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I am providence the life.., p.35

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 35


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

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  It is difficult to conceive of Lovecraft making this decision. In 1915, anticipating what he thinks will be Charles D. Isaacson’s accusation of why he is not himself serving in the war given his militarism, he observes: “I shall not stoop to explain that I am an invalid who would certainly be fighting under the Union Jack if able . . .”[59] This is a refrain that can be found throughout Lovecraft’s letters and essays of the period. Consider now his most detailed account of his attempt at enlistment in the R.I.N.G.:

  Some time ago, impressed by my entire uselessness in the world, I resolved to attempt enlistment despite my almost invalid condition. I argued that if I chose a regiment soon to depart for France; my sheer nervous force, which is not inconsiderable, might sustain me till a bullet or piece of shrapnel could more conclusively & effectively dispose of me. Accordingly I presented myself at the recruiting station of the R.I. National Guard & applied for entry into whichever unit should first proceed to the front. On account of my lack of technical or special training, I was told that I could not enter the Field Artillery, which leaves first; but was given a blank of application for the Coast Artillery, which will go after a short preliminary period of defence service at one of the forts of Narragansett Bay. The questions asked me were childishly inadequate, & so far as physical requirements are concerned, would have admitted a chronic invalid. The only diseases brought into discussion were specific ailments from which I had never suffered, & of some of which I had scarcely ever heard. The medical examination related only to major organic troubles, of which I have none, & I soon found myself (as I thought) a duly enrolled private in the 9th Co. R.I.N.G.![60]

  This tells us a number of important things. First, if he had actually become a member of the R.I.N.G., Lovecraft would probably not have been sent overseas into actual combat, but instead would have been merely stationed near home (a later letter declares that the 9th Coast Artillery was stationed at Fort Standish in Boston Harbour[61]) in an auxiliary capacity. Second, Lovecraft took an actual physical examination which, however cursory, revealed no major physical ailments. He elaborates elsewhere: “The Guard examination . . . was conducted in an office whose privacy was absolute, & whose floor & temperature were both suitable. The physician who conducted this examination, Maj. Augustus W. Calder, has just been rejected himself by the Federal surgeons as physically unfit.”[62] This examination, if it survives, has not come to light, but its results make one much inclined to think that Lovecraft’s “ailments” were largely “nervous” or, to put it bluntly, psychosomatic.

  If Lovecraft passed the examination, how was it that he was not serving in the R.I.N.G.? Let him tell the story:

  As you may have deduced, I embarked upon this desperate venture without informing my mother; & as you may also have deduced, the sensation created at home was far from slight. In fact, my mother was almost prostrated with the news, since she knew that only by rare chance could a weakling like myself survive the rigorous routine of camp life. Her activities soon brought my military career to a close for the present. It required but a few words from our family physician regarding my nervous condition to annul the enlistment, though the army surgeon declared that such an annulment was highly unusual & almost against the regulations of the service. . . . my final status is that of a man “Rejected for physical disability.”[63]

  This account too is full of interest. One wonders what exactly Susie and Lovecraft’s physician told the R.I.N.G. officials. Some have speculated that the latter might have revealed the fact of Winfield Lovecraft’s paretic condition. The connexion between paresis and syphilis had been established in 1911, and it is likely that both Susie and the physician now had a pretty good idea of the true cause of Winfield’s death. But the physical examination had presumably indicated that Lovecraft himself was not afflicted with paresis or syphilis, so it is not clear what effect the information about Winfield would have had. I think it is safer to concur with Lovecraft’s own testimony and assume that the physician’s account of Lovecraft’s “nervous condition” caused the annulment.

  Psychologically, Lovecraft confessed to a feeling of depression and disappointment. “I am told that a week of camp life and its hardships would probably wreck my constitution forever; but who can tell until it is attempted? And besides, what is the life or health of one weakling, when thousands of sturdy and useful young men are to be killed, crippled, and disfigured in a few months?”[64] I am not sure what we are to make of these frequent expressions of a wish for—or at least a lack of concern about—self-destruction. A little later he writes:

  I am feeling desolate and lonely indeed as a civilian. Practically all my personal acquaintances are now in some branch of the service, mostly Plattsburg or R.I.N.G. Yesterday one of my closest friends entered the Medical . . . Corps of the regular army. The physical tests for this corps are very light, and in spite of my previous rejection for Coast Artillery I would try to enter, were it not for the almost frantic attitude of my mother; who makes me promise every time I leave the house that I will not make another attempt at enlistment! But it is disheartening to be the one non-combatant among a profusion of proud recruits.[65]

  Here was one more indication, for Lovecraft, of his being left behind in life: having failed to finish high school and enter college, he had seen his boyhood friends go on to gain good jobs in journalism, trade, and law enforcement. Now he saw them go off to war while he remained behind to write for the amateur press.

  Lovecraft did in fact register for the draft on June 5; indeed, he was legally obliged to do so. He gave his occupation as “Writer.” “I am told that it is possible I may be used even though I fail to pass the physical test for active military service.”[66] Clearly Lovecraft was not so used. His draft record, if it survives, has also not come to light.

  Another sociopolitical interest that emerged in the earliest part of Lovecraft’s amateur journalism phase was temperance. This had, indeed, been an enthusiasm of remarkably early development. He announces in 1916: “It was in the sombre period of 1896 [after the death of his maternal grandmother] that I discovered an old copy of John B. Gough’s Sunshine [sic] & Shadow & read & re-read it, backward and forward. From that time to this, I have never been at a loss for something to say against liquor!”[67] Gough (1817–1886) is an interesting case in himself. A small-time actor, he found himself falling increasingly under the influence of alcohol until he met a member of the so-called Washingtonian Movement (a temperance organisation emerging in the 1840s and employing George Washington as a sort of moral symbol of upright living) and took a pledge of abstinence in 1842. In spite of several relapses in the next few years, he ultimately became a complete teetotaller and spent the rest of his life delivering hundreds of lectures across the country to enthralled audiences.[68] His Sunlight and Shadow; or, Gleanings from My Life Work was published in 1880. The mere fact that this volume was in the Phillips family library indicates that one member of the family at least was sympathetic to the temperance cause. Indeed, we may not have to look far, for the town of Delavan, Illinois, was founded by Lovecraft’s maternal ancestors as a temperance town. We have seen that Whipple Phillips spent at least a year there as a young man in the 1850s.

  Lovecraft himself did not get a chance to say anything in public on the subject until about 1915. About this time he discovered in the amateur world an ardent colleague in the fight against the demon rum—Andrew Francis Lockhart of Milbank, South Dakota. An article entitled “More Chain Lightning” (United Official Quarterly, October 1915) is a paean to Lockhart’s efforts in the cause of temperance. Chain Lightning was a professional magazine edited by Lockhart which, according to Lovecraft, “last April succeeded in ridding the city of Milbank of its licenced saloons, and in securing the conviction of illicit retailers and resort proprietors.”

  Lovecraft was aware of the difficulty of the task: “The practical difficulty in enforcing Prohibition is admittedly great, but no man of virtue can do otherwise than work toward the final downfall of Ru
m.” He realised the money, power, and influence of the liquor interests, and the unpopularity of abstinence among a broad cross-section of the populace who think that a social drink now and then is not a bad thing. Indeed, he took particular offence at an insidious advertising campaign launched by “a notorious beer-brewing corporation of St. Louis” in which the founding fathers were all portrayed as moderate drinkers. Lovecraft noted huffily that these ads are being published “by supposedly respectable newspapers, including those of the very highest class, such as the Providence Daily Journal and Evening Bulletin.”

  This remark itself points to the fact that the temperance movement was quite unpopular in Rhode Island, for a variety of reasons. A prohibition amendment to the state constitution was passed in 1885 but was repealed four years later. Rhode Island did not, in fact, ratify the Eighteenth Amendment.[69] It is true that the Baptists—the denomination of many of Lovecraft’s maternal ancestors—had long been proponents of abstinence; but the modern temperance cause was really an outgrowth of the Progressive movement of the 1890s, and gained ground particularly in the first decade and a half of the new century. It is not at all surprising that Lovecraft would have become converted to temperance, for the movement had strong class- and race-conscious overtones; as one historian notes, it was led by “old stock, Protestant middle-class Americans”[70] who were repelled by what they considered the excessive drinking habits of immigrants, particularly Germans and Italians. Lovecraft unwittingly confirms this bias in his account of a Prohibition lecture given by an Episcopal clergyman in Providence in October 1916:

  . . . scarcely less interesting than the speaker were the dregs of humanity who clustered closest about him. I may say truly, that I have never before seen so many human derelicts all at once, gathered in one spot. I beheld modifications of human physiognomy which would have startled even a Hogarth, and abnormal types of gait and bodily carriage which proclaim with startling vividness man’s kinship to the jungle apes. And even in the open air the stench of whiskey was appalling. To this fiendish poison, I am certain, the greater part of the squalor I saw was due. Many of these vermin were obviously not foreigners—I counted at least five American countenances in which a certain vanished decency half showed through the red whiskey bloating.[71]

  The implication of that last sentence is that even “Americans” could sink to the level of “foreigners” under the influence of liquor. We have already seen Lovecraft referring to the foreigners in New England who “Around the wine-shops loaf with bleary eyes” (“New-England Fallen”); and he would not fail to stress the imbibing habits of the Irish in “Ye Ballade of Patrick von Flynn” (1916).

  Lovecraft never missed an opportunity to champion the cause or to excoriate its opponents. His detestation of Woodrow Wilson was only augmented when the president’s new Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, reversed the policy of William Jennings Bryan and reintroduced the serving of wine at state dinners. In a stinging diatribe, “Liquor and Its Friends” (Conservative, October 1915), Lovecraft acidly cites Mrs Lansing’s remark, “Mr. Lansing and I are not extremists in the advocacy of Temperance,” and defends the moral character of Bryan against his “wine-bibbing, time-serving, vice-sanctioning successor.” He ominously sees in the incident “a conscious disregard for natural law and moral rectitude; a hideous disregard which will eventually wreck civilisation.”

  “A Remarkable Document” (Conservative, July 1917) praises a temperance article by Booth Tarkington published in the American Magazine for January 1917 and reprinted in the professional temperance magazine, the National Enquirer, for April 12. There are some interesting philosophical ruminations in this article which I shall discuss later.

  Lovecraft found in poetry another means of advocating the cause. His first such foray was “The Power of Wine: A Satire,” first published in the Providence Evening News for January 13, 1915, reprinted in the Tryout for April 1916, and then in the National Enquirer for March 28, 1918. Some of the satiric touches here are moderately effective:

  The youthful Tom, with Dionysiac might,

  Waylaid and robb’d an aged Jew last night,

  Whilst reeling Dick, with Bacchic ire possess’d,

  Shot down his best beloved friend in jest.

  I don’t know that there is a more sympathetic reference to Jews in all Lovecraft’s early work than in that second line. Toward the end of the poem the imagery becomes fantastic and horrifying:

  Shriek with delight, and writhe in ghoulish mirth;

  With every draught another sin hath birth;

  Beat your black wings, and prance with cloven feet;

  With hideous rites the friends of Chaos greet!

  Minions of Hell, your fiendish tones combine,

  And chant in chorus of the Pow’r of Wine!

  Rather less successful is “Temperance Song,” published in the Dixie Booster for Spring 1916. This poem, in five stanzas with a chorus, was meant to be sung to the tune of “The Bonnie Blue Flag”; the first stanza will be sufficient:

  We are a band of brothers

  Who fight the demon Rum,

  With all our strength until at length

  A better time shall come.

  That internal rhyme in the third line makes us think a little incongruously of “The Poem of Ulysses.” Some poems that presumably date to around this time but which were apparently not published carry on the diatribe, their only virtue being their ingenious inclusion of the chemical compound for various types of alcohol within the metrical scheme. Here is the third stanza of “The Decline and Fall of a Man of the World”:


  O3 + H2O

  The hapless youth took now and then,

  And knew De Quincey’s woe.

  “The Road to Ruin” exists in a two-stanza and a one-stanza version, both expatiating on what happened when “Young Cyril / . . . first partook with curious mind / Of C2H6O.”

  Prohibition was ratified on January 15, 1919, and was deemed to go into effect in a year. On July 1, 1919, however, the government banned the manufacture and sale of liquor, and this appears to have been the occasion of Lovecraft’s “Monody on the Late King Alcohol,” published in the Tryout for August 1919. It does little but replay the message of “The Power of Wine” (“Less are the jokes, the nonsense, and the laughter— / And less the headaches of the morning after!”).

  One has to wonder why Lovecraft became so obsessed with temperance. He himself was fond of declaring that “I have never tasted intoxicating liquor, and never intend to”;[72] in later years, while continuing to be theoretically in favour of Prohibition, he began to doubt its effectiveness and accepted its repeal in 1933 with cynical resignation. There is clearly a philosophical aspect to his stance, as when he states that “I can’t see that it [liquor] does much save to coarsen, animalise, and degrade,”[73] and I shall have more to say about this a little later. But when Lovecraft remarks that “I am nauseated by even the distant stink of any alcoholic liquor,”[74] one is reminded of his extreme aversion to fish and cannot help wondering whether some event in infancy or boyhood triggered this severe physiological and psychological response. We know nothing of the drinking habits of Lovecraft’s immediate family; even for his father, whatever other sins he may have committed, we have no evidence of any inclination toward imbibing. It would, therefore, be irresponsible and unjust to make any conjectures on the subject. What must be said is that the cause of temperance is the only aspect of social reform for which Lovecraft showed any enthusiasm in his earlier years—an enthusiasm seemingly out of keeping with the “cosmic” philosophy he had already evolved, which led him outwardly to maintain a perfect indifference to the fate of the “flyspeck-inhabiting lice”[75] on this terraqueous globe.

  I have already noted that among the great benefits Lovecraft claimed to derive from amateurdom was the association of sympathetic and like-minded (or contrary-minded) individuals. For one who had been a virtual recluse during the 1908–13 period, amateur journalism allo
wed Lovecraft a gradual exposure to human society—initially in an indirect manner (via correspondence or discussions in amateur papers), then by direct contact. It would take several years for him to become comfortable as even a limited member of human society, but the transformation did indeed take place; and some of his early amateur associates remained for the rest of his life his closest friends.

  Curiously, Lovecraft does not seem to have become close to Edward F. Daas, who recruited him into the amateur world. He noted that Daas withdrew from active participation in amateurdom around February 1916,[76] but he had returned by no later than the autumn of 1918,[77] and he visited Lovecraft in June 1920.[78] He and Lovecraft did not have much in common intellectually, as Lovecraft confesses (“our tastes are not especially similar”[79]). Lovecraft did, however, establish a fairly regular correspondence with his old Argosy opponent John Russell, although his letters to Russell have not come to light. Russell did not join the UAPA immediately when contacted by Daas; but Lovecraft ushered him into the association in “Introducing Mr. John Russell” (Conservative, July 1915).

  It is not surprising that Lovecraft managed to convince his old boyhood chum Chester Pierce Munroe to join the UAPA. Averring in “Introducing Mr. Chester Pierce Munroe” (Conservative, April 1915) that Chester “was always of literary tastes,” Lovecraft noted that Chester wrote several short stories as a youth “and in later years became the author of more than one unpublished novel.” Chester’s credential, the poem “Thoughts,” appeared in the Blarney-Stone for March–April 1915, and random other poems—“To Flavia” in the United Amateur (May 1916), “To Chloris” in Amateur Special (July 1916) (also in the Providence Evening News for January 2, 1917), “Twilight” in Lovecraft’s own Conservative (October 1916)—appeared from time to time. “To Flavia” had an unfortunate typographical error: the last line, which should have begun “Small maid . . .,” read instead “Swell maid . . .” Chester also wrote a poem entitled “My Friend—H. L.: A Poet of the Old School,” which appeared in the Tryout for March 1917. It is, frankly, a pretty poor excuse for a poem, and at that was probably revised by Lovecraft. It concludes, rather touchingly:

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