I am providence the life.., p.34
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 34
As, however, with the pestiferous astrologer J. F. Hartmann, Lovecraft underestimated his opponent. The responses by both Isaacson and James Ferdinand Morton in the second issue of In a Minor Key (undated, but published in late 1915) are so devastating that they are worth quoting at length. In “Concerning the Conservative” Isaacson, keenly pointing out that “There comes a musty smell as of old books with the reading of the Conservative,” goes on to say:
. . . although I am confident he will not be able to realize it until he is shown very carefully—
He is against free speech.
He is against freedom of thought.
He is against the liberty of the press.
He is against tolerance of color, creed and equality.
He is in favor of monarchy.
Despite his repeated abeisance [sic] to the intellectuality and spirituality of the Jew, he continually attempts to place him apart—explaining away the ideas of an individual by his religion. It is unseemly for a man who boasts of his land and his ancestry that he should still cling to the Tory notion and defy the best spirit of America by refusing to acknowledge the nationality of an American, born here of American-born parents, a citizen, loyal, broad, [sic] eager to serve his nation, because of opposing creeds!
The reference to being against free speech applies to Lovecraft’s outrageous remark that the publication of an article by Isaacson entitled “The Greater Courage” urging refusal to serve in the military “is a crime which in a native American of Aryan blood would be deserving of severe legal punishment.” Lovecraft contrasts “Mr. Isaacson and his hyphenated fellow-pacifists” with “the real American people,” leading to Isaacson’s observation that he is as “real” an American as Lovecraft.
Morton’s response is still more overwhelming. James Ferdinand Morton (1870–1941) was, as Lovecraft admits in a letter of the time, a remarkable individual. He had gained a simultaneous B.A. and M.A. from Harvard in 1892 and became a vigorous advocate of black equality, free speech, the single tax, and secularism. He wrote many pamphlets on these subjects, most of them published either by himself or by The Truth Seeker Co.; among them are The Rights of Periodicals (1905?), The Curse of Race Prejudice (1906?), and many others. He had been President of the NAPA in 1896–97 and would later become President of the Thomas Paine Natural History Association and Vice President of the Esperanto Association of North America. He would end his career (1925–41) as Curator of the Paterson (New Jersey) Museum. All this activity earned him an entry in Who’s Who in America, a distinction Lovecraft never achieved.
In “‘Conservatism’ Gone Mad” Morton begins by stating presciently that “I presume that Mr. H. P. Lovecraft . . . is a rather young man, who will at some future day smile at the amusing dogmatism with which he now assumes to lay down the law.” There then follows a broadside on Lovecraft’s racism:
It is not surprising to find a “conservative” of Mr. Lovecraft’s type unashamed to advocate the base passion of race prejudice. Here again dogmatism is made to do duty for argument. As an enemy of democracy, Mr. Lovecraft holds that a mere accident of birth should determine for all time the social status of an individual; that the color of the skin should count for more than the quality of the brain or the character. That he gives no reasons for the reactionary assertions is not surprising. Race prejudice is not defensible by reason. . . . Lovecraft has no scientific warrant for the pretence that race prejudice is more “a gift of Nature” or an essential factor in social evolution than any other prejudice whatever. It is the product of specific historic causes, and does not strike its roots deep in the foundations of human nature. Like other vices it can be readily overcome by individuals capable of rising to a rational view of existence.
Taking up the notion that Isaacson should be muzzled for uttering unpatriotic sentiments, Morton counters: “One who is not even loyal to the Bill of Rights contained in our National Constitution is hardly in a position to set himself up as an authority on patriotism.” In conclusion, Morton makes another wise prediction:
From the sample afforded in the paper under discussion it is evident that Mr. Lovecraft needs to serve a long and humble apprenticeship before he will become qualified to sit in the master’s seat and to thunder forth ex cathedra judgments. The one thing in his favor is his evident sincerity. Let him once come to realize the value of appreciating the many points of view shared by persons as sincere as he, and better informed in certain particulars, and he will become less narrow and intolerant. His vigor of style, when wedded to clearer conceptions based on a wider comprehension, will make him a writer of power.
It is passages like this that led Lovecraft ultimately to make peace with Morton, who would then become one of his closest friends.
But that was several years in the future. At the moment Lovecraft had in mind no thought but a towering rebuttal. But the interesting thing is that no genuine rebuttal ever appeared. Lovecraft even anticipated Isaacson’s rejoinder in the October 1915 Conservative, remarking in “The Conservative and His Critics” that if “the predicted reprisal” comes, “it will find its object, as usual, not unwilling to deliver blow for blow.” In a letter he says of Isaacson: “He will call me superficial, crude, barbaric in thought, imperfect in education, offensively arrogant and bigoted, filled with venomous prejudice, wanting in good taste, etc. etc. etc. But what I can and will say in reply is also violent and comprehensive.” But for all his bluster, when the double attack by Isaacson and Morton came, Lovecraft remained strangely quiet. In the October 1915 Conservative he had already delivered another broadside against Isaacson (“Gems from In a Minor Key”), but this must have been written before the Isaacson-Morton response. All we get afterward is a thinly veiled allusion to Isaacson in a section of “In the Editor’s Study” (Conservative, October 1916) entitled “The Symphonic Ideal”: “. . . his [Lovecraft’s] whole literary style was condemned a year ago by a learned Jew, who with Semitic shrewdness declared that these pages, with their reverence for the storied past, savour of the ‘play world.’” But this, of course, is directed toward Isaacson’s attack on Lovecraft’s literary work, not his political or racial views.
What Lovecraft did do was write a magnificent poem, “The Isaacsonio-Mortoniad,” around September 1915; but he did not allow it to be published in an amateur journal, and there is no evidence that he even showed it to anyone. It is a splendid verse satire, as scintillating as some of the “Ad Criticos” pieces. Lovecraft naturally picks apart every little error made by Isaacson—his misspelling of “obeisance” as “abeisance”; his attribution of the phrase “Honi soit qui mal y pense” to the French court—and attempts systematically to refute his notions of political equality: “‘All men are equal! Let us have no kings!’ / (How tritely thus the well-worn sentence rings.),” and his remark that “Anything which incites to prejudice of any sort should be restrained” (a foreshadowing of current debates over political correctness):
Whilst the brave Semite loud of freedom cants.
Against this freedom he, forgetful, rants:
Eternal licence for himself he pleads,
Yet seeks restraint for his opponents’ deeds;
With the same force that at oppression rails,
He’d bar The Jeffersonian from the mails!
Turning to Morton, who by this time he had learned was an evangelical atheist, Lovecraft treats him with much greater respect:
Sound now the trumpets, and awake the drums,
For matchless Morton in his chariot comes!
The Dean of Darkness, wrecker of the church,
Crowing with scorn from his exalted perch!
The conclusion is somewhat amusing. The poem ends, “Tho’ like a bull at us he plunges one day, / Tomorrow he’ll be goring Billy Sunday!” Evidently Lovecraft was unaware that Morton had done just that: a pamphlet published by The Truth Seeker Co. in 1915 entitled The Case of Billy Sunday contained a lengthy broadside by Morton, “Open Letter to th
Lovecraft claimed to be more charmed than offended by Morton’s attack (“The raging blast, sent earthward to destroy, / Is watch’d and study’d with artistic joy”), but he must have been taken aback by it and was unable to discount it as easily as he might have wished. Beyond this poem, which lay in manuscript for seventy years before being posthumously published, Lovecraft said no more on the Isaacson-Morton controversy. Regrettably, however, the whole incident does not seem to have affected his own racial views in any particular.
A side-issue of the war that began to exercise Lovecraft’s attention in 1915 was the Irish question. This issue was understandably raised in a heated letter-exchange with John T. Dunn. Lovecraft’s correspondence with Dunn (1915–17) covers the most critical period in modern Irish history. Since the later nineteenth century, Irish politicians and voters had been split into three main factions: those who (like Lord Dunsany in the early part of the twentieth century) supported union with England, with Irish representation (in relatively small numbers) in the British Parliament; those who supported Home Rule, or the establishment of a separate Irish parliament that would have power over many aspects of local life but would still be subordinate to the British Crown; and those who wanted outright independence from England. Lovecraft was naturally at one end of this extreme, Dunn at the other.
Irish and English politicians had been moving toward Home Rule throughout the later nineteenth century, and a Home Rule Act was finally passed in September 1914, with the six counties of Ulster, which were vehemently Unionist, being exempted from its conditions; but the war caused a suspension of its operation. The war itself proved a great strain in Anglo-Irish relations, as the more radical groups—including Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (later to become the Irish Republican Army), and the Irish Volunteers—pressed for immediate independence from England.
When Lovecraft took up the whole issue with Dunn, he did not help matters any by very painstakingly drawing a fluttering Union Jack at the head of his first extant letter to him (July 20, 1915). But aside from this bit of malicious humour, Lovecraft makes a good case for moderation:
You take a stand as an Irishman by descent, and enumerate all the past mistakes of England in the government of Ireland. Can you not see that past experience has mellowed the judgment of England in these matters? Can you not see that every effort is being made to give justice to the Irish? That the land is being transferred from absentee landlords to the Irish people? That effective Home Rule will be in force before long?
When Lovecraft goes on to say that “I believe that you are more hostile to England than the Irish still in Ireland,” he is quite correct; Lovecraft knew that Irish-Americans were in fact more radical than their compatriots in Ireland. The Fenian movement had had its origins amongst the Irish immigrants in New York and Chicago in the 1850s, as a means of combating anti-Irish prejudice stirred up by the Know-Nothing party (a party that, incidentally, was very strong in Rhode Island at the time).
What concerned Lovecraft most about Ireland was its neutrality during the war, a stance that he saw might lead insidiously to Irish tolerance or even support for Germany and the establishment of a hostile wedge at England’s very doorstep. Lovecraft was also deeply offended by Irish-Americans who openly sided not only with Ireland in its quest for independence but also with Germany itself, or at least were hostile to the Allied cause. The April 1916 Conservative contains a vicious verse satire, “Ye Ballade of Patrick von Flynn; or, The Hibernio-German-American England-Hater.” All that can be said of this piece is that it is crude but effective. Written entirely in a parodic Irish dialect, it tells of a band of Irish-Americans who join some German-Americans in lambasting England. As the two groups begin to mingle and drink together (“Thin all began to fraternise; McNulty and von Bohn— / O’Donovan and Munsterberg, von Bulow an’ Malone”), the Irishman experiences a strange transition:
Ochone! Ochone! Where am Oi now? What conflict am Oi in?
Do Oi belong in Dublin town or back in Ould Berlin?
A week ago me son was borrn; his christ’nin’s not far off;
Oi wonther will I call him Mike, or Friedrich Wilhelm Hoff?
But aside from things like this, Lovecraft does get in a few good jabs concerning the United States’ supposed lack of neutrality (“They all denounc’d the Prisident an’ currs’d the Yankee laws / Fer bein’ too un-noothral loike to hilp the German cause”). Lovecraft had the bad taste to send the poem to Dunn, noting with incredible naiveté, “I sincerely hope you will take no personal offence at the ‘Ballade of Patrick von Flynn’ . . .” Dunn’s response, as recorded by Lovecraft, is what one might have expected: “I . . . am scarcely surprised that the ‘von Flynn’ ballad proved less than pleasing.”
“Ye Ballade of Patrick von Flynn” was published at the exact time that the Easter Rebellion of 1916 occurred. This movement, which sought to take over the government of Dublin on Easter Sunday with the aid of arms sent by Germany, was organised by a small and confused band of politicians, revolutionaries, and poets including Padraic Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Sir Roger Casement, and others. By and large it had no popular support and was a spectacular failure: the German transport ship carrying arms was intercepted by the British navy, and the rebellion itself was put down within a week by the British army, with much loss of life on both sides (450 revolutionaries and civilians, more than 100 British soldiers) and with the principal revolutionaries executed for treason.
Lovecraft does not actually say much to Dunn about the rebellion, save to note that in his latest Conservative (presumably the April 1916 issue containing “Ye Ballade”) “I have felt impelled to retaliate upon those who call my race ‘murderers’ when seeking only to quell sedition.” He continues to argue with Dunn as to why Ireland should—at least for the duration of the war—remain allied with England. In October 1916 Lovecraft published “Old England and the ‘Hyphen’“ in the Conservative, taking up again the issue of the Irish-Americans and other “hyphenates” using the United States as a base for launching anti-English propaganda:
The Prussian propagandists and Irish irresponsibles, failing in their clumsy efforts to use the United States as a tool of vengeance upon the Mistress of the Seas, have seized with ingenious and unexpected eagerness on a current slogan coined to counteract their own traitorous machinations, and have begun to fling the trite demand “America first” in the face of every American who is unable to share their puerile hatred of the British Empire.
England, Lovecraft argues, is not really a foreign country, “nor is a true love of America possible without a corresponding love for the British race and ideals that created America.” I shall return to this essay—and its emphatic rejection of the notion of the “melting pot”—at a later point.
Lovecraft was heartened when in late September President Wilson sent a “pretty stinging telegram” to Jeremiah A. O’Leary, a radical Irish-American attempting to prevent American support of Britain. Wilson, in the final stages of his re-election campaign, had declared, in response to O’Leary’s vow not to vote for him: “I would feel deeply mortified to have you or anybody like you vote for me. Since you have access to many disloyal Americans, and I have not, I will ask you to convey this message to them.” This certainly shows Wilson’s increasingly open support of the Allied cause, although Lovecraft could not have been pleased when Wilson won re-election in November largely on the basis of the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war.”
By early 1917 Lovecraft acceded to Dunn’s wish to declare a “truce, armistice, or permanent peace” regarding their discussion of the Irish question; but the matter inevitably flared up again a few months later. When, in late February 1917, the United States intercepted a telegram from Germany to Mexico promising Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona if Mexico were to enter the war, American invention became inevitable. Wilson appeared before Congre
In early July Lovecraft expressed puzzlement at Dunn’s “present war attitude,” going on to say: “It is my honest opinion that your opinions have been perverted by a long devotion to a biased and partisan press.” The correspondence abruptly ends here. What happened? Lovecraft explains in a letter written in the next year: “[Dunn] took the war very badly, & wrote treasonable letters by the score. When the draft came, he refused to register, & was arrested by government agents. In July he was drafted, but refused to respond to the summons—hence was court-martialled & sentenced to 20 years in the Atlanta Federal Prison—where he still languishes, I presume. I am done with Dunn!” Dunn in fact spent only about two years in prison, and was released shortly after the end of the war. He went on to become a priest of the Catholic church, remaining in a diocese in Ohio for more than forty years until his death in 1983. Incredibly, he paralleled Bertrand Russell in protesting both World War I and the Vietnam War!
Rather more significant for our purposes is not Dunn’s adventures with the draft but Lovecraft’s; for he announces to Dunn on May 16, 1917: “. . . I have lately tried to assume my share of the present responsibility by applying, despite my invalid condition, for enlistment in the National Guard. My attempt met with ultimate failure, for I am really too feeble for military service; but I have at least done my best to prove that my consistent opposition to pacifism is not a matter of words only.” What has not been observed by commentators is that Lovecraft’s entire episode with the Rhode Island National Guard (R.I.N.G.) occurred before Wilson’s signing of the draft bill (May 18, 1917), and well before the institution of the draft itself. Lovecraft must have felt that, with the declaration of war in April, it was now appropriate for him to attempt to enter the hostilities himself as a matter of patriotic duty.
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