I am providence the life.., p.20
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 20
Lovecraft also stated that he wrote a lengthy treatise, A Brief Course in Astronomy—Descriptive, Practical, and Observational; for Beginners and General Readers, in 1906: “it got as far as the typed and hand-illustrated stage (circa one hundred fifty pages), though no copy survives.” Not only does no copy survive, but there does not appear to be any mention of it in any issues of the Rhode Island Journal for 1906 or 1907. This strikes me as very odd. In a 1918 letter Lovecraft said that in 1906 “I set about writing a book—a complete treatise on astronomy,” but does not explicitly say that he finished it; one must assume, however, that he did. Only one part of this work—clearly the most substantial scientific work he had ever written or ever would write—is extant: a separate treatise titled “Celestial Objects for All,” whose preface declares that “The greater part of this work is also printed in ‘A Brief Course in Astronomy’ by the same author.”
The quotation from “A Confession of Unfaith” with which I opened this chapter suggests how radically the study of astronomy affected Lovecraft’s entire philosophical conception of the universe. Indeed, it is around the period of 1906 that we can definitively date his philosophical awakening. Previous to that there had only been his various conflicts with church authorities in Sunday school. His first attendance, if it truly dates to the age of five or seven, saw him taking sides with the Romans against the Christians, but only because of his fondness for Roman history and culture and not out of any specifically anticlerical bias. By the age of nine, as he declares, he was conducting a sort of experimental course in comparative religion, pretending to believe in various faiths to see whether they convinced him; evidently none did. This led to his final Sunday school encounter:
How well I recall my tilts with Sunday-School teachers during my last period of compulsory attendance! I was 12 years of age, and the despair of the institution. None of the answers of my pious preceptors would satisfy me, and my demands that they cease taking things for granted quite upset them. Close reasoning was something new in their little world of Semitic mythology. At last I saw that they were hopelessly bound to unfounded dogmata and traditions, and thenceforward ceased to treat them seriously. Sunday-School became to me simply a place wherein to have a little harmless fun spoofing the pious mossbacks. My mother observed this, and no longer sought to enforce my attendance.
I would give much to have been able to attend one of these sessions. They presumably occurred at the First Baptist Church, where his mother was still on the rolls. It is not clear to me why she insisted on his attendance after a presumable lapse of years and after the previous episode was such a signal failure; perhaps she was becoming concerned about his isolation—no doubt he was already deep in astronomy at this time—and perhaps she even found his atheism and scepticism, which he is likely to have voiced openly, dismaying.
But years of astronomical study triggered the “cosmicism” that would form so central a pillar of both his philosophical and aesthetic thought:
By my thirteenth birthday I was thoroughly impressed with man’s impermanence and insignificance, and by my seventeenth, about which time I did some particularly detailed writing on the subject, I had formed in all essential particulars my present pessimistic cosmic views. The futility of all existence began to impress and oppress me; and my references to human progress, formerly hopeful, began to decline in enthusiasm. (“A Confession of Unfaith”)
There is no explicit account here of why Lovecraft developed these “pessimistic cosmic views” from the study of astronomy; a later remark in this essay—“My attitude has always been cosmic, and I looked on man as if from another planet. He was merely an interesting species presented for study and classification”—is suggestive, but no more. Having sloughed off any belief in deity as scientifically unjustified (recall his later statement that “A mere knowledge of the approximate dimensions of the visible universe is enough to destroy forever the notion of a personal godhead whose whole care is expended upon puny mankind”), Lovecraft was left with the awareness that mankind was (probably) alone in the universe—at least, we have no way to establish contact with extraterrestrial races—and that the quantitative insignificance of the planet and all its inhabitants, both spatially and temporally, carried with it the corollary of a qualitative insignificance. I shall have more to say about the validity of this view, but it is best to wait until it is more fully developed in Lovecraft’s mind.
A rather remarkable consequence of Lovecraft’s philosophical interests was a reformist instinct that led him to attempt to educate the masses—or, at least, one member of them:
I came across a superficially bright Swedish boy in the Public Library—he worked in the “stack” where the books are kept—and invited him to the house to broaden his mentality (I was fifteen and he was about the same, though he was smaller and seemed younger.) I thought I had uncovered a mute inglorious Milton (he professed a great interest in my work), and despite maternal protest entertained him frequently in my library. I believed in equality then, and reproved him when he called my mother “Ma’am”—I said that a future scientist should not talk like a servant! But ere long he uncovered qualities which did not appeal to me, and I was forced to abandon him to his plebeian fate.
This account is full of interest. We know who this boy was: he was Arthur Fredlund, who lived at 1048 Eddy Street on the West Side of Providence, just across the Providence River. The degree to which Lovecraft took Fredlund under his wing is suggested by an ad that appears in the back cover of the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy for September 1906: this declares that Fredlund has (no doubt with Lovecraft’s aid) revived and become the editor of the Scientific Gazette, which had been defunct since September 1905. That Lovecraft would have allowed Fredlund to take over the earliest of his scientific periodicals must have meant that he saw great things in the boy. What “qualities” he revealed that did not appeal to Lovecraft we do not know, as there is no other account of this incident.
The fact that Lovecraft’s mother objected to Fredlund’s coming to their house—whereas she presumably did not object to other of Lovecraft’s friends, as Stuart Coleman’s lack of any mention of “maternal objections” to his coming over implies—seems indicative of Susie’s social snobbery. Lovecraft, of course, as a member of the Providence Yankee aristocracy, was not devoid of class consciousness himself, as his reference to the “white-trash Taylors” who attended Slater Avenue reveals. Throughout his life he believed alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, in an aristocracy of class and breeding and an aristocracy of intellect; very gradually the latter took over more and more, but he never renounced the former. At this time we can see how scientific enthusiasm and the pleasure of having a disciple who “professed a great interest” in his work caused his intellectual aristocracy to come to the fore; perhaps, indeed, the “qualities” that revealed Fredlund to be a “plebeian” made Lovecraft believe that the aristocracy of breeding was not wholly to be despised.
In 1908 Lovecraft stood at the threshold of adulthood: he was doing reasonably well at Hope Street High School, he had become prodigiously learned in chemistry, geography, astronomy, and meteorology, and he was accomplished in belles lettres as a Latinist, poet, and fiction writer. He seemed destined for a career as an academician of some sort; perhaps he would be a sort of transatlantic version of those later Oxford dons who wrote detective stories, teaching astronomy at a university while writing horror tales in his spare time. In any event, the future for so precocious and accomplished a young man seemed assured.
What derailed that future—and what ensured that Lovecraft would never lead a “normal” life—was his fourth “near-breakdown,” clearly the most serious of his life. In some ways he never recovered from it.
5. Barbarian and Alien
Lovecraft is very reticent about the causes or sources of what we can only regard as a full-fledged nervous breakdown in the summer of 1908. Beyond the mere fact of its o
In 1908 I should have entered Brown University, but the broken state of my health rendered the idea absurd. I was and am a prey to intense headaches, insomnia, and general nervous weakness which prevents my continuous application to any thing.
In 1908 I was about to enter Brown University, when my health completely gave way—causing the necessary abandonment of my college career.
. . . after all, high-school was a mistake. I liked it, but the strain was too keen for my health, and I suffered a nervous collapse in 1908 immediately after graduating, which prevented altogether my attending college.
My health did not permit me to go to the university—indeed, the steady application to high-school gave me a sort of breakdown.
In the first, second, and fourth of these statements Lovecraft is a little disingenuous, even tendentious: he implies that his entry into Brown University was a matter of course, but in fact he never graduated from high school, and certainly would have required at least another year of schooling before he could have done so. The third statement, which states that he actually did graduate, is one of the few instances I have found where Lovecraft plainly lies about himself.
Since we are generally left in the dark about the nature of this breakdown, we can work only on conjecture. We have two pieces of external evidence. One comes from Harry Brobst, who spoke to a woman who had gone to high school with Lovecraft: “She . . . described these terrible tics that he had—he’d be sitting in his seat and he’d suddenly up and jump—I think they referred to them as seizures. The family took him out of high school, and then whatever education he got presumably was done by private tutors, whatever that meant. She said, oh, yes, she remembered him. I guess he scared the student body half to death.” This certainly is a remarkable account, and it suggests that Lovecraft’s chorea minor (if indeed he was afflicted with that disease) had not entirely worn off even by this time. Brobst, a Ph.D. in psychology who was trained as a psychiatric nurse, considers the possibility of “chorea-like symptoms” and also conjectures that a hysteroid seizure—a purely psychological ailment without any organic basis—may have been involved. Whether these seizures were the actual cause of his removal from high school is something that cannot now be settled.
The other piece of evidence comes from Harold W. Munro, who writes of an accident suffered by Lovecraft:
. . . a new house was going up, which of course intrigued the youth of the neighborhood, especially after the carpenters had left for the day. There were many inspections and generous samplings from open kegs of nails. Ladders were still the only means of going up or down. The more challenging upper floors were the favourites. The mystery of it also appealed to little Howard, who never ran with the pack but waited until near darkness when the field was clear for his solo visitations. Then came news that a boy, the Lovecraft boy, had fallen (nobody ever knew how far) and landed on his head. As excitement of the fall was subsiding, word followed that day and night the injured head was kept “packed in ice.”
Munro does not date this incident (which he himself did not see but only heard about from a girl “a little younger than Howard” who later became Munro’s wife), but he tells it directly after writing: “Lovecraft did not graduate from Hope Street or anywhere else. He wanted credits to enter Brown University but long before the rest of us graduated failing health had compelled him to drop out.” Munro, therefore, implicitly links this incident with his withdrawal from high school.
Lovecraft’s breakdown—whether purely mental or nervous or a combination of mental and physical factors—was, clearly, something related to his schoolwork, the same sort of thing that may have caused his milder breakdown of 1906; and yet, even “steady application” in only three classes (all he was taking in his third year at Hope Street) would not seem sufficient to induce so severe a collapse. Note, however, what three courses he was taking: chemistry, physics, and algebra. He was receiving the highest marks in the first two; in algebra he was repeating a part of the course he had taken the previous year. My feeling, therefore, is that Lovecraft’s relative failure to master algebra made him gradually awaken to the realisation that he could never do serious professional work in either chemistry or astronomy, and that therefore a career in these two fields was an impossibility. This would have been a shattering conception, requiring a complete revaluation of his career goals. Consider this remark, made in 1931:
In studies I was not bad—except for mathematics, which repelled and exhausted me. I passed in these subjects—but just about that. Or rather, it was algebra which formed the bugbear. Geometry was not so bad. But the whole thing disappointed me bitterly, for I was then intending to pursue astronomy as a career, and of course advanced astronomy is simply a mass of mathematics. That was the first major set-back I ever received—the first time I was ever brought up short against a consciousness of my own limitations. It was clear to me that I hadn’t brains enough to be an astronomer—and that was a pill I couldn’t swallow with equanimity.
Again, Lovecraft does not connect this with his breakdown of 1908, but I think the implication of a connexion is strong. I repeat that this is a conjecture, but until further evidence is forthcoming, it may be the best we have.
One more small piece of evidence comes from Lovecraft’s wife, who reports that Lovecraft told her that his sexual instincts were at their greatest at the age of nineteen. It is conceivable that sex frustration—for I do not imagine Lovecraft actually acted upon his urges at this time—may have been a contributory cause of his breakdown; but for one whose sexuality was, in general, so sluggish as Lovecraft’s, I am not convinced that this was a significant factor.
Lovecraft provides a stark picture of what this breakdown meant in terms of his psychological outlook:
Many times in my youth I was so exhausted by the sheer burden of consciousness & mental & physical activity that I had to drop out of school for a greater or lesser period & take a complete rest free from all responsibilities; & when I was 18 I suffered such a breakdown that I had to forego college. In those days I could hardly bear to see or speak to anyone, & liked to shut out the world by pulling down dark shades & using artificial light.
As a result, the period 1908–13 is a virtual blank in the life of H. P. Lovecraft. It is the only time in his life when we do not have a significant amount of information on what he was doing from day to day, who his friends and associates were, and what he was writing. It is also the only time of his life when the term “eccentric recluse”—which many have used with careless ignorance in reference to his entire life—can rightly be applied to him. Accordingly, we know the merest scraps of his life and activities, mostly from random remarks made in letters years later.
Lovecraft doggedly attempted to maintain his scientific interests, although it seems a little pathetic that he revived his juvenile periodicals, the Scientific Gazette and the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy, in early 1909, the latter after two years’, the former after four years’ hiatus (not counting the apparently brief revival by Arthur Fredlund). The sole issue of the Gazette for this period (January 1909) has an interesting ad:
This is no doubt the correspondence course Lovecraft admits to taking “for a time.” There is no indication of how long he took the course. As to where he learned of this organisation, I shall have more to say presently. That Lovecraft’s mother was willing to pay out $161 for such a thing suggests that she was still allowing him the freedom to pursue his interests; perhaps she thought this course might lead to a job, although that likelihood was surely remote. Once again, however, it was the more technical or tedious parts of the science that caused him difficulty:
Between 1909 & 1912 I tried to perfect myself as a chemist, conquering inorganic chemistry & qualitative analysis with ease, since they had been favourite pastimes of my youth. But in the midst of organic chemistry, with its frightfully dull theoretical problems, & involved c
One significant work did come out of this, however: A Brief Course in Inorganic Chemistry, written in 1910 and deemed by Lovecraft a “bulky manuscript.” This work, so far as I know, does not survive, and we know nothing of its contents.
The two issues of the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy (January and February 1909) are not especially revealing. Incredibly, Lovecraft picks up the serialisation of “The Moon,” suspended after the April 1907 issue—as if readers had been avidly awaiting its continuation! The second issue is rather sad: the first page presents four news articles, but the second page never got beyond the writing of the masthead; the rest of the page is blank aside from two vertical lines to separate the columns. Perhaps Lovecraft realised the absurdity of maintaining what was really a boy’s undertaking: he was eighteen and a half years old by this time.
Lovecraft did attempt a more ambitious astronomical project, but it was not designed for publication. This is an astronomical notebook, once in the possession of David H. Keller and later in the Grill-Binkin collection of Lovecraftiana. The notebook bears the title “Astronomical Observations Made by H. P. Lovecraft, 598 Angell St., Providence, R.I., U.S.A., Years 1909 / 1910 / 1911 / 1912 / 1913 / 1914 / 1915.” Keller reports that the book contains at least 100 pages of writing; page 99 has the following:
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