I am providence the life.., p.18

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 18


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

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  In spite of Clark’s scientific background, it was in the area of belles lettres that he exerted the greatest influence on the young Lovecraft. Clark had translated Homer, Virgil, Lucretius, and Statius into English verse (Lovecraft retained Clark’s unpublished translations of the Georgics and Aeneid of Virgil to the end of his life,[84] but it is not clear what subsequently happened to them), and Lovecraft reports that he “did much to correct & purify my faulty style,” specifically in verse but also in prose. He goes on to say: “I regarded, & still regard, his level as unattainable by myself; but I was so desirous of his approbation, that I would labour hours with my work to win a word of praise from his lips. I hung upon his conversation as Boswell hung upon Dr. Johnson’s; yet was ever oppressed by a sense of hopeless inferiority.”[85] We can perhaps see Clark’s influence so early as the accomplished classical verses in Poemata Minora, Volume II (1902).

  One hopes, however, that Clark did not have any influence on the only surviving poem by Lovecraft between Poemata Minora and the several poems written in 1912: “De Triumpho Naturae: The Triumph of Nature over Northern Ignorance” (July 1905). This poem, dedicated to William Benjamin Smith, author of The Color Line: A Brief in Behalf of the Unborn (1905), is the first explicitly racist document Lovecraft ever produced; but it was not to be the last. In twenty-four lines Lovecraft paraphrases several central arguments out of Smith’s book: that the Civil War was a tragic mistake; that freeing blacks and granting them civil and political rights is folly; and that in so doing the abolitionists have actually ensured the extinction of the black race in America:

  The savage black, the ape-resembling beast,

  Hath held too long his Saturnalian feast.

  From out the land, by act of far’way Heav’n,

  To ling’ring death his numbers shall be driv’n.

  Against God’s will the Yankee freed the slave

  And in the act consign’d him to the grave.

  Let us ignore the highly disingenuous appeals to God, in whom Lovecraft had long ceased to believe. How does he imagine that “God’s will” will ensure the destruction of blacks? The argument here expressed is a little cryptic, and in fact cannot be understood without recourse to Smith’s book. Smith maintains that the inherent biological inferiority of blacks, their physiological and psychological weaknesses, will cause them to perish over time. Smith quotes at length a Professor W. B. Willcox who states:

  “The medical evidence available points to the conclusion that they are more than ever afflicted with the scourges of disease, such as typhoid fever and consumption, and with the physical ills entailed by sexual vice. I have argued elsewhere to show that both in the North and in the South crime among the Negroes is rapidly increasing. Whether the race as a whole is as happy, as joyous, as confident of the future, or thoughtless of it, as it was before the war, you, my hearers, know far better than I. I can only say that in my studies I have found not one expression of dissent from the opinion that the joyous buuyancy of the race is passing away; that they feel upon them a burden of responsibility to which they are unequal; that the lower classes of Negroes are resentful, and that the better classes [are] not certain or sanguine of the outcome. If this judgment be true, I can only say that it is perhaps the most fatal source of race as of national decay and death.”[86]

  This allows Smith to conclude, in a passage Lovecraft clearly copied in his poem:

  But what a weird light is now cast upon the War between the States, its cause, and its ultimate result! Aside from questions of political theory, the North sought to free to Negro, the South to hold him in bondage. As a slave he had led a protected, indeed a hothouse, existence and had flourished marvellously. His high-hearted champions shed torrents of blood and treasure to shatter the walls of his prison-house, to dispel the pent-up, stifling gloom of his dungeon, and to pour in upon him the free air and light of heaven. But the sum of liberty is no sooner arisen with burning breath than, lo! smitten by the breeze and the beam, he withers and dies![87]

  All that can be said in defence of “De Triumpho Naturae” is that it is a little less virulent than Smith.

  The whole issue of Lovecraft’s racism is one I shall have to treat throughout this book; it is an issue that cannot be dodged, but it is also one that we must attempt to discuss—difficult as it may be—without yielding to emotionalism and by placing Lovecraft’s views in the context of the prevailing intellectual currents of the time. It is not likely that at the age of fifteen Lovecraft had formulated clear views on the matter of race, and his attitudes were surely influenced by his environment and upbringing. Recall Winfield Scott Lovecraft’s hallucinations regarding a “negro” who was molesting his wife; it is conceivable that he could have passed on his prejudice against blacks even to his two-year-old son. Lovecraft’s most virulently prejudiced letters were written to his aunt Lillian in the 1920s, who in all likelihood shared his sentiments, as probably did most of the other members of his family.

  Lovecraft himself supplies a highly illuminating account of his early views on the subject when he notes his reaction to entering Hope Street High School in 1904:

  But Hope Street is near enough to the “North End” to have a considerable Jewish attendance. It was there that I formed my ineradicable aversion to the Semitic race. The Jews were brilliant in their classes—calculatingly and schemingly brilliant—but their ideals were sordid and their manners coarse. I became rather well known as an anti-Semite before I had been at Hope Street many days.[88]

  Lovecraft appears to make that last utterance with some pride. This whole passage is considerably embarrassing to those who wish to exculpate Lovecraft on the ground that he never took any direct actions against the racial or ethnic groups he despised but merely confined his remarks to paper. It is not clear, of course, exactly what he did to earn the reputation of an anti-Semite in high school, but clearly some sort of overt demonstration, if only verbal, is suggested.

  Lovecraft’s racism manifested itself in many different forms, but here I wish to consider specifically his prejudice against blacks. To the end of his life Lovecraft retained a belief in the biological (as opposed to the cultural) inferiority of blacks, and maintained that a strict colour line must be enforced in order to prevent miscegenation. This view began to emerge in the late eighteenth century—both Jefferson and Voltaire were convinced of the black’s biological inferiority—and gained ground throughout the nineteenth century. Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of Creation (1843), which Lovecraft had in his library, put forth a pre-Darwinian evolutionary hypothesis that maintained that the human race had passed through various stages, from the lowest (blacks) to the highest (Caucasians). In 1858 Abraham Lincoln stated that “there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” Theodore Roosevelt in a 1906 letter declared: “I entirely agree with you that as a race and in the mass they are altogether inferior to whites.” Henry James in 1907 referred to a “group of tatterdemalion darkies [who] lounged and sunned themselves within range.”[89]

  I do not cite these passages in extenuation of Lovecraft but to demonstrate how widely, in 1905, such views were prevalent even among the intellectual classes. New Englanders were particularly hostile to foreigners and blacks, for a variety of reasons, largely economic and social. The Immigration Restriction League was founded in Boston in 1894, and John Fiske—whose anthropological work Lovecraft later admired—was its first president. In Providence, as in most other large cities, there was a clearly defined “Negro” district; in Lovecraft’s boyhood it was the area north of Olney Street. In a letter reminiscing about his boyhood he speaks of “the dark stretch of Cole’s Woods to the north, with niggerville beyond, whence would troop [to Slater Avenue] Clarence Parnell & Asa Morse, & the ash-cart Brannons, & the white-trash Taylors whose father tended the furnace at Slater Ave. & East Manning St. schools . . .”[90]

  The curious thing
is that Lovecraft’s offensive little poem was written at exactly the time when a new generation of African American intellectuals and political leaders was emerging to challenge these stereotypes of black inferiority. W. E. B. Du Bois’s landmark collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), made a sensation when it was published, although obviously not to Lovecraft. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry (Lyrics of Lowly Life, 1896) and novels (The Sport of the Gods, 1902) were winning high praise from William Dean Howells and other critics. African American writers would, of course, continue to work in obscurity until the 1920s and the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, when Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes would make their mark. Lovecraft never read any of this literature, even though he was in New York at the height of this movement.

  What he did read, naturally, was the racist white literature of the time, whether it be Southern nostalgia writers as Thomas Nelson Page (who propagated the view, shared by Lovecraft and William Benjamin Smith, of the black slave’s “idyllic” life on the plantation), actual negrophobes such as Thomas Dixon, Jr, or writers like Frank Norris and Jack London who axiomatically accepted the inferiority of “primitive” peoples and the moral rightness of whites to dominate them. Lovecraft later admitted to having read both the novel (The Clansman, 1905) and the play (The Clansman: An American Drama, 1905) by Dixon on which The Birth of a Nation was based,[91] and he may have read them when they first appeared. Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots (1902), another viciously anti-black novel, was in his library. Lovecraft’s sympathy for the Southern cause in the Civil War was of very long standing and would persist throughout his life. He states that he and Harold Munroe were “Confederates in sympathy, & used to act out all the battles of the War in Blackstone Park.”[92] As early as 1902 he wrote a brief poem in defence of the Confederacy—“C. S. A. 1861–1865: To the Starry Cross of the SOUTH”—and placed it on the desk of Abbie A. Hathaway of the Slater Avenue School, whose father had fought in the Union army.[93]

  The scientific refutation of racism was only beginning at the turn of the century, led by the pioneering work of Franz Boas (1858–1942) and others under his direction. If it is excusable for a fifteen-year-old not to have paid much attention to this work in 1905, it would be much less excusable for a forty-year-old not to have done so in 1930; it is exactly here, as I shall discuss later, that Lovecraft deserves censure.

  “De Triumpho Naturae” appears to be an isolated example of this ugly strain in Lovecraft’s early thought and writing; in other regards he continued to pursue abstract intellectual endeavour. A more significant literary product of 1905—one for which Franklin Chase Clark probably provided impetus and guidance—was A Manual of Roman Antiquities. This was first announced, under the title A Handbook of Roman Antiquities, as “Soon to Appear” in the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy for July 30, 1905. Here is the description:

  A handbook of Roman Antiquities by H. P. Lovecraft. To which is added, the biographies of certain great Romans, including Romulus, L. Tarquinius, L. Quntius [sic] Cincinnatus, M. Tullius Cicero, C. Iulius Caesar, C. Octavius, M. Ulpius Trajanus, T. Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus, Flav. Anicius Justinianus, and many others, extending from A.V.C. 1 to 1353 (B.C. 753 to A.D. 600). price 50 cts.

  The Rhode Island Journal for August 13, 1905, declares that the volume is now ready and that “The work will be issued on the hecto. by subscription.” Regrettably, the “Lives of Great Romans” was not able to be included, but instead there is other, unspecified matter “invaluable to small students of Roman History or Literature.” At 50¢ this was very likely the most substantial—at least the lengthiest—single work Lovecraft had produced up to this time; it is unfortunate that it does not survive. The proposed list of biographies is a good selection of celebrated figures from the Republic as well as some of the leading emperors. Lovecraft no doubt delighted in using Roman years (A.V.C. = “Ab Urbe Condita,” from the founding of the city) rather than the parvenu calendar imposed by the Christians.

  This work very likely gave Lovecraft much-needed practice in sustained prose composition; certainly his prose needed work, if “The Mysterious Ship” was the best he could do in 1902. I am not sure that Clark was much inclined toward the weird tale, but if he did nothing more than to urge Lovecraft to read fewer dime novels and read more standard literature, it would have been a benefit. Something remarkable certainly seems to have happened in the three years subsequent to the writing of “The Mysterious Ship,” and it is highly unfortunate that we have no tales from this period, including those stories written under the influence of Verne, which probably date to this time. In any event, we find ourselves wholly unprepared for the surprising competence and maturity of the tale entitled “The Beast in the Cave.”

  The first draft of this tale was written prior to the move from 454 Angell Street in the spring of 1904,[94] and the finished version dates to April 21, 1905. Lovecraft reports having spent “days of boning at the library”[95] (i.e., the Providence Public Library) in researching the locale of the tale, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. It would take Lovecraft quite some time to learn the wisdom of basing a tale’s locale on first-hand, rather than second-hand, information.

  “The Beast in the Cave” deals with a man who is slowly facing the realisation that he is lost in Mammoth Cave and may never be found. He wavers between resignation at his fate and a desire for self-preservation; but when he begins shouting to call attention to himself, he summons not the guide who had led his tour group but an anomalous, shambling beast whom he cannot see in the blackness of the cave but can only hear. In attempting to protect himself from the creature he hurls rocks at it, and appears to have fatally injured it. Fleeing from the scene, he comes upon the guide and leads him back to the site of his encounter with the beast. The “beast” turns out to be a man who has been lost in the cave for years.

  The tale is admirably well-told and suspenseful, although not many will have failed to guess the conclusion before it is hyperbolically announced (“The creature I had killed, the strange beast of the unfathomed cave was, or had at one time been, a MAN!!!”). What is most interesting about the tale is its detailed portrayal of the narrator-protagonist, who in the first person recounts his fluctuating mental state as he experiences the anomalous phenomena. At the outset he—like Lovecraft—maintains that, in spite of his dire condition, and because he is “indoctrinated . . . by a life of philosophical study,” “I derived no small measure of satisfaction from my unimpassioned demeanour.” And yet, this phlegmatic exterior gives way as the darkness of the cave, and the creature’s propinquity, begin to oppress him: “My disordered fancy conjured up hideous and fearsome shapes from the sinister darkness that surrounded me, and that actually seemed to press upon my body.” Later he confesses that “groundless, superstitious fear had entered my brain.” Like many of Lovecraft’s later protagonists, outward rationalism collapses in the face of the unknown.

  The climax of the tale is deftly foretold in the fourth paragraph, well before he has encountered the “beast”:

  I remembered the accounts which I had heard of the colony of consumptives, who, taking their residence in this gigantic grotto to find health from the apparently salubrious air of the underground world, with its steady, uniform temperature, pure air, and peaceful quiet, had found, instead, death in strange and ghastly form. I had seen the sad remains of their ill-made cottages as I passed them by with the party, and had wondered what unnatural influence a long sojourn in this immense and silent cavern would exert upon one as healthy and as vigorous as I.

  This sort of foreshadowing would become very common in Lovecraft’s later tales, where the conclusion is virtually announced at the outset and the principal element of suspense comes to reside in seeing how exactly that conclusion is to be reached. In the present instance, however, this foreshadowing serves to establish a queer bond between the narrator and the “beast” that other aspects of the tale are seeking to repudiate. The very title of the story sug
gests that the victim has renounced his humanity by virtue of his isolated condition, and the tale continually refers to him as a “wild beast,” “animal,” “creature,” and at one point even a “thing.” And yet, the narrator is aware of anomalies. “Certainly, the conduct of the creature was exceedingly strange,” for the entity sometimes walks on two feet, sometimes on four. When the figure is dimly seen, the narrator takes it for “an anthropoid ape of large proportions”; but closer examination reveals physiological peculiarities that no normal ape could possibly bear. In effect, the tale suggests that the narrator himself, although “healthy and vigorous,” might have been reduced to the “beast’s” status if he had not been rescued; indeed, when he is rescued, he begins “gibbering” as if he were an animal himself.

  In spite of Lovecraft’s later dismissal of it as “ineffably pompous and Johnsonese,”[96] “The Beast in the Cave” is a remarkable story for a fourteen-year-old and represents a quantum leap over the crudeness of “The Mysterious Ship.” Lovecraft is right to declare that in it “I first wrote a story worth reading.”[97] I do not know if any significant literary influence can be adduced. Perhaps we can think of this tale as a sort of mirror-image of Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”: in that story what are taken to be the actions of a man turn out to have been performed by an ape, whereas here what is initially taken for an ape proves to be a man. I do not wish to belabour this point, but I must again note that this tale is also not supernatural. The style is indeed very antiquated, especially for a tale that appears to be set in the present day, and is also a trifle overwrought (“That nevermore should I behold the blessed light of day, or scan the pleasant hills and dales of the beautiful world outside, my reason could no longer entertain the slightest unbelief”). “The Beast in the Cave” is, however, the first tale of Lovecraft’s that actually bears a recognisable resemblance to his later work; he had found his idiom, and it would now only be a matter of refining it.

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