I am providence the life.., p.3
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 3
It is believed that he became employed by Gorham & Co., Silversmiths, of Providence, a company founded in 1813 by Jabez Gorham and for many years one of the major business concerns in the city. The testimony for this employment does not derive from any statement by Lovecraft, as far as I know, but from a remark by Lovecraft’s wife Sonia in her 1948: “His father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, had at one time been a traveling salesman for the Gorham Company, Silversmiths of the United States of America.” One would like to believe that Lovecraft told her this information. Arthur S. Koki, investigating the matter in the early 1960s, wrote: “Since the personnel records of the Gorham Company are not retained beyond forty years, it is difficult to determine when he was first employed there.” This may not be entirely accurate, as I have been informed that salesmen’s records were kept at Gorham’s New York office. It is not clear how and when Winfield began work for Gorham (assuming that he actually did so), and why, even if he was working as a travelling salesman, he was listed as a resident of New York City at the time of his marriage on June 12, 1889. It may or may not be relevant that the 1889/90 Manhattan city directory lists Frederick A. Lovecraft as a “jeweler”: is it possible that he somehow assisted Winfield in securing his position at Gorham? This is pure conjecture, but we have nothing else to go on.
Equally a mystery is how he met Sarah Susan Phillips and how they fell in love. Susie certainly does not appear to have been a “society girl” like her sister Annie, and Winfield was not a door-to-door salesman, so that he is not likely to have met her in this way; nor, if he had, would the social mores of the time have allowed them to fraternise. The Phillipses were, after all, part of the Providence aristocracy.
The fact that the wedding ceremony took place at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Boston may or may not be noteworthy. We have already seen that Winfield’s family was Episcopal; and although there were many Episcopal churches in Providence where the ceremony could have taken place, the fact that Winfield planned to settle his family in the Boston area may have made St Paul’s a logical site. Indeed, it might have been odd for a member of the Phillips family of Providence, so associated with the Baptist faith, to have been married in a local Episcopal church. I discount the possibility, therefore, that the marriage was somehow not approved by Susie’s parents, for which no true evidence exists. Although she was thirty-one at the time of the marriage, Susie was the first of Whipple Phillips’s daughters to be married; as she was still living under his roof, it is not likely that he would have allowed her to marry someone of whom he did not approve.
Lovecraft, so keen on racial purity, was fond of declaring that his “ancestry was that of unmixed English gentry”; and if one can include a Welsh (Morris) strain on his paternal side and an Irish (Casey) strain on his maternal, then the statement can pass. His maternal line is, indeed, far more distinguished than his paternal, and we find Rathbones, Mathewsons, Whipples, Places, Wilcoxes, Hazards, and other old New England lines behind Susie Lovecraft and her father Whipple Van Buren Phillips. What we do not find—as noted earlier and as Lovecraft frequently bemoaned—is much in the way of intellectual, artistic, or imaginative distinction. But if Lovecraft himself failed to inherit the business acumen of Whipple Phillips, he did somehow acquire the literary gifts that have resulted in a subsidiary fascination with his mother, father, grandfather, and the other members of his near and distant ancestry.
2. A Genuine Pagan
In April 1636, Roger Williams left the Massachusetts-Bay colony and headed south, settling first on the east bank of the Seekonk River and later, when Massachusetts asserted territorial rights to this region, to the west bank. He named this site Providence. Williams’s immediate reason for seeking new territory was, of course, religious freedom: his own Baptist beliefs did not sit well at all with the Puritan theocracy of the Massachusetts-Bay. Shortly afterward Rhode Island attracted two further religious dissidents from Massachusetts: Samuel Gorton, who arrived in Providence in 1640, and the Antinomian Anne Hutchinson (a collateral descendant of Lovecraft on the maternal side), who in 1638 established a colony called Pocasset at the northern end of Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay. The religious separatism present at the very birth of Rhode Island left a permanent legacy of political, economic, and social separatism in the state.
Although Roger Williams had negotiated with the Indians for his plot of land at Providence, the native population of Rhode Island did not fare so well thereafter. King Philip’s War (1675–76) was devastating to both sides, but particularly to the Indians (Narragansetts, Wampanoags, Sakonnets, and Nianticks), who were nearly wiped out, their pitiful remnants huddled together on a virtual reservation near Charlestown. The rebuilding of the white settlements that had been destroyed in Providence and elsewhere was slow but certain; from now on it would not be religious freedom or Indian warfare that would concern the white colonists, but economic development. In the eighteenth century the four Brown brothers (John, Joseph, Nicholas, and Moses) would be among the leading entrepreneurs in the Colonies. It is, however, a stain on Rhode Island’s record that it was one of the leading slave-trading states both before and just after the Revolution, its many merchant vessels (some of them privateers) carting away hundreds of thousands of slaves from Africa. Relatively few ended up actually in Rhode Island; most that did so worked on large plantations in the southern part of the state.
Much to the chagrin of Lovecraft’s Tory sentiments, Rhode Island was a spearhead of the Revolution, and people here were more united in favour of independence than in the other colonies. Stephen Hopkins, provincial governor of Rhode Island for much of the period between 1755 and 1768—whose house (1707) at the corner of Benefit and Hopkins Street was a favourite of Lovecraft’s—was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Separatist to the end, however, Rhode Island refused to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention and was the last of the thirteen colonies to ratify the Federal Constitution.
Roger Williams had founded the Baptist church in Rhode Island—the first in America—in 1638. For more than two centuries the state remained largely Baptist—Brown University was founded in 1764 (as King’s College) under Baptist auspices—but other sects came in over time. There were Quakers, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Episcopalians, Methodists, and other, smaller groups. A colony of Jews had been present since the seventeenth century, but their numbers were small and they were careful to assimilate with the Yankees. Roman Catholics only began to be prominent in the middle nineteenth century. Their numbers were augmented by successive waves of immigration: French Canadians during the Civil War (establishing themselves especially in the town of Woonsocket in the northeast corner of the state), Italians after 1890 (settling in the Federal Hill area of Providence’s West Side), Portuguese shortly thereafter. It is disturbing, but sadly not surprising, to note the increasing social exclusiveness and scorn of foreigners developing among the old-time Yankees throughout the nineteenth century. The Know-Nothing Party, with its anti-foreign and anti-Catholic bias, dominated the state during the 1850s. Rhode Island remained politically conservative into the 1930s, and Lovecraft’s entire family voted Republican throughout his lifetime. If Lovecraft voted at all, he also voted Republican almost uniformly until 1932. The state’s leading paper, the Providence Journal, remains conservative to this day even though the state has been largely Democratic since the 1930s.
Newport, on the southern end of Aquidneck Island, gained early ascendancy in what became Rhode Island, and Providence did not overtake it until after the Revolutionary war. By 1890 Providence was the only city of any significant size in the state: its population was 132,146, making it the twenty-third largest city in the nation. Its principal topographic features are its seven hills and the Providence River, which divides at Fox Point and splits into the Seekonk River on the east and the Moshassuck River on the west. Between these two rivers is the East Side, the oldest and most exclusive part of the city,
Brown University lords it on the pinnacle of College Hill, and has lately been gobbling up more and more of the surrounding colonial area. This is the oldest part of the city in terms of the structures still surviving, although nothing dates before the middle of the eighteenth century. Lovecraft, ever (and justifiably) proud of the colonial antiquities in his native city, was fond of rattling them off for those of his correspondents less favourably situated:
Colony House 1761, College Edifice 1770, Brick Schoolhouse 1769, Market House 1773, 1st Baptist Church with finest classic spire in America 1775, innumerable private houses and mansions from 1750 onward, St. John’s and Round-Top Churches circa 1810, Golden Ball Inn 1783, old warehouses along the Great Salt River 1816, etc., etc., etc.
Of these, the Golden Ball Inn (where Washington stayed) is no more, and Lovecraft bitterly lamented the destruction of the 1816 warehouses in 1929; but the others still stand. Lovecraft, in fact, would have been heartened at the tremendous restoration of the colonial houses on College Hill in the 1950s and onward, conducted under the aegis of the Providence Preservation Society (now housed in that 1769 schoolhouse at 24 Meeting Street). The restoration has caused Benefit Street in particular to be regarded as the finest mile of colonial architecture in America. At the very end of his life Lovecraft saw the opening of the John Brown house (1786) as a museum, and it is now the home of the Rhode Island Historical Society.
To the east of College Hill is a spacious array of residences dating no earlier than the middle nineteenth century but impressively built and with well-kept grounds and gardens. This, rather than the colonial area, is the true home of the Providence aristocracy and plutocracy. At the eastern edge of this area, running alongside the Seekonk River, is Blackstone Boulevard, whose luxurious homes are still the haven of old Yankee money. At the northern end of Blackstone Boulevard is found Butler Hospital for the Insane, opened in 1847 from a grant supplied by Nicholas Brown—of the illustrious mercantile family of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that in 1804 gave its name to Brown University—and Cyrus Butler, for whom it came to be named. Juxtaposed to Butler Hospital on its north side is the vast expanse of Swan Point Cemetery—not perhaps quite as lavishly landscaped as Mt Auburn in Boston but one of the most topographically beautiful cemeteries in the country.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born at 9 A.M. on August 20, 1890, at 194 (renumbered 454 in 1895/96) Angell Street on what was then the eastern edge of the East Side of Providence. Although a Providence Lying-in Hospital had opened in 1885, Lovecraft was born “at the Phillips home,” and he would remain passionately devoted to his birthplace, especially after having to move from it in 1904. Lovecraft notes in a late letter that the name “Howard” only became a given name, as opposed to a surname, around 1860, and that “by 1890 it was a fashion”; he goes on to supply other reasons for why he was given the name: 1) a boy in a neighbourhood family who were friends with the Phillipses was named Howard; 2) there was an ancestral connexion with Judge Daniel Howard of Howard Hill in Foster; 3) Clarke Howard Johnson was Whipple Phillips’s best friend and executor of his will.
In 1925 Lovecraft’s aunt Lillian gave him some idea of what he did as a new-born infant, and he responded to her remarks: “So I threw my arms about, eh, as if excited at the prospect of entering a new world? How naive! I might have known it would only be a bore. Perhaps, though, I was merely dreaming of a weird tale—in which case the enthusiasm was more pardonable.” Neither Lovecraft’s cynicism nor his interest in weird fiction developed quite this early, but both, as we shall see, were of early growth and long standing.
The sequence and details of the Lovecraft family’s travels and residences in the period 1890–93 are very confused, as documentary evidence is lacking and Lovecraft’s own testimony is not without obscurities and contradictions. In 1916 Lovecraft, after stating the fact of his birth in “the home of my mother’s family,” maintained that “my parents’ actual residence at the time [was] Dorchester, Mass.” Dorchester is a suburb about four miles south of Boston. This residence in Dorchester has not been located; it will shortly be evident that these must have been rented quarters. For want of contradictory evidence, one must assume that Winfield and Susie Lovecraft took up residence in Dorchester as soon as they married on June 12, 1889, or after they returned from their honeymoon, if they went on one.
In another early letter (1915) Lovecraft states that “The Lovecrafts soon afterward [i.e., after his birth] took up their residence in Auburndale, Massachusetts.” Auburndale is now part of Newton, in the very far western edge of the metropolitan area of Boston, about ten miles from downtown Boston; in the 1890s it was likely a distinct community. It is at this point that confusion begins. What is the relationship between the Dorchester and Auburndale residences? What does “soon afterward” mean? In his 1916 letter he claims that “When I was two years old—or rather, a year & a half—my parents moved to Auburndale, Mass., sharing a house with the family of the well known poetess, Miss Louise Imogen Guiney . . .” But in a 1924 letter Lovecraft states that “At an early age—an age of very few months, in fact—the future master of literature emigrated to the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay, taking his parents along with him on account of a desire of his father’s to transact business—commonplace thought—in the village of Boston.” Finally, in a late (1931) letter Lovecraft supplies a list of the states in which he has lived or travelled, and gives his first entry into Massachusetts as 1890.
There is perhaps no actual contradiction in all this. My suspicion is that the Lovecrafts resumed their residence in Dorchester toward the end of 1890 and moved into the Auburndale area in 1892. There may even have been other temporary residences in the Boston metropolitan area. Indeed, Lovecraft states in 1934:
My first memories are of the summer of 1892—just before my second birthday. We were then vacationing in Dudley, Mass., & I recall the house with its frightful attic water-tank & my rocking-horses at the head of the stairs. I recall also the plank walks laid to facilitate walking in rainy weather—& a wooded ravine, & a boy with a small rifle who let me pull the trigger while my mother held me.
Dudley is in the west-central portion of Massachusetts, about fifteen miles south of Worcester and just north of the Connecticut border.
The crux of the matter is when (or if), and under what circumstances, the Lovecraft family lived with the poet Louise Imogen Guiney. Letters from Guiney to F. H. Day consulted by L. Sprague de Camp in the Library of Congress appear to allude to the Lovecrafts:
[30 May 1892:] Two confounded heathen are coming to BOARD this summer. [14 June 1892:] There are two and a half of them, as I said atrocious Philistines, whom I hate with enthusiasm. [25 July 1892:] Our cursed inmates here, praise the Lord, go next month. [30 July 1892:] The unmentionables are gone, and we are our own mistresses again.
But additional research by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, has established that the “inmates” here referred to were some German guests, not the Lovecrafts. Lovecraft himself states that “we stayed [at the Guineys’] during the winter of 1892–93”; and, pending further evidence, I think we are obliged to accept this statement provisionally. Winfield Scott Lovecraft’s medical records (1893–98) list him as a resident of Auburndale, and I suspect that the Lovecrafts may have resided with the Guineys for a short period of time until they found a place of their own (a rented house, no doubt), while they prepared
Dorchester, Mass. (12 June 1889?–mid-August? 1890)
Providence, R.I. (mid-August? 1890–November? 1890)
Dorchester, Mass. (November? 1890–winter? 1892)
Dudley, Mass. (early June? 1892 [vacation, perhaps of only a few weeks])
Auburndale, Mass. (Guiney residence) (winter 1892–93)
Auburndale, Mass. (rented quarters) (February?–April 1893)
Lovecraft says that Guiney (1861–1920) “had been educated in Providence, where she met my mother years before.” There is some little mystery around this. Guiney was indeed educated at the Academy of the Sacred Heart at 736 Smith Street in the Elmhurst section of Providence, attending the school from the year it opened in 1872 until 1879; but Susie, as we have seen, attended the Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts, for at least the period 1871–72. Although Guiney scholar Henry G. Fairbanks asserts that the Sacred Heart accepted Protestants as well as Catholics, I think it is unlikely that Susie was actually sent there; nor is the academy especially close to the Phillips residence at 276 Broadway, being in the direction of North Providence. Faig, however, has now made the highly plausible conjecture that Susie’s acquaintance with Guiney was facilitated, or even initiated, by a third party—the Banigan family. Joseph and Margaret Banigan were the Lovecrafts’ next-door neighbours in Providence from the time Whipple Phillips built his residence at 194 (454) Angell Street around 1880, and at least two daughters of Joseph Banigan attended Sacred Heart Academy at the time when Guiney was attending the school. It is very likely that Susie’s friendship with Guiney dates from this period.
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