I am providence the life.., p.148

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 148


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

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  Various outings in spring and summer and visits by a number of friends old and new during the latter half of the year made 1936 not quite the disaster it had been up to then. On May 4 the Rhode Island Tercentenary celebration began with a parade in colonial costumes that began at the Van Wickle Gates of Brown University, scarcely a hundred yards from Lovecraft’s door. Later, at the Colony House, there was a reenactment of the “tragic sessions of the rebel legislature”[5] three hundred years earlier in which the signers were each portrayed by lineal descendants. Lovecraft was one of the few to get into the building to see the ceremony—he had “had work not to hiss the rebels & applaud the loyal minority who stood firmly by his Majesty’s government”! Later Governor Curley of Massachusetts presented to Governor Green of Rhode Island a copy of the revocation of Roger Williams’s banishment of 1635. “After 300½ years, I am sure that Roger highly appreciates this mark of consideration!”[6]

  The summer was anomalously late in arriving, but the week of July 8 finally brought temperatures in the 90s and saved Lovecraft “from some sort of general breakdown.”[7] In six days he accomplished more than in the six week previous. On July 11 he took a boat trip to Newport, doing considerable writing on the lofty cliffs overlooking the ocean.

  As for guests, first on the agenda was Maurice W. Moe, who had not seen Lovecraft since the latter’s fat days of 1923. Moe came with his son Robert for a visit on July 18–19, and since Robert had come in his car, they had convenient transport for all manner of sightseeing. They went to the old fishing village of Pawtuxet (then already absorbed into the Providence city limits), drove through Roger Williams Park, and visited the Warren-Bristol area that Robert and Lovecraft had seen in March of the previous year. At Warren they had another all-ice cream dinner. Maurice could only finish two and a half pints, Robert barely managed three, and Lovecraft finished three and could have eaten three more.

  Moe was not much involved with amateurdom at this time, but he nevertheless managed to talk Lovecraft into becoming involved in a round-robin correspondence group, the Coryciani, similar to the old Kleicomolo and Gallomo. Although Moe was evidently the leader of this group, it had been founded by John D. Adams; Natalie H. Wooley, an amateur journalist and correspondent of Lovecraft’s since at least 1933 about whom almost nothing is known, was also involved. The focus of the group’s activities was the analysis of poetry, although in the one letter by Lovecraft that survives (July 14, 1936) there is a discussion—evidently in response to another member’s query—as to what Lovecraft might do on his last hour of life:

  For my part—as a realist beyond the age of theatricalism & naive beliefs—I feel quite certain that my own known last hour would be spent quite prosaically in writing instructions for the disposition of certain books, manuscripts, heirlooms, & other possessions. Such a task would—in view of the mental stress—take at least an hour—& it would be the most useful thing I could do before dropping off into oblivion. If I did finish ahead of time, I’d probably spend the residual minutes getting a last look at something closely associated with my earliest memories—a picture, a library table, an 1895 Farmer’s Almanack, a small music-box I used to play with at 2½, or some kindred symbol—completing a psychological circle in a spirit half of humour & half of whimsical sentimentality. Then—nothingness, as before Aug. 20, 1890.[8]

  July 28 saw the arrival of no less important a guest than R. H. Barlow, who was forced to leave his Florida home because of family disruptions that ultimately sent him to live with relatives in Leavenworth, Kansas. Barlow stayed more than a month in Providence, taking up quarters at the boarding-house behind 66 College and not leaving until September 1. During this time he was quite unremitting in his demands on Lovecraft’s time, but the latter felt obliged to humour him in light of the superabundant hospitality he himself had received in Florida in 1934 and 1935:

  Ædepol! The kid took a room at the boarding-house across the garden, but despite this degree of independence was a constant responsibility. He must be shewn to this or that museum or bookstall . . . he must discuss some new fantasy or chapter in his future monumental novel . . . & so on, & so on. What could an old man do—especially since Bobby was such a generous & assiduous host himself last year & the year before?[9]

  In fairness to Barlow, this letter was written to a revision client who was demanding work on which Lovecraft was very late, so that perhaps he was merely making excuses; there is every reason to believe that he was delighted with Barlow’s company and was glad of the visit. To Elizabeth Toldridge—whom Barlow had visited frequently when in Washington some months earlier attending art classes at the Corcoran Gallery—Lovecraft declared, “I was so glad to see him that I forgave him the fierce moustache & side-whiskers!”[10] It was at this time that Lovecraft and Barlow discovered that they were sixth cousins—having a common ancestry in John Rathbone or Rathbun (b. 1658).

  Still another visitor descended upon Providence on August 5—the redoubtable Adolphe de Castro, who had just been to Boston to scatter his wife’s ashes in the sea. By now a broken man—in his seventies, with no money, and his beloved wife dead—de Castro was still trying to foist various unrealistic projects upon Lovecraft. Two years previous he had pleaded with Lovecraft to work on a collection of miscellaneous historical and political essays entitled The New Way, in one essay of which he purported to have discovered the “true” facts about the parents of Jesus—derived from “Germanic [sic] and Semitic sources.” Lovecraft, in looking over this piece, found elementary errors in the sections dealing with Roman history, so was naturally sceptical about the rest; in any case, he felt unable to conduct any revision on the work except over a very long period of time—a tactful way of telling de Castro that he really did not want to work on the thing at all. De Castro, however, did not get the message and sent the manuscript to Lovecraft anyway in November 1934; Lovecraft returned it to him in the summer of 1935, saying that he would look it over only after a first reviser had done a major overhauling of its factual basis. Whether as a joke or not, Lovecraft suggested that de Castro consider publishing the chapters on Jesus as historical fiction rather than as a work of scholarship.

  All this was forgotten, however, when de Castro came to Providence. Trying to cheer the old boy up, Lovecraft and Barlow took him on August 8 to St John’s Churchyard in Benefit Street, where the spectral atmosphere—and the fact that Poe had been there courting Sarah Helen Whitman ninety years before—impelled the three men to write acrostic “sonnets” on the name Edgar Allan Poe. (These were, of course, one line shorter than an actual sonnet.) The full title of Lovecraft’s is “In a Sequester’d Providence Churchyard Where Once Poe Walk’d”; Barlow’s is titled “St. John’s Churchyard”; de Castro’s, merely “Edgar Allan Poe.” Of these three Barlow’s may well be the best. But de Castro—whose poem is rather flat and sentimental—was the canniest of the bunch, for he later revised his poem and submitted it to Weird Tales, where it was quickly accepted, appearing in the May 1937 issue. When Lovecraft and Barlow learnt this, they too submitted their poems—but Farnsworth Wright wanted to use only one. Lovecraft and Barlow were forced to dump their pieces on the fan magazines—specifically the Science-Fantasy Correspondent, where they appeared in the March–April 1937 issue.

  News of the poetical escapade spread quickly among Lovecraft’s colleagues, and Maurice W. Moe not only composed his own sonnet (not especially distinguished) but duplicated all four in a hectographed booklet for his classes, under the title Four Acrostic Sonnets on Edgar Allan Poe (1936). August Derleth saw this item and decided to reprint Moe’s poem in the anthology he was co-editing with Raymond E. F. Larsson, Poetry out of Wisconsin (1937). Still later, toward the end of the year, Henry Kuttner added his own piece—which is easily the best of the lot. Unfortunately, it remained unpublished for many years.[11]

  De Castro left shortly after the churchyard visit. Barlow hung around for another three weeks, and he and Lovecraft visited Newport on the 15th and Salem and Marble
head on the 20th (Lovecraft’s forty-sixth birthday). On the way up they picked up Kenneth Sterling, who was staying in Lynn recovering from an operation prior to his entry into Harvard that fall.

  Another literary project on which Lovecraft and Barlow probably worked during his stay in Providence was “The Night Ocean.” We are now able to gauge the precise degree of Lovecraft’s contribution to this tale, as Barlow’s typescript, with Lovecraft’s revisions, has now surfaced. Prior to this discovery, all we had to go on were various remarks in letters and certain other documents. Lovecraft told Hyman Bradofsky (who published the tale in the Winter 1936 issue of the Californian) that he “ripped the text to pieces in spots”;[12] but in a letter to Duane W. Rimel upon appearance of the work, he waxed eloquent about its merits: “The kid is coming along—indeed, the N.O. is one of the most truly artistic weird tales I’ve ever read.”[13] It would be uncharacteristic of Lovecraft so to praise a story in which he had had a very large hand; and sure enough, Lovecraft’s contribution probably amounts to no more than 10%. He was in any event correct that Barlow had been “coming along,” as the latter’s “A Dim-Remembered Story” (Californian, Summer 1936) is a superbly crafted tale but one that does not seem to bear any revisory hand by Lovecraft at all. The story is in fact dedicated to Lovecraft, and each of its four sections is prefaced by a half-line of the celebrated Necronomicon couplet, “That is not dead which can eternal lie, / But with strange aeons even death may die”; but otherwise it bears little stylistic or conceptual similarity to Lovecraft’s work. Lovecraft waxed enthusiastic about it when he read it: “Holy Yuggoth, but it’s a masterpiece! Magnificent stuff—will bear comparison to the best of C A S! Splendid rhythm, poetic imagery, emotional modulations, & atmospheric power. Tsathoggua! But literature is certainly your forte, say what you will! . . . You’ve rung the bell this time! All the cosmic sweep of Wandrei’s early work—& infinitely more substance. Keep it up!”[14] Indeed, it is possible that Lovecraft was commenting not on a manuscript but upon the printed version, which would conclusively militate against Lovecraft’s revisory hand in the tale. Even though Lovecraft urged Barlow to send the story to Farnsworth Wright, he went on to add, “Previous amateur appearance is no barrier to W T publication,” as if the tale had already been scheduled for publication in the Californian or had in fact already appeared there. Barlow does not appear to have submitted the story to Weird Tales. Lovecraft repeated his praise for it in a “Literary Review” that appeared in the very same issue of the Californian as “The Night Ocean” itself.

  It is difficult to deny that “The Night Ocean” is one of the most pensively atmospheric tales produced by anyone in the Lovecraft circle. It comes very close—closer, perhaps, than any of Lovecraft’s own works with the exception of “The Colour out of Space”—to capturing the essential spirit of the weird tale, as he wrote of some of Blackwood’s works in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: “Here art and restraint in narrative reach their very highest development, and an impression of lasting poignancy is produced without a single strained passage or a single false note. . . . Plot is everywhere negligible, and atmosphere reigns untrammelled.” The plot of the story—an artist occupies a remote seaside bungalow for a vacation and senses strange but nebulous presences on the beach or in the ocean—is indeed negligible, but the artistry is in the telling: the avoidance of explicitness—one of the besetting sins of Lovecraft’s later works—is the great virtue of the tale, and at the end all the narrator can conclude is that

  . . . a strangeness . . . had surged up like an evil brew within a pot, had mounted to the very rim in a breathless moment, had paused uncertainly there, and had subsided, taking with it whatever unknown message it had borne. . . . I had come frighteningly near to the capture of an old secret which ventured close to man’s haunts and lurked cautiously just beyond the edge of the known. Yet in the end I had nothing.

  “The Night Ocean” is a richly interpretable story that produces new insights and pleasures upon each rereading. It is the last surviving piece of fiction on which Lovecraft is known to have worked.

  James F. Morton visited Lovecraft in Providence on September 11–13, and Robert Moe stopped by on September 19–20, although he was now coming chiefly to court Eunice French (1915–1949), a philosophy student at Brown. A surviving photograph of Lovecraft and French must have been taken at this time, presumably by Moe.

  The revision client to whom Lovecraft made his mock-complaint about Barlow was his old amateur colleague Anne Tillery Renshaw, who had gone from being a professor to running her own school, The Renshaw School of Speech, in Washington, D.C. In early 1936 she made Lovecraft a proposal: she wished him to revise and edit a booklet she was writing entitled Well Bred Speech, designed for her adult education classes. Lovecraft was, of course, entirely willing to work on the project, not only because it would be intrinsically interesting but because it would presumably bring in revenue at a time when revision work was apparently lean and sporadic.

  Lovecraft received at least a partial draft of the text by mid-February and came to realise that “the job is somewhat ampler than I had expected—involving the furnishing of original elements as well as the revision of a specific text”; but—in spite of his aunt’s illness at this time—he was willing to undertake the task if he received clear instructions on how much expansion he should do. He breezily added, “Rates can be discussed later—I fancy that any figure you would quote (with current precedent in mind) would be satisfactory.”[15] Later, after all the work was finished, he felt that Renshaw would be a cheapskate if she paid him anything less than $200. In the end, he received only $100, but this seems to have been his own fault, since his own final price was $150, which he reduced to $100 because of his tardiness.[16]

  Renshaw responded to Lovecraft’s initial queries on February 28, but—because of Annie’s hospital stay and the attendant congestion of his schedule—he did not reply until March 30. By this time, however, he had done work on chapters 2 (Fifty Common Errors) and 4 (Terms Which Should Own a Place in Your Conversation); all the revisions he had made were done from resources of his own personal library, since he had no time to go to the public library. Hitherto Lovecraft had merely corrected an existing text by Renshaw; now he realised that it was time for original work to begin, and he again wished specific instructions on how much of this work—particularly on bromides, words frequently mispronounced, and a reading guide—he should do. Indeed, he held out a slim hope that Renshaw, irritated at his dilatoriness, might relieve him of his duties and dump the book on someone else, like Maurice W. Moe.

  Renshaw disillusioned Lovecraft on that last point: in her response on April 6, she clarified her intentions and set a deadline of May 1 for the entire project. This would, presumably, allow the book to be printed in time for the opening of the fall semester. Lovecraft, however, was still engulfed in attending to Annie, coming to terms with the Astounding debacle, absorbing the death of Robert E. Howard, dealing with the NAPA contretemps, and receiving his various guests of the late summer and fall. As a result, he did not reply to Renshaw until September 19, and then only after a letter from her on September 15 made such a reply mandatory. Lovecraft had, indeed, been doing work piecemeal on the text in August, during Barlow’s stay: “Well—I did a lot of work in the small hours after the kid had retired to his trans-hortense cubicle (& then he thought it funny that Grandpa didn’t get up till noon!), but what headway could such stolen snatches make against a schedule-congestion which had things already half shot to hades?”[17] But this was clearly inadequate: faced with a new deadline of October 1, Lovecraft worked for sixty hours without a break on or around the time he wrote this letter.

  Much of both Renshaw’s and Lovecraft’s work on Well Bred Speech survives in manuscript and allows us to gauge precisely how much each contributed to most parts of the text. It should be said at the outset that the book overall is not exactly a work of towering scholarship; but without Lovecraft’s assistance it would h
ave been totally hopeless. Renshaw may or may not have been an able teacher (her specialty, it appears, was elocution as opposed to grammar or literature); but as a writer she falls considerably below the level one can reasonably expect even for an instructor of adult education courses. It is true that the work’s purpose is relatively humble; and Lovecraft’s assessment of it, and of Renshaw, was quite charitable, as when he wrote to another colleague who had expressed amusement that an English professor would need help on a book on English usage: “A teacher may know the elements of correct speech, yet lack altogether the ability to formulate the material in a neat & effective fashion. Using good phraseology & organising a treatise are two different matters. In this case the author’s lack of time is the main factor.”[18] This is, as we shall see, a very charitable assessment indeed.

  The contents of the finished book is as follows:

  I. The Background of Speech [history of human language]

  II. Fifty Common Errors [errors of grammar and syntax]

  III. Words Frequently Mispronounced

  IV. Terms Which Should Own a Place in Your Conversation

  V. Increasing Your Vocabulary

  VI. Bromides Must Go [on clichés]

  VII. Tone Training [on elucution]

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