I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 27
“Too many of our authors,” writes Lovecraft in 1916, “are contaminated with modern theories which cause them to abandon grace, dignity, and precision, and to cultivate the lowest forms of slang” (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, August 1916).
Lovecraft summed up his early views on this issue in “The Dignity of Journalism”—published, perhaps with some irony, in Dowdell’s Bearcat for July 1915. Opening with a lofty and Johnsonian dictum—“It is a particular weakness of the modern American press, that it seems unable to use advantageously the language of the nation”—Lovecraft lashed out at the use of slang in amateurdom, doing so in a manner that remarkably fuses intellectual and social snobbery:
The idea that slang-infested literature is more readable and pleasing than that which conforms to refined taste is nearly parallel to that of the Italian peasant immigrant, who fondly considers his soiled but flaming kerchief and other greasy but gaudy apparel far more beautiful than the spotless white linen and plain, neat suit of the American for whom he works. While good English may in unskilful hands sometimes become monotonous, this defect cannot justify the introduction of a dialect gathered from thieves, ploughboys, and chimney sweeps.
But Lovecraft did present other arguments that are a little sounder. In rebutting the charge that “the slang of today is the classic language of tomorrow,” he keenly advised the interested reader to examine “any one of the numerous dictionaries of slang and Americanisms” wherein are contained words that, though once common, had now fallen completely out of usage. Lovecraft himself owned at least one such volume: John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1877), which the author had inscribed and presented to F. C. Clark.
Another frequent target was simplified spelling. We may find Lovecraft’s comments on this subject somewhat heavy-handed—akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut—but simple spelling was being advocated by a great many distinguished critics and grammarians of the day, including Brander Matthews, whom Lovecraft skewered at the conclusion of his witty satiric poem, “The Simple Speller’s Tale” (Conservative, April 1915): “Yet why on us your angry hand or wrath use? / We do but ape Professor B——— M———!” This poem really is a delight, telling of how the protagonist, seeking a way to avert other amateurs’ criticism “because I could not spell,” goes past a madhouse and hears a man “Who had from too much study lost his mind”:
“Aha!” quoth he, “the men that made our tongue
Were arrant rogues, and I shall have them hung.
For long-establish’d customs what care we?
Come, let us tear down etymology.
Let spelling fly, and naught but sound remain;
The world is mad, and I alone am sane!”
Lovecraft delivers a learned lecture on the history of simplified spelling in “The Simple Spelling Mania” (United Co-operative, December 1918), starting from Sir Thomas Smith’s “radical and artificial scheme of phonetic spelling” in the Elizabethan period, “which defied every law of conservatism and natural growth,” through other attempts in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Curiously, his historical survey ends around 1805, thereby failing to take much note of the vigorous campaigns for “spelling reform” undertaken in his own time, including such things as the new alphabet proposed by George Bernard Shaw and the simplified spelling utilised by Robert Bridges. Lovecraft ends with the plea: “Are there not enough sound critics in amateurdom to conduct a systematic campaign, both by example and precept, against ‘simplified’ spelling?”
Lovecraft’s main thrust in this debate—aside from his desire to “conserve” the traditions of English usage—is that the etymological system of orthography enshrined in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (1755; Lovecraft owned a 12th edition ) should be maintained because it has now become so uniform and widespread throughout the English-speaking world; Johnsonian orthography was conveyed to America, as Lovecraft notes, through the New England Primer (1760), of the first edition of which he had three ancestral copies. This danger to the English language appears to have passed, and Lovecraft has ended up on the right side of the argument; although he would look askance at the encroachments of “advertising English” and the bastardised forms—nite, thru, and the like—propagated in its name.
The degree to which Lovecraft was devoted to the literary standards of the eighteenth century is no more evident than in “The Case for Classicism” (United Co-operative, June 1919), in which he took to task one Prof. Philip B. McDonald—Chairman of the Department of Private Criticism and identified as Assistant Professor of Engineering English (whatever that is) at the University of Colorado—for belittling the relevance of classic authors in developing effective style and rhetoric. Although Lovecraft claimed that “It is not my purpose here to engage in any extensive battle of ancient and modern books, such as that fought in Saint-James’s Library and veraciously chronicled by Dean Swift,” such a battle of the books was exactly what Lovecraft conducted here: “. . . I cannot refrain from insisting on the permanent paramountcy of classical literature as opposed to the superficial productions of this disturbed and degenerate age.” As if this were not enough, Lovecraft continued: “The literary genius of Greece and Rome, developed under peculiarly favourable circumstances, may fairly be said to have completed the art and science of expression. Unhurried and profound, the classical author achieved a standard of simplicity, moderation, and elegance of taste, which all succeeding time has been powerless to excel or even to equal.”
This utterance is quite remarkable. Many who read the masterworks of Latin and Greek literature find them so perfect of their kind that reactions like the above are not uncommon. Indeed, taken in a very literal sense, Lovecraft’s statement is fundamentally true. But to say that the ancients “completed the art and science of expression” means that there is nothing left for subsequent writers to do but to imitate; and Lovecraft in fact went on to say that “those modern periods have been most cultivated, in which the models of antiquity have been most faithfully followed.” What Lovecraft ignores here is that even in the eighteenth century it was the adaptation of classical models to the contemporary world that produced the most viable literature of the period. The brilliance of Johnson’s London or Pope’s Dunciad stems not from their aping of the forms of Roman verse satire but from their application of these forms to vivify very modern concerns. Lovecraft, indeed, attempted to do something similar in his own poetry—using eighteenth-century forms in writing poems about World War I, for example—but, as we shall later see, his efforts were on the whole quite unsuccessful.
Lovecraft was, however, correct in refuting McDonald’s claim that “the classical style is too restrained, and lacking in humanity”; he added, a little impishly, “So far as restraint goes, a malicious commentator might easily use Prof. McDonald’s own bare and staccato prose style as an illustration of inconsistency betwixt precept and practice.” It should again be emphasised that Lovecraft was so intent on rebutting McDonald precisely because he felt McDonald’s recommendation to abandon classicism would set a bad precedent and undo much of his own work in weaning the amateur world away from informality, slang, and colloquialism: “I am an advocate of the highest classical standard in amateur journalism, and shall continue to bend all my energies toward its maintenance.”
With attitudes like these, it is not surprising that Lovecraft was, throughout the course of his amateur career, forced to defend himself against those who felt that his criticism was both too harsh and misguided. In “A Criticism of Amateur Journals,” published in Lovecraft’s own amateur journal, the Conservative (July 1918), Philip B. McDonald noted that “it is more important to be interesting than to be correct.” In “Amateur Criticism,” an article in the very same issue, Lovecraft attempted to blast this position: “We may pardon a dull writer, since his Boeotian offences arise from the incurable mediocrity of his genius; but can we thus excuse the careless scribbler whose worst blunders could be correc
. . . it would be foolish to insist that the reviewer suppress all honest convictions of his own; foolish because such suppression is an impossibility. It is, however, to be expected that such an one will differentiate between personal and general dicta, nor fail to state all sides of any matter involving more than one point of view. This course The Conservative sought to follow during his tenure of the critical chairmanship . . .
This answer did not seem to satisfy everyone, for in 1921 the controversy arose again, this time from John Clinton Pryor (editor of Pine Cones) and, of all people, Lovecraft’s close friend W. Paul Cook. Even though Lovecraft had by this time ceased to be an official critic (his last stint as Chairman of the Department of Public Criticism ended in July 1919), something in Pryor’s and Cook’s remarks touched a raw nerve, and Lovecraft felt obliged to respond with one of the most vitriolic articles of his entire literary career, “Lucubrations Lovecraftian” (United Co-operative, April 1921). One section in particular, entitled “Criticism Again!,” attempts a direct rebuttal of attacks against the severity of official criticism. It opens with towering cynicism:
It would be futile for the United’s Department of Public Criticism to reply to most of the querulous complaints levelled against it. In nine cases out of ten the circumstances are very simple—one mediocre and egotistical author plus one honest review equals one plaintive plea that the bureau, or part of it, is engaged in a diabolical plot to suppress incipient genius. The complainer, as a type, is one who candidly opposes any attempt at genuine constructive criticism, but who expects the department to mince along as a medium of flattery. He feels that his dollar dues entitle him to a certain amount of praise irrespective of merit.
And yet, Lovecraft acknowledged that “there is another sort of complaint which must be received very differently—a calm, balanced sort prompted by intelligent difference in opinion, and connected only subconsciously with personal feelings anent reviews”; and he claimed—outwardly at least—that the criticism of Pryor and Cook was of this latter variety. But his treatment of it is nonetheless harsh. The essence of both articles was, as Lovecraft states it, that “personal opinions on various subjects have been expressed on various subjects in the official critical reviews” and that this practice is “harmful,” in that “it causes the views of individuals to be published as the official views of the United as a body.”
Lovecraft’s response is similar to, but more pointed than, that of his earlier article, “Amateur Criticism.” He announces with emphasis: “Official criticism is ‘official’ only so far as it concerns the relation of the work criticised to the artistic standards recognised as universal.” Again, “no personal opinions are given the stamp of officialdom, because officialdom does not extend beyond art.” It is actually preferable for a critic to state his or her position on a literary or philosophical or political subject in the course of a review rather than to suppress it, for it will inevitably emerge in the very tenor of the critic’s remarks. “Seldom have our critics failed to separate general and personal views”; and this statement can apply to virtually all of Lovecraft’s own official reviews.
The tone of Lovecraft’s rebuttal is so sharp precisely because he placed so much value in the Department of Public Criticism as a tool for the educational improvement of amateur writing. Lovecraft himself certainly felt so during the three terms he was Chairman of the department (1915–16, 1916–17, and 1918–19), and he very likely inculcated his views to the two other chairmen who served between 1915 and 1922 (Rheinhart Kleiner [1917–18] and Alfred Galpin [1919–22]), since both were close friends of his. (Lovecraft in fact quietly took over the position when Kleiner fell ill and was unable to fulfil his duties, so that the unsigned articles for January, March, and May 1918 are by Lovecraft.) The fact that both these individuals shared many of Lovecraft’s strict views on the “dignity of journalism” may have caused resentment from those members who did not.
Beginning sometime in 1914 Lovecraft made an attempt to practise his educational ideal very close to home, by assisting in the formation of a Providence Amateur Press Club. The impetus for this club came from one Victor L. Basinet, who on the suggestion of Edward H. Cole (a Boston amateur journalist associated with the NAPA) formed an amateur press club among some working-class people in the “North End” of Providence who were attending night classes at a local high school. Cole—who was very likely already in touch with Lovecraft—probably urged the group to gain assistance from the UAPA’s only Rhode Island member; and Lovecraft, thinking that this attempt to “uplift the masses” might succeed better than the incident with Arthur Fredlund eight years earlier, gave considerable assistance. The group met at the end of each month, and no doubt Lovecraft attended these meetings as often as he could.
Most of the members were Irish; among them was a particularly feisty young man, about a year and a half older than Lovecraft, named John T. Dunn (1889–1983). In the first issue of the Providence Amateur (June 1915) Basinet is listed as President, Eugene M. Kern as Vice President, Caroline Miller as Secretary-Treasurer, Lovecraft as Literary Director, and Dunn as Official Editor; other members listed are Edmund L. Shehan, Fred A. Byland, Mildred Metcalf, and Peter J. MacManus.
The poem that opens the issue, Lovecraft’s “To the Members of the United Amateur Press Ass’n from the Providence Amateur Press Club,” gives some idea of who these people were. Basinet at this point seems to have been the guiding force (“By his bright genius all the club was made”); his radical political views are treated with studied politeness (“With fearless mien he scorns oppressive laws, / And stands a champion of the people’s cause”), although elsewhere Lovecraft alluded to the fact that Basinet was a socialist, which could hardly have sat well with him at this time. Dunn was rabidly anti-English, and he and Lovecraft sparred with each other on this issue in letters for at least two years. In his poem Lovecraft alluded to arguments over historical matters (“Skill’d in dispute, with none he fears to vie, / But picks up L————’s faults in history”); although Dunn himself later confessed that Lovecraft “knew . . . his history,” at least as far as the Irish question was concerned. As for the other members, we learn that Edmund L. Shehan was a movie buff but evidently found some films objectionable on moral grounds; Caroline Miller was a writer of heart-rending love stories; one Reilly (not listed in the staff list of the first issue) was a writer of unspecified prose work; and “the quiet” Fred A. Byland wrote prose of “forceful logic” and “pleasing style.” We are reliant on Lovecraft’s (no doubt flattering) portraits of these individuals, since very few of them actually had any contributions published in the two issues of the Providence Amateur.
The first issue, indeed, appears to have been written entirely by Lovecraft and Dunn, although only three of the six pieces are signed. The poem is signed by Lovecraft; there follows an article, “Our Candidate” (probably by Lovecraft), supporting Leo Fritter for President of the UAPA at the next election (Fritter in fact won the election); “Exchanges” (what in later amateur press circles would be termed “mailing comments”), brief remarks on other amateur journals received by the club (probably by Lovecraft); an “Editorial” (signed “J. T. D.”) declaring that the Providence Amateur Press Club is emphatically part of the UAPA as opposed to the NAPA, and (in contradistinction to the “other” United) part of “the association of which Miss Hepner is now President”; “On Acknowledgements” (signed “J. T. D.”), on Dunn’s failure to receive many amateur publications even though he is a member; and “For Historian—Ira A. Cole” (probably by Lovecraft), supporting Cole’s candidacy for that of
It is by no means an insignificant issue. The last page declares that it has been printed at the Lincoln Press, Cambridge. There is considerable evidence (see below) that the printer was fellow-amateur Albert A. (“Sandy”) Sandusky, and it is likely that Cole had recommended Sandusky to the club. Lovecraft elsewhere made note of “some unauthorised omissions made by the printer” (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, September 1915), so presumably more contributions (perhaps by other members) were to have been included. The “Office of Publication” of the Providence Amateur is given as 83 Commodore Street in Providence (Dunn’s residence), and one imagines that the monthly meetings of the group, with Lovecraft in attendance, occurred here at least on some occasions.
Basinet seems to have severed his connexion with the club shortly after the first issue. Lovecraft wrote to Dunn in July 1915 that Basinet was about to issue his own paper, the Rebel, but no such paper appears to have been published. Indeed, a later remark by Lovecraft to Dunn—that Basinet is “about to revisit Providence”—indicates that Basinet had moved out of the city altogether; he had in fact gone to Brooklyn. As a result, the leadership of the club fell almost entirely to Lovecraft and Dunn.
The second issue of the Providence Amateur (February 1916) is more substantial than the first, although the typographical accuracy is very poor. It was also printed by the Lincoln Press, but one hopes that Lovecraft was not in charge of the proofreading. It opens with a weighty poem, “Death,” by Edmund L. Shehan. There follows a curious article by Peter J. MacManus, “The Irish and the Fairies,” in which the author recounts what he believes to have been a sighting of fairies when he was seven years old and living in Connacht. Part of this article is likely to have been revised, or even written, by Lovecraft; the following sentence almost certainly came from his pen: “I observed in the field adjoining ours what appeared to be a graceful procession of about twelve young maidens, all draped in robes whose hue rivalled that of the fleecy clouds in the azure vault above.” Lovecraft has added an “Editor’s Note” in which he regards MacManus as a sort of quaint naïf from some primitive age: “The Irish of today, as startlingly shewn by Mr. MacManus, have as vital and as real a belief in the various Aryan personifications of Nature as had the Greeks of the Homeric period.” MacManus, however, is deadly serious and really believes what he writes (“let no man doubt the existence of fairies on the Green Isle”). Lovecraft may have dealt with him kindly because the incident perhaps recalled his own fancied sighting of Greek deities at exactly the same age.
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- Black Wings of Cthulhu 6Black Wings of Cthulhu (Volume Six)Black Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 3I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)Black Wings of CthulhuBlack Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 4Black Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 5
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