I am providence the life.., p.25

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 25


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

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  Amateur journalism was rather more hierarchical and organised than the fantasy fandom movement of the 1930s and following: nearly every issue of the United Amateur and the National Amateur (the “official organs” of their respective associations) contained detailed membership lists, arranged by state and sometimes by city, and both organisations had an extensive array of officers and departments. They were, in addition, much larger in scope and rather differently organised than the amateur press associations of today: whereas members of the latter send copies of their self-published journals to an Official Editor for distribution to each member, old-time amateur journalists would themselves mail issues of their papers to members of their own choice—and Lovecraft notes (in the “Encouraging Recruits” section of “Finale” [Badger, June 1915]) that members occasionally exercised unfortunate prejudices in determining who would receive their papers. These papers were in many instances highly distinguished: at a time when typesetting, printing, paper, and mailing costs were relatively low, such products as W. Paul Cook’s Vagrant, John Milton Samples’s Silver Clarion, Lovecraft’s own Conservative, and the two official organs are as polished in appearance—if not always in contents—as many of the little magazines of their day, and somewhat superior to such things as the Fantasy Fan or the Phantagraph. Other journals were, of course, very humbly produced, utilising mimeograph, ditto, and other elementary reproduction procedures. In a few anomalous cases, members would simply type or even handwrite sheets of paper and send them on a designated round of circulation.

  It is not the case that all, or even the majority, of amateur journalists were young. The members of the UAPA were regularly designated by number and age group: “a” stood for members under 16, “b” for members 16 to 21, and “c” for members over 21 (Lovecraft’s number was 1945c). The last category was significantly in the majority. The NAPA in its earlier days was perhaps more youth-oriented: in 1920 Lovecraft makes note of a NAPA convention in 1915 in which the Fossils sought to drive out from amateurdom anyone over twenty;[2] the attempt was unsuccessful, but bespeaks the prejudice toward youth prevailing among the founders of amateur journalism.

  And yet, the young were perhaps always the driving forces of amateurdom, lending to it their enthusiasm and energy. In his 1920 essay, Looking Backward, Lovecraft, poring over some old amateur journals lent to him by a friend, refers to a semi-professional journal entitled Young Nova Scotia that contained “the usual melange of verses, fictional thrillers, puzzles, jests, philately, numismatics, curiosities, and bits of general information.” This sounds uncannily like Lovecraft’s own juvenile periodicals, especially when he takes note of the advertisements in Young Nova Scotia for “such things as chromos, stamps, acquaintance cards, popular songs, lovers’ garlands, and printing materials.” Lovecraft frequently remarks how the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy and the Scientific Gazette were entirely in the spirit of amateur journalism, even though he knew nothing about the institution at the time.

  It was not required of amateur journalists of Lovecraft’s day—as it is of members of today’s amateur press associations—that they produce their own journals. Indeed, no more than a fraction of the members were editors of their own papers, and some of these papers were extremely irregular. In most cases members would send contributions directly to editors of existing amateur journals or to two “Manuscript Bureaux,” one for the eastern part of the country, one for the western part; the managers of these bureaux would then dole out the manuscripts to journals in need of material. Individuals with printing apparatus were greatly in demand; indeed, NAPA was originally an organisation not for disinterested littérateurs to excel in the art of self-expression but for youthful printers to practise the art of typography. The expense really was very nominal: Lovecraft reports that in 1915 a 5" × 7" paper at 250 copies would cost only 55 or 60 cents a page, while a 7" × 10" paper would cost $1.60 per page.[3] Most journals averaged 4, 8, or 12 pages, although a few ran to as many as 60 or 70 pages.

  The literature produced by members varied widely in both content and quality: poetry, essays, fiction, reviews, news items, polemics, and every other form of writing that can fit into a small compass. If it is generally true that most of this material is the work of tyros—“amateurs” in the pejorative sense—then it only means that amateur journalism was performing a perfectly sound if humble function as a proving-ground for writers. Some amateurs did in fact go on to publish professionally. And yet, Lovecraft was all too correct when, late in life, he summed up the general qualitative level of amateur work: “God, what crap!”[4]

  In Looking Backward Lovecraft reported an old-time amateur’s division of members into three types: the literati, the plodders, and the politicians. To Lovecraft the third group was always the most pernicious, and yet it was exactly the elaborate political system of organised amateurdom that fostered the type. Each association held an annual convention—NAPA in early July, UAPA in late July—at which the officers for the next official year were elected. These officers (for the UAPA) included President; First and Second Vice-President; Treasurer; Official Editor; and three members of the Board of Directors. Other officers—Historian, Laureate Recorder, the two Manuscript Managers, and, for a time, a Third and Fourth Vice-President—were appointed by the President, as were the members of the Departments of Criticism (Public and Private), the Supervisor of Amendments, the Official Publisher, and the Secretary. The functions of most of these offices is self-explanatory: the Laureate Recorder was in charge of conducting laureateship awards for best poems, stories, essays, and editorials each year; the Chairman of the Department of Public Criticism would write a critique of amateur journals for that season in each issue of the official organ; the Department of Private Criticism would privately assist cruder members in improving their work. With this elaborate hierarchy, it was no surprise that some members became interested only in attaining eminence in the organisation by holding office, and that intensely bitter, personal, and vituperative election campaigns were held to ensure the victory of a given individual or faction. Lovecraft writes of these people:

  They sought office for its own sake; and their ideals and triumphs were of tinsel only. They had no issues to champion, and their standard of success was merely the ability to sway those about them. Office to them was not an opportunity to serve, but a mere prize to be captured for its own intrinsic value as an advertisement of cunning and popularity. The politicians saw in amateurdom an easy field for the exercise of cheap subtlety on a small scale . . . (Looking Backward)

  The subtlety was cheap and the scale was small because the number of individuals involved in amateurdom was always relatively modest. The November 1918 United Amateur lists only 247 active members; the November 1917 National Amateur lists 227 (many individuals belonged to both associations). It is exactly for this reason that both the politicians—and, indeed, Lovecraft, even though his goals were loftier and his capabilities far superior—could achieve eminence in this field: they did not have a great deal of competition.

  Amateur journalism was exactly the right thing for Lovecraft at this critical juncture in his life. For the next ten years he devoted himself with unflagging energy to the amateur cause, and for the rest of his life he maintained some contact with it. For someone so unworldly, so sequestered, and—because of his failure to graduate from high school and become a scientist—so diffident as to his own abilities, the tiny world of amateur journalism was a place where he could shine. Lovecraft realised the beneficial effects of amateurdom when he wrote in 1921:

  . . . Amateur Journalism has provided me with the very world in which I live. Of a nervous and reserved temperament, and cursed with an aspiration which far exceeds my endowments, I am a typical misfit in the larger world of endeavour, and singularly unable to derive enjoyment from ordinary miscellaneous activities. In 1914, when the kindly hand of amateurdom was first extended to me, I was as close to the state of vegetation as any animal well can be—perhaps I might best have bee
n compared to the lowly potato in its secluded and subterranean quiescence. With the advent of the United I obtained a renewed will to live; a renewed sense of existence as other than a superfluous weight; and found a sphere in which I could feel that my efforts were not wholly futile. For the first time I could imagine that my clumsy gropings after art were a little more than faint cries lost in the unlistening void. (“What Amateurdom and I Have Done for Each Other”)[5]

  To this analysis there is really very little to add, although a wealth of detail is necessary to flesh out the picture and to pinpoint exactly how this transformation occurred. As for what Lovecraft did for amateurdom, that too is a long story, and one worth studying carefully.

  In 1914, when Lovecraft entered amateur journalism, he found two schisms that were creating much bad blood and using up valuable energy. The first was, of course, the split between the National and United Amateur Press Associations, which had occurred when the latter was founded in 1895. Perhaps schism is not quite the correct term here, for ostensible reason for the establishment of the UAPA was the desire of certain members to devote themselves more concentratedly to literature and less to fraternal good cheer and mutual back-patting. As I have mentioned, a good many members belonged to both associations; Lovecraft, in spite of labelling himself repeatedly and ostentatiously a loyal “United man,” joined the National himself as early as 1917, and would later serve as interim president.

  The other split—a schism in the full and proper sense of the word—was one within the United itself, with the result that the very name of the organisation was (as a few hostile NAPA members gleefully pointed out) a cause for embarrassment. Lovecraft addresses this matter in two essays, “The Pseudo-United” (1920) and “A Matter of Uniteds” (1927). (The former was published anonymously in the United Amateur for May 1920, but Lovecraft was credited as the author when the piece won the Editorial Laureateship for that year.) In 1912 occurred a hotly contested election at the UAPA convention in La Grande, Oregon; the result was that both of the two candidates for president, Helene E. Hoffman and Harry Shepherd, declared themselves the winner. Lovecraft states in his earlier article that “it was determined to the satisfaction of all impartial observers that . . . Miss Hoffman was safely and lawfully elected”; in his later piece, either because at that time he had become less passionately devoted to his own side and was attempting to reconcile the two factions or because he had gained more accurate information on the matter, he declares more neutrally that “the final vote [was] so close and so dependent on a technically accurate interpretation of the voting status of many members that no one can say even now with absolute finality which side gained the legal victory.” What actually happened was that, although Hoffman had received 56 proxy votes and Shepherd 48 (with 9 others going to other candidates), a complicated technicality awarded the presidency to Shepherd.[6]

  In his various remarks Lovecraft never points out that it was the Hoffman faction that refused to accept the verdict of the UAPA directors (who confirmed the election of Shepherd) and withdrew. Indeed, if all one knows of the controversy comes from Lovecraft, one would think it was the Shepherd group that was the rebel organisation; but in fact the amateur world to this day regards the Hoffman group as the rebels and the discontents, even though many acknowledge their literary and numerical superiority.

  In any event, the Hoffman supporters established their own association, retaining the title United Amateur Press Association, while the group around Shepherd called itself the United Amateur Press Association of America. Lovecraft joined the former because he had been recruited by Edward F. Daas of that faction; probably he did not at the time even know of the existence of the other, as it was largely centred on Seattle. This latter really was the smaller and less consequential group (it had only 149 members in September 1919, and that was a considerable increase over the figure of some years before), even though it doggedly published its own United Amateur for years, largely through the financial and editorial support of J. F. Roy Erford. From 1917 to 1919 this faction had no official editor and was essentially quiescent; in 1917 Lovecraft wrote, a little sanguinely, that it “seems to have disappeared beneath the horizon of adversity” (“Editorially,” United Amateur, July 1917), and he urged its remaining members to join his United. Not many appear to have done so. In late 1919 the group revived after a fashion, and it was exactly some members’ hostility to another of Lovecraft’s overtures at amalgamation that led to the writing of “The Pseudo-United.” Now deciding to hold nothing back, Lovecraft presents a devastating portrayal of the intellectual backwardness of this group: “Its cultural tone has steadily declined, until today the majority of its members are of extreme crudity—mostly superficial near-Bolsheviki and soulful plumbers and truck-drivers who are still at the moralising stage. Their little schoolboy compositions on ‘Individualism’, ‘The Fulfilment of Life’, ‘The Will’, ‘Giving Power to the Best’, and so on, are really touching.” Let it pass that Lovecraft himself would become a near-Bolshevik ten or fifteen years after writing this.

  It is somewhat ironic that the “pseudo-United” actually outlasted Lovecraft’s United; the latter essentially collapsed from disorganisation and apathy around 1926, while the other United carried on until 1939. But for all practical purposes it was a moribund association, and when Lovecraft was persuaded to resume amateur activity in the 1930s he saw no option but to work for the NAPA.

  The United’s split with the National was something Lovecraft vigorously supported and never wished to see healed. His contempt for the older group—which he fancied (perhaps rightly) to be a haven of old-timers resting on their laurels, men and women who looked back fondly to their lost youth as amateur printers and typographers, and politicians devoted to furthering their own causes and gaining transient and meaningless power in an insignificant arena—is unremitting. In “Consolidation’s Autopsy” (published in the Lake Breeze for April 1915 under the not very accurate pseudonym “El Imparcial”) he dynamites the position of those Nationalites who are seeking some sort of rapport with the United. Dismissing the National as “an inactive Old Men’s Home,” he writes:

  The National has never more ingenuously confessed its fundamental failing than when referring affectionately to “the small boy with a printing press”. This is the much-vaunted grandeur of the National. Not literary, not educational, grandeur, but a record of mere juvenile typographical achievement; a development of the small-boy ideal. While this may be eminently laudable in its way, it is not the kind of grandeur that our United is seeking, and we would certainly hesitate before bartering our own literary traditions for any print-shop record like the National’s.

  There are several interesting things here. First, that “small-boy ideal” was something Lovecraft himself would have found very congenial during his own youth when he was diligently hectographing the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy and other periodicals; and the fact that he now scorns this ideal may bespeak his realisation that, as a man of twenty-five, he must move on toward some higher literary goal. Indeed, perhaps the vehemence of his response rests precisely in his awareness that he himself had a somewhat arrested adolescence and was anomalously long in separating himself from boyhood interests. Second, Lovecraft may perhaps be exaggerating the degree to which the United was at this time literarily superior to the National. In the late teens the National had some very fine papers—notably W. Paul Cook’s Vagrant, to which Lovecraft himself would contribute a number of tales and poems—which the United would have had difficulty matching. It is true that the United Amateur, especially under Lovecraft’s editorship, evolved into a much more substantial and interesting literary organ than the National Amateur, which tended to remain a dry chronicle of official business—convention reports, membership lists, financial statements, and the like. But ultimately the literary distinction between the two associations was one of degree and not of kind.

  Lovecraft was always ready to defend his association from attacks by the other
. In “A Reply to The Lingerer” (Tryout, June 1917) he is quick to rebut the Rev. Graeme Davis, who would become Official Editor of the NAPA for the 1917–18 term and who in his amateur journal, the Lingerer, alliteratively accused the United of “permanent puerility and immutable immaturity.” To this Lovecraft responded, correctly, that “all amateurdom is more or less homogeneously tinctured with a certain delicious callowness,” so that “it ill becomes the pot to call the kettle black.”

  And yet, it was only a few months after this that Lovecraft joined the NAPA; but he did so, he reports, for the overall good of amateurdom. On November 8, 1917, he wrote to Rheinhart Kleiner:

  At the repeated solicitation of many persons who declared that my aloofness from the National was a barrier to inter-associational harmony, I sent in an application for membership about a week ago. My connexion, however, will be purely nominal; as I gave the Nationalites very clearly to understand. I have time and strength only for my own association, yet was willing to have my name on the National’s list if it would help any.[7]

  The “many persons” referred to here may have included several NAPA members who had by this time become close friends of Lovecraft: Edward H. Cole, Charles W. Smith (editor of the long-running amateur journal, the Tryout), and W. Paul Cook (whose allegiance for years wavered between the NAPA and the “other” United). For several years Lovecraft contented himself with sending occasional contributions to NAPA journals; only in the exceptional circumstances of the winter of 1922–23 did he consent to become actual interim president of the association he had for scorned for so long, fulfilling his obligations admirably.

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