I am providence the life.., p.22

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 22


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

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  What we do have are a series of poems presumably written “about 1911” or sometime thereafter. Few of these are at all distinguished, but one is of consuming biographical interest: “The Members of the Men’s Club of the First Universalist Church of Providence, R.I., to Its President, About to Leave for Florida on Account of His Health.”

  There is no clear way of dating this poem, and it may have been written as early as 1910 or as late as 1914; but what is remarkable about it is its mere existence, indicating that Lovecraft was a member of this men’s club. The First Universalist Society had been established in Providence since 1821, and had initially set up a chapel at Westminster and Union Streets in what is now downtown Providence. A new church was built in 1872 at the corner of Greene and Washington Streets[51] (at the western end of downtown Providence, near the Providence Public Library), and this must have been where Lovecraft went when he participated in the men’s club. I can only sense the hand of Lovecraft’s mother in this entire enterprise: having failed on at least two occasions to inculcate standard Sunday school training in him as a boy, she perhaps felt that a less rigidly doctrinal church would be more to his liking. Actually, in all likelihood it was a means of preventing Lovecraft from becoming wholly withdrawn from society—in effect, a way of getting him out of the house every now and then. The poem sings the praises of the unnamed founder and president of the club:

  The club’s foundations by your hands were laid;

  Beneath your rule its guiding laws were made;

  Your efforts caus’d the social band to gain

  The pow’r at once to teach and entertain.

  With careful thought, its policy you fix’d,

  The grave and gay in just proportion mix’d;

  Nor let its frequent meetings know a dearth

  Of lofty learning, or diverting mirth.

  This does not tell us very precisely what this club’s purpose and functions were, but those are things we are not likely ever to know.

  The other poems written around this time similarly concern themselves with local affairs, and unfortunately their one clear thematic link is racism. “Providence in 2000 A.D.” is Lovecraft’s first published poem, appearing in the Evening Bulletin for March 4, 1912. It is actually quite funny, although much of the humour would not be very well received today. The parenthetical prose paragraph that prefaces the poem—“(It is announced in the Providence Journal that the Italians desire to alter the name of Atwell’s Avenue to ‘Columbus Avenue’)”—tells the whole story: Lovecraft ridicules the idea that the Italians of the Federal Hill area have any right to change the Yankee-bestowed name of the principal thoroughfare of their own district. (The street was not in fact renamed.) The satire is quite devastating, telling of an Englishman who, in the year 2000, returns to Rhode Island, the land of his forbears, and finds everything foreignised. He disembarks at the port in Narragansett Bay: “I left the ship, and with astonish’d eyes / Survey’d a city fill’d with foreign cries.” He finds that Fox Point has been changed by the Portuguese to Sao Miguel’s Cape; that the Irish have changed South Main Street to O’Murphy’s Avenue; that the Jews have changed Market Square to Goldstein’s Court and Turk’s Head to Finklestein’s Cross-ways. Finally he reaches the Italian district:

  I next climb’d on a car northwestward bound,

  And soon ’mid swarthy men myself I found

  On La Collina Federale’s brow,

  Near Il Passagio di Colombo.

  He finds that the entire town of Pawtucket has been renamed New Dublin Town, and Woonsocket has become Nouvelle Paris. In Olneyville he has the following experience: “In what was once called ‘Olneyville’ I saw / A street sign painted: “Wsjzxypq$?&%$ ladislaw.” Fleeing in horror back to the wharf, he finds a “shrivell’d form” who declares himself a “monstrous prodigy”: “Last of my kind, a lone unhappy man, / My name is Smith! I’m an American!” The fact that the Evening Bulletin published this thing must have meant that others aside from Lovecraft found it funny. At least he does not discriminate against anyone in this poem: all the ethnic minorities of Providence—Italians, Portuguese, Jews, Poles, Irish, French-Canadians—are skewered.

  Other poems of this period are much nastier, but were fortunately not published at the time. “New-England Fallen” (April 1912) is a wretched 152-line spasm headed predictably with an epigraph from Juvenal’s third satire (on the mongrelisation of Rome) and speaking of some mythical time when hard-working, pious Anglo-Saxon yeomen established the dominant culture of New England—

  Oft to the village drove good Farmer John,

  To stock his larder, and supply his barn.

  ’Mid shady streets he sought the village store,

  And hail’d the rustics cluster’d ’round the door.

  —only to have “foreign boors” infiltrate the society and corrupt it from within:

  The village rings with ribald foreign cries;

  Around the wine-shops loaf with bleary eyes

  A vicious crew, that mock the name of “man”,

  Yet dare to call themselves “American”.

  This is surely close to the nadir of Lovecraft’s poetic output—not only for the ignorant racism involved, but for its array of trite, hackneyed imagery and nauseating sentimentality in depicting the blissful life of the stolid yeoman farmer. Perhaps only the notorious “On the Creation of Niggers” (1912) exceeds this specimen in vileness. This is the entire poem:

  When, long ago, the Gods created Earth,

  In Jove’s fair image Man was shap’d at birth.

  The beasts for lesser parts were next design’d;

  Yet were they too remote from humankind.

  To fill this gap, and join the rest to man,

  Th’ Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.

  A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,

  Fill’d it with vice, and call’d the thing a NIGGER.

  The only thing that can be said for this is that it at least does not, like “De Triumpho Naturae” or “New-England Fallen,” hypocritically convey its racism by appealing to the Christian imagery in which Lovecraft did not believe. No publication has been found for this poem, and one can only hope there is none. The text survives, however, in a hectographed copy, which suggests that Lovecraft may at least have passed this poem around to friends or family; it is likely that they approved—or at least did not object—to his sentiments.

  “On a New-England Village Seen by Moonlight” is dated to September 7, 1913, on the manuscript; it was not published until 1915. Its introductory paragraph is all one needs to read: “(The peaceful old villages of New England are fast losing their original Yankee inhabitants and their agricultural atmosphere, being now the seats of manufacturing industries peopled by Southern European and Western Asiatic immigrants of low grade.)” This poem, in eight quatrains, returns to the theme of “New-England Fallen” but lays somewhat more emphasis on the loss of agriculture and its ways of life and the dominance of machinery than on the incursion of foreigners, although to Lovecraft the two phenomena worked together.

  A somewhat more innocuous poem is “Quinsnicket Park,” which Lovecraft dates to 1913.[52] Quinsnicket Park (now called Lincoln Woods Park) is situated four miles north of Providence and was one of Lovecraft’s favourite sylvan retreats; throughout his life he would walk there and read or write in the open air. His 117-line paean to this rustic haven is trite, wooden, and mechanical, but contains at least this interesting passage:

  In yonder reedy pool we half expect

  Some timid Nymph or Satyr to detect:

  Our raptur’d eyes for fleeing Naiads scan,

  And ears are strain’d to hear the pipes of Pan.

  One thinks of Lovecraft’s mystical vision of “the hoofed Pan and the sisters of the Hesperian Phaëthusa” at the age of seven, although that is more likely to have occurred at Blackstone Park on the banks of the Seekonk rather than in Quinsnicket.

  We do not know much else about Lovecraft’s s
pecific activities during these years. It is likely that he sequestered himself in his study and read enormous quantities of books, whether it be science or belles lettres; it was probably at this time that he laid the foundations for that later erudition in so many fields which astounded his colleagues. No doubt he continued to read weird fiction also. He states in 1925 that he read Conan Doyle’s The Lost World “fifteen or more years ago,”[53] but actually he could not have read it any earlier than 1912, when it was published; and he probably did read it on that occasion.

  One specific type of fiction we know he read in great quantities was the early pulp magazines. In the only extant issue of the Rhode Island Journal of Science & Astronomy (September 27, 1903) makes reference to an article by E. G. Dodge entitled “Can Men Visit the Moon?” in the October issue of Munsey’s Magazine, which if nothing else indicates that Lovecraft was reading the journal at least as early as this. It is a point of debate whether the various magazines founded by Frank A. Munsey are or are not pulps; for our purposes it will suffice to say that they were significant forerunners of the pulp magazines and form a natural chain of continuity in popular magazine fiction from the dime and nickel novels of the later nineteenth century to the genuine pulps of the 1920s. As avid a dime novel reader as Lovecraft appears to have been, it is in no way surprising that he would ultimately find the Munsey magazines a compelling if guilty pleasure. What he did not know at the time was that they would radically transform his life and his career—largely, but not uniformly, for the better.

  There is no evidence of how long Lovecraft had read Munsey’s prior to the October 1903 issue (which, as with most popular magazines, was on the stands well before the cover date), nor how long he continued to read it. But there is no gainsaying the following letter to the All-Story Weekly for March 7, 1914:

  Having read every number of your magazine since its beginning in January, 1905, I feel in some measure privileged to write a few words of approbation and criticism concerning its contents.

  In the present age of vulgar taste and sordid realism it is a relief to peruse a publication such as The All-Story, which has ever been and still remains under the influence of the imaginative school of Poe and Verne.

  Elsewhere Lovecraft stated that that first issue, January 1905, was available on the newsstands as early as November 1904.[54] The All-Story was a companion magazine to the Argosy, which Munsey had changed to an all-fiction magazine in October 1896.[55] It went through many permutations of title, changing to a weekly on March 7, 1914, and then combining with the Cavalier (which had commenced in October 1908) to become the All-Story Cavalier Weekly on May 16, 1914. Lovecraft of course read the Argosy also, as we shall presently see, although it is difficult to know how early he began reading it. Lovecraft in 1916 admitted a little sheepishly that “In 1913 I had formed the reprehensible habit of picking up cheap magazines like The Argosy to divert my mind from the tedium of reality,”[56] but it is now evident that this is, at the very least, an equivocation as far as the All-Story is concerned. It is quite conceivable that Lovecraft read the Argosy from as early as 1905 or even before, but at the moment this will have to remain a conjecture. One further bit of evidence is the fact that full-page advertisements for the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania, regularly appear in the Argosy, and it is very likely from this source that Lovecraft learned of this organisation and used its services around 1909. In 1935 he reports reading the Popular Magazine (Street & Smith’s rival to the Argosy) “25 or 30 years ago,”[57] hence about the period 1905–10; but it is not clear how long or how regularly he read this periodical, which on the whole did not feature as much weird material as the Munseys.

  One other interesting—indeed, almost alarming—fact is that Lovecraft read the entire run of the Railroad Man’s Magazine (1906–19),[58] a staggering quantity of fiction and articles about railroads. This was the first specialised Munsey pulp, and the image of Lovecraft reading 150 monthly issues of this magazine is somewhat unnerving. Perhaps the very fact that he had to give up his “New Anvik” at the age of seventeen compelled him to satisfy his enthusiasm for railroads through print.

  What was the fascination of these magazines for Lovecraft? The letter quoted above supplies a part of the answer: they contained a significant amount of horror, fantasy, mystery, and science fiction, material that was already ceasing to appear in the standard “slick” or literary magazines of the day. As Lovecraft noted in 1932: “In general . . . the Munsey publications did more to publish weird fiction than any other magazine enterprise of the early 20th century.”[59] Elsewhere he remarks that he “first began to notice”[60] the Black Cat (1895–1922) around 1904, and that that magazine and the All-Story “were the first source of contemporary weird material I ever stumbled on.”[61] To one who had nurtured himself on Poe, W. Clark Russell, and other nineteenth-century authors, the notion that weird fiction was being written in his own day must have been both stimulating and, perhaps, inspiring.

  And yet, I have refrained from mentioning Lovecraft’s prodigious reading of the Munsey pulps until now because, unlike the dime and nickel novels, they do not appear to have influenced the two surviving tales of the 1903–08 period, “The Beast in the Cave” and “The Alchemist.” The influence of Poe, the Gothics, and the Augustan essayists (in prose style) seems dominant there, a somewhat anomalous fact given Lovecraft’s obvious enthusiasm for the Munseys. In any event, we now know another thing Lovecraft continued to do during his “blank” period of 1908–13: he may have had a nervous breakdown, but he never missed an issue of the All-Story.

  Lovecraft’s first published letter to the Munsey magazines—discovered only recently—appeared in the Argosy for November 1911.[62] The letter-column of the Argosy—entitled “The Log-Book”—had only been established in the February 1911 issue, and letters were initially slow to come in; but by the end of the year many letters (identified only by the initials of the writer and his or her city of residence) were being published, with running commentary by the editor. In the November 1911 issue the editor announces: “And now comes H. P. L., of Providence, Rhode Island,” and goes on to quote some actual portions of Lovecraft’s letter: his favourite writer is Albert Payson Terhune (at this time an author of historical novels and tales, not yet the creator of Lassie); he disapproves of the slang in some stories, and prefers tales set in the past or in some other exciting locale rather than those set in the present. All this is entirely typical of Lovecraft, although his lack of critical acumen in praising Terhune, who was no better than a competent hack writer, is painfully evident. An undated poetic paean to Terhune—“To Mr. Terhune, on His Historical Fiction”—may date to this time. It is, in fact, in the form of a letter to the editor of the Argosy, although perhaps it was not actually submitted to the magazine; in any event, it did not appear there.

  Lovecraft’s next letter, appearing in the February 8, 1913, issue of the All-Story Cavalier, is a comment on Irvin S. Cobb’s magnificent tale of a half-man, half-fish hybrid, “Fishhead,” of which Lovecraft says: “It is the belief of the writer that very few short stories of equal merit have been published anywhere during recent years.” I believe that this powerful tale lodged in Lovecraft’s mind and would form a significant influence on one of his major stories, as I shall have occasion to note later.

  In the fall of that year Lovecraft’s letter-writing campaign shifts back to the Argosy; but at the moment I wish to return to the letter of 1914 that I have already quoted, a letter of close to 2000 words, taking up nearly two full printed pages. It is a sort of grand summation of everything he liked in the magazine and an encapsulation of what he thought it stood for. Scorning the plea of one G. W. F. of Dundee, Scotland, for more “probable” stories, Lovecraft declaims:

  If, in fact, man is unable to create living beings out of inorganic matter, to hypnotise beasts of the forest to do his will, to swing from tree to tree with the apes of the African jungle, to restore to life the mummified cor
pses of the Pharaohs and the Incas, or to explore the atmosphere of Venus and the deserts of Mars, permit us, at least, in fancy, to witness these miracles, and to satisfy that craving for the unknown, the weird, and the impossible which exists in every active human brain.

  That last statement is certainly a little sanguine: if everyone had a craving for the unknown, then weird fiction would not be as unrecognised a literary mode as it is. But the catalogue presented above is not only a series of synopses of some of the celebrated tales published in the All-Story but, in several instances, a selection of plot-elements that Lovecraft himself would use in his own later work (and, for all we know, had already used in the destroyed tales of 1903–08).

  There follow paeans to many of the All-Story’s most popular writers. Who is first to be named? “At or near the head of your list of writers Edgar Rice Burroughs undoubtedly stands.” Lovecraft goes on to single out Tarzan of the Apes (October 1912), The Gods of Mars (January–May 1913), and Warlord of Mars (December 1913–March 1914), although it is typical that while praising these stories he takes care to point out astronomical and other factual errors in the works. Later in life Lovecraft seemed embarrassed at his juvenile (or not so juvenile: he was twenty-three when he wrote this letter) fondness for Burroughs, and he sought to distance himself from the creator of Tarzan. In 1929, when urging a correspondent not to yield to the temptations of the market and write hackwork, he lumps Burroughs with Edgar A. Guest and Harold Bell Wright as examples of the fact that “the veriest idiot and ignoramus can sometimes bring down fame on a luck-shot.”[63] Not long thereafter, in saying that “I shall sooner or later get around to the interplanetary field myself,” he adds explicitly: “you may depend upon it that I shall not choose Edmond Hamilton, Ray Cummings, or Edgar Rice Burroughs as my model!”[64] This gives no indication of how much he had enjoyed the John Carter Martian novels fifteen years before.

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