I am providence the life.., p.23

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 23


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

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  In his letter Lovecraft goes on to praise many other writers, few of whom are of any note—William Patterson White, Lee Robinet, William Tillinghast Eldridge, William Loren Curtiss, Donald Francis McGrew, and others. A later letter (published in the All-Story Cavalier Weekly for August 15, 1914) praises George Allan England, Albert Payson Terhune, and Zane Grey. What is remarkable is that most of these writers did not even write weird fiction: Zane Grey, of course, was the legendary Western writer; Terhune, as just noted, became famous for dog stories; McGrew was an adventure writer whose “red-blooded” stories met with Lovecraft’s thunderous approval; and Lovecraft even liked the many humorous tales in the magazine. This means that Lovecraft read each issue—sometimes 192 pages, sometimes 240 pages—from cover to cover, month after month or even (when it changed to a weekly) week after week. This is an appalling amount of popular fiction for anyone to read, and in fact it contravened the purpose of the magazines, whereby each member of the family would read only those stories or those types of stories that were of interest to him or her.[65] One begins to develop the impression that Lovecraft was compulsive in whatever he did: his discovery of classical antiquity led him to write a paraphrase of the Odyssey, Iliad, and other works; his discovery of chemistry led him to launch a daily scientific paper; his discovery of astronomy led him to publish a weekly paper for years; and now his discovery of pulp fiction caused him to be a voracious reader of both the good and the bad, both the work that appealed to his special tastes and the work that did not.

  It is possible that the All-Story published this long letter in its issue of March 7, 1914, because Lovecraft himself had become, after a fashion, a celebrity in the entire Munsey chain. This had come about in a very odd way. Lovecraft, reading everything the Argosy put in front of him, found some material less appealing to his fastidious taste than others. Consider a comment in his long letter:

  “The Souls of Men,” by Martha M. Stanley, was a distinctly disagreeable tale, but “Pilgrims in Love,” by De Lysle Ferrée Cass, is contemptibly disgusting, unspeakably nauseating. Mr. G. W. S., of Chicago, has written that Cass “diplomatically handles a very difficult subject—Oriental love.”

  We do not care for subjects so near allied to vulgarity, however “diplomatically” they may be “handled.” Of such “Oriental love” we may speak in the words of the lazy but ingenious schoolboy, who when asked by his tutor to describe the reign of Caligula, replied, “that the less said about it, the better.”

  This gives some idea of the trend of Lovecraft’s thinking at this time: rousing action plots by Edgar Rice Burroughs he did not consider “vulgar,” but anything that suggested anything even remotely off-colour earned the puritanical Lovecraft’s quick and vicious condemnation. I have not read the Cass story,[66] but it is quite possible that it did explore sexual situations somewhat more daringly than was customary in the standard literature of the day; one gets the impression, however, that no such work, however artistic, would have met with Lovecraft’s favour.

  It is, then, no surprise that a very popular Argosy writer named Fred Jackson would be blasted by Lovecraft in the issue for September 1913. Jackson had become an Argosy staple, and two of his short novels had appeared complete in recent issues, “The First Law” in April 1913 and “The Third Act” in June 1913. This really was an unprecedented amount of space to give to a single author, and the subject-matter of these works was not of a kind to sit well with Lovecraft. “The First Law” is an unbelievably sappy, melodramatic, and verbose story of an opera singer; here is a sample:

  She struggled against him fiercely, her whole being outraged, but he was by far the stronger. He held her fast, and his lips touched her ear, her throat, her chin, and eyes, and at last crushed her mouth until she gasped for breath.

  Then he drew back and she lay passive in his arms, trembling, terrified at the madness that possessed her. It was as though he had awakened some sleeping demon—a creature unknown to her, a creature thirsty for his kisses, aching for his embrace.[67]

  Jackson would probably have made a good Harlequin romance writer today.

  What is frequently overlooked is that Lovecraft’s tirade was not inspired merely by the unwonted dominance of Jackson in the pages of Argosy but by a letter purportedly attacking him in the July 1913 issue. This letter—by one F. V. Bennett of Hanover, Illinois—is, however, so illiterate that Lovecraft believed it to be a sort of self-parody designed indirectly to praise Jackson:

  do you know why I stoped taking The Cavalier It was Fred Jackson to mutch of him I should Say Now I have to Pay for THE ARGOSY when he takes up Nearly half of It . . . I shall not Subscribe for THE ARGOSY again If you Publish Jackson’s Stories so often for I don’t Read them any more Just Cant stand them and I see you are to Publish another Book Length Novel by Jackson in June supose you won’t Like this Letter.

  Lovecraft could well be excused for thinking as he did, especially since the editor added the wry note: “Oh, no, you are mistaken—I do like this letter.”

  Lovecraft’s own letter in the September 1913 issue could hardly be taken as a self-parody. He begins by quoting Thomas Tickell’s preface to Addison’s Cato (“Too long hath love engross’d Britannia’s stage, / And sunk to softness all our tragic rage”), and goes on to express his opinion that Bennett’s letter “is in reality a sly attempt at augmenting the fame of your contributor, Fred Jackson.” He continues: “To the eye of a disinterested observer it appears as though an effort were being made forcibly to obtrude Mr. Jackson upon the reading public by an unexampled campaign of advertising, and by the selection for publication in the Log-Book of those letters wherein he receives the greatest amount of adulation.” There is something to be said for this, too: “The Log-Book” of the previous several issues had been filled with praise for Jackson, many of them from men, curiously enough. Of course, Lovecraft overlooks the possibility that Jackson really was popular with Argosy readers; or, rather, overlooks the undoubted fact that most of the magazine’s readers had very lax literary standards and were only interested in cheap entertainment. Lovecraft, indeed, does not claim that Jackson’s novels “are wholly wanting in merit,” noting a little dryly that “There is a numerous set of people whose chief literary delight is obtained in the following of imaginary nymphs and swains through the labyrinthine paths of amorous adventure”; but he strenuously objects to the dominance of such work in the Argosy. And it is a fact, maintains Lovecraft, that Jackson is simply a bad writer:

  Apart from the mere choice of subject, let me venture to describe the Jacksonine type of tale as trivial, effeminate, and, in places, coarse.

  . . .

  Into the breasts of his characters, and appearing to dominate them to the exclusion of reason, he places the delicate passions and emotions proper to negroes or anthropoid apes.

  His literary style is feeble, and often excessively familiar. He abounds in “split” infinitives, and occasionally falls into the use of outlandish words, as, for instance, “live-in-able,” instead of “habitable.”

  The remark about “negroes or anthropoid apes” is only what one would expect from someone who the previous year had written “On the Creation of Niggers.”

  The response to this letter is not likely to have been predicted either by Lovecraft or by Matthew White, Jr, editor of the Argosy. The November 1913 issue contained several more letters on Jackson: one by the redoubtable F. V. Bennett, just as illiterate as its predecessor and evidently unaware that Lovecraft had ranked him as a Jackson supporter (“H. P. Lovecraft Is Right he gets My Meaning give us a Rest from Jackson Stuff”); one, by “E. F. W. C.” of Paris, Kentucky, attacking Bennett but not alluding to Lovecraft; and two others specifically supporting Jackson and attacking both Lovecraft and Bennett. One of these, by T. P. Crean of Syracuse, New York, claims: “I am still puzzling over H. P. Lovecraft’s letter. I can understand how the brilliant F. V. Bennett cannot go Jackson’s stories. But Mr. Lovecraft, from his letter, should be able to tell a good
story when he reads one. I am personally of the opinion that this letter was merely to display to THE ARGOSY world his vocabulary . . .” This is a refrain that would frequently be rung in the entire controversy. The affair, however, might not have taken the peculiar turn it did had not the other letter, by John Russell of Tampa, Florida, been written in verse. This is a whimsical four-stanza piece which begins:

  Does Mr. Lovecraft think it wise

  With such long words to criticize

  An author whom we greatly prize?

  That’s Freddie Jackson.

  Lovecraft describes it as “a piece of tetrameter verse . . . which had in it so much native wit, that I resolved to answer it.”[68] Sure enough, he responded in the January 1914 issue with a verse epistle of his own in what he fancied was the manner of Pope’s Dunciad. In fact, it is a very clever poem, and reveals that penchant for stinging satire which would be one of the few virtues of his poetic output.

  The manuscript of the poem is headed “Ad Criticos” (“To [my] critics”) (with the subtitle “Liber Primus,” probably added at a later date as Lovecraft continued to add to the cycle); in the published version it is titled “Lovecraft Comes Back: Ad Criticos.” It opens thunderously:

  What vig’rous protests now assail my eyes?

  See Jackson’s satellites in anger rise!

  His ardent readers, steep’d in tales of love,

  Sincere devotion to their leader prove;

  In brave defence of sickly gallantry,

  They damn the critic, and beleaguer me.

  The pun on “ardent” is very good. Lovecraft praises Russell for his cleverness and wit, and then proceeds to take his other enemies to task. To T. P. Crean he replies:

  In truth, my words are not beyond the reach

  Of him who understands the English speech;

  But Crean, I fear, by reading Jackson long,

  Hath lost the pow’r to read his mother tongue.

  Lovecraft concludes the poem by comparing the present time to “Charles the Second’s vulgar age,” when “Gross Wycherley and Dryden soil’d the stage.”

  But before Lovecraft’s verse letter was printed, he was ferociously assailed in the December 1913 issue. Some of the titles which the editor affixed to the letters give some idea of the outrage Lovecraft had provoked: “Challenge to Lovecraft” (G. E. Bonner, Springfield, Ohio); “Virginia vs. Providence” (Miss E. E. Blankenship, Richmond, Virginia); “Elmira vs. Providence” (Elizabeth E. Loop, Elmira, New York); “Bomb for Lovecraft” (F. W. Saunders, Coalgate, Oklahoma). Miss Blankenship wrote: “I think you are very ungenerous in your attitude, Mr. Lovecraft. Your words ‘erratic [sic] fiction’ I fail to acknowledge. Instead I find pages filled with innocence, sweetness, loveliness, and fascination.” G. E. Bonner, praising Jackson’s two recent novels, wrote: “. . . when a man gets weary of reading that kind of a story I think the trouble is with the man himself and not with the author.” Elizabeth E. Loop found Lovecraft’s polysyllables tiresome and confusing, concluding: “I am an admirer of Mr. Jackson’s stories, but this letter of Mr. Lovecraft’s filled me with a distaste for our friend from Providence.”

  Saunders’ “Bomb for Lovecraft” was the longest attack, but it has little substance; and in the process he reveals his own ignorance. He maintains: “It seems to me that Mr. L. is inconsistent, in that he charges Fred Jackson with a number of faults, among them being the use of outlandish words. In this respect, I think Mr. L. is equally at fault, if it be a fault.” Complaining, like Elizabeth Loop, of Lovecraft’s long words, he states that he cannot find such words as “Josh-Billingsgate” and “Hanoverian” in his dictionary: “If any of the readers have a dictionary with these expressions, please tear the leaf out and send it to me so that I may ‘study up’ on ’em.”

  Two letters did take Lovecraft’s side, however; they were each headed “Agrees with Lovecraft.” One, by A. Missbaum of Paris, France, expressed sentiments very similar to Lovecraft’s: “. . . I entirely agree . . . with H. P. Lovecraft . . . Yes, Fred Jackson is rotten. Give us less love stories (unless they are live ones) and more scientific mystery tales.” The other letter, by H. F. B. of Los Angeles, complains merely that Jackson is given too much space in the magazine while other “excellent first-class writers” are given short shrift.

  In a “Liber Secundus” published in the February 1914 Argosy Lovecraft takes potshots at these new opponents. The tone of this poem is much sharper than that of its predecessor. Lovecraft was, of course, in a position of overwhelming intellectual superiority to most of his victims, and sometimes it seems as if he is shooting fish in a barrel; but the satire is nonetheless withering for all that. To F. W. Saunders and his dictionary-hunting, Lovecraft advises: “Too much upon your lexicon you lean, / For proper names in such are seldom seen.” And as for the flocks of women who attacked him:

  Now fairer forms from out the ranks emerge;

  The Amazons in reckless fury charge.

  Good Madam Loop, like Crean of Syracuse,

  Protests unkindly ’gainst the words I use:

  Whoe’er this lady’s firm esteem would seek,

  In monosyllables must ever speak.

  He could hardly have passed up Miss Blankenship’s error of “erratic” for “erotic”:

  Exactitude the fair one hardly heeds,

  Since she “erratic” for “erotic” reads,

  But unimportant ’tis, for by my troth,

  Jackson’s erratic and erotic both!

  In this issue Lovecraft begins to gather both friends and enemies—mostly the latter. One of the staunchest of the former is no other than F. V. Bennett, who had unwittingly begun the controversy. Now becoming literate (or having his letter corrected of spelling mistakes and of erroneous or absent punctuation), he writes, “well, shake, H.P.L.,” and claims that “we started the ball that called a halt to the rush of Jackson soft stuff.” This remark is confirmed by a note by Bob Davis in the issue: “I can promise that you won’t get too much Jackson in 1914 . . .” This does not mean, of course, that readers would get no Jackson: another short novel, “Ambushed” (a mystery story with a romance element), had already appeared in the October 1913 issue, and “Winged Feet” was published in February 1914; but after this there was nothing until “The Marriage Auction” in January 1915. Thereafter, however, Jackson returns with a vengeance: “Red Robin” appeared in July 1915, “The Diamond Necklace” in October and November 1915, “Where’s the Woman?” from October 6 to November 3, 1917, and “A Woman’s Prey” in November 24, 1917; “Young Blood” appeared serially in Munsey’s beginning in October 1917. In this sense it could hardly be said that Lovecraft and his supporters had helped to effect any sort of change in the Argosy’s editorial policy; the fact is that, as various editor’s notes make clear, Jackson finally ceased to appear in the Munsey magazines because he decided to take up the writing of plays, and in later years gained considerable success at this new career.

  In a lengthy response in the February 1914 issue, headed “Replies to Lovecraft,” T. P. Crean maintains that “I admire very much his use of the English language and his poetic ability” but goes on to say that

  He tells Mr. Russell, one of Mr. Jackson’s defenders, that his (Russell’s) poem was worthy of a better cause. In the same sense it strikes me that Mr. Lovecraft’s extensive vocabulary and easily adapted rimes should be employed other than roasting an author, who, although he may have a few defects in a story, produces a tale that is interesting from start to finish, which is all that a reader of a fiction magazine can ask for.

  Amusingly, he concludes with “Ta-ta, Lovey,” unwittingly exhuming the derogatory nickname Lovecraft had endured at the Slater Avenue School.

  In the March 1914 issue there is a curious interruption in the controversy. There are, of course, any number of letters attacking Lovecraft. Clifford D. Ennis of Buffalo, New York, makes a now familiar argument: “If Mr. Lovecraft wishes to display his vocabulary I wish, for the sake of Mr. Jacks
on’s many admirers, he would exhibit it in praising, not criticizing.” W. J. Thompson of Winnipeg, Canada, claims: “Unlike our friend, ‘The Rhode Island Scholar and Critic’ (H. P. Lovecraft), I did not expect to get five dollars’ worth of reading for fifteen cents. Bring on Jackson as often as you can.” H. M. Fisher of Atlanta makes a snide reference to “Mr. H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘bee-u-ti-ful’ poem,” adding:

  Mr. Lovecraft must feel better since he got rid of his “Mary had a little lamb” effort.

  However, if a man can be judged by the stories he writes, Mr. Jackson, to use the vernacular of the day, is “some” man. I consider him one of the best writers THE ARGOSY has on its staff, and I feel certain that Mr. Lovecraft had better thank his stars that his disposition is expressed in letter form and not personally.

  Congratulate Mr. Jackson for me, please, on his stories, from one who has possibly more books on his book-case than Mr. Lovecraft has perused in his career, although they may not be “high-brow” caliber.

  But the principal item in “The Log-Book” is a long (prose) letter by Lovecraft entitled “Correction for Lovecraft.” Here he cites two lines of his first verse epistle as printed in the Argosy for January 1914: “Think not, good rimester, that I sought to shew / In my last letter, merely what I knew.” Lovecraft had, of course, written “know,” but the copy editor, no doubt puzzled by Lovecraft’s British usage, made the alteration in the belief that “shew” was pronounced “shoe.” This brought down Lovecraft’s wrath: “. . . three faults remain: (1) The rime is destroyed. (2) The sense of ‘know’ is changed from present to past, and (3) ‘shew’ remains unaltered and inharmonious with the general spelling of the verse.” This letter brought a devastating response from John Russell in the May 1914 issue:

  Lovecraft has dropped from rime to prose,

  To shew that what he knew, he knows.

  I say that really to my view

  ’Twas little that he ever knew.

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