I am providence the life.., p.21

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 21


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

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  Principal Astronomical Work

  1. To keep track of all celestial phenomena month by month, as positions of planets, phases of the moon, Sign of Sun, occultations, Meteor Showers, unusual phenomena (record) also new discoveries.

  2. To keep up a working knowledge of the constellations and their seasons.

  3. To observe all planets, etc. with a large telescope when they are favourably situated (at 7 h 30" in winter, abt. 9 h in summer, supplemented by morning observations)

  4. To observe opera or field glass objects among the stars with a low power instruments, recording results.

  5. To keep a careful record of each night’s work.

  6. To contribute a monthly astronomical article of about 7p. Ms. or 4p. Type to the Providence Evening News[15] (begun Jan. 1, 1914.)

  This sounds like an impressive agenda, but Lovecraft did not maintain it consistently; in fact, Keller reports that for the years 1911 and 1913 there are no observations at all. Otherwise what we have are things like an eclipse of the moon on June 3, 1909, a “lengthy description” of Halley’s Comet on May 26, 1910, a partial eclipse of the moon on March 11–12, 1914, and a long discussion of Delavan’s Comet on September 16–17, 1914. I have not been able to consult this document myself and am reliant on Keller’s account of it; but it does not seem to offer much evidence that Lovecraft was doing anything either to relieve his reclusiveness or to find a useful position in the outside world. It is, once again, a sort of retreat into his young adulthood.

  Later in life Lovecraft knew that, in spite of his lack of university education, he should have received training in some sort of clerical or other white-collar position that would at least have allowed him to secure employment rather than moping about at home:

  I made the mistake in youth of not realising that literary endeavour does not always mean an income. I ought to have trained myself for some routine clerical work (like Charles Lamb’s or Hawthorne’s) affording a dependable stipend yet leaving my mind free enough for a certain amount of creative activity—but in the absence of immediate need I was too damned a fool to look ahead. I seemed to think that sufficient money for ordinary needs was something which everyone had as a matter of course—and if I ran short, I “could always sell a story or poem or something”. Well—my calculations were inaccurate![16]

  And so Lovecraft condemned himself to a life of ever-increasing poverty.

  What was his mother doing in this entire situation? It is a little hard to say. Recall her own medical record at Butler Hospital (now destroyed) as paraphrased by Winfield Townley Scott: “a woman of narrow interests who received, with a traumatic psychosis, an awareness of approaching bankruptcy.”[17] This assessment was made in 1919, but the condition must have been developing for years, at the very least since the death of Susie’s own father, Whipple Phillips. Although she had high praise for her son (“a poet of the highest order”), Scott rightly conjectures: “However she adored him, there may have been a subconscious criticism of Howard, so brilliant but so economically useless.” No doubt her disappointment with her son’s inability to finish high school, go to college, and support himself did not help this situation any.

  Lovecraft, in speaking of the steady economic decline of the family, notes “several sharp jogs downward, as when an uncle lost a lot of dough for my mother and me in 1911.”[18] Faig is almost certainly correct in identifying this uncle as Susie’s brother Edwin E. Phillips.[19] Edwin had difficulty even maintaining his own economic position, as his chequered employment record indicates. We do not, of course, know how Edwin lost money for Susie and Howard, but one suspects that bad investments—which not only failed to yield interest but also dissolved the capital—might have been a factor.

  The effect of all this on Susie, and on her view of her son, can only be conjectured. Lovecraft’s wife, although she never knew Susie, makes a plausible claim that Susie “lavished both her love and her hate on her only child”;[20] this comment may receive confirmation from the following disturbing anecdote related by Clara Hess, which I believe dates to around this time if not a little earlier:

  . . . when she [Susie] moved into the little downstairs flat in the house on Angell Street around the corner from Butler Avenue I met her often on the Butler Avenue cars, and one day after many urgent invitations I went in to call upon her. She was considered then to be getting rather odd. My call was pleasant enough but the house had a strange and shutup air and the atmosphere seemed weird and Mrs. Lovecraft talked continuously of her unfortunate son who was so hideous that he hid from everyone and did not like to walk upon the streets where people could gaze at him.

  When I protested that she was exaggerating and that he should not feel that way, she looked at me with a rather pitiful look as though I did not understand about it. I remember that I was glad to get out in the fresh air and sunshine and that I did not repeat my visit.[21]

  This is one of the most notorious pieces of evidence regarding Lovecraft and his mother, and I see no reason why we should not accept it. The reference to “hideous” is presumably to his physical appearance, and this is why I want to date the anecdote to Lovecraft’s late teens or early twenties: as a younger boy he is so normal-looking that no one—even a mother who was getting a little “odd”—could have deemed him hideous; but by the age of eighteen or twenty he had perhaps reached his full height of five feet eleven inches, and had probably developed that long, prognathous jaw which he himself in later years considered a physical defect. Harold W. Munro testifies that as early as his high school years Lovecraft was bothered by ingrown facial hairs; but when Munro speaks of “mean red cuts” on Lovecraft’s face he evidently believes these to have been the product of a dull razor.[22] In fact, as Lovecraft attests, these cuts came from his using a needle and tweezers to pull out the ingrown hairs.[23] This recurring ailment—which did not subside until Lovecraft was well into his thirties—may also have had a negative effect on his perception of his appearance. As late as February 1921, only a few months before his mother’s death, Lovecraft writes to his mother of a new suit that “made me appear as nearly respectable as my face permits.”[24]

  I am of course not trying to defend this remark by Lovecraft’s mother—surely no mother ought ever to say such a thing about her son, no matter how ugly he in fact is—and it may also be that her comment has a somewhat broader implication. It is often conjectured that she was transferring to her son the hatred and disgust she felt at her husband after he was stricken with syphilis, and I think this is very likely. Susie, of course, is not likely to have known the exact nature or causes of her husband’s ailment—the doctors themselves did not—but she must have sensed that something relating to sex had afflicted him; and now that her own son was developing into an adult male with burgeoning sexual instincts, she may have suspected that he would turn out very much like her husband—especially if Lovecraft was at this time wearing his father’s clothing. In any case, I do not think we have any grounds to deny that she made the “hideous” remark; Lovecraft himself once (and only once) admitted to his wife that his mother’s attitude to him was (and this is his word) “devastating,”[25] and we need look no further for the reasons for that than this single comment.

  Both Clara Hess and Harold W. Munro give evidence that Lovecraft did indeed avoid human contact in his post–high school period. Hess, when asked by August Derleth to elaborate upon her remarks, wrote: “Sometimes I would see Howard when walking up Angell Street, but he would not speak and would stare ahead with his coat collar turned up and chin down.”[26] Munro states: “Very much an introvert, he darted about like a sleuth, hunched over, always with books or papers clutched under his arm, peering straight ahead recognizing nobody.”[27]

  We have the merest scraps of information as to what Lovecraft was actually doing during this entire period. One highly suggestive datum is his admission that he visited Moosup Valley, and specifically the Stephen Place house in Foster (birthplace of his mother and grandmother), in
1908.[28] This visit can scarcely have been purely recreational, since his previous trip, in 1896, is likely to have occurred after his grandmother’s death. His mother accompanied him, as there is a photograph of her (probably taken by Lovecraft himself) standing in front of the house.[29] Once again it seems as if Lovecraft required some sort of renewal of ancestral ties to help him out of a difficult psychological trauma; but in this case the visit seems to have accomplished little.

  The record for 1909 (aside from his astronomical observations and the correspondence courses) is entirely blank. For 1910 we know that he saw Halley’s Comet, but probably not at Ladd Observatory. In 1918 he states: “I no more visit the Ladd Observatory or various other attractions of Brown University. Once I expected to utilise them as a regularly entered student, and some day perhaps control some of them as a faculty member. But having known them with this ‘inside’ attitude, I am today unwilling to visit them as a casual outsider and non-university barbarian and alien.”[30] This sense of alienation presumably began soon after his collapse in 1908, and he probably saw Halley’s with his own telescope. He mentions that he missed seeing a bright comet earlier that year “by being flat in bed with a hellish case of measles!”[31] Elsewhere he states that he lost fifty-four pounds during this bout with the measles and nearly died.[32] The year 1910 was, however, the period of his most frequent attendance of stage plays, and he reports seeing many Shakespeare productions at the Providence Opera House.[33] He also visited Cambridge, Massachusetts—probably to see his aunt Annie Gamwell and his twelve-year-old cousin Phillips.[34] He also took a balloon ride in Brockton, Massachusetts—a city about equidistant between Providence and Boston.[35] These visits suggest that he was not at least a total hermit; indeed, perhaps Phillips Gamwell accompanied him on the balloon-ride. He celebrated his twenty-first birthday—August 20, 1911—by riding the electric trolley cars all day:

  Though in poor health, I attempted an all-day electric-car trip as a celebration—riding westward through the picturesque countryside of my maternal ancestors, eating lunch at Putnam, Conn., going north to Webster, Mass., (near which my first actual memories begin), then turning northeast to Worcester, keeping on to Boston, & finally returning home at night after a virtually record-breaking circuit.[36]

  Perhaps this too was a sort of reversion to his childhood: no doubt he recalled his ride of 1900 or 1901, which led to the writing of his amusing “Attempted Journey” poem.

  Also in 1911 (probably toward the end of the year) he saw President Willam Howard Taft on a campaign stop in Providence.[37] In later years he expressed great admiration for Theodore Roosevelt, and one would imagine that he would have voted for (or at least supported) Roosevelt, who had had a falling out with his protégé Taft and ran furiously against him on the Bull Moose ticket from the fall of 1911 onward. Although Lovecraft admits to seeing Roosevelt at the Providence Opera House in August 1912,[38] just two or three months before the election, he makes a startling revelation late in life: “As for Woodrow Wilson—he is a hard bird to analyse. I was for him in 1912 because I thought he represented a civilised form of government as distinguished from the frankly thieving plutocracy of the Taft die-hards and from the blindly rebellious Bull Moosers. His vacillating policy toward Mexico, however, alienated me almost at once.”[39] Lovecraft thereby ended up on the winning side of the 1912 election: since Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote, the Democrat Wilson captured the presidency. The reference to Mexico relates to the Mexican Civil War, which would embroil the United States into Mexican politics sporadically for the next three years. It is unclear from the above remark whether Lovecraft actually voted in the 1912 election, as he was eligible to do.

  On August 12, 1912, Lovecraft made his one and only will. I shall have more to say about this document at a later time, but in its essentials it spells out what is to be done with his estate and effects upon his death: they will go to his mother, Sarah S. Lovecraft or, in the case of her predeceasing him, to his aunts Lillie D. Clark (two-thirds) and Annie E. Gamwell (one-third) or, if they predecease him, to their descendants. The witnesses to the will were Addison P. Munroe (father of Harold and Chester), Chester P. Munroe, and Albert A. Baker, Lovecraft’s lawyer who, up to his majority, had been his guardian.

  This brings up the issue of Lovecraft’s continued association with his friends. The evidence is a little ambiguous. No doubt Lovecraft felt a certain sense of failure and defeat as he saw his high school friends marry, find jobs, and in general take on the responsibilities of adult life. Harold Munroe married, moved to East Providence, and became deputy sheriff.[40] Chester Munroe, as we shall see presently, went to North Carolina. Stuart Coleman at some point joined the army, rising at least to the rank of Major. Ronald Upham became a salesman.[41] One schoolmate whose compositions Lovecraft used to correct later published at least one article in the New York Tribune.[42] All this led him to state in 1916: “Of my non-university education, I never cease to be ashamed; but I know, at least, that I could not have done differently. I busied myself at home with chemistry, literature, & the like . . . I shunned all human society, deeming myself too much of a failure in life to be seen socially by those who had known me in youth, & had foolishly expected such great things of me.”[43]

  But consider this remarkable testimony from Addison P. Munroe, whom Winfield Townley Scott interviewed:

  He lived but a few houses distant from our own home and was quite frequently over here with our sons. I remember that we had a room fixed up in our basement for the boys to use as a club room, which was a popular place with Howard. The club, so called, consisted of about a half-dozen of the neighborhood boys, around twenty years of age, and when they had a so-called “banquet,” improvised and usually self-cooked, Howard was always the speaker of the evening and my boys always said he delivered addresses that were gems.[44]

  This appears to be East Side Historical Club, still meeting even after the boys had graduated from high school. If Munroe is right about the boys’ age, then these sessions would have occurred exactly at the time (1910) when Lovecraft was maintaining that he “shunned all human society,” in particular his friends. Harold W. Munro (who was presumably not a member of the club) remarks that “After Hope Street days I never talked with Howard, but saw him several times”;[45] but Munro does not appear to have been one of Lovecraft’s close friends. In any event, there seems no reason to doubt that Addison P. Munroe was right about both the nature and the date of these meetings. He continues:

  Occasionally I would have an opportunity to talk with him and he always surprised me with the maturity and logic of his talk. I remember one time in particular, when I was a member of the R.I. Senate, 1911–1914, we had several important measures before that body; Howard, being over here one evening, started to discuss some of these measures, and I was astounded by the knowledge he displayed in regard to measures that ordinarily would be of no interest to a young fellow of twenty. In fact he knew more about them than 75 per cent of the Senators who would finally vote on them.[46]

  Munroe is not likely to be mistaken about his own term of office in the Rhode Island Senate, so I am confident that his recollections here are accurate. Lovecraft’s knowledge of Rhode Island politics no doubt derived, in part, from the fact that—probably at this time—he read the entire run of the Providence Gazette and Country-Journal (1762–1825) at the Providence Public Library.[47] No doubt he also read the Providence Journal (or, more likely, the Evening Bulletin, the paper to which he subscribed in later years) regularly.

  That Lovecraft did not sever all ties with at least one of the Munroes is made clear by the existence of two curious if lacklustre poems, “Verses Designed to Be Sent by a Friend of the Author to His Brother-in-Law on New-Year’s Day” and “To Mr. Munroe, on His Instructive and Entertaining Account of Switzerland.” The first poem is undated, but probably dates to around 1914; the manuscript of the second is dated 1 January 1914. The “friend of the author” in the first poem is a Munroe,
but I do not know which one. Lovecraft elsewhere states (“Introducing Mr. Chester Pierce Munroe”) that the treatise on Switzerland was written by Chester, although he does not state its purpose; perhaps it was part of some college course. One couplet unintentionally betrays Lovecraft’s hermitry during this period: “Th’ untravell’d student, close within his doors, / The lofty peak and crystal lake explores.” Lovecraft—who would not set foot outside of the three states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut until 1921,[48] who would not sleep under a roof other than his own between 1901 and 1920,[49] and who (largely for economic reasons) never left the North American continent—must have found the idea of visiting Switzerland as fantastic as visiting Antarctica.

  Lovecraft gives a picture of his literary production during this “empty” period:

  Chemical writing—plus a little historical and antiquarian research—filled my years of feebleness till about 1911, when I had a reaction toward literature. I then gave my prose style the greatest overhauling it has ever had; purging it at once of some vile journalese and some absurd Johnsonianism. Little by little I felt that I was forging the instrument I ought to have forged a decade ago—a decent style capable of expressing what I wished to say. But I still wrote verse and persisted in the delusion that I was a poet.[50]

  The curious thing about this is that we have very few examples of his expository prose between “The Alchemist” (1908)—or the last astronomy column for the Providence Tribune, “Solar Eclipse Feature of June Heavens” (June 1, 1908), whichever was later—and the beginning of his astronomy column for the Providence Evening News on January 1, 1914. There is a curious letter to the editor of the Providence Sunday Journal for August 3, 1913, complaining of the inadequate seating for band concerts at Roger Williams Park (the letter suggests that Lovecraft was a frequent attendant of these concerts) and recommending, a trifle implausibly, that the city build a huge auditorium resembling the Dionysiac Theatre in Athens. And there are a few other letters that I shall mention presently.

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