I am providence the life.., p.149

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 149


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

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VIII. Conversational Approaches

  IX. Speech in Social Usage

  X. What Shall I Read?

  The first thing Lovecraft had to do was to put the work in order, since Renshaw’s draft was very much out of sequence and did not progress logically. Then there was the question of amplification: although Lovecraft admitted that he was given carte blanche by Renshaw for additions, he wished to be entirely clear on the matter before undertaking significant work. As it happens, much of his work turned out to be for naught.

  Chapter I is an extraordinarily brief account—all of two and a half printed pages—on the development of the language faculty in human beings. Lovecraft clearly wrote a good portion of it (no manuscript of it survives); indeed, it seems to embody much of what Lovecraft had written to Renshaw in his letters of February 24 and March 30, when he successfully persuaded her to give up the notions that language was a “divine revelation” to humans and that the English language has its origins in Hebrew!

  Chapter II (also non-extant in manuscript) seems largely by Renshaw, although some of the examples of erroneous usage (e.g., “Mr. Black is an alumni of Brown University”) are probably by Lovecraft; some of them repeat the strictures found in his old piece on “Literary Composition” (1920).

  Chapter III survives in manuscript, and it can be seen that Lovecraft has written nearly the whole of it. His list of mispronounced words at the end of the chapter is a little truncated in the published version, and his very long list of words with more than one acceptable pronunciation has been excised altogether.

  Chapter IV, in the printed text, follows a typescript prepared by Renshaw and somewhat revised by Lovecraft. The bulk of the chapter is a list of terms—chiefly drawn from history, literature, and economics—and their definitions and connotations; some are largely or entirely by Lovecraft.

  Chapter V similarly follows a text initially written by Renshaw and exhaustively revised and augmented (especially at the end) by Lovecraft.

  Chapter VI is also a text initially written by Renshaw, but Lovecraft has made so many additions that it is now largely his. The manuscript lists an enormous number of bromides, but this has been radically cut down in the published version. Renshaw had, indeed, asked for only fifty specimens;[19] Lovecraft has supplied nearly six times as many. Incredibly, he asked for this list to be returned to him (as it evidently was) for future use of his own!

  Chapter VII, VIII, and IX are ones in which Lovecraft admitted to having little or no expertise (or interest), so presumably (the manuscript does not survive for any of these chapters) he only polished up an existing text by Renshaw. Random portions do, however, bear traces of his style.

  Chapter X, whose manuscript is extant, is the most interesting—and unfortunate. In the published version, the first two paragraphs of the text are by Renshaw (slightly revised by Lovecraft), while the rest of the text—sixteen printed pages—is by Lovecraft. This does not, however, tell the whole story; for he had written a chapter some two or three times as long (it has been published posthumously as “Suggestions for a Reading Guide”), but Renshaw—perhaps concerned about space or about some seemingly technical parts of this section or about its possible disproportion in relation to the rest of the work—has essentially gutted it and made it vastly less useful than it could have been. I wish to discuss this chapter in detail before commenting on some features in the previous ones.

  We have seen that Lovecraft here supplies his fairly conservative opinions on modern literature, and that he had certainly not read all the works he mentions. In fact, however, “Suggestions for a Reading Guide” is a comprehensive—and on the whole quite sound—reading list of the highlights of world literature from antiquity to the present as well as the most up-to-date works in all the sciences and arts. It would have been an exceptionally useful pedagogical tool for its day if it had appeared intact.

  Renshaw has preserved a good deal of Lovecraft’s recommendations of classical literature, although she reduces Lovecraft’s citation of the four great Greek playwrights (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes) to only Aeschylus. About half of Lovecraft’s paragraph on mediaeval literature is preserved, but his discussion of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur and (much to his chagrin, no doubt) the Arabian Nights is omitted. The paragraph on Renaissance literature is reduced to Lovecraft’s discussions of Shakespeare, Bacon, and Spenser. Almost the whole of his paragraph on seventeenth-century literature is excised, except for a reduced section on Milton; and Renshaw has so bumblingly edited this passage that Milton’s name never gets mentioned.

  For eighteenth-century literature, Renshaw keeps Lovecraft’s discussion of the English novel and English poetry but drops his recommendations on the English essayists (who were, of course, his favourites of this period). The paragraph on nineteenth-century English literature is preserved largely intact, but incredibly Renshaw drops Lovecraft’s entire discussion of French literature of this period—and we have already seen how high he ranked Balzac as a novelist. Scandinavian and Russian literature of the nineteenth century survives more or less whole.

  Lovecraft’s discussion of the twentieth century does not fare so well. While preserving most of his mentions of British writers, she cuts out the passage on Irish literature—including the mention of Yeats as the “greatest living poet” and the citation of Dunsany as well as of Joyce. The entire discussion of the American novel is dropped, and only Lovecraft’s mentions of the leading American poets is preserved. Lovecraft should, I suppose, have predicted that Renshaw would cut most of his discussion of “lighter” literature, including an entire half-paragraph on weird and detective fiction.

  The greatest disfigurement is in Lovecraft’s subsequent recommendations—on dictionaries, literary histories, literary criticism, language, history, and the sciences. This last section—covering mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, geography, biology, zoology, human anatomy and physiology, psychology, anthropology, economics, political science, and education—is all gone. Renshaw keeps only a small bit of Lovecraft’s discussion of philosophy (including only his recommendation of Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy), and drops his discussion of works on ethics, aesthetics, the various arts (including music), and technology. Lovecraft’s concluding remarks are also highly truncated.

  Although “Suggestions for a Reading Guide” does contain recommendations of a fair number of titles from Lovecraft’s own library, he did do considerable work at the public library to find the soundest and most up-to-date works on some of the technical subjects. It is, indeed, of some interest to trace some autobiographical connexions in this section—some insignificant, some perhaps less so. Among the music books Lovecraft mentions is “Isaacson’s Face to Face with the Great Musicians”—a work by none other than his old amateur foe Charles D. Isaacson, who had gone on to write a number of popular works on music. He cannot help ridiculing Carlyle, whom he quite correctly characterises as “having a choppy, artificial style suggestive of the modern news-magazine Time.” He is obliged to speak kindly of the hated Dickens, but recommends only David Copperfield. But perhaps the most charming autobiographical allusion is a passage toward the end on how the impecunious reader may go about assembling a book collection:

  Acquire as many books of the right sort as you can afford to house, for ownership means easy and repeated access and permanent usefulness. Don’t be a foppish hoarder of fine bindings and first editions. Get books for what’s in them, and be glad enough of that. Marvellous bargains can be found on the dime counters of second-hand shops, and a really good library can be picked up at surprisingly little cost. The one great trouble is housing when one’s quarters are limited; though by using many small bookcases—cheap sets of open shelves—in odd corners one can stow away a gratifying number of volumes.

  As for the rest of the book, Lovecraft has received considerable criticism for being outdated in some of his recommendations, especially in regard to pronunciation; but it is not at all clear that he deserves such
censure. On page 22 of the published book, he records four preferred pronunciations: con-cen´trate to con´cen-trate; ab-do´-men to ab´-do-men; ensign to ensin; and profeel to profyle. The Oxford English Dictionary of 1933 supports Lovecraft on the last three of these. It is possible that American usage had changed in regard to these words, as well as on the other ones on the enormous list that was not used; but Lovecraft is by no means as antiquated as he has been accused of being.

  Nevertheless, Well Bred Speech cannot possibly be called a work of any great merit; and it is something one wishes Lovecraft had not spent such back-breaking effort working on at this time. Lovecraft read the proofs of the book later in the year, and—although it bears a copyright date of 1936—it is not clear that it actually came out before the end of the year. But it was presumably available for the beginning of the second semester of Renshaw’s school. In 1937 Renshaw published another book, Salvaging Self-Esteem: A Program for Self-Improvement. Since it found its way into Lovecraft’s library, it was presumably published sometime in the spring. There is, mercifully, no evidence that Lovecraft worked on this item.

  “Suggestions for a Reading Guide” was finally published in 1966. The first two paragraphs—basically by Renshaw, with light editing by Lovecraft—had also been previously revised by R. H. Barlow. The title was probably supplied either by Barlow or August Derleth.

  In his final year Lovecraft continued to attract new—and mostly young—correspondents who, unaware of his increasing ill health, were thrilled to receive actual letters from this giant of weird fiction. Most of them continued to reach him through Weird Tales, but several got in touch through the increasingly complex network of the science fiction and fantasy fan circuit.

  Among the most promising of these was Henry Kuttner (1915–1958). A friend of Robert Bloch’s, he had published only a single poem in Weird Tales (“Ballad of the Gods” in February 1936) before writing to Lovecraft early in 1936. Lovecraft later confessed that several colleagues thought that he had either ghostwritten or extensively revised Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats” (Weird Tales, March 1936),[20] but this story had already been accepted before Lovecraft heard from Kuttner. It is, in fact, difficult to believe how anyone could have mistaken this story for Lovecraft’s: although an entertaining (if not very plausible) tale of grue involving the caretaker of a cemetery who is despatched by the huge rats that burrow into coffins and remove the mortal remains, its only conceivable connexions with Lovecraft are its setting (Salem) and its very dim echoes of “The Rats in the Walls”; the style is not even very Lovecraftian.

  Kuttner had, however, by this time already written a tale whose first draft—rejected by Weird Tales—may have been consciously Lovecraftian. In his second letter to Kuttner, on March 12, Lovecraft offered a lengthy criticism of “The Salem Horror”; and it is clear that Kuttner made major changes in the story based upon these comments. What is uncertain, however, is whether the first draft had been as consciously Lovecraftian—or, rather, had contained a “new” mythical god, Nyogtha, and a quotation from the Necronomicon in which the attributes of this god are specified—as it now stands. Nothing in Lovecraft’s letter would lead one to think so, although a comment in his previous letter, in reference to various stories by Kuttner that Lovecraft had not yet seen—“I appreciate the compliment implied in the use of some of my settings & dramatic entities”[21]—suggests that perhaps some allusions already were present in the initial draft.

  Kuttner’s geographical, historical, and architectural knowledge of Salem was all wrong, and Lovecraft set about correcting it; his letter is full of drawings of representative Salem houses, a map of the city, and even sketches of various types of headstones found in the older cemeteries. Lovecraft remarks that “Derby St. is a slum inhabited by Polish immigrants,”[22] and Kuttner has indeed set the final version of “The Salem Horror” in Derby St. Other parts of Lovecraft’s letter suggest that significant overhauling to the basic plot and incidents of the story were also done, since Lovecraft felt (as he had done with some of Bloch’s early tales) that the story was “a little vaguely motivated.”[23]

  Lovecraft’s letters to Kuttner predictably discuss almost nothing but weird fiction, but one small detail proved to be of great moment in the subsequent history of weird, fantasy, and science fiction. In May he casually asked Kuttner to pass on some photographs of Salem and Marblehead to C. L. Moore once Kuttner himself had finished with them;[24] and it was in this casual way that Moore and Kuttner became acquainted. Marrying in 1940, the couple went on to write some of the most distinguished work of the “Golden Age” of science fiction. It is now nearly hopeless to untangle the novels and tales that may have been written predominantly by Moore and those written largely by Kuttner; they collaborated on nearly every work of fiction until Kuttner’s death in 1958. Indeed, in his very last letter to Kuttner, written in February 1937, Lovecraft already commented that Kuttner and Moore were collaborating on some unspecified “dual masterpiece.”[25] However the authorship of their works is apportioned, such works as “Judgment Night” (1943), Earth’s Last Citadel (1943), and “Vintage Season” (1946) well fulfil the high expectations Lovecraft had for both his younger colleagues.

  One of the most distinctive of Lovecraft’s late associates—not so much for what he accomplished at the time as for what he did later—was Willis Conover, Jr (1920–1996). In the spring of 1936, as a fifteen-year-old boy living in the small town of Cambridge, Maryland, Conover had conceived the idea of a Junior Science-Fiction Correspondence Club, where like-minded fans from all over the country would write letters to each other; this idea metamorphosed quickly into a magazine, the Science-Fantasy Correspondent, on which Conover began actively working in the summer. In addition to publishing the work of fans, Conover wished to lend prestige to his magazine by soliciting minor pieces from professionals. He could not, of course, pay anything: he and his printer, Corwin F. Stickney of Belleville, New Jersey, could scarcely afford the printing bills for each issue. Still, Conover had ambitious plans, and he wrote letters to August Derleth, E. Hoffmann Price, and many other leading writers in the field—including, in July 1936, Lovecraft.

  In a brief but cordial response on July 9, Lovecraft wished Conover well in his venture and, although having no prose contribution available (that is, no unpublished story short enough for inclusion in a fan magazine), did send him the poem “Homecoming” (sonnet V of Fungi from Yuggoth); later Lovecraft discovered to his dismay that this sonnet, which he thought unpublished, had actually appeared in the January 1935 Fantasy Fan.

  A more significant development occurred in late August, when Conover expressed regret that the Fantasy Fan serialisation of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” had ended so abruptly. It was Lovecraft who casually suggested that Conover continue the serialisation in his own magazine from the point where it had left off (the middle of chapter eight), and Conover jumped at this idea. This item could not be accommodated in the first issue of the Science-Fantasy Correspondent (November–December 1936), but by September Lovecraft had already sent Conover the same annotated copy of the Recluse (with additions written on separate sheets) that he had lent (and received back) from Hornig.

  In early December Conover asked Lovecraft to prepare a “short summary” of the first eight chapters of “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” for the benefit of those readers who had not seen the earlier appearances. Lovecraft agreed, but was unclear what Conover meant by “short”; in any event, as he began preparing the summary, he found it difficult to condense those eight chapters (about 18,000 words) into a compass that would convey any meaning. In the end, he wrote a 2500-word summary that ably abstracts the essence of this very dense essay. One actual addition is highly amusing: in speaking of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Lovecraft berated its “brisk, cheerful style (like much of the pulp magazine ‘weird’ fiction of today)”—a slam at the pulps that Lovecraft had elaborated at great length in late letters to E. Hoffmann Price, August Derleth, C. L
. Moore, and many others.

  Shortly after this time, however, Conover took over Julius Schwartz’s Fantasy Magazine, since Schwartz wished to abandon fan editing to become a full-time agent in the science fiction field. Conover then decided to reprint “Supernatural Horror in Literature” from the beginning. The second issue of the Science-Fantasy Correspondent was dated January–February 1937, but did not contain any segment of the essay; Conover had, however, typed out the whole of it and sent it to Lovecraft, who managed to correct at least the first half of it by mid-February 1937, after which he became too ill to do any further work. No more issues of Conover’s magazine appeared, however; some of the material was later transferred to Stickney’s Amateur Correspondent (including what is apparently the best of three separate manuscript versions of “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction”), but Conover lost interest in the field at about this time—perhaps, indeed, as a direct consequence of Lovecraft’s death.

  We know so much about the relationship between Conover and Lovecraft—which is, in all frankness, a fairly minor one in the totality of Lovecraft’s life, although clearly it was significant to Conover—not only because Lovecraft’s letters to him survive, but because of the volume Conover published in 1975 entitled Lovecraft at Last. This book is not only one of the finest examples of modern book design, but a poignant, even wrenching testimonial to the friendship between a middle-aged—and dying—man and a young boy who idolised him. Although the two never met, the correspondence was warm from the beginning. Some of it is a trifle silly, as Lovecraft indulged Conover in some of his juvenile tastes: he patiently answered Conover’s inane questions regarding some figures in Lovecraft’s invented pantheon (“Incidentally, how is your stooge Yog-Sothoth? And where do you keep him at night?”[26]) and claimed that he would soberly cite Conover’s mythical book Ghorl Nigral in a story (he thankfully never did so, chiefly because he did not write any original stories in the last six months of his life). No doubt Lovecraft was remembering his own enthusiasm as a boy reading the Argosy and All-Story, and he did recognise in Conover an unusual level of competence (he praised the Science-Fantasy Correspondent for its near-total lack of typographical errors) and diligence.

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