I am providence the life.., p.16

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 16


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

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  Then the servants began to depart. Twenty years later Lovecraft still remembered their names: Norah, Delia, Svea, Jennie, Bridget, and Delilah.[52] These are six, so perhaps some had been replaced by others. Delilah (who at a later date worked for Lovecraft’s aunt Lillian) was black. Lovecraft claims that Bridget Mullaney (presumably an Irishwoman) was the last servant to go;[53] the U.S. census for 1900, however, lists only one live-in servant at 454 Angell Street, Maggie Corcoran. Lovecraft makes clear that the financial decline well predated Whipple’s death:

  Money as a definite conception was wholly absent from my horizon. Rather was I a simple, unplaced entity like the carefree figures moving through the Hellenick myths. But actual decline did set in when I was about ten years old; so that I saw a steady dropping of servants, horses, and other adjuncts of domestick management. Even before my grandfather’s death a sense of peril and falling-off was strong within me, so that I felt a kinship to Poe’s gloomy heroes with their broken fortunes.[54]

  To compound the tragedy, Lovecraft’s beloved black cat, Nigger-Man, disappeared sometime in 1904. This was the only pet Lovecraft ever owned in his life, in spite of his almost idolatrous adoration of the felidae. Its name, it need hardly be pointed out, was not regarded as offensive at the time—or at least not as offensive as it would be now. It is not clear when Lovecraft was first given this pet; conceivably he could have received it as early as when he and his mother moved back to 454 Angell Street in 1893. Late in life he rhapsodised about the creature:

  What a boy he was! I watched him grow from a tiny black handful to one of the most fascinating & understanding creatures I’ve ever seen. He used to talk in a genuine language of varied intonation—a special tone for every different meaning. There was even a special “prrr’p” for the smell of roast chestnuts, on which he doted. He used to play ball with me—kicking a large rubber sphere back at me from half across the room with all four feet as he lay on the floor. And on summer evenings in the twilight he would prove his kinship to the elfin things of shadow by racing across the lawn on nameless errands, darting into the blackness of the shrubbery now & then, & occasionally leaping at me from ambush & then bounding away again into invisibility before I could catch him.[55]

  Nigger-Man’s loss perhaps symbolised the loss of his birthplace as no other event could.

  To see exactly what an impact the death of his grandfather, the loss of the family fortune (whatever of it was left by this time—Whipple had left an estate only valued at $25,000, of which $5000 went to Susie and $2500 to Lovecraft[56]), and the move from his birthplace had on the thirteen-year-old boy, we must read a remarkable letter of 1934:

  . . . for the first time I knew what a congested, servantless home—with another family in the same house—was. . . . I felt that I had lost my entire adjustment to the cosmos—for what indeed was HPL without the remembered rooms & hallways & hangings & staircases & statuary & paintings . . . & yard & walks & cherry-trees & fountain & ivy-grown arch & stable & gardens & all the rest? How could an old man of 14 (& I surely felt that way!) readjust his existence to a skimpy flat & new household programme & inferior outdoor setting in which almost nothing familiar remained? It seemed like a damned futile business to keep on living. No more tutors—high school next September which would probably be a devilish bore, since one couldn’t be as free & easy in high school as one had been during brief snatches at the neighbourly Slater Ave. school. . . . Oh, hell! Why not slough off consciousness altogether?

  Was Lovecraft actually contemplating suicide? It certainly seems so—and, incidentally, this seems virtually the only time in Lovecraft’s entire life (idle speculation by later critics notwithstanding) when he seriously thought of self-extinction. His letter goes on to state, with a certain wry relish, that “the method was the only trouble”: poisons were hard to get, bullets were messy and unreliable, hanging was disgraceful, daggers were tricky, falls from a cliff were completely out of the question in view of the “probable state of the remains,” and so on and so on. Then he thought of the Barrington River—far to the east of Providence, on the border between Rhode Island and Massachusetts—and went riding there on his bicycle frequently in the summer of 1904, pondering its weed-grown depths and wondering what it might be like to rest placidly at its bottom. What stopped him? Let us read on:

  And yet certain elements—notably scientific curiosity & a sense of world drama—held me back. Much in the universe baffled me, yet I knew I could pry the answers out of books if I lived & studied longer. Geology, for example. Just how did these ancient sediments & stratifications get crystallised & upheaved into granite peaks? Geography—just what would Scott & Shackleton & Borchgrevink find in the great white antarctic on their next expeditions . . . which I could—if I wished—live to see described? And as to history—as I contemplated an exit without further knowledge I became uncomfortably conscious of what I didn’t know. Tantalising gaps existed everywhere. When did people stop speaking Latin & begin to talk Italian & Spanish & French? What on earth ever happened in the black Middle Ages in those parts of the world other than Britain & France (whose story I knew)? What of the vast gulfs of space outside all familiar lands—desert reaches hinted of by Sir John Mandeville & Marco Polo . . . Tartary, Thibet . . . What of unknown Africa?[57]

  This is a defining moment in the life of H. P. Lovecraft. How prototypical that it was not family ties, religious beliefs, or even—so far as the evidence of the above letter indicates—the urge to write that kept him from suicide, but scientific curiosity. Lovecraft may never have finished high school, may never have attained a degree from Brown University, and may have been eternally ashamed of his lack of formal schooling; but he was one of the most prodigious autodidacts in modern history, and he continued not merely to add to his store of knowledge to the end of his life but to revise his world view in light of that knowledge. This, perhaps, is what we ought most to admire about him.

  In the short term the dreaded commencement of high school proved—to both Lovecraft’s and his family’s surprise—a delight. Hope Street English and Classical High School, at the corner of Hope and Olney Streets (the building, opened in 1898, was on the southeast corner; the present building, on the southwest corner, was opened in 1938), was a good mile from Lovecraft’s 598 Angell Street home, but there was no closer public high school to which he could have gone. I suspect that Lovecraft rode his bicycle most of the time—he reports that the period 1900–1913 was the heyday of his bicycle-riding[58]—perhaps skirting the large property housing the Dexter Asylum (a home for the indigent), which obtruded along his path. (This area is now the Aldrich-Dexter Field, owned by the athletic department of Brown University; Dexter Asylum was torn down long ago.) The trip was not insignificant, as is perhaps reflected in the fair number of times during his first term of 1904–05 that Lovecraft reported late (seventeen times in four quarters); his twenty-seven absences are no doubt the result of his always precarious nervous condition. But Lovecraft on the whole had a very nice time:

  Knowing of my ungovernable temperament, & of my lawless conduct at Slater Avenue, most of my friends (if friends they may be called) predicted disaster for me, when my will should conflict with the authority of Hope Street’s masculine teachers. But a disappointment of the happier sort occurred. The Hope Street preceptors quickly understood my disposition as “Abbie” [i.e., Abbie Hathaway, his teacher at the Slater Avenue School] never understood it; & by removing all restraint, made me apparently their comrade & equal; so that I ceased to think of discipline, but merely comported myself as a gentleman among gentlemen.[59]

  Since there are no independent accounts of Lovecraft’s high school years, we have to accept this statement at face value.

  Things were not always entirely harmonious between Lovecraft and his teachers, however. He notes several occasions in which he had various academic disputes: one professor did not like Lovecraft’s method in solving algebraic problems, even though the solutions were correct; another doubted
Lovecraft’s assertion that there were two native races of Europe, Caucasian and Mongolian, until Lovecraft reminded him that the Lapps were Mongol. But the most celebrated encounter was with a “fat old lady English teacher” named Mrs Blake. Let Lovecraft tell it in his inimitable way:

  I had handed in a theme entitled “Can the Moon Be Reached by Man”? And something about it (gawd knows what) led her to question its originality. She said it sounded like a magazine article. Well—chance was with me that day, for I had the ammunition to stage a peach of a tableau. Did I deny the magazine-article charge? Not so! Instead, I calmly informed the lady that the theme was indeed a verbatim parallel of an article which had appeared in a rural weekly only a few days before. I felt sure, I said, that no one could possibly object to the parallelism! Indeed, I added—as the good soul’s bewilderment became almost apoplectic—I would be glad to show her the printed article in question! Then, reaching in my pocket, I produced a badly printed cutting from a Rhode Island village paper (which would accept almost anything sent to it). Sure enough—here was the selfsame article. And mixed were the emotions of the honest Mrs. Blake when she perused the heading—CAN THE MOON BE REACHED BY MAN? BY H. P. LOVECRAFT.[60]

  This, of course, was an article he had published in the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner for October 12, 1906. Once again, as in several of his Slater Avenue antics, Lovecraft comes off as a show-off and smart-aleck, and it is perhaps not surprising that his teachers—unsuccessfully, at least as he recounts it—attempted now and again to put him in his place.

  It is worth studying in detail what courses Lovecraft actually took during his three years at Hope Street. His transcript fortunately survives, and it is full of interesting and suggestive information. The school year lasted for 39 weeks, and most of the courses Lovecraft took covered an entire year; occasionally he took courses lasting only one term, either 19 or 20 weeks. (In the following enumeration, classes are for 39 weeks save where listed.) Numerical grades were issued; an 80 represented a Certificate grade, 70 a passing grade. During the 1904–05 year, Lovecraft took Elementary Algebra, Botany, English, Ancient History, and Latin. These are the grades Lovecraft received:

  Elementary Algebra 74

  Botany 85

  English 77

  Ancient History 82

  Latin 87

  There is not much that is unusual here, except the surprisingly low grade Lovecraft received in English. Lovecraft was absent 18 days and tardy 17 days during this year.

  Lovecraft returned to Hope High in September 1905, but his transcript states that he left on November 7 of that year, not returning until September 10, 1906 (presumably the beginning of the 1906–07 school year). This is no doubt the period of his “near-breakdown” of 1906. There is not much evidence as to the nature of this illness. The final page of the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy for November 12, 1905, declares: “The stress of events has delayed the R.I. JOURNAL for 11 days, it being published on NOV. 23, 1905 instead of NOV. 12, 1905. The next issue we hope to have out promptly on DEC. 3, 1905.” No such issue evidently appeared, and the next one we have is dated January 1906. But the magazine continues regularly on a monthly schedule until January 1907, and is in fact rather more sizeable and substantial than the previous weekly issues. It is surely peculiar that Lovecraft does not admit to a “near-breakdown” in 1904, when he faced the trauma of Whipple Phillips’s death and the move from 454 Angell Street; the 1906 breakdown does not appear to have been as serious as its two predecessors (1898 and 1900), even if it did mean his withdrawal from high school for nearly a year.

  When Lovecraft returned for the 1906–07 school year he received the following grades:

  Intermediate Algebra (20 weeks) 75

  Drawing (19 weeks) 85

  English (19 weeks) 90

  Plane Geometry 92

  Greek Texts (19 weeks) 85

  Latin Grammar (19 weeks) 85

  Latin Texts (20 weeks) 85

  Physics 95

  The ominous thing here is the continuing low marks for algebra, for which more below. For all Lovecraft’s later laments on his inability to draw, his marks in drawing were respectable. High marks in physics were also to be expected, and he is now also applying himself more in English. He is recorded as being absent 6 days and tardy 25 days during the first term, the only period for which such information is available.

  In his final year at Hope High (1907–08) Lovecraft took only the following:

  Intermediate Algebra (10 weeks) 85

  Chemistry 95

  Physics 95

  Here the interesting thing is his retaking Algebra, Lovecraft himself remarks: “The first year I barely passed in algebra, but was so little satisfied with what I had accomplished, that I voluntarily repeated the last half of the term.”[61] There is a slight inaccuracy here, since it was not the Elementary Algebra of his first year that he retook, but the Intermediate Algebra of the second year; and he does seem to have finally achieved a better grade this time. Elsewhere he states that it was “only a supreme effort of the will that gained for me the highest marks in Algebra and Geometry at school.”[62]

  The transcript states that Lovecraft left on June 10, 1908, presumably at the end of the term, since he is recorded as having attended the full 39 weeks of chemistry and physics. (No record of days absent or tardy is given.) But Lovecraft clearly did not receive a diploma, and indeed it is evident that he has only finished the eleventh grade—or perhaps not even that, since he anomalously took only two full courses during this third year. He would surely have required at least another full year of schooling to qualify for graduation.

  Lovecraft, aside from finding the teachers more or less congenial, had the usual scrapes with his classmates. He had been called “Lovey” at Slater Avenue, but by the time he became well-established at Hope Street he was nicknamed “Professor” because of his published astronomical articles.[63] He admits to having an “ungovernable temper” and being “decidedly pugnacious”:

  Any affront—especially any reflection on my truthfulness or honour as an 18th century gentleman—roused in me a tremendous fury, & I would always start a fight if an immediate retraction were not furnished. Being of scant physical strength, I did not fare well in these encounters; though I would never ask for their termination. I thought it disgraceful, even in defeat, not to maintain a wholly “you-go-to-hell” attitude until the victor ceased pummelling of his own accord. . . . Occasionally I won fights—aided by my habit of assuming a dramatically ferocious aspect frightening to the nervous . . . the “by God, I’ll kill you!” stuff.[64]

  Evidently he managed to survive these encounters. One wonders if he ever tangled with “Monk” McCurdy, the seventeen-year-old bully at Slater Avenue.

  The sense of foreboding Lovecraft mentions as preceding his grandfather’s death is evident in his juvenile scientific work—or, rather, in the absence of such work. Both the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy and the Scientific Gazette come to an abrupt end with the issues of January 31, 1904; the last issue of Astronomy (now combined with the Monthly Almanack) dates to February 1904. Note that this is more than a month before Whipple’s death. Lovecraft states that the Scientific Gazette and the Rhode Island Journal both resumed as monthlies, the first in May 1904 and the second in August 1904, but that both were stopped after a few weeks;[65] these issues do not survive. Advertisements for the Scientific Gazette appear in the Rhode Island Journal throughout the summer of 1905, until in the issue of September 17, 1905, it is announced as discontinued. We have, therefore, clearly lost several issues of the Scientific Gazette, as we have none between January 31, 1904, and the final issue of January 1909.

  And yet, Lovecraft clearly retained his interest in chemistry and, even if he had given up chemical writing, continued conducting experiments in chemistry and obtaining new instruments. Among the latter were a spectroscope (which Lovecraft still owned in 1918) and a spinthariscope for the detection of radioactivity; Lovecraft notes in a letter that it con
tained “a minute quantity of radio-active matter.”[66] He goes on to relate a “physical memorial” of his chemical interests: “. . . the third finger of my right hand—whose palm side is permanently scarred by a mighty phosphorus burn sustained in 1907. At the time, the loss of the finger seemed likely, but the skill of my uncle [F. C. Clark]—a physician—saved it.”

  As for the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy, the later issues (beginning on April 16, 1905) are not appreciably different from their predecessors. Lovecraft was now experimenting with using various colours in the magazine, the only result of which is that some of the issues are extremely difficult to read; by the issue of May 14, 1905, Lovecraft declared that no more colour will be used. Some of Lovecraft’s crochets begin to appear, as in the article on “Astronomical Cranks” (June 11, 1905), hurling abuse on those (mostly leaders of eccentric religious sects) who refuse to accept the Copernican theory. A lengthy serial on “How to Make and Use a Telescope” (evidently adapted from a similar series in the Scientific Gazette in 1903) appears all through the summer, along with articles on the history of the telescope, ancient astronomy, the sighting of Jupiter’s seventh satellite, and much else besides.

  These issues provide some indication of who exactly was reading the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy. It is scarcely to be doubted that members of his own family had done so at the outset; now that only his mother remained in the house with him, perhaps Lovecraft concentrated on selling copies (still priced at 1¢ per copy, 25¢ for six months, and 50¢ for a year) to his friends and to relatives living in the vicinity. A startling “Notice!!” in the issue of October 8, 1905, states: “Subscribers residing outside of Providence will receive their papers in a bunch once a month by mail.” This notice would not have been necessary unless there were at least a handful of such subscribers. Perhaps one can suspect Lovecraft’s aunt Annie, now living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband; and there may have been other relatives.

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