, I received a round of applause which well compensated for my trouble, and sent me off the platform with the self-satisfied glow of a triumphant Garrick.[29]

  That Lovecraft was a smart-aleck would be a considerable understatement.

  But school was the least significant of Lovecraft’s and his friends’ concerns; they were primarily interested—as all boys of that age, however precocious, are—in playing. And play they did. This was the heyday of the Providence Detective Agency, which Lovecraft describes in 1918 as follows:

  As to “Sherlock Holmes”—I used to be infatuated with him! I read every Sherlock Holmes story published, and even organised a detective agency when I was thirteen, arrogating to myself the proud pseudonym of S.H. This P.D.A. [Providence Detective Agency]—whose members ranged between nine & fourteen in years, was a most wonderful thing—how many murders & robberies we unravelled! Our headquarters were in a deserted house just out of the thickly settled area, and we there enacted, and “solved”, many a gruesome tragedy. I still remember my labours in producing artificial “bloodstains on the floor!!!”[30]

  In a 1931 letter he elaborates:

  Our force had ver
y rigid regulations and carried in its pockets a standard working equipment of police whistle, magnifying glass, electric flashlight, handcuffs, (sometimes plain twine, but “handcuffs” for all that!) tin badge, (I have mine still!!) tape measure, (for footprints) revolver, (mine was the real thing, but Inspector Munro [sic] (aet 12) had a water squirt-pistol while Inspector Upham (aet 10) worried along with a cap-pistol) and copies of all newspaper accounts of desperate criminals at large—plus a paper called “The Detective”, which printed pictures and descriptions of outstanding “wanted” malefactors! Did our pockets bulge and sag with this equipment? I’ll say they did!! We also had elaborately prepared “credentials”—certificates attesting our good standing in the agency. Mere scandals we scorned. Nothing short of bank robbers and murderers were good enough for us. We shadowed many desperate-looking customers, and diligently compared their physiognomies with the “mugs” in “The Detective”, yet never made a full-fledged arrest. Ah, me—the good old days![31]

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up