I am providence the life.., p.24

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 24


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

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  In April 1914 Lovecraft was attacked from several different directions. Ira B. Forrest (Messick, Virginia) unwittingly made perhaps the most acute analysis of Lovecraft’s position when he noted: “Possible [sic] Mr. Lovecraft is a grouchy old bachelor and dislikes sentiment in any form.” E. P. Rahs also notes perspicaciously: “Be considerate and remember the magazine is not published for any one of us exclusively”; he concludes: “Give us more Jackson and less Lovecraft.” Russell responded with a pungent verse:

  Say! Lovecraft in his last epistle

  Has jumped upon a Scottish thistle.

  I hold no brief for Jackson

  (His stories give me satisfaction).

  He scoffed at everything romantic;

  He talks about an am’rous pest

  Well, take the Author’s proven best.

  Dickens and Fenny, Shakespeare, Scott,

  You’ll find the same in all the lot;

  Where there’s a tale, there’s love, of course;

  Sometimes it’s better, sometimes worse.

  Lovecraft no doubt violently objected to that last conception and would strive as far as possible to exemplify his disagreement with it in his own tales. F. W. Saunders also attempted to respond in verse, with a poem entitled “Ruat Caelum” (“Let the heavens shake”), written in heroic couplets clearly meant to mimic and parody Lovecraft’s:

  With humbled horn, and hide with fat well filled,

  I waddle forth to meet this chieftain skilled

  In martial notes. Then on doth pout [sic] my feet

  To battleground, upon fair Angell Street.

  This entire long poem is really rather clever, if at times a bit incoherent.

  Something strange now happens: no more replies by Lovecraft are published in the Argosy until October 1914. There are two further books of Lovecraft’s “Ad Criticos” in manuscript: did he not submit them for publication? or were they not accepted? The latter seems unlikely, since an editorial note at the end of “Correction for Lovecraft” declares: “You are always welcome in the Log-Book.” Whatever the situation, Lovecraft’s “Liber Tertius” first addresses Russell—

  “Behold,” he cries, “through classic pages move

  The sweet delusions of idyllic love.”

  Russell, ’tis true. Give proper love its own,

  But let us not be fed on love alone!

  —and then Rahs, whose name he cannot resist punning:

  But what shrill shoutings now offend my ear?

  Methinks, some rough and raucous Rahs I hear.

  No brutal force my new opponent lacks;

  He bluntly yells, I should receive the axe!

  He also takes note of Saunders’s poem—“His verse is modell’d after Pope’s (or mine).”

  But when Lovecraft was writing this response, he did not know that the April 14, 1914, issue of the All-Story Weekly would contain a bombshell from an S. P. N. (Kennett Square, Pennsylvania) who blasted Lovecraft’s own long letter in the March 7 issue.

  I have become acquainted with that gentleman before. He seems to be a born knocker and an egoist of the worst type. His vanity is awful. His assumed eloquence and literary powers are disgusting.

  This is the first time I have seen him in the All-Story and I don’t wish to see him again.

  This goes on for half a column (“Wait till he starts firing some of his rotten poetry at you. Oh, my!”). Lovecraft does not seem ever to have made a public response to this bit of venom.

  By summer the controversy is beginning to die down. An editorial note in the May 1914 issue declares that “The same old warfare over Jackson is going on, in prose and verse,” and this issue does indeed contain (aside from Russell’s verse, already cited) a number of other poems attacking Lovecraft. J. C. Cummings of Chicago writes in blundering verse:

  I think, indeed, he has no sense

  When he has no love for Jackson,

  For, unlike the bard of Providence,

  His craft brings satisfaction.

  Here is Richard Forster of Rothwell, Wyoming:

  I think, indeed, it would be best

  To let poor Jackson have a rest,

  And Lovecraft try his bitter spite

  On some other poor luckless wight.

  Mrs W. S. Ritter of Cleveland objects to “the amount of space given this person Lovecraft when two or three interesting letters might have been printed in the space so used.” But the most vicious response is a prose letter by Jack E. Brown of Kellogg, Idaho: “I get sore at people like H. P. L. I will pay his fifteen cents a month if he will quit reading the ARGOSY. . . . I am a cow-puncher, and certainly would like to loosen up my .44-six on that man Lovecraft.” Lovecraft had no defenders in this issue, although H. R. G. of Cedar Rapids, Nebraska, writes ambiguously: “The Log-Book has become very interesting lately on account of the comments on H. P. Lovecraft.” But with Lovecraft himself not replying (or, at least, with his replies not being printed), the debate had little to feed itself upon. The unpublished “Liber Quartus” of “Ad Criticos” does address Russell’s acid lines in the May issue:

  He shuns politeness in his spleenful scrawl,

  And swears my stock of learning is but small.

  In well-turn’d lines, with sickly venom writ,

  He counts my failings to display his wit.

  Clearly Russell’s squib got under his skin. As for J. C. Cummings, he “gains distinction and eternal fame / From neatly playing on a hated name”; and Lovecraft devastatingly points out the clumsiness in Forster’s attempt at verse:

  In true trochaic rage the bard begins,

  When, lo! an odd iambus intervenes.

  Some eight lines down, he strikes the ballad form,

  But soon a dactyl swells the shapeless swarm:

  The fifteenth line assumes heroic length,

  And stands apart in solitary strength.

  This is an entirely valid criticism, for unlike free verse Forster’s poem attempted to adhere to regular metre but simply failed to do so. Lovecraft then unleashes an argument that he would use over and over again in regard to free verse:

  As for the rest, what man among us knows

  If it be verse, or merely rhyming prose?

  On Forster’s sense I waste but little care,

  For why discuss a thing that is not there?

  In June Russell comes back with a poem entitled “Love Versus Lovecraft,” responding to Lovecraft’s “Liber Secundus.” He puts forth an interesting speculation:

  If by mischance some fair, false maid

  Has havoc with his feelings played,

  He should in silence bear the pain

  And from his jeers at love refrain.

  Perchance he thinks in his smart way

  That woman is of meaner clay;

  That love is but a thing of jest,

  He stands, a cynic, self-confessed.

  C. M. Turner’s letter is headed “Lovecraft in Irons” and states: “. . . I think Mr. Jackson’s stories are the very best you publish, Mr. Lovecraft to the contrary notwithstanding, and I sincerely trust that you will not listen to the unjust criticism of Mr. Lovecraft and his ilk . . . So, please put Mr. Lovecraft in ‘irons,’ and place Mr. Fred Jackson in the position of first mate and let the good old ARGOSY sail on.” The issue contains many other defences of Jackson (spurred, probably, by the editor’s challenge in the April 1914 issue for Jackson fans to write letters in support of their favourite: “People are much more likely to object to a thing than to admit that it pleases them. It is up to the Jackson fans”), but with fewer specific attacks on Lovecraft.

  The July 1914 issue contains only a few letters of interest. Ed. Ellisen of Stratford, Ontario, declares: “Please tell that Mr. H. P. Lovecraft if he does any more kicking to come up here in Canada to do it, as there are places up here to put him in.” E. M. W. of Fallon, California, utters a complaint that would gain force in the coming months: “. . . I do not approve of the way Messrs. Lovecraft and Russell use the Log
-Book as a medium in which to vent their sarcasm at each other.”

  In August and September there is very little on the matter: letters in praise of Jackson continue to appear, but neither Lovecraft nor Russell is specifically mentioned. G. E. Bonner returns, crowing about how many more defenders Jackson has than attackers, but he directs his remarks to “friend Bennett” and not to Lovecraft.

  The controversy comes to an end in the October 1914 issue. An entire section of “The Log-Book” bears the heading “Fred Jackson, Pro and Con”; inevitably, the “Jackson Boosters” outnumber the “Jackson Knockers.” None of the former addresses Lovecraft specifically, but of the latter the loyal F. V. Bennett stands up for his mentor and attacks his principal opponent: “As for the writers who attack Mr. Lovecraft, I don’t agree with them, as Mr. Lovecraft is of the same mind about such trash. As for John Russell Potery, [sic] it’s—well in the same class with Jackson.” But the most interesting item is a poem headed “The Critics’ Farewell” and bearing both Lovecraft’s and Russell’s names. They did not actually collaborate on the poem; rather, Lovecraft wrote the first part (headed “The End of the Jackson War”) and Russell wrote the second (headed “Our Apology to E. M. W.”). Lovecraft’s, naturally, is in heroic couplets, and Russell’s is in very racy short and irregular anapaests. Lovecraft notes that this truce was made at the insistence of an editor at the Argosy who “intimated that the poet’s war must soon end, since correspondents were complaining of the prominence of our verses in their beloved magazine.”[69] Lovecraft identifies this editor as T. N. Metcalf. We know that Matthew White, Jr, was editor of the Argosy proper, and Metcalf is known to have been a sub-editor of the All-Story under Robert H. Davis;[70] perhaps Metcalf was in charge of the Log-Book. In any event, Lovecraft’s section of the poem concludes:

  So do we now, conjoin’d in lasting peace,

  Lay down our pens, and mutual slander cease.

  What sound is this? ’Tis but a joyous yell

  From thankful thousands, as we say farewell.

  The December 1914 Log-Book has an editorial heading, “Fred Jackson’s Coming Back!,” with several paeans to that author. Stanley H. Watson of Stockton, Manitoba, writes: “I hope by this time some one has squelched Mr. Lovecraft for running down Jackson. He must be one of those smart Alecs who could write better himself.”

  There are some other items among Lovecraft’s papers that relate to the Jackson controversy, although they do not appear to have been published. There are two poems, “I. Frustra Praemunitus” (“Fortified in vain”) and “II. De Scriptore Mulieroso” (“On an effeminate writer”). Both are responses to John Russell’s “Love Versus Lovecraft” poem (June 1914); they were evidently written at that time, but again Lovecraft either did not submit them or the editor declined to publish them. The first poem ironically seeks to reassure Russell that, even if Lovecraft attacks Jackson’s “Winged Feet,” it will simply allow Russell—“The Argosy’s crown’d Laureate”—to shine all the more with some response of his own. The second takes up the charge that Lovecraft is merely a man who has been disappointed in love and turned into a cynic—an accusation we have already seen many other Jackson defenders make. Two other poems, “Sors Poetae” and “‘The Poetical Punch’ Pushed from His Pedestal,” seem generally related to the controversy—the first mentions Jackson explicitly and the other is a satire on love stories—but these were perhaps never submitted.

  It is worth reflecting on what the whole Argosy/All-Story battle over Fred Jackson meant to Lovecraft. In a sense we owe thanks to Mr Jackson (or perhaps F. V. Bennett) for making the rest of Lovecraft’s career possible, for there is no telling how long he would have continued to vegetate in the increasingly hothouse atmosphere of 598 Angell Street. Lovecraft had no job, was only toying with chemistry and astronomy, was living with a mother who was steadily losing her mental stability, was writing random undistinguished bits of verse about his native region, and was devouring the Munsey magazines but had no thought of contributing any fiction to them or to any other market. But Jackson’s work so irritated Lovecraft that he emerged from his hermitry at least to the extent of bombarding letters to the magazines in question. While it was John Russell who initiated the habit of writing in verse, Lovecraft found it in a golden opportunity to adapt his beloved Augustan satire against a very modern target, as he would do again later in 1914. He probably did not even think it especially odd that he was using the Dunciad as a model; recall that he would later assert, with some plausibility, that “I am probably the only living person to whom the ancient 18th century idiom is actually a prose and poetic mother-tongue.”[71] On the other hand, Matthew White, Jr (or T. N. Metcalf) probably found Lovecraft’s work interesting precisely because it was so quaintly old-fashioned, as well as being rousingly controversial.

  Lovecraft seems to have responded reasonably well to the abuse with which he was bombarded, although it is evident that at least a few items—especially by Russell—irritated and perhaps even wounded him. Possibly he ceased to submit his work to the Argosy after the first few items because he felt the cause was hopeless: it was obvious that he was not changing very many people’s minds and was only annoying many loyal readers. Some of the responses to Lovecraft are surprisingly bitter and hostile, suggesting—whimsically, one hopes—that physical violence be done to the opponent of the beloved Fred Jackson.

  The curious thing about the responses to Lovecraft is that many readers took offence at his mere voicing of criticism of Jackson, as if such a thing were in itself somehow off-limits. Some of these comments were on target—those that maintain that the Argosy was not published exclusively for one reader’s benefit, or that no one is under the obligation to read the magazine—but many readers expressed indignation at the mere levelling of criticism of any kind. The slang terms used to designate this adverse criticism—to “knock” or “kick”—are inherently pejorative, and were interpreted as a sort of personal failing, as if Lovecraft were a misanthrope who could not say anything good about anyone.

  One also wonders whether Lovecraft would have engendered the response that he did had he attacked any other writer but Fred Jackson. It certainly appears as if Jackson had a very loyal following both in the Cavalier and in the Argosy; and I repeat my amazement at the number of men who seemed genuinely to enjoy his love stories. Here again some of the personal attacks are interesting: Lovecraft as the crusty bachelor, as one who has been jilted and is therefore hostile to any expressions of tender emotion, as a cynic who scorns the romantic element in life. Some of these accusations are, indeed, on the mark, but they are irrelevant to the issue of the actual merits of Jackson as a writer; and here Lovecraft is correct in declaring Jackson to be sentimental, stylistically careless, and catering rather calculatingly to the expectations of his audience. But Jackson’s defenders were on the whole so pathetically ill-educated that they could not even begin to make the fundamental critical distinction between a story they happened to like and a story that had genuine literary substance. Of course, Jackson’s attackers were by and large not much better in this regard.

  The ramifications of this entire episode, for Lovecraft, go far beyond the exchange of abuse on a mediocre and insignificant writer. It was, perhaps, the first occasion when he encountered opinions differing radically from his own and coming from a group of people very different (and, quite honestly, quite inferior) in education, culture, and socioeconomic status from his. Although he does not seem to have had much respect for many of his opponents—except, again, Russell—and indeed seems to have had a fairly easy time dynamiting their positions, he would later find such differences of opinion among his friends, colleagues, and correspondents invaluable in shaking him out of his certitudes and broadening his perspective.

  The principal immediate benefit of the Argosy experience was, of course, his discovery of—or, rather, by—the world of amateur journalism. Edward F. Daas, then Official Editor of the United Amateur Press Association, noticed the poetic ba
ttle between Lovecraft and Russell and invited both to join the organisation. Both did so, Lovecraft officially enrolling on April 6, 1914. In a few years he would be transformed both as a writer and as a human being.

  6. A Renewed Will to Live

  (1914–1917 [1])

  The world of amateur journalism which Lovecraft entered in April 1914 with wide-eyed curiosity was a peculiar if fascinating institution. The papers produced by the members exhibited the widest possible range in content, format, style, and quality; in general they were quite inferior to the “little magazines” of their day but considerably superior (both in typography and in actual literary content) to the science fiction and fantasy “fanzines” of a later period, although few were so focused on a single topic as the fanzines were. Lovecraft himself gives a potted history of amateur journalism in United Amateur Press Association: Exponent of Amateur Journalism, a recruiting pamphlet he wrote early in his term as First Vice-President of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), August 1915–July 1916. Here he notes that amateur journalism as a formal institution began around 1866, with a short-lived society being formed by the publisher Charles Scribner and others around 1869. This society collapsed in 1874, but in 1876 the National Amateur Press Association (NAPA) definitively took form; it continues to exist today. In 1895 the UAPA was formed by William H. Greenfield (at that time only fourteen years old[1]) and others who (as Lovecraft believed) wished for an organisation more devoted to serious intellectual endeavour; it was this branch that Lovecraft initially joined. There still exists an alumni association of amateur journalists, The Fossils, who continue to issue a paper, the Fossil, on an irregular basis.

  By general consensus, the high-water mark of the original amateur journalism movement was the decade of 1885–95, later deemed the “Halcyon Days.” It was immortalised, after a fashion, in Truman J. Spencer’s anthology, Cyclopaedia of the Literature of Amateur Journalism (1891). Not many of the prominent figures of that time were still active during Lovecraft’s early days, although a few of them—notably Ernest A. Edkins and James F. Morton—eventually became close friends of Lovecraft. But the period 1916–21 in the UAPA can be thought of as another period when literary quality was at a relatively high level, and Lovecraft can take much of the credit for it. It is, however, a sad fact that no one aside from Lovecraft himself has ever emerged from amateurdom to general literary recognition. This is not to say that others do not deserve to do so: the poetry of Samuel Loveman and Rheinhart Kleiner, the fiction of Edith Miniter (much of it professionally published), and the critical work of Edkins, Morton, and Edward H. Cole need fear no comparison with their analogues in the standard literature of the day. It is, unfortunately, unlikely that much of this work will ever be revived or even taken note of except in connexion with Lovecraft himself.

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