I am providence the life.., p.26

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 26

 

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



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  It was only in 1925, when his own association was in its long death-agony, that Lovecraft even considered an offer—this time made by C. W. Smith—for the consolidation of the UAPA and NAPA. Even here, however, he held out a hope against hope for the revival of his own association: “It may be that the new board, by crusading far afield for youthful, energetic, and superior membership, will be able to inaugurate a new era of active writing, criticism, stimulation, and discussion in the traditional United manner . . .” (“Editorial,” United Amateur, July 1925). But it was all a pipe-dream.

  But that was eleven years in the future. In 1914 Lovecraft entered a thriving if unfocused organisation of heterogeneous membership but substantial promise. As he plunged into amateur activity, contributing essays and poems (later stories) to amateur journals, becoming involved in heated controversies, and in general taking stock of the little world he had stumbled upon, he gradually formulated a belief—one that he gained remarkably early and maintained to the end of his life—that amateur journalism was an ideal vehicle for the effecting of two important goals: first, abstract self-expression without thought of remuneration; and second, education, especially for those who had not had the benefit of formal schooling. The first became a cardinal tenet in Lovecraft’s later aesthetic theory, and its development during his amateur period may be the most important contribution of amateur journalism to his literary outlook. It is not, of course, likely that amateurdom actually originated this idea in Lovecraft’s mind; indeed, Lovecraft would not have responded so vigorously to amateurdom if he had not already held this view of literature as an elegant diversion. His statement of 1923—“A gentleman shouldn’t write all his images down for a plebeian rabble to stare at. If he writes at all, it shou’d be in private letters to other gentlemen of sensitiveness and discrimination”[8]—could, if shorn if its tongue-in-cheek snobbery, apply to the whole of his writing career.

  Lovecraft very much stressed the amateur in amateur journalism. In public he vigorously denied that “amateur” was equivalent to “tyro” or “bungler” (even though privately he knew there were many such in amateurdom), preferring to maintain: “Our amateurs write purely for love of their art, without the stultifying influence of commercialism. Many of them are prominent professional authors in the outside world, but their professionalism never creeps into their association work. The atmosphere is wholly fraternal, and courtesy takes the place of currency” (United Amateur Press Association: Exponent of Amateur Journalism). This was, of course, more wishful thinking than fact; but Lovecraft tried his best to make it a reality. His proposal in 1916—whether jocular or not—to retitle the UAPA “The United Association for the Cultivation of Letters” (“Editorial,” Providence Amateur, February 1916) gives sufficient indication of the direction of his thought. His most idealistic utterance comes in “For What Does the United Stand?” (United Amateur, May 1920):

  . . . the United now aims at the development of its adherents in the direction of purely artistic literary perception and expression; to be effected by the encouragement of writing, the giving of constructive criticism, and the cultivation of correspondence friendships among scholars and aspirants capable of stimulating and aiding one another’s efforts. It aims at the revival of the uncommercial spirit; the real creative thought which modern conditions have done their worst to suppress and eradicate. It seeks to banish mediocrity as a goal and standard; to place before its members the classical and the universal and to draw their minds from the commonplace to the beautiful.

  A noble utterance, but again largely wish-fulfilment—or, rather, a poignant testimonial to all that amateurdom meant for Lovecraft himself. Gone were the days when he would charge anywhere from a penny to a half-dollar for his hectographed magazines or treatises or stories; art for art’s sake (although he would not so term it until a little later) was now the desideratum.

  Lovecraft never tired of attacking the commercial spirit, whether in the amateur world or outside it. A hilarious broadside is “The Proposed Authors’ Union” (Conservative, October 1916), in which the attempt by “a certain class of American professional authors” to form a union and join the American Federation of Labor is viciously derided. He remarks archly that “the professions of the average modern author and of the day-labourer are remarkably alike”:

  Both types shew a certain rough vigour of technique which contrasts very strikingly with the polish of more formal times, and both seem equally pervaded with that spirit of progress and enlightenment which manifests itself in destructiveness. The modern author destroys the English language, whilst the modern strike-loving labourer destroys public and private property.

  And how is one to adjudicate pay for poets, since some (like Thomas Gray) spend seven years on a poem only 128 lines long, while “speedy labourers” like Coleridge and Southey can collaborate on an entire verse drama in an evening? What about possible violence against scabs? Would it manifest itself in the form of “stoning or of satire”? And so on.

  At the same time that Lovecraft was hailing the non-mercenary spirit of amateurdom, he was regarding the amateur world as a practice arena for professional publication. This is not a paradox because what he meant by “professional publication” was not hackwork but publication in distinguished magazines or with reputed book publishers. In so doing one is not buckling down to produce insincere pseudo-literature simply for money but allowing the polished products of one’s “self-expression” to achieve a worthy audience. “The normal goal of the amateur writer is the outside world of letters, and the United should certainly be able to provide improved facilities for the progress of its members into the professional field” (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, August 1916).

  The means to achieve these lofty goals in amateurdom was education. It is surely plausible to believe that Lovecraft’s own failures in formal education caused him to espouse this goal as fervently as he did; in effect, it was his own way of fulfilling the promise of that nickname “Professor” which he probably acknowledged secretly, or even openly, in high school. Consider the wording of “For What Does the United Stand?”:

  The United aims to assist those whom other forms of literary influence cannot reach. The non-university man, the dwellers in different places, the recluse, the invalid, the very young, the elderly; all these are included within our scope. And beside our novices stand persons of mature cultivation and experience, ready to assist for the sheer joy of assisting. In no other society does wealth or previous learning count for so little. . . . It is an university, stripped of every artificiality and conventionality, and thrown open to all without distinction. Here may every man shine according to his genius, and here may the small as well as the great writer know the bliss of appreciation and the glory of recognised achievement.

  This all sounds very well, but Lovecraft regarded it as axiomatic that he was one of the “great” writers in this little realm, one of the “persons of mature cultivation and experience” who would raise his lessers to whatever heights they could achieve. This was not arrogance on Lovecraft’s part but plain truth; he really was one of the leading figures of amateurdom at this time, and his reputation has remained high in this small field. This ideal of amateurdom as a sort of informal university was something Lovecraft found compelling and attempted—ultimately in vain—to bring about.

  Lovecraft was by no means alone in holding this view of amateur journalism; one of the reasons he became so enthusiastic about the UAPA was his awareness that others had the same vision. In United Amateur Press Association: Exponent of Amateur Journalism he cites an article by Maurice W. Moe, “Amateur Journalism and the English Teacher,” published in the high school edition of the English Journal for February 1915. This article was an address delivered at a meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English (then and now the leading organisation for high school teachers) at Chicago on November 27, 1914, and recommended the formation of amateur press clubs in high schools—Moe himself had or
ganised such a group in Appleton High School in Appleton, Wisconsin. Moe speaks of the virtues of amateurdom in much the same tones as Lovecraft: “Every endeavor is made to promote a friendly spirit and a love of writing among the members, through correspondence and mutual criticism and even through a bureau of private criticism conducted by professionals, who give their services without charge.”[9] Lovecraft maintained that Moe’s address “created so much enthusiasm for the United, that scores of instructors have subsequently joined our ranks, many of them forming school clubs on the model of the original club at Appleton.”

  Lovecraft tirelessly promoted this idea; at one point (in “Finale,” Badger, June 1915) he declared explicitly and personally his regret that such a thing had not been available at Hope Street High School. Speaking of himself in the third person, Lovecraft wrote:

  He himself published an amateur paper from 1903 to 1907 in absolute ignorance of his organised contemporaries, and placed before the indifferent and uncritical readers of rural newspapers and cheap magazines those immature literary efforts of his which might have received a far warmer welcome and a far sounder criticism in the congenial atmosphere of the United. Had he found a copy of the United Amateur at the high-school or library, he would certainly have been enjoying the privileges of amateur journalism for more than a decade instead of being at this moment a raw recruit.

  This was written in connexion with Lovecraft’s support for two proposals made by Paul J. Campbell: the first would transform the United Amateur into a monthly magazine that would feature both literary works as well as official business; the second would make an aggressive effort to bring amateurdom to the attention of high schools and colleges. The first of these proposals was formalised into an amendment to be voted upon by the membership at the UAPA convention in July 1915. It passed, and in August 1915 the United Amateur began monthly publication, continuing until January 1917, when—probably because of lack of funds—it reverted to its customary bi-monthly schedule. But throughout this whole period the official organ did substantially increase its proportion of literary as opposed to official matter, and would continue to do so in later years under the official editorship of Verna McGeoch, Anne Tillery Renshaw, and Lovecraft himself. As for attracting high school students, Lovecraft during his term as President of the UAPA (August 1917–July 1918) won approval for the creation of a third and fourth Vice-President to assist in recruiting at, respectively, colleges and high schools. The fourth Vice-President during Lovecraft’s term was his friend Alfred Galpin, then at Appleton High School. It is not clear how much these two offices contributed to increasing United membership; as apathy set in among the members in the early 1920s, these positions—as well as even the second Vice-President for a time—disappeared.

  Another proposal Lovecraft backed was the formation of a Department of Instruction, “which may teach in an easy and gradual manner the basic principles of grammar, rhetoric, and versification, as well as direct the aspirant to a well-graded and selected course of reading in the works of the best authors” (“New Department Proposed: Instruction for the Recruit,” Lake Breeze, June 1915). Interestingly, Lovecraft excluded himself from consideration for such a department by maintaining that “all amateurs not engaged in the educational profession should be debarred ipso facto from participation in the activities of such a department, however great their general scholarship.” This may not have been quite as altruistic as it sounds: earlier in this essay he noted that both critical bureaux (the Departments of Public and Private Criticism) were overwhelmed with requests for revisory services, and it is conceivable that part of Lovecraft’s motive for proposing the Department of Instruction was to relieve himself of some of the burdens of this task. In June 1916 he wrote: “I am now struggling with reams of crude MSS. for the forthcoming paper of credentials; in fact, I have before me the entire contents of both MSS. Bureaus for revision.”[10]

  This idea does not appear to have met with much enthusiasm. By August 1916 Lovecraft announced that he had “learned that under present conditions such a department is not perfectly feasible” (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, August 1916); he did not explain this remark, but perhaps lack of money to set up the department was a factor. The UAPA was chronically short of funds and frequently required donations from members in addition to their $1.00 dues for printing the United Amateur and other purposes. Lovecraft, in spite of his declining financial situation, would frequently contribute to this “Official Organ Fund.” In any event, he now proposed that each of the “cultivated” members take one or more of the “cruder” members under his or her wing and tutor them privately. So far as I can tell, this idea too fell flat.

  By this time, however, Lovecraft had acquired a more concrete vehicle for pushing his literary agenda. His first prose contribution to the UAPA was a short essay, “A Task for Amateur Journalists” (New Member, July 1914), in which he urged the amateur world to assist in preserving the language from “pernicious” corruptions. This is, of course, a theme Lovecraft would sound throughout his life: as one who had raised himself to regard eighteenth-century prose as the norm, any modern prose—especially the occasionally slovenly and colloquial prose of amateurs less well-educated than he—could only be offensive. A few months thereafter Lovecraft obtained a forum whereby he could more materially keep amateurs linguistically in line: around October 1914 he was appointed by President Dora M. Hepner to take over the chairmanship of the Department of Public Criticism, presumably because the previous chairman, Ada P. Campbell, retired or withdrew. It was the first office Lovecraft held, and he made the most of it.

  The office entailed Lovecraft’s writing a lengthy article for the United Amateur criticising in detail each and every amateur journal that was submitted for review. His first article appeared in the November 1914 issue, and over the next five years Lovecraft wrote twenty more. These pieces must be read to gain some idea of his devotion to the amateur cause. Here is a representative passage:

  Aurora for April is a delightful individual leaflet by Mrs. Ida C. Haughton, exclusively devoted to poetical matters. The first poem, “Aurora”, is truly exquisite as a verbal picture of the summer dawn, though rather rough-hewn metrically. Most open to criticism of all the features of this piece, is the dissimilarity of the separate stanzas. In a stanzaic poem the method of rhyming should be identical in every stanza, yet Mrs. Haughton has here wavered between couplets and alternate rhymes. In the opening stanza we behold first a quatrain, then a quadruple rhyme. In the second we find couplets only. In the third a quatrain is followed by an arrangement in which two rhyming lines enclose a couplet, while in the final stanza the couplet again reigns supreme. The metre also lacks uniformity, veering from iambic to anapaestic form. These defects are, of course, merely technical, not affecting the beautiful thought and imagery of the poem; yet the sentiment would seem even more pleasing were it adorned with the garb of metrical regularity. “On the Banks of the Old Wegee” is a sentimental poem of considerable merit, which suffers, however, from the same faults that affect “Aurora”. Most of these defects might have been obviated when the stanzas were composed, by a careful counting of syllables in each line, and a constant consultation of some one, definite plan of rhyming. (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, September 1915)

  Plodding and schoolmasterly as this is, it is exactly the sort of criticism the amateurs needed. It would have been futile to present a lofty dissection of the philosophical substance of their work when many were struggling to achieve the barest minimum of grammatical correctness in prose and verse. Lovecraft is tireless in the patient, careful advice he gives: he always attempts to find some merit in the work under consideration, but he never lets a technical flaw go by.

  Naturally, Lovecraft had his biases. As early as January 1915 Lovecraft took note of Leo Fritter’s complaint (not addressed toward Lovecraft himself) that “some authorised amateur critics deal far too roughly with the half-formed products of the young au
thor.” Lovecraft was not guilty of this exact charge; rather, his flaws as an official critic (at least in his early phase) were political and social prejudices and an unwillingness to realise that not everyone wished a return to “tasteful Georgian models” (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, August 1916). Slang and colloquialism particularly offended him. In writing of William J. Dowdell’s Dowdell’s Bearcat, he noted:

  While the general style of the paper is fluent and pleasing, we believe that “Bruno” might gain much force of expression through the exercise of a little more care and dignity in his prose. For instance, many colloquial contractions like “don’t”, “won’t”, or “can’t” might be eliminated, while such slang phrases as “neck of the woods”, “make good”, “somewhat off”, or “bunch of yellow-backs” were better omitted. (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, May 1915)

  Poor Dowdell faced another barrage when, in the Cleveland Sun, he introduced a sports page:

  Of “The Best Sport Page in Amateurdom” we find it difficult to speak or write. . . . We learn with interest that a former United member named “Handsome Harry” has now graduated from literature to left field, and has, through sheer genius, risen from the lowly level of the ambitious author, to the exalted eminence of the classy slugger. . . . Speaking without levity, we cannot but censure Mr. Dowdell’s introduction of the ringside or ballfield spirit into an Association purporting to promote culture and lettered skill. (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, September 1916)

 
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