I am providence the life.., p.33

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 33


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

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  One event prior to the war that earned Lovecraft’s notice, at least to the point of writing a sharp little satire, was the Mexican Civil War. Lovecraft reports that the poem “To General Villa” (Blarney-Stone, November–December 1914) was written in the summer “for the purpose of defying those who had charged the author with pedantry and pomposity” (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, March 1915). To be sure, aside from an opening “’Tis,” the poem is modern, even colloquial in tone (“You can’t read a word; your name you can’t write, / But ¡Santa Maria! you know how to fight”). Lovecraft goes on to say that the last stanza has been rendered “sadly out of date” by “changes of time and revolutions”:

  So while crafty old Huerta, half drunk with bad brandy,

  Still clings to his throne, ’cross the far Rio Grande,

  ’Tis to you our friend Bryan would lend his assistance:

  Si, General Villa, you’ll do—at a distance.

  What he means is that Victoriano Huerta, who had assumed the presidency upon the assassination of Francisco I. Madero in February 1913, had been overthrown on July 15, 1914, setting up a struggle for power between Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza. President Wilson did in fact briefly “lend assistance” to Villa, but after Villa lost the battle of Celaya in 1915 Wilson chose to recognise Carranza instead. In response, Villa actually invaded New Mexico in early March 1916. Some months later, to compound the insult in Lovecraft’s eye, a man named Henry F. Thomas published a poem, “A Prayer for Peace and Justice,” in the Providence Evening News for June 23, 1916, in which, Lovecraft claims, “he called it a ‘shame’ for America to prepare for defence against the Mexican bandits.”[30] One has to assume that Lovecraft is correct in his understanding of the thrust of the work, since it is otherwise merely a sappy little poem urging pacifism and arbitration (“But let us build—not to destroy, / And thus create world-lasting joy”) and making no mention of any specific enemies whom it would be wrong to fight. Lovecraft could not endure such folly, so he responded with “The Beauties of Peace” (Providence Evening News, June 27, 1916):

  Let blood-mad Villa drench the Texan plain;

  Let sly Carranza ev’ry right profane;

  To savage hordes a cordial hand extend,

  And greet th’ invader as a welcome friend:

  What tho’ he slew your brothers yesternight?

  We must be pious—and ’tis wrong to fight!

  This becomes a sort of litany throughout the first three years of World War I, prior to American intervention in the summer of 1917. Lovecraft could simply not abide Americans not standing with their English brethren to battle the Huns, and it must have infuriated him not merely that the government failed to intervene in the European war but that American public opinion was resolutely against such intervention. Even the sinking of the British liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915—resulting in the loss of 128 Americans in its death toll of more than 1200—only began a slow change in people’s minds against Germany. The incident led Lovecraft to write a thunderous polemic in verse, “The Crime of Crimes: Lusitania, 1915”:

  Craz’d with the Belgian blood so lately shed,

  The bestial Prussian seeks the ocean’s bed;

  In Neptune’s realm the wretched coward lurks,

  And on the world his wonted evil works.

  And on and on. There is no question of Lovecraft’s burning sincerity in this poem; but the antiquated metre and diction he has used here makes it difficult to take the poem seriously, and it gains an unintentional air of frivolity, almost of self-parody. This could be said for much of Lovecraft’s political verse.

  “The Crime of Crimes” has the distinction of being Lovecraft’s first separately published work. It appeared in a Welsh amateur journal, Interesting Items, for July 1915, and apparently at about the same time was issued as a four-page pamphlet by the editor of Interesting Items, Arthur Harris of Llandudno, Wales. This item is now one of the rarest of Lovecraft’s publications; only three copies are known to exist. I do not know how Lovecraft came in touch with Harris; perhaps he sent him the first issue of the Conservative. In any event, he stayed sporadically in touch with Harris for the rest of his life.

  The Lusitania incident led to President Wilson’s celebrated utterance, “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight,” something that made Lovecraft see red and which he threw back in Wilson’s teeth at every opportunity, especially in poems. Lovecraft published an array of anti-pacifist poems (“Pacifist War Song—1917,” Tryout, March 1917; “The Peace Advocate,” Tryout, May 1917) and articles (“The Renaissance of Manhood,” Conservative, October 1915), along with any number of truly awful poems expressing loyalty to England (“1914,” Interesting Items, March 1915; “An American to Mother England,” Poesy, January 1916; “The Rose of England,” Scot, October 1916; “Britannia Victura,” Inspiration, April 1917; “An American to the British Flag,” Little Budget, December 1917). It is not surprising that Lovecraft wrote a poem to the mediocre American poet Alan Seeger, who joined the French Foreign Legion at the outset of the war and died in July 1916. Seeger’s “A Message to America” is almost as bad as Lovecraft’s poetry:

  You have the grit and the guts, I know;

  You are ready to answer blow for blow

  You are virile, combative, stubborn, hard,

  But your honor ends with your own back-yard . . .[31]

  Lovecraft’s “To Alan Seeger” (Tryout, July 1918) goes like this:

  But while thou sleepest in an honour’d grave

  Beneath the Gallic sod thou bledst to save,

  May thy soul’s vision scan the ravag’d plain,

  And tell thee that thou didst not fall in vain . . .

  Years later Lovecraft, in the story “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1921–22), maintained that Herbert West and his sidekick were two “of the many Americans to precede the government itself into the gigantic struggle” by joining the Canadian army.

  Lovecraft’s immediate reaction to the war, however, was a curious one. He did not care what the actual causes of the war were, or who was to blame; his prime concern was in stopping what he saw was a suicidal racial civil war between the two sides of “Anglo-Saxondom.” It is here that Lovecraft’s racism comes fully to the forefront:

  High above such national crimes as the Servian plots against Austria or the German disregard of Belgian neutrality, high above such sad matters as the destruction of innocent lives and property, looms the supremest of all crimes, an offence not only against conventional morality but against Nature itself; the violation of race.

  In the unnatural racial alignment of the various warring powers we behold a defiance of anthropological principles that cannot but bode ill for the future of the world.

  This is from “The Crime of the Century,” one of the salvos in Lovecraft’s first issue (April 1915) of the Conservative. What makes the war so appalling for Lovecraft is that England and Germany (as well as Belgium, Holland, Austria, Scandinavia, and Switzerland) are all part of the Teutonic race, and therefore should on no account be battling each other. Political enemies though they may be, England and Germany are racially one:

  The Teuton is the summit of evolution. That we may consider intelligently his place in history we must cast aside the popular nomenclature which would confuse the names “Teuton” and “German”, and view him not nationally but racially, identifying his fundamental stock with the tall, pale, blue-eyed, yellow-haired, long-headed “Xanthochroi” as described by Huxley, amongst whom the class of languages we call “Teutonic” arose, and who today constitute the majority of the Teutonic-speaking population of our globe.

  Though some ethnologists have declared that the Teuton is the only true Aryan, and that the languages and institutions of the other nominally Aryan races were derived alone from his superior speech and customs; it is nevertheless not necessary for us to accept this daring theory in order to appreciate his vast superiority to the rest of mankind.

p; We have already seen Lovecraft’s prejudice against blacks manifest so early as the age of fourteen; whence did these ideas of Teutonic superiority arise? The above passage itself suggests one source: Thomas Henry Huxley. Huxley’s work cannot carelessly be branded as racist, and he was very circumspect when it came to notions of racial superiority or inferiority; but in “The Crime of the Century” Lovecraft has made explicit reference to two essays by Huxley, “On the Methods and Results of Ethnology” (1865) and “On the Aryan Question” (1890), both included in Man’s Place in Nature and Other Anthropological Essays (1894). In the former essay Huxley coins the term “Xanthochroi” (races that are yellow-haired and pale in complexion), applying it to the inhabitants of northern Europe, ultimate descendants of the “Nordic” barbarians. Along with the Melanochroi (pale-complexioned but dark-haired) who occupy the Mediterranean lands and the Middle East, the Xanthochroi were and are the pinnacle of civilisation: “It is needless to remark upon the civilization of these two great stocks. With them has originated everything that is highest in science, in art, in law, in politics, and in mechanical inventions. In their hands, at the present moment, lies the order of the social world, and to them its progress is committed.”[32]

  Although Lovecraft’s statements make it evident that he was appealing to evolutionary theories in his vaunting of the Teuton, it had been fashionable for nearly a century to praise Teutons, Anglo-Saxons, Nordics, or Aryans (all these terms being extremely nebulous and frequently interchangeable in their application) as the summit of civilisation. English and American historians in particular—beginning with Sir Francis Palgrave’s Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth (1832), and continuing on through such distinguished scholars as Edward A. Freeman, J. R. Green, Francis Parkman, William H. Prescott, and John Fiske—became enamoured of the idea that the virtues of the English (hence the American) and German political systems owed their existence to the Teuton or Anglo-Saxon.[33] Lovecraft read many of these writers and had their books in his library. With authorities like these, it is not surprising that he would echo their racial theories, even if in a particularly strident and pompous manner.

  There is a certain paradox in Lovecraft’s praising the Teuton given his strong classical predilections. How can he account for the fact that, as he saw it, civilisation collapsed for centuries after the barbarian invasions of Rome? In “The Crime of the Century” Lovecraft tries to make the best of it by saying that the Teutons at least prevented the decline from being even worse than it was: “As the power of the Roman empire declined, the Teuton sent down into Italy, Gaul, and Spain the re-vivifying elements which saved those countries from complete destruction.” This is certainly not the view of Lovecraft’s old friends Hume and Gibbon, who regarded the barbarian invasions as an unmitigated disaster for civilisation. In this instance, at least, racial prejudice has overcome Lovecraft’s allegiance both to the Georgians and to the ancients.

  If Teutons or Aryans or Anglo-Saxons are the pinnacle of civilisation, then by necessity other races are below them, sometimes vastly below. Accordingly, in Lovecraft’s view, these other races ought to allow themselves to be ruled by their betters for their own benefit and for the benefit of civilisation. In discussing whether the U.S. should maintain control of the Philippines, Lovecraft declares: “It is difficult to be patient with the political idiots who advocate the relinquishment of the archipelago by the United States, either now or at any future time. The mongrel natives, in whose blood the Malay strain predominates, are not and never will be racially capable of maintaining a civilised condition by themselves.” And later in the same article:

  Of the question raised regarding the treatment of the Indian by the white man in America it is best to admit in the words of Sir Roger de Coverly, ‘that much might be said on both sides’. Whilst the driving back of the aborigines has indeed been ruthless and high-handed, it seems the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon to sweep inferior races from his path wherever he goes. There are few who love the Indian so deeply that they would wish this continent restored to its original condition, peopled by savage nomads instead of civilised colonists. (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, June 1916)

  Lovecraft, to be sure, was not one of those few.

  The question again arises as to the sources for Lovecraft’s views. The anthropology of Huxley and others is a clear influence, and I have no doubt that his family played its role. Lovecraft, as a member of the New England Protestant aristocracy, would have come to such views as a matter of course, and he is only distinctive in expressing them in his early years with a certain vehemence and dogmatism. L. Sprague de Camp has maintained[34] that Lovecraft was significantly influenced by Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, published in German in 1899 and translated into English in 1911. But there is not a single reference to Chamberlain in any documents by Lovecraft that I have seen; and even a cursory examination of the specific tenets of Chamberlain’s racism shows that Lovecraft’s beliefs are very different. Chamberlain, according to one scholar, “set himself to reconcile Christianity, the religion of humility and forgiveness, with aggressive German nationalism,”[35] something Lovecraft never concerned himself to do; indeed, as we shall see, Lovecraft’s anti-Christianity only gained force as he encountered Nietzsche around 1918. Chamberlain also praised the Teutonic barbarians who overthrow Rome, as being the bearers of “true Christianity” (i.e., a “strong” Christianity shorn of its elements of pity and tolerance), a view Lovecraft could never adopt given the belief he maintained to the end of his life that “To me the Roman Empire will always seem the central incident of human history.”[36] In these and other ways did Lovecraft’s racism differ fundamentally from Chamberlain’s, so that any influence of the latter seems remote, especially given the total absence of documentary evidence that Lovecraft was even familiar with Chamberlain.

  A somewhat more likely source is Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, which was a best-seller upon its emergence in December 1916.[37] And yet, there are also significant differences between Grant’s views and Lovecraft’s. Grant’s basic notion is that Europe is populated by three races, the Nordic, the Alpine, and the Mediterranean; this does not correspond to analogous comments by Lovecraft, and in any event all the quotations from Lovecraft’s works I have made here were written prior to the appearance of Grant’s book, so that it is clear that Lovecraft’s views were already well established by this time. We do not have much information on what other racist tracts Lovecraft may have read—we only know of his reading of William Benjamin Smith’s The Color Line (1905) because of the dedication of “De Triumpho Naturae” to it—but it is clear that a variety of factors (familial influence, reading of specific volumes, and the general beliefs of his community and his class) led to these views. And it cannot be overemphasised that many of them were modified in the course of time.

  Later in 1915 the issue of blacks was raised again. We have already seen how Lovecraft attacked Charles D. Isaacson’s championing of Walt Whitman in his amateur paper, In a Minor Key. The bulk of Isaacson’s paper, however, was a plea for racial tolerance, especially for African Americans. He is particularly harsh on D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, asserting that it presented a false view of the relations between blacks and whites after the Civil War and that it incited racial hatred.

  Lovecraft, in “In a Major Key” (Conservative, July 1915), makes the astounding claim that “Mr. Isaacson’s views on racial prejudice . . . are too subjective to be impartial” (had Lovecraft known Freud at this time, he would have been able to refer to this as “projection”). In regard to The Birth of a Nation, Lovecraft states that he has not yet seen the film (he would do so later[38]), but says that he has read both the novel (The Clansman, 1905) by Thomas Dixon, Jr, and the dramatic adaptation of the novel on which the film was based. He then launches into a predictable paean to the Ku Klux Klan, “that noble but much maligned band of Southerners who saved half of our country f
rom destruction at the close of the Civil War.” It is certainly uncanny that Lovecraft’s remarks were made at exactly the time when the Klan was being revived in the South by William J. Simmons, although it was not a force to be reckoned with until the 1920s. It can be pointed out here that Lovecraft is strangely silent on the thousands of lynchings of blacks throughout the early decades of the century; but he never mentions the KKK again until very late in life, and then he repudiates it. In any event, he attempts in “In a Major Key” to account for Isaacson’s plea for racial tolerance:

  He has perhaps resented the more or less open aversion to the children of Israel which has ever pervaded Christendom, yet a man of his perspicuity should be able to distinguish this illiberal feeling, a religious and social animosity of one white race toward another white and equally intellectual race, from the natural and scientifically just sentiment which keeps the African black from contaminating the Caucasian population of the United States. The negro is fundamentally the biological inferior of all White and even Mongolian races, and the Northern people must occasionally be reminded of the danger which they incur in admitting him too freely to the privileges of society and government.

  The best that can be said of this is that Lovecraft’s remarks on Jews are relatively tolerant; we shall find that later remarks are less so. Ugly and ignorant as the above is, this view of blacks as biologically inferior—which we have seen to be common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—is one that Lovecraft in essence never renounced, in spite of massive evidence to the contrary that emerged in the course of the 1920s and 1930s.

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