I am providence the life.., p.44

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 44


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

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  I have no doubt that Lovecraft approved of the three important immigration restriction laws of the period: those of 1917 (which introduced a literacy test), of 1921 (which limited immigration from Europe, Australia, the Near East, and Africa to 3% of each foreign nation’s population then residing in the U.S.), and, most significantly, of 1924, reducing the quota to 2%, but taking as its basis the census of 1890, which had the added effect of radically reducing immigration from eastern and southern Europe, since immigrants from those countries were an insignificant number in 1890. Lovecraft does not mention any of these immigration laws, but his general silence on the matter of foreign incursions in the 1920s (except during his New York period) suggests that he felt this matter had been, at least for the time being, satisfactorily dealt with. Politics during the relatively tranquil and Republican-governed 1920s becomes for Lovecraft less a matter of immediate crises than an opportunity for theoretical speculation. It was during this time that he evolved his notions of aristocracy and “civilisation,” ideas that would undergo significant modification with the onset of the Depression but retain their fundamental outlines, leading to the evolution of the distinctive notion of “fascistic socialism.”

  The late teens saw Lovecraft emerge as a towering figure in the tiny world of amateur journalism. Having been elected President for the 1917–18 term, he seemed in a good position to carry out his programme for a UAPA that would both promote pure literature and serve as a tool for education. Under the capable official editorship of Verna McGeoch (pronounced Ma-GOO), who held the office for two consecutive terms (1917–19), the United Amateur really did flower into a substantial literary organ. But signs of trouble were already in the air. As early as January 1917, when Lovecraft published the article “Amateur Standards” in the Conservative, he was having to fend off attacks on the literary orientation of the UAPA. The piece opens resoundingly: “Amateur journalism has always been a battle-ground betwixt those who, cognisant of its better possibilities, wish to improve their literary skill; and those who, viewing it merely as a field of amusement to which they can obtain easy access, wish to indulge in mock-politics, pseudo-feuds, and cheap social frivolities.” This is Lovecraft’s old distinction of literati and politicians. He goes on to note that “there has arisen in opposition to the progressive policies of [the current administration] a reactionary movement of such blatant vulgarity and puerile crudeness, that the Conservative feels impelled to protest at the display of impotent malice and infantile bitterness shewn by some of the treacherous anti-administration elements.” This refers, of course, to the administration of 1916–17, of which Paul J. Campbell was president. One phase of the attack cut Lovecraft to the quick: “One of these peace-disturbers has wailed against the improvement of the The United Amateur, declaring . . . that it has become a mere purveyor of ‘literary twaddle’ . . .” This is exactly the sort of “improvement” he was aiming to bring about, and his July 1917 United Amateur may have been a veiled response to such an accusation. I believe Lovecraft’s object of attack is William J. Dowdell and other members of what Lovecraft fancied to be a clique in the area of Cleveland, Ohio.

  But for the time being Lovecraft was in a position to carry forward his own agenda. An amendment creating a third and fourth vice-president passed at the 1917 convention, and these officers were to be responsible for recruiting at the college and high-school levels, respectively. Lovecraft appointed Mary Henrietta Lehr as the third vice-president and, by November 1917, Alfred Galpin as the fourth vice-president.[6] Recruitment at these institutions would, in Lovecraft’s view, markedly improve the overall literacy of the membership, counteracting the generally undereducated “boy printers” of the NAPA tradition and the tyros, young and old, who saw in amateurdom a place for the publication of ill-formed writings not publishable elsewhere.

  Verna McGeoch originated a plan for a regular column in the United Amateur called “The Reading Table,” which would offer elementary histories of the great literatures of the world and guides to the “great books” of the Western world.[7] The plan took a little while to get under way, but in the September 1918 issue McGeoch herself published an article on “Greek Literature.” Lovecraft followed with “The Literature of Rome” in November 1918. This is a competent enough piece that allows Lovecraft to rhapsodise about the greatness of the Romans, to whom he always felt closer than to the Greeks. He confesses this bias openly:

  In considering Rome and her artistic history, we are conscious of a subjectivity impossible in the case of Greece or any other ancient nation. Whilst the Hellenes, with their strange beauty-worship and defective moral ideals, are to be admired and pitied at once, as luminous but remote phantoms; the Romans, with their greater practical sense, ancient virtue, and love of law and order, seem like our own people.

  The “defective moral ideals” refers, apparently to Greek homosexuality. Lovecraft evidently went on a little too long in this piece, as parts of it were relegated to the back of the issue in small type without attribution; this section of the article was not reprinted until its appearance in the second volume of Collected Essays (2004).

  A later piece, “Literary Composition” (United Amateur, January 1920), although not part of “The Reading Table,” continues Lovecraft’s effort to educate amateurs in basic literary craft. It is an elementary, sometimes simple-minded, survey of grammar, syntax, and the rudiments of prose fiction. This bias toward fiction is itself interesting—as are the frequent citations of Poe, Bierce, and Lord Dunsany as models of style and narration—in pointing to Lovecraft’s shift away from essays and poetry; he promises later articles on these latter subjects, but they were never written. Some features of the article reveal Lovecraft’s antiquated grammatical and syntactical preferences, as when he objects to the use of “barbarous compound nouns” such as viewpoint or upkeep, which had already become relatively common in standard English; but he is dead right on the misuse of like for as or as if, even though this distinction is now virtually a lost cause thanks to the ignorance of the supposedly literate general public. He highlights this misuse with a piquant example: “I strive to write like Pope wrote.”

  Another idea Lovecraft put forward to encourage amateur activity was the issuing of cooperative papers—papers in which a number of individuals would pool their resources, both financial and literary. He announced in his “President’s Message” of March 1918 that he was heading such an operation, and announced the rates: “$1.50 will pay for one page, 7 × 10, and each contributor is at liberty to take as many pages as he desires at that rate.” But the next “President’s Message” (May 1918) declared that “Responses to the proposal for a co-operative paper have been slow in coming in,” so clearly the project did not take off as Lovecraft wished.

  But no one could accuse Lovecraft of not trying to teach by example. He himself participated in such a journal, the United Co-operative, which published three issues: December 1918, June 1919, and April 1921. Lovecraft had contributions in each issue: “The Simple Spelling Mania” (3 pages) and the poem “Ambition” (½ page) in December 1918; “The Case for Classicism” (3 pages), the poem “John Oldham: A Defence” (½ page), and the prose-poem “Memory” (½ page) in June 1919; the collaborative story “The Crawling Chaos” (with Winifred Virginia Jackson; 6 pages) and “Lucubrations Lovecraftian” (8 pages) in April 1921. Jackson was also one of the cooperative editors.

  Lovecraft also served on the editorial board of a paper, the Bonnet, which was the organ of the United Women’s Press Club of Massachusetts. Winifred Virginia Jackson was official editor. I know of only one issue to appear (June 1919), containing an unsigned editorial undoubtedly by Lovecraft, “Trimmings,” and an unsigned poem, “Helene Hoffman Cole: 1893–1919: The Club’s Tribute,” also clearly by him. I have already mentioned that Lovecraft was Assistant Editor of the Credential (April 1920). Earlier he had served as Assistant Editor for at least one issue (June 1915) of the Badger (edited by George S. Schilling) and for the Tribute Number
(April 1917) of the Inspiration (edited by Edna von der Heide).

  When Lovecraft’s term as President expired in the summer of 1918, he was appointed to his old job of Chairman of the Department of Public Criticism by the new president, Rheinhart Kleiner. For the 1919–20 term Lovecraft held no office, although he was no doubt gratified to have won the Story, Essay, and Editorial laureateships for the year (for “The White Ship,” “Americanism,” and “The Pseudo-United,” respectively). In the summer of 1920, however, he was elected Official Editor, serving for four of the next five years. He was now in still greater control of the editorial content of the United Amateur, and he made the most of it, opening its pages to literary matter by many of his colleagues old and new. Moreover, he wrote editorials for nearly every issue and was also in charge of writing “News Notes” recounting comings and goings of various amateurs, including himself.

  The rumblings of discontent from some members became more emphatic around this time. In July 1919, in recommending Anne Tillery Renshaw for official editor (she in fact won the office), Lovecraft was forced to battle the “turbulent Cleveland element,” waging a direct attack on William J. Dowdell—who was running against Renshaw—and his paper, the Cleveland Sun:

  Mr. Dowdell is clever, and could go far in literature if he chose; but up to now he has shewn no inclination to succeed except on a very low cultural plane—the plane of commercial “yellow” newspaper journalism. His artistic birth has not yet taken place. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the Bearcat and Sun, as now conducted, are fair specimens of the grade of official organ which Mr. Dowdell would give us—when he might condescend to give us any. Need more be said? Forewarned is forearmed! (“For Official Editor—Anne Tillery Renshaw,” Conservative, July 1919)

  By November 1920, now himself official editor, he was having to respond to this accusation:

  For several years our foes have reproached us for excessive centralisation of authority; asserting that the control of our society is anything from oligarchical to monarchial, and pointing to the large amount of influence wielded by a very few leaders. Denials on our part, prompted by the conspicuous absence of any dictatorial ambitions in the minds of our executives, have been largely nullified by the fact that while power has not been autocratically usurped and arbitrarily exercised, the burden of administrative work has certainly been thrust by common consent on a small number of reluctant though loyal shoulders. (“Editorial,” United Amateur, November 1920)

  At this point it is difficult to gauge the accuracy of Lovecraft’s remarks. It is true that for the period 1917–22 a relatively small number of people held office in the UAPA, many of them doing so repeatedly: Winifred V. Jackson was Second Vice-President for 1917–20; Verna McGeoch was Official Editor for 1917–19; W. Paul Cook was Official Publisher for 1917–20 and E. E. Ericson for 1920–22; Alfred Galpin was Chairman of the Department of Public Criticism for 1919–22; and, as I have noted, Lovecraft was Official Editor for 1920–22. It seems as if a certain apathy had set in among UAPA members whereby they were content to have these individuals continue holding office year in and year out. Individual papers were declining, and Lovecraft’s own Conservative, because of his other official involvements, only appeared annually in 1918 and 1919, and then ceased altogether until 1923.

  But there is also a case to be made that Lovecraft himself, if not his colleagues, was beginning to conduct himself in a sort of fascistic way. Perhaps irritated at the slowness of the progress in literary development on the part of most members, he increasingly called for improvement by main force. We have already seen his demands for editors to band together to eliminate simple spelling (“Department of Public Criticism,” United Amateur, May 1917) and his pleas for a Department of Instruction that would correct the contributions of the cruder members. Now, in a lecture entitled “Amateur Journalism: Its Possible Needs and Betterment” (probably delivered at an amateur convention in Boston on September 5, 1920),[8] he proposed establishing “some centralised authority capable of exerting a kindly, reliable, and more or less invisible guidance in matters aesthetic and artistic.” This is how the plan would work:

  Certain qualified members must undertake the entirely new burden of offering help to both writers and publishers. They must approach crude authors whose work shews promise, and crude publishers whose papers appear to possess the spark of aspiration; offering a revision and censorship which shall ensure the publication of the articles or journals in question, free from all the main errors in taste and technique.

  Lovecraft attempted to anticipate the objections of “any idealistic and ultra-conscientious person” who might object to the plan’s “possible oligarchical tendencies” by pointing to the fact that all great periods in literature—Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, eighteenth-century England—were led by “dominant coteries.” It is evident that Lovecraft had simply reached the limit of his patience with sporting pages, bad poetry, and unhelpful official criticism. It is needless to say that the plan was never adopted.

  If criticism of Lovecraft had come from people like Dowdell, he might have been able to fend it off; but instead, it now came from more responsible elements. Lovecraft must have been taken aback when the October 1921 Woodbee contained an attack upon him by Leo Fritter, a longtime UAPA member whom Lovecraft himself had supported for president in 1915. Fritter had cited a “wide-spreading dissatisfaction” with Lovecraft’s editorial policy in the United Amateur and went on to accuse Lovecraft of trying to force the members into a mould he had arbitrarily cast according to his own ideas. Lovecraft countered that he himself had received “numerous and enthusiastic assurances of an opposite nature,” and repeated once more his ideal for the UAPA:

  What justifies the separate existence and support of the United is its higher aesthetic and intellectual cast; its demand for the unqualified best as a goal—which demand, by the way, must not be construed as discriminating against even the crudest beginner who honestly cherishes that goal. . . . We must envisage a genuine scale of values, and possess a model of genuine excellence toward which to strive. (“Editorial,” United Amateur, September 1921)

  When Lovecraft concluded that “The question is one which should ultimately be decided at the polls,” he spoke better than he knew, as we shall see presently.

  This period, however, saw Lovecraft evolving socially from an extreme misfit to one who, while by no means gregarious, could take his place in the society of congenial individuals. This transformation, as successive waves of friends—most of them amateurs—came to visit him or as he actually ventured forth on brief excursions, is heart-warming to see.

  Two visits by amateurs occurring in 1917 are instructive by their very contrast. In mid-September 1917 W. Paul Cook, who had only recently become acquainted with Lovecraft, paid him a call in Providence. Cook tells the story piquantly:

  The first time I met Howard I came very near not meeting him. . . . I was bound from New York to Boston, and broke my trip in Providence purposely to see Lovecraft. I was traveling by train, which enabled me to announce in advance the time of my arrival and with a variation of only a few minutes. Arriving at the address on Angell street which later was to be the best known street address in amateur journalism, I was met at the door by Howard’s mother and aunt. Howard had been up all night studying and writing, had just now gone to bed, and must under no circumstances be disturbed. If I would go to the Crown hotel, register, get a room and wait, they would telephone when, and if, Howard woke up. This was one of the occasions in my life when I have blessed the gods for giving me a sense of humor, however perverted. It was essential that I be in Boston early that evening, which allowed me about three hours in Providence, but there was a train leaving in half an hour which I could catch if I kept moving. I had a life-like picture of myself hanging around Providence until His Majesty was ready to receive me! In later years Mrs. Clark and I laughed more than once in recalling the incident. I was part way to the sidewalk and the door was almost lat
ched when Howard appeared in dressing gown and slippers. Wasn’t that W. Paul Cook and didn’t they understand that he was to see me immediately on my arrival? I was almost forcibly ushered by the guardians of the gate and into Howard’s study.[9]

  Cook’s account of the three hours spent with Lovecraft—they mostly talked amateur journalism, naturally enough—is unremarkable save in one detail I shall consider later. Let us now hear Lovecraft’s account of the meeting, recorded in a letter to Rheinhart Kleiner:

  Just a week ago I enjoyed the honour of a personal call from Mr. W. Paul Cook . . . I was rather surprised at his appearance, for he is rather more rustic & carelessly groomed than I had expected of a man of his celebrity to be. In fact, his antique derby hat, unpressed garments, frayed cravat, yellowish collar, ill-brushed hair, & none too immaculate hands made me think of my old friend Sam Johnson . . . But Cook’s conversation makes up for whatever outward deficiencies he may possess.[10]

  Before examining these accounts, we should consider the details of Rheinhart Kleiner’s meeting with Lovecraft, which also occurred sometime in 1917—presumably after Cook’s visit, since Lovecraft says in the above letter that he had previously met only William B. Stoddard and Edward H. Cole (in 1914), but does not mention having met Kleiner himself. Kleiner tells the story as follows: “I was greeted at the door of 598 Angell Street by his mother, who was a woman just a little below medium height, with graying hair, and eyes which seemed to be the chief point of resemblance between herself and her son. She was very cordial and even vivacious, and in another moment had ushered me into Lovecraft’s room.”[11] Why the very different responses by his mother to Cook and Kleiner? I believe that the overriding factor is social snobbery. Cook’s unkempt appearance could not have sat well with either Susie or Lillian, and they were manifestly going to make it as difficult as possible for Cook to pass through their door. Lovecraft confesses in a candid moment that “Of amateurdom in general her [Susie’s] opinion was not high, for she had a certain aesthetic hypersensitiveness which made its crudenesses very obvious and very annoying to her.”[12] Elsewhere he goes on to admit that Lillian also did not care for amateurdom—“an institution whose extreme democracy and occasional heterogeneity have at times made it necessary for me to apologise for it.”[13] If these were the reasons why Lillian did not like amateurdom, then it is clear that social considerations weighed heavily in her mind: “democracy and occasional heterogeneity” can scarcely stand for anything but the fact that people of all classes and educational backgrounds were involved in the amateur movement.

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