I am providence the life.., p.160

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 160

 

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



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  What makes Lovecraft’s style so distinctive is its mingling of scientific precision and lush Poe-esque rhetoric. Whether one likes the result or not is strictly dependent upon one’s temperament: many—especially those in the science fiction community, who are used to a more stripped-down style that emphasises ideas over atmosphere—will not like it, and that is their prerogative. But surely no reader can claim that in its final refinement—during the last ten years of his life—this style could not achieve tremendously powerful emotive effects. Lovecraft was unquestionably master, not slave, of his style. He knew exactly what he was doing. Of course it is a somewhat heavy style for those who are not used to verbal and atmospheric richness; it takes effort and intelligence to read it. Scarcely any good writer is “easy” to read. Those who call Lovecraft “verbose” because of this density of style are antipodally wrong: in fact, this density achieves incredible compactness of expression, so that even his near-novel-length works have all the unity of effect of a short story. There is rarely a wasted word in Lovecraft’s best stories; and every word contributes to the final outcome.

  What is remarkable about Lovecraft is that, in spite of his prodigal invention of “gods” in his fiction, his is among the most secular temperaments in all human history. Religion has no place in his world view except as a sop to the ignorant and timid. The “gods” in his tales are symbols of all that lies unknown in the boundless cosmos, and the randomness with which they can intrude violently into our own realm is a poignant reflection of the tenuousness of our fleeting and inconsequential existence. Let it pass that his imitators have failed to perceive this symbolism, or felt content to play with unwitting frivolity with the varied mythic elements in his tales; these derivative treatments can have little effect upon our valuation of Lovecraft. In David E. Schultz’s felicitous formulation, Lovecraft was creating an anti-mythology—an imaginary mythology that mocked the very things that religion and myth claim to do for humanity. We are not the centre of the universe; we do not have a special relationship with God (because there is no God); we will vanish into oblivion upon our deaths. It is scarcely to be wondered that many readers and writers have been unable to endure these withering conceptions.

  Lovecraft was, of course, an uneven writer, as all writers are. In the works of his first decade of fiction writing there are many mediocrities, some outright failures, and some genuine triumphs (“The Rats in the Walls” being perhaps the most notable of them). But in the last decade the triumphs far outweigh the failures and mediocrities. And yet, it is still remarkable that Lovecraft’s entire fictional corpus (exclusive of revisions) can be accommodated comfortably into three large volumes. No writer in the field of weird or science fiction, save Poe, has achieved such distinction and recognition on so small a body of work. But, if we are to gauge by the scholarship of the last twenty years, that work is inexhaustibly rich in substance.

  Other bodies of his work, with one exception, perhaps require less attention. As an essayist Lovecraft was only occasionally effective. Certainly, his early amateur essays were of the greatest formative value in allowing him to exercise his rhetorical skills and hone his style; but they are intrinsically of little value, crippled as many of them are by dogmatism and limited perspective. Lovecraft did not write many essays in his later years—his creative energies had clearly turned to fiction—but some of these are considerable value, if only ancillary to his fiction and his general philosophy. Few have denied the value of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” both as an historical-critical study and as an index to Lovecraft’s own theory and practice of fiction writing; while such other pieces as “Cats and Dogs,” “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” “Some Notes on a Nonentity,” and several others are ones we would be much the poorer without.

  Of Lovecraft’s poetry little need be said. Even the best of it—the late verse, including Fungi from Yuggoth, “The Ancient Track,” “The Messenger,” and others—is only an adjunct to his fiction. Much of Lovecraft’s early poetry is entirely forgettable, and the motive for its composition seems less aesthetic than psychological—the attempt of a man to retreat imaginatively into the eighteenth century and out of a twentieth century he loathed. Lovecraft later came to be very much a part of his time, although having great reservations—as any intelligent person would—regarding many trends that were causing what he perceived to be the decline of his civilisation; but his poetry never fully recovered. Some of his satiric verse is tart and effective, and comes closest to the Augustan forms he strove to mimic. Long before his death Lovecraft came to realise that his proper medium was prose, and he wisely cultivated it and let his verse writing rest.

  Of his letters much more must be said. It is a frequent complaint among critics that Lovecraft “wasted” his time writing so many letters when he could have been writing more stories instead. There are several false assumptions underlying this complaint. First, it assumes that Lovecraft should have led his life for us, not for himself; if he had written no stories but only letters, it would have been our loss but his prerogative. Second, it overlooks the degree to which gentlemanly courtesy—usually regarded as a positive quality—governed his actions, so that a letter received required a response. Third, it ignores Lovecraft’s stated purpose behind his letter-writing—as a replacement for conversation and (especially in light of the absence of stimulating company in Providence) the vital need to expand his intellect and imagination by debating issues with individuals whose opinions differed provocatively from his own. And fourth, it assumes that Lovecraft would indeed have written more stories if he had not written so many letters, something that is not at all clear given the degree to which his fiction writing was dependent upon inspiration, mood, and positive reinforcement.

  There is, finally, the very real possibility that Lovecraft’s letters will come to be recognised as his greatest literary and personal achievement. It is not simply the sheer quantity of letters he wrote (no more than 10% of which probably survive) that is important, but their intellectual breadth, rhetorical flourish, emotional intimacy, and unfailing courtesy that make them among the most remarkable literary documents of their time. Horace Walpole may have gained transient fame for The Castle of Otranto, but his true literary greatness now properly resides in his correspondence; a similar fate may overtake Lovecraft, even though his fiction is vastly richer than Walpole’s. The ideal situation, to my mind, is that Lovecraft comes to be valued equally for his tales and for his letters, something that might well occur now that his letters are being published in unabridged form.

  How is one, finally, to account for the continued appeal of H. P. Lovecraft? There now seems less dispute that Lovecraft somehow belongs in the canon of American and world literature; a reviewer of Burleson’s Disturbing the Universe remarked pointedly: “It’s getting to where those who still ignore Lovecraft will have to go on the defensive.”[63] The attacks of Edmund and Colin Wilson have been forgotten, and Lovecraft is cited in encyclopaedias and other reference works with some cordiality.

  But why do people read Lovecraft at all, and what leads a good many of them to develop a kind of compulsive fascination with both his work and the man himself? There is no denying that Lovecraft appeals on many levels, to many differing types of readers, from teenage boys to college professors to highbrow novelists. For young boys, it is Lovecraft’s very exoticism—the absence of those disturbing creatures, girls, and the family scenario altogether; the depiction of boundless space, not in the science-fictional sense of a place of infinite possibilities for human action but of infinite horror and dread; the apparent luridness of some of his monsters, from fish-frogs to ten-foot cones to humans degenerating into cannibals; a prose style that can seem hallucinatory as a drug-delirium—that seems to cast an ineffable appeal; and there is still the half-mythical figure of Lovecraft himself, the gaunt “eccentric recluse” who slept during the day and wrote all night. As one matures, one sees different things in Lovecraft the man and writer—the philosophical dept
h underlying the surface luridness of his work; the dignity, courtesy, and intellectual breadth of his temperament; his complex role in the political, economic, social, and cultural trends of his age. Perhaps it is useless, and foolish, to deny that Lovecraft is an oddity—neither he nor his work is “normal” in any conventional sense, and much of the fascination that continues to surround him resides exactly in this fact. But both his supporters and his detractors would do well to examine the facts about both his life and his work, and also the perspective from which they make their own pronouncements and evaluations of his character. He was a human being like any of us—neither a lunatic nor a superman. He had his share of flaws and virtues. But he is dead now, and no amount of praise or blame will have any effect upon the course of his life. His work alone remains.

  Notes

  Chapter 1: Unmixed English Ancestry

  1. HPL to FBL, [November 1927] (SL 2.179).

  2. SL 2.182 (note 1).

  3. See Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., “Quae Amamus Tuemur: Ancestors in Lovecraft’s Life and Fiction,” in Faig’s The Unknown Lovecraft (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2009), 20.

  4. Ibid., 20–21.

  5. HPL to RHB, [19 March 1934] (SL 4.392).

  6. I am grateful to Suzanne Juta and to Oliver Watson, Curator of Ceramics and Glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum, for this information.

  7. Longfellow, “The Luck of Edenhall,” The Poems of Longfellow (New York: Illustrated Modern Library, 1944), 438–40.

  8. See Dictionary of National Biography 6.1270–71.

  9. HPL to AD, 5 June 1936 (SL 5.263).

  10. HPL to MWM, 5 April 1931 (SL 3.360).

  11. HPL to MWM, 1 January 1915 (SL 1.7).

  12. Faig, “Quae Amamus Tuemur,” 22.

  13. See Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, Moshassuck Review (May Eve 1992): 29.

  14. Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, Moshassuck Review (Halloween 1991): 14.

  15. Ibid., 28.

  16. Faig, “Quae Amamus Tuemur,” 30.

  17. SL 1.5 (note 11).

  18. I am grateful to Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, and A. Langley Searles for this information. For further data on Lovecraft’s paternal ancestry, see Docherty, Searles, and Faig, Devonshire Ancestry of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (Glenview, IL: Moshassuck Press, 2003).

  19. SL 1.7 (note 11).

  20. HPL to Edwin Baird, 3 February 1924 (SL 1.296).

  21. SL 1.6 (note 11).

  22. Obituary of Whipple V. Phillips, Providence Journal (31 March 1904).

  23. SL 1.6 (note 11).

  24. HPL spells his maternal grandmother’s first name as “Rhoby,” but Robie is given on the central shaft of the Phillips plot at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.

  25. HPL to Helen Sully, 26 July 1936 (ms., JHL).

  26. Casey B. Tyler, Historical Reminiscences, of Foster, Rhode Island, first published c. 1884 in the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner and in a revised form in the same newspaper in 1892–93; rpt. in Early Historical Accounts of Foster, Rhode Island, ed. Kenneth W. Faig, Jr (Glenview, IL: Moshassuck Press, 1993), 100–101.

  27. In a letter to FBL, 26 October 1926 (SL 2.88) HPL states that Whipple Phillips’s last two children were born in Greene, which would date Whipple’s arrival to around 1864; but the 1860 U.S. census already lists the family at Greene.

  28. Ibid.

  29. Henry W. Rugg, History of Freemasonry in Rhode Island (Providence: E. L. Freeman & Son, 1895), 553. I am grateful to Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, for bringing this work to my attention.

  30. Ibid., 554.

  31. SL 3.363 (note 10).

  32. SL 2.83 (note 27).

  33. Tyler, in Faig, Early Historical Accounts of Foster, Rhode Island, 101. Faig reports that the typescript of this work at the Rhode Island Historical Society renders the name as Hugog, but the published version prints it as Hugag.

  34. Early Historical Accounts of Foster, Rhode Island, 112.

  35. SL 2.88 (note 27).

  36. HPL dates the move to 1873 at SL 1.6 (note 11), but Whipple Phillips’s obituary (note 22) unequivocally states that it occurred in 1874; moreover, Whipple does not appear in the Providence city directory until 1875, arguing for a settlement in 1874. For this information, and much else on Whipple Phillips, I am much indebted to the work of Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, most recently his Some of the Descendants of Asaph Phillips and Esther Whipple of Foster, Rhode Island (Glenview, IL: Moshassuck Press, 1993).

  37. Reports of the United States Commissioners to the Paris Universal Exposition 1878 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880), 1.341.

  38. HPL to RK, 16 November 1916 (SL 1.33).

  39. HPL to F. Lee Baldwin, 13 January 1934 (SL 4.344).

  40. See Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, “Whipple V. Phillips and the Owyhee Land and Irrigation Company” (Owyhee Outpost, May 1988); rpt. The Unknown Lovecraft, 50–55.

  41. HPL to F. Lee Baldwin, 31 January 1934 (SL 4.350).

  42. See note 39.

  43. All three letters are at JHL. Mrs Ethel Phillips Morrish had in her possession another letter from Whipple Phillips to Lovecraft, but I am uncertain of its date or point of origin.

  44. SL 4.351 (note 41).

  45. Arthur S. Koki, “H. Lovecraft: An Introduction to His Life and Writings” (M.A. thesis: Columbia University, 1962), 3.

  46. HPL to LDC, 17–18 November 1924 (ms., JHL).

  47. H. Smith, “Growth of Public Education,” in Edward Field, ed., State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century: A History (Boston: Mason Publishing Co., 1902), 2.368–69.

  48. Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, The Parents of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1990), 23, 25.

  49. SL 1.33 (note 38).

  50. Faig, Parents, 40.

  51. SL 1.6 (note 11).

  52. SL 1.29 (note 38).

  53. Faig, Some of the Descendants, 134.

  54. SL 1.33–34 (note 38).

  55. R. Alain Everts believes that she was educated at the Wheeler School in Providence.

  56. Sarah Susan Lovecraft, Commonplace Book (ms., JHL).

  57. Faig, Parents, 40.

  58. Clara Hess in the Providence Journal (19 September 1948); quoted in Faig, Parents, 32.

  59. Clara Hess in AD, “Lovecraft’s Sensitivity” (1949); quoted in Faig, Parents, 33.

  60. See Richard D. Squires, Stern Fathers ’neath the Mould: The Lovecraft Family in Rochester (1995).

  61. SL 1.5 (note 11).

  62. HPL to RK, 16 November 1916; Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2005), 65 (this portion not printed in SL).

  63. William G. McLoughlin, Rhode Island: A Bicentennial History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 123.

  64. Sonia H. Davis, The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft, ed. S. T. Joshi (West Warwick, RI: 1985; rev. 1992), 7.

  65. Koki, 4.

  66. I am grateful to John H. Stanley of JHL, Brown University, for this information. The library is now the repository for the papers of the Providence branch of the Gorham Company, but it does not have the papers of the New York branch.

  67. SL 1.296 (note 20).

  Chapter 2: A Genuine Pagan

  1.. See McLoughlin, Rhode Island: A Bicentennial History, passim.

  2. On this subject see now Charles Rappleye, Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

  3. HPL to Bernard Austin Dwyer, 3 March 1927 (SL 2.108).

  4. Charles V. Chapin, “Epidemics and Medical Institutions,” in Field, State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century, 2.57–58.

  5. HPL to AEPG, 19 August 1921 (SL 1.147).

  6. Chapin, in Field, State of Rhode Island, 2.66.

  7. HPL to MWM, 1 January 1915 (SL 1.6).

  8. HPL to RHB, [24 May 1935]; O Fortunate Floridian: H. P. Lovecraft’s Letters to R. H. Barlow (Tampa: University of Tampa Press, 2007), 271.

  9. HPL to LDC, 24 August 1925 (ms., JHL).

  10. HP
L to RK, 16 November 1916 (SL 1.31).

  11. SL 1.6 (note 7).

  12. HPL to Edwin Baird, 3 February 1924 (SL 1.296).

  13. HPL to JVS, 19[–31?] July 1931 (SL 3.383).

  14. HPL to JVS, 4 February 1934 (SL 4.354).

  15. Cited in Faig, Parents, 8. There are no allusions to the Lovecrafts in the two-volume Letters of Louise Imogen Guiney (1926).

  16. See Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, “The Friendship of Louise Imogen Guiney and Sarah Susan Phillips,” in The Unknown Lovecraft, 70–86.

  17. SL 2.107 (note 3).

  18. “Medical Record of Winfield Scott Lovecraft,” LS No. 24 (Spring 1991): 15.

  19. SL 1.6 (note 7).

  20. SL 1.33 (note 10).

  21. SL 1.32 (note 10).

  22. H. Smith, in Field, State of Rhode Island, 2.385.

  23. Sister Mary Adorita, Soul Ordained to Fail: (Louise Imogen Guiney: 1861–1920) (New York: Pageant Press, 1962), 8.

  24. Henry G. Fairbanks, Louise Imogen Guiney: Laureate of the Lost (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1972), 2.

  25. See Faig (note 16), 83.

  26. SL 1.32 (note 10).

  27. Cited in E. M. Tenison, Louise Imogen Guiney: Her Life and Works 1861–1920 (London: Macmillan, 1923), 57–58.

  28. Tenison, 29.

  29. HPL to AD, [January 1930] (SL 2.100).

  30. SL 1.33 (note 10).

  31. HPL to RK, 16 November 1916; Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner, 66.

  32. HPL to REH, 4 October 1930 (SL 3.184).

 
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