I am providence the life.., p.29

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 29


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

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  As this was being written, however, Lovecraft was anticipating a still greater distinction in the association. “I am named as candidate for the Presidency next year, and Campbell informs me that my election is very probable.”[33] True enough, Lovecraft was elected President at the UAPA convention in late July, and most of the other elected or appointed officials were those who were as eager to promote his literary programme as he: Wesley H. Porter, First Vice-President; Winifred Virginia Jordan, Second Vice-President; Verna McGeoch, Official Editor; W. Paul Cook, Official Publisher; and Rheinhart Kleiner, Chairman of the Department of Public Criticism. Although Lovecraft had declared in June 1916 that “I shall never give up my place on the Department of Public Criticism till some future President refuses to appoint me,”[34] the burdens of the presidency clearly made a continuance of this office impossible, and the meticulous Kleiner was a logical choice. For the next five years Lovecraft and his associates essentially controlled the UAPA, and the result really was a very significant raising of the literary tone. For a time it looked as if Lovecraft’s goals for amateurdom would be grandly fulfilled.

  During this whole period Lovecraft had recommenced the writing of monthly astronomy articles, this time for the Providence Evening News. The first one appears in the issue for January 1, 1914, hence actually predates his entry into amateur journalism. I do not know how Lovecraft got this assignment, which lasted until May 1918 and is by far his most extensive astronomical series; he stated in 1916 that the series in the Tribune was “transferred”[35] to the Evening News, but the former had ceased in 1908, and there was moreover no connexion between the two papers. As for its termination, Lovecraft made the cryptic remark that “a change of management produced a demand for a changed style to which I refused to accede.”[36] Elsewhere he was more forthright: “. . . the request of its editor for me to make my articles ‘so simple that a child might understand them’ caused me to withdraw from the field.”[37] I have no doubt that Lovecraft was paid for each of the fifty-three articles he published, even if the pay is likely to have been insignificant.

  The Evening News articles become tedious and repetitious if read all at once, for they are in large part merely accounts of the notable celestial phenomena for the month: the phases of the moon, the constellations visible in the morning or evening sky, any eclipses, meteor showers, or other events of note, and the like. After a year, of course, many of the same phenomena will recur. Nevertheless, Lovecraft gradually made attempts to loosen up a little and to introduce other sidelights along the way. In particular, he took it upon himself to explain the origin of the Greek or Roman names for the constellations, and this naturally allows him to recount, sometimes at considerable length, the myths behind such names as Castor and Pollux, Argo Navis (recall his lost juvenile work, “The Argonauts”), and many others. His early reading of Bulfinch and other mythographers held in him good stead here. Consider his charming elucidation of “dog days” (dies caniculares):

  The traditions surrounding the Dies Caniculares are very interesting and very ancient. In Egyptian times the appearance of Sirius in the morning twilight, preceding the rising of the Nile, counselled the farmers to sow their grain. From this important function, the star acquired a religious significance, and was the object of much worship. Seven ruined temples have been discovered which were so built that the beams of Sirius, heliacally rising, should strike the great altars. Even the name “Sirius” is thought by some students to be derived from “Osiris”, the name of the greatest of the Egyptian gods. In Asia, the heliacal rising of Sirius was regarded as the source of the extreme heat of late summer, a belief to which Virgil more than once alludes; whilst among the Romans a dog was each year sacrificed to the star at this season. (“The August Sky,” August 1, 1914)

  What becomes even more charming is his increasingly frequent citation of poems by himself or by others. The entirety of his poem “On Receiving a Picture of Swans” is quoted in the article for August 1916; a recasting of part of “The Poe-et’s Nightmare” appears in the article for May 1917; there are poetry extracts by Lovecraft—evidently original to these articles—in October and November 1916. Needless to say, Lovecraft does not acknowledge himself as the author of these poems, referring instead to “a recent bard” or “the following lines.”

  In the fall of 1914, however, as Lovecraft was steadily writing article after article for the News, a rude interruption occurred. An article entitled “Astrology and the European War” by one J. F. Hartmann appeared in the issue for September 4, 1914—only three days after Lovecraft’s astronomy column for that month, and in the exact place in the newspaper (the centre of the last page) occupied by his column. Joachim Friedrich Hartmann (1848–1930) was, one imagines, of German ancestry, but was born in Pennsylvania. He came to Providence no later than 1912, and through his life held such occupations as masseur, shoe store clerk, and Santa Claus.[38] In 1914 he was residing at 77 Aborn Street in downtown Providence. Hartmann’s article begins resoundingly:

  The vulgar prejudice against the noble science of astrology by otherwise learned men is greatly to be deplored.

  Almost every author on astronomy, mythology, anthropology and philosophy; school teachers, professors of universities and the clergy, while willfully ignorant of astrology, yet never tire loading it with slurs and abuse, ridicule and misrepresentation; ever insinuating that astrologers must either be fools or knaves.

  Hartmann went on to attack both scientists and the clergy for their hostility to astronomy, then transcribed certain predictions for the rest of the year, culled from Raphael’s Ephemeris, published the previous year. Given the state of international relations in Europe in 1913, the predictions are not especially remarkable: “The influences operating in King George’s horoscope are very unfavourable”; “The kaiser is under very adverse directions, and danger both to health and person is indicated”; and so on.

  This was just the sort of thing to make Lovecraft see red. Writing to Maurice W. Moe in early December 1914, he noted: “Recently a quack named Hartmann, a devotee of the pseudo-science of Astrology, commenced to disseminate the usual pernicious fallacies of that occult art through the columns of The News, so that in the interests of true Astronomy I was forced into a campaign of invective and satire.”[39]

  Lovecraft began with a straightforward but somewhat intemperate response entitled (probably by Lovecraft rather than the editor of the News) “Science versus Charlatanry,” published in the issue for September 9. In all honesty, the response is not especially effective, merely asserting without much argument “the utter absurdity of the idea that our daily affairs can be governed by the mere apparent motions of infinitely distant bodies whose seeming arrangements and configurations, on which the calculations of judicial astrology are based, arise only from perspective as seen from our particular place in the universe.” Lovecraft does keenly point out the dubious nature of the Raphael predictions: “War in the Balkans, unrest in Russia, and revolutions in Central or South America are among the events most successfully predicted.” And he cannot help referring to his very first appearance in print, when the “learned astrologer of Central Falls, R.I.” who spoke of a “transit of Mars” also asserted that Pope Pius X (1835–1914) would die in 1906.

  But Lovecraft had underestimated his foe. Hartmann responded with a direct rebuttal to Lovecraft’s letter in the issue for October 7, addressing Lovecraft’s points systematically and actually scoring a few telling blows. Lovecraft had asserted that astrology had been “exploded over 200 years ago”; Hartmann hurls the rejoinder: “No one ever heard the explosion; where and when did it occur?” The thrust of Hartmann’s response, however, is that Lovecraft and other astronomers had not truly examined astrology: “If they really feel ‘obliged’ to disprove astrology, why don’t they try it, and in a manner becoming the scientific method.” As for the many astrological predictions that had not come true, Hartmann responded:

  But just think of all the astronomers who have mad
e mistakes. Then astronomy must be a superstition. There is no science but its votaries have made mistakes. Then all the sciences must be false.

  Think of all the mistakes in calculation made by bookkeepers and bank clerks. Then what a wretched pseudo-science must be arithmetic.

  What a poor rule that won’t work both ways!

  Sophistical as some of this is, it required a stronger and more systematic attack than Lovecraft had given it in his initial letter. He was not slow to take up the challenge.

  Three days later, on October 10, a letter by Lovecraft appeared under the title “The Falsity of Astrology.” This letter is still more intemperate than the first, opening with the assertion that “the ordinary modern astrologer is merely a mountebank who seeks to defraud the ignorant by means of crude gibberish which he knows to be untrue” but maintaining that Hartmann was of that more troublesome class “who actually believe in their own ridiculous teachings, and who can therefore invest their fallacious arguments with the convincing force of genuine though misplaced enthusiasm.” While asserting that Hartmann had said little new in his response, Lovecraft’s own letter does little to flesh out his argument. He added an amusing personal note: “The baleful effect of Astrology upon the reputation of Astronomy is far too patent for Mr. Hartmann to argue away. I was not long ago asked by a man who had seen my astronomical articles, ‘if I did not cast horoscopes or calculate nativities’! It is not pleasant for a serious student of the heavens to be taken for a petty fortune-teller.” I would give much to have been present at this encounter. The one important point Lovecraft here asserts—important more for his own philosophical development rather than for the present controversy—is an appeal to anthropology:

  Astrology is the legacy of prehistoric ignorance. Since our primitive ancestors saw that the motion of the sun through the Zodiac influenced their affairs by the change of season which it causes, or that the movements and phases of the moon affected their nocturnal pursuits by the alternative presence and absence of moonlight, they must have believed themselves under the direct control of these bodies. . . . In time, the ancients came to seek explanations for all the phenomena of earthin the phenomena of the heavens, and arbitrarily to assign a celestial cuase for every terrestrial occurrence.

  We shall see this exact argument used as a significant weapon in Lovecraft’s dismissal of the metaphysical claims of religion.

  But before Hartmann could respond to this latest attack, Lovecraft struck back in a different manner. He explained in a letter: “. . . eventually the stupid persistence of the modern Nostradamus forced me to adopt ridicule as my weapon. I thereupon went back to my beloved age of Queen Anne for a precedent, and decided to emulate Dean Swift’s famous attacks on the astrologer Partridge, conducted under the nom de plume of Isaac Bickerstaffe (or Bickerstaff—I have seen it spelled both ways).”[40] The result is an article in the issue for October 13 entitled “Astrology and the Future” (true to the News’s typographical standards, the first word in the headline was misprinted “Astrologh”) by “Isaac Bickerstaffe, Jr.” This really is an exquisite—if rather broad and obvious—piece of satire. Lovecraft does not follow Swift in exact particulars—Swift’s tour de force had been to predict the death of Partridge, and then to follow up with a very convincing account of Partridge’s death, after which the poor devil had a very difficult time proving that he was still alive—but merely maintains that, by its own principles, astrology ought to be able to predict events far in the future rather than merely a year or so in advance. Consider the following: “The crossed transit of Jupiter and Uranus over the alternately radical sun and moon on March 9, 2448, is certain evidence that the American monarch will be overthrown in that year as a result of a popular uprising led by Gen. José Francisco Artmano and a new republic established; the capital being moved from Mexico City back to Washington.” Note the reference to a “transit” of a superior planet, which is of course impossible; similarly a later reference to the “sextile opposition of Vulcan in Gemini,” even though Lovecraft asserted frequently in his astronomy columns that the existence of the conjectured intra-Mercurial planet Vulcan had been definitively disproven. But this is not the worst:

  Last and most terrible of all, the collusive quaternary trine of Mars, Mercury, Vulcan, and Saturn, in the 13th progressed house of the sign Cancer on Feb. 26, 4954, stands out as plainly as the handwriting on the wall to shew us the awful day on which this earth will finally and infallibly perish through a sudden and unexpected explosion of volcanic gases in the interior.

  Hartmann battled gamely on, however. The October 22 issue contains the lengthiest of his pieces, a long and sober article entitled “The Science of Astrology” in which he systematically lays down the “principles” of astrological science in a relatively orderly manner. He made no allusion either to Lovecraft’s “Falsity of Astrology” or to the Bickerstaffe squib.

  In turn, Lovecraft parried with “Delavan’s Comet and Astrology,” a Bickerstaffe article printed in the October 26 issue, which takes up where its predecessor left off, making the following proclamation: “. . . the computed alternating back eccentric transit of the future projection of Delavan’s comet around the progressed quartile square of the prolonged inclination of the retrograde orbit of Saturn clears up the perplexing situation in a moment, renders the whole matter most simple and obvious, and restores to man that hope without which the heart would sicken and break.” In short, Delavan’s comet will strike the earth fifty-six years prior to the explosion of our planet, and will take all the inhabitants of the globe on its tail to dwell “for evermore . . . in peace and plenty” on Venus. Humanity is saved! But not everyone will emerge unscathed:

  I find to my extreme regret that several fragments from the terrestrial explosion of 4954 will strike the planet Venus, there creating much damage, and causing grave injuries to Señor Nostradamo Artmano, a lineal descendant of our talented Prof. Hartmann. Señor Artmano, a wise astrologer, will be hit in the cranial region by a large volume of astronomy, blown from the Providence Public Library, and his mind will be so affected by the concussion that he will no longer be able to appreciate the divine precepts of astrology.

  Crude, but effective.

  This second parody seems to have stunned Hartmann for a time, for it was not until the issue of December 14 that he finally came back. He now sounds extremely resentful against Lovecraft for what he believes (not entirely unjustly) are his “false statements, angry contempt, abusive language, and vulgar personalities.” But the most exquisite passage in his lengthy tirade is the following:

  Two recent articles in these columns, by an enemy falsely posing as an astrologer, are real “gibberish,” the kind which our critic does not criticise.

  Real astrologers never write such ridiculous parodies upon their own sacred science, which Mr. Lovecraft calls a “base superstition.”

  It is pitifully obvious that Hartmann, although recognising that the Bickerstaffe articles are parodies, has not deduced that they are also the work of his enemy.

  Lovecraft responded more soberly with “The Fall of Astrology” in the December 17 issue, elaborating the anthropological argument and maintaining that “The downfall of astrology was the inevitable result of intellectual progress; of new discoveries in science, improved methods of reasoning, more intelligent examination of history, and more discriminating investigation of the prophecies of astrologers.”

  But Lovecraft couldn’t help piling it on. A final letter by Isaac Bickerstaffe, Jr, printed without title in the December 21 issue, parodies the vagueness and obviousness of some astrological predictions, giving some glimpses of what can be expected in the first six months of 1915: January (“Conjunction of Mercury and Mars on first indicates prosperous and disastrous year”); March (“Entrance of Sun into sign Aries shews that spring will begin on the 21st”); May (“Superior Conjunction of Mercury on 1st shews that weather will be much warmer than January”); June (“Summer will probably commence this month”); a
nd so on. Of course, he expresses sorrow and disappointment at the base attacks on him by “Prof. Hartmann,” asserting: “How can we astrologers hope successfully to promulgate our glorious science, if we have such bitter dissensions amongst ourselves?”

  Hartmann evidently decided to give up at this point. Amusingly enough, however, in the issue for December 23 he published an article on “Santa Claus and the Christmas Tree: Their Origin and Meaning”; but as this article was inoffensive to Lovecraft’s scientific principles, it did not earn a rebuttal.

  Lovecraft did not quite let Hartmann off the hook, however. He continued to jab at him, usually without mentioning him, in later astronomical columns in the News. In October 1914, at the height of the controversy, Lovecraft wrote huffily:

  It is with regret that the writer notes at the present time a rather virulent epidemic of astrological quackery in this city. Belief in the fortune-telling power of the stars and planets is of course superstition of the grossest sort, and a most incongruous feature of this enlightened age; yet astrology is a plague which has proved most difficult to eradicate, and only too many persons of indifferent education are still the dupes of its absurd pretensions. (“The November Sky,” October 31, 1914)

  As late as May 1915, in recounting the origin of the name Coma Berenices, Lovecraft makes reference to “Conon, the court astrologer [of Egypt], a sage no doubt almost as wise as our star-gazing contemporary Mr. Hartmann” (“The May Sky,” April 30, 1915).

  I do not know that much need be made of the Lovecraft-Hartmann feud. In some particulars it resembles the Argosy controversy, although on the whole John Russell was a more formidable opponent than Hartmann; but the latter was by no means a pushover, and his vigorous defence of his views clearly took Lovecraft aback. Lovecraft really gained the victory by the Bickerstaffe pieces rather than by his formal rebuttals, which are not as strong and convincing as one would like. But perhaps they showed Lovecraft that satire could be effective in both prose and verse: over the years he would write a number of charmingly vituperative prose sketches that occupy a perhaps minor but nonetheless distinctive place in his corpus.

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