I am providence the life.., p.4

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 4


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

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  It is, of course, very possible that Lovecraft exaggerated the degree of his mother’s acquaintance with Guiney; or perhaps his mother herself did so to her son. She may have stressed the Guiney connexion once she saw Lovecraft developing as a writer himself. The Lovecrafts were, indeed, very likely paying boarders at the Guiney residence, staying there only long enough to find their own rented quarters while preparing to build a house on the home site they had purchased.

  Louise Imogen Guiney is of some interest in her own right. She was a literary prodigy of sorts, publishing her first book of poetry, Songs at the Start (1884), when she was twenty-three. Many other volumes of poetry and essays followed. She first moved to Auburndale with her mother after she graduated from the Sacred Heart in 1879; after a stay in England (1889–91), she returned to her home on Vista Avenue in Auburndale. At the time of the Lovecrafts’ visit she was about thirty-one, four years younger than Mrs Lovecraft.

  Lovecraft’s memories of Auburndale—especially of the Guiney residence—are numerous and clear:

  I distinctly recall the quiet, shady suburb as I saw it in 1892—& it is a rather curious psychological fact that at this early age I was impressed most of all with the railway bridge & the four-tracked Boston & Albany road which extended beneath it. . . . Miss Guiney kept a most extraordinary collection of St. Bernard dogs, all named after authors and poets. A shaggy gentleman by the classic name of Brontë was my particular favourite & companion, being ever in attendance on my chariot as my mother wheeled that vehicle through the streets & avenues. Brontë would permit me to place my fist in his mouth without biting me, & would snarl protectingly if any stranger approached me.[26]

  These St Bernards actually enjoyed a fleeting fame of their own. A Chicago Sunday Tribune article of December 3, 1893, notes: “With her great St. Bernard dog, her mother, and a small kit of books, she set up Postmaster at Auburndale. . . . The St. Bernard became chief deputy and was put in charge of the department of transportation.”[27] This writer evidently did not know of the existence of several dogs. Guiney had portraits painted of these dogs, including Brontë, and hung them in her parlour.[28] Ironically, although—as Donald R. Burleson discovered in 1977—the Guiney home was long ago torn down and another one put up in its place, the original barn of the house still survives and the dogs are buried in the back yard; Brontë’s grave is readily visible.

  Another clear memory Lovecraft had was the tableau of the railway bridge, which in a 1930 letter he clearly dates to the winter of 1892–93: “I can see myself as a child of 2½ on the railway bridge at Auburndale, Mass., looking across and downward at the business part of the town, and feeling the imminence of some wonder which I could neither describe nor fully conceive—and there has never been a subsequent hour of my life when kindred sensations have been absent.”[29] If Lovecraft is being exact about his age here, then this vista must have been seen in late 1892 or early 1893. His first literary stirrings can be dated to this period:

  At the age of two I was a rapid talker, familiar with the alphabet from my blocks & picture-books, & . . . absolutely metre-mad! I could not read, but would repeat any poem of simple sort with unfaltering cadence. Mother Goose was my principal classic, & Miss Guiney would continually make me repeat parts of it; not that my rendition was necessarily notable, but because my age lent uniqueness to the performance.[30]

  Elsewhere Lovecraft states that it was his father who, with his taste for military matters, taught him to recite Thomas Buchanan Read’s “Sheridan’s Ride” at the Guiney residence, where Lovecraft declaimed it “in a manner that brought loud applause—and painful egotism.” Guiney himself seems to have taken to the infant; she would repeatedly ask, “Whom do you love?” to which Lovecraft would pipe back: “Louise Imogen Guiney!”[31]

  Lovecraft was clearly proud of his family’s association with Guiney; as late as 1930 he is claiming that Guiney “now ranks among the really major figures of American literature.”[32] This is only a slight exaggeration: after Guiney’s death in 1920 at least two books about her were published—one by her friend Alice Brown (1921) and another by an English critic, E. M. Tenison (1923). Her letters were published in two volumes in 1926, and she had been praised by Andrew Lang, Edmund Gosse, and many other noted critics. A volume on Guiney by Sister Mary Adorita appeared in 1962, and a book on her for Twayne’s United States Authors Series by Henry G. Fairbanks dates to 1973—sixteen years before one on Lovecraft appeared in the series. In a candid moment, however, Lovecraft gave his own assessment of Guiney’s work:

  It is said that her “verses” mean something, but I have never taken the time and trouble to find out just what! Yet Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes once predicted a bright future for her. She has written many books, and has an entrée to the best magazines, but I doubt if posterity will ever accord her a place even nearly approaching that of Dr. Holmes himself. . . . [H]e was a devotee of Pope, and has been called “the Modern Pope”. But Miss Guiney followed vaguer literary deities, of whom the Miltonic spirit Chaos seems to be the leader.[33]

  Lovecraft did not own her collected poetry (published in 1909 under the title Happy Ending and augmented in 1927), but did have a volume entitled Three Heroines of New England Romance (1895) containing a lengthy biographical essay by Guiney, “Martha Hilton.” The book was probably acquired by his mother.

  Lovecraft himself had a faint encounter with Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of many close brushes with established writers he would have throughout his life: “Oliver Wendell Holmes came not infrequently to this [Guiney’s] menage, and on one occasion (unremembered by the passenger) is said to have ridden the future Weird Tales disciple on his venerable knee.”[34] Holmes (1809–1894) was at this time very old, and was in fact a close friend of Guiney (her Goose-Quill Papers is dedicated to him); no doubt he failed to remember for very long his meeting with the future master of the weird tale. Holmes had had an earlier and more memorable association with a relative of Lovecraft’s: Dr Franklin Chase Clark, Lovecraft’s uncle, had taken a course under Holmes at the Harvard Medical School, and as late as 1935 Lovecraft had in his possession a letter by Holmes congratulating Dr Clark on an article in a medical journal.[35] Dr Clark was, however, not acquainted with the Lovecraft family at this time; he would marry Lillian D. Phillips only in 1902. It was in part this early association with Holmes that led Lovecraft to rank highly his weird novel, Elsie Venner (1861). Lovecraft also owned Holmes’s Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table and his Poetical Works.

  Lovecraft’s early residences and travels were, of course, dictated by his father’s business. His medical records list him as a “Commercial Traveller,” and Lovecraft frequently affirms that his father’s commercial interests kept him and his family in the Boston area during the period 1890–93. There is little reason to doubt Lovecraft when he says that “my image of him is but vague”:[36] he lived with him for only the first two and a half years of his life, and perhaps less than that if his father’s business trips took him very far afield for long periods of time, as there is some suggestion that they did.

  The illness that struck Winfield Scott Lovecraft in April 1893 and forced him to remain in Butler Hospital in Providence until his death in July 1898 is worth examining in detail. The Butler Hospital medical record reads as follows:

  For a year past he has shown obscure symptoms of mental disease—doing and saying strange things at times; has, also, grown pale and thin in flesh. He continued his business, however, until Apr. 21, when he broke down completely while stopping in Chicago. He rushed from his room shouting that a chambermaid had insulted him, and that certain men were outraging his wife in the room above. He was extremely noisy and violent for two days, but was finally quieted by free use of the bromides, which made his removal here possible. We can get no history of specific disease.

  Upon Winfield’s death in 1898, the medical record diagnosed him as having “General Paralysis”; his death certificate listed the cause of death as “general paresis.”[37] In 1898
(and, for that matter, today) these terms were virtually synonymous; Leland E. Hinsie and Robert Jean Campbell write in their Psychiatric Dictionary (4th ed., 1970): “Paresis, general . . . Also known as general paralysis of the insane (G.P.I.), dementia paralytica, Bayle’s disease; the most malignant form of (tertiary) neurosyphilis consisting of direct invasion of the parenchyma of the brain producing a combination of both mental and neurologic symptoms.”[38] What was not known in 1898—and would not be known until 1911, when the spirochete that causes syphilis was identified—was the connexion between “general paresis” and syphilis. Arthur S. Koki, who refused to believe that Winfield had syphilis, quotes Dr C. H. Jones, Administrator of Butler Health Center, as saying to him in 1960:

  . . . this term [general paresis] back in 1898 was a catch-all or waste-paper-basket term. It was found within the following decade that a substantial portion of the patients who displayed the general paresis symptoms did in fact have syphilis, but there are a number of other conditions which show the same set of symptoms. . . . Just sitting here I could name at least twenty other organic brain diseases.[39]

  But M. Eileen McNamara, M.D., studying Winfield’s medical record, concluded that the probability of Winfield’s having tertiary syphilis is very strong:

  It is unlikely that he had a primary brain tumor such as a glioblastoma, or a brain metastasis, or his survival would have been shortened. If he had had a viral or bacterial meningitis, his survival would have been a matter of days. Tubercular meningitis is also rapidly fatal. The focal convulsions are also certain proof that WSL did not simply have manic-depression or schizophrenia. Winfield Scott Lovecraft almost certainly died of syphilis.[40]

  Winfield displayed nearly all the symptoms of tertiary syphilis as identified by Hinsie and Campbell: “(1) simple dementia, the most common type, with deterioration of intellect, affect and social behavior; (2) paranoid form, with persecutory delusions; (3) expansive or manic form, with delusions of grandiosity; or (4) depressive form, often with absurd nihilistic delusions.”[41] The medical record clearly bears out at least the first three of these symptoms: (1) on April 28, 1893 “the patient . . . broke out violently this morning—rushed up and down the ward shouting and attacked watchman”; (2) April 29, 1893: “says three men—one a negro—in the room above trying to do violence to his wife”; May 15, 1893: “believes his food is poisoned”; June 25, 1893: “looks upon the officers and attendants as enemies and accuses them of stealing his clothing, watch, bonds, &c.”; (3) under the heading “Mental Condition”: “boasts of his many friends; his business success, his family, and above all his great strength—asking writer to see how perfectly his muscles are developed”. For the fourth symptom—depression—the record is not sufficiently detailed to make a conjecture.

  If, then, it is admitted that Winfield had syphilis, the question is how he contracted it. This is, of course, at this point impossible to ascertain with certainty. McNamara reminds us that the “latent period between inoculation and the development of tertiary syphilis is ten to twenty years,” so that Winfield “might have been infected as early as eighteen or as late as twenty-eight, well before his marriage at age thirty-five.” It is, unfortunately, exactly this period of Winfield’s life about which nothing is known. It is difficult to doubt that he contracted syphilis either from a prostitute or from some other sex partner prior to his marriage, either while attending the military academy or—despite Koki’s scoffing of “that type of salesman who has become the butt of a thousand smoking car jokes”[42]—during his stint as a “Commercial Traveller,” if indeed that began so early as the age of twenty-eight. It may be going too far to infer that Winfield was some sort of Casanova or roué, but the two recorded instances of his hallucination that his wife was being raped certainly point to some form of sexual obsession. I shall have more to say on the racist content of one of his hallucinations later.

  One remarkable fact is that Winfield’s cousin, Joshua Elliot Lovecraft (1845–1898), died of “general paralysis” on November 8, 1898, a few months after Winfield.[43] He had been committed to the state hospital in Rochester, New York, on April 10, 1896, dying after two and a half years. Richard D. Squires has unearthed Joshua’s medical records and notes that some of his symptoms bear uncanny similarities to those of Winfield. In both cases there is mention of an “ataxic” gait (i.e., lack of coordination in locomotion), and, incredibly, the “alleged cause” of Joshua’s illness is “business anxiety,” exactly like Winfield. There seems little doubt that Joshua also died of syphilis. Although we know little of Joshua’s life, hence cannot speak definitively on any relationship between him and Winfield, their similar fate is highly suggestive.

  The nature of Winfield’s ailment necessarily raises the question of his sexual relations with his wife. We of course have no grounds for any conjecture on the matter; they did, after all, conceive one son, and might presumably have conceived more had Winfield not fallen ill. The Phillips women tended to be prolific, although Susie’s older sister Lillian produced no offspring and her younger sister Annie’s two children died before reaching adulthood. Sonia H. Davis, Lovecraft’s wife, made the following remarkable assertion in 1969: “In my opinion, the elder Lovecraft, having been a travelling salesman for the Gorham Silversmiths, and his wife being a ‘touch-me-not,’ took his sexual pleasures wherever he could find them; for H. P. never had a sister or a brother, and his mother, probably having been sex-starved against her will, lavished both her love and her hate on her only child.”[44] I believe this is entirely a conjecture on Sonia’s part; she obviously did not know Lovecraft’s mother (she and Lovecraft first met six weeks after his mother’s death), much less his father, and I doubt whether any of the above was something Lovecraft actually told her. It is likely both that Susie was a virgin prior to her marriage and that she remained celibate following her husband’s death, but the fact that she and her husband conceived a son about six months after their marriage certainly suggests fairly normal sexual relations given their social position and the mores of the times, and especially in light of the frequent travelling her husband must have done.

  The course of Winfield’s illness makes horrifying reading. There are frequent references in the first few months of his stay to being “violent and noisy”; on April 29, 1893, he was given a small dose of morphine to quiet him. By August 29 he seemed to have made a recovery of sorts: “A few days ago patient was dressed and permitted to go about ward and into yard”; but he soon relapsed. Frequent convulsions—some occurring only on the left side of his body (which, as McNamara states, “indicat[es] a lesion of the right brain”)—occur in November, but by December 15 there was “marked improvement.”

  At this point the entries in the medical record become quite infrequent, sometimes as many as six months passing before a notation is made. On May 29, 1894, he was allowed into the hall and airing-court even though he is “very noisy at times.” By December 5 Winfield was said to be failing, with frequent convulsions; it was thought that he had only days to live, but then he began to rally. By May 10, 1895, his physical condition was said to have “improved much since last writing” even though “mentally, he has continued to become more demented.” There is little change for a year and a half. On December 16, 1896, Winfield developed an ulcer on the penis, possibly from masturbation (the initial sign of syphilis is such an ulcer, but Winfield was long past this stage). His condition began to decline markedly by the spring of 1898, and blood and mucus are found in his stool. By May he developed constipation and required an enema every three days. On July 12 he developed a temperature of 103? and a pulse of 106, with frequent convulsions. On July 18 he “passe[d] from one convulsion into another,” and he was pronounced dead the next day.

  The trauma experienced by Susie Lovecraft over this excruciating period of five years—with doctors ignorant of how to treat Winfield’s illness, and with periods of false hope where the patient seems to recover only to lapse into more serious physical and mental det
erioration—can only be imagined. When Susie herself was admitted to Butler Hospital in 1919, her doctor, F. J. Farnell, “found disorder had been evidenced for fifteen years; that in all, abnormality had existed at least twenty-six years.”[45] It is no accident that the onset of her “abnormality” dates to 1893.

  It is of some interest that although Winfield is listed on his medical record as a resident of Auburndale, his wife’s residence is given as 194 Angell Street. I do not know that much need be made of this; there has been speculation that Winfield and Susie were somehow separated, and that she may have moved back to her father’s home in Providence well before the date of April 1893 given by Lovecraft. It is, however, possible that the indication on the medical record refers merely to the fact that Susie (with Howard) had moved back to Providence immediately upon the onset of Winfield’s illness; there would be no reason for remaining in Auburndale, and the home site that she and Winfield had purchased was quickly sold. We simply do not have enough information to make a hypothesis on this issue—certainly not enough to warrant the inference that Susie and Winfield had had some sort of falling out—and I think we must accept Lovecraft’s testimony on the matter unless hard evidence to the contrary emerges.

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