I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 46
Those who have read Lovecraft’s earlier poems on Damon and Delia will find little new here in terms of plot. Alfredo burns for Margarita, but she scorns him. Teobaldo advises him to pretend to be attracted to Hecatissa in order to arouse Margarita’s jealousy, but Alfredo discounts the idea. Meanwhile Teobaldo perceives that Alfredo is close friends with Hypatia, who combines beauty and a love of books; Teobaldo urges him to forget Margarita and make Hypatia his wife. Alfredo takes the advice, but in the process excites the ire of both Margarita and Hecatissa. At the nuptials a play written by Teobaldo is to be acted as a preface to the marriage ceremony; but Hecatissa, who is from the East, has devised a fatal poison which both Alfredo and Hypatia unwittingly drink in the course of the play. At this point characters begin killing one another in revenge until scarcely anyone is left alive.
Alfredo was not published until 1966, and clearly Lovecraft wrote it as a jeu d’esprit. But there are some fine touches, especially the now customary deprecation of his own dour bookishness (Hypatia refers to “that ancient prattler Teobaldo, / Whose very face casts gloom on youthful bliss”). Lovecraft really does capture the flavour of Elizabethan tragedy—or perhaps tragicomedy—with songs and other interruptions of the predominant pentameter metre; and—as in “The Poe-et’s Nightmare”—the blank verse permits a liberal use of enjambement:
ALF. Fair nymphs,
I greet you all! No lovelier train e’er danc’d
O’er velvet turf, and ’mid the vernal flow’rs,
Since Cytheraea, fresh from Paphos, led
Her melting followers o’er Arcadian meads!
The portrayals of characters aside from Alfredo and Teobaldo are not especially distinctive—at least, there seems little in the character of Rinarto to make us recall Kleiner. Mauricio is virtually the only character left alive at the end of the play, and Lovecraft cannot help poking fun at Moe’s religiosity by having Mauricio trudge off the stage counting his beads.
I don’t know that we need read a great deal into all these mock-love poems about Galpin: certainly Lovecraft’s beloved Georgians had made a specialty of it, and The Rape of the Lock is only the best-known example. But I think there is something to be said for the view that by consistently deflating the emotion of love in these and other poems Lovecraft was thereby shielding himself from falling under its influence. The probability that he would so fall was, at the moment, comparatively small, but Lovecraft was not about to take any chances. During his involvement with the Providence Amateur Press Club in 1914–16 a few of the members decided to play a rather malicious joke on him by having one of the female members call him up and ask him to take her out on a date. Lovecraft stated soberly, “I’ll have to ask my mother,” and of course nothing came of the matter. In a letter to Galpin Lovecraft notes in passing that “so far as I know, no feminine freak ever took the trouble to note or recognise my colossal and transcendent intellect.” Whether this was exactly true or not is something I shall take up later.
Galpin did have one further effect on Lovecraft’s literary work—he was the inspiration for the curious piece called “Old Bugs.” This too is a charming little frivolity, even though it treats a subject Lovecraft customarily regarded with great seriousness: liquor. Galpin had become interested in getting one quick taste of alcohol before Prohibition took effect in July 1919, so he purchased a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of port wine and drank them (in their entirety?) in the woods behind the Appleton golf course. He managed to drag himself back home without attracting notice, but when he recounted the event in a letter to Lovecraft, “Old Bugs” was the response.
This tale is set in the year 1950 and speaks of a derelict, Old Bugs, who haunts Sheehan’s Pool Room in Chicago. Although a drunkard, he exhibits traces of refinement and intelligence; and no one can figure out why he carries an old picture of a lovely and elegant woman on his person at all times. One day a young man named Alfred Trever enters the place in order to “see life as it really is.” Trever is the son of Karl Trever, an attorney, and a woman who writes poetry under the name Eleanor Wing (recall Eleanor Evans Wing in the Appleton High School Press Club). Eleanor had once been married to a man named Alfred Galpin, a brilliant scholar but one imbued with “evil habits, dating from a first drink taken years before in woodland seclusion.” These habits cause the termination of the marriage; Galpin gains fleeting fame for his writing but eventually drops out of sight. Meanwhile Old Bugs, listening to Alfred Trever tell of his background, suddenly leaps up and dashes the uplifted glass from Trever’s lips, shattering a number of bottles in the process. (At this point “Numbers of men, or things which had been men, dropped to the floor and began lapping at the puddles of spilled liquor . . .”) Old Bugs dies of overexertion, but Trever is sufficiently repulsed at the whole turn of events that his curiosity for liquor is permanently quenched. Naturally, when the picture of the woman found on Old Bugs is passed around, Trever realises that it is of his own mother.
The story is not nearly as ponderous as it sounds, even though no reader can have failed to predict the outcome after the first few paragraphs. Lovecraft does manage to poke fun at himself (through Old Bugs) in the course of his heavy-handed moralising: “Old Bugs, obtaining a firmer hold on his mop, began to wield it like the javelin of a Macedonian hoplite, and soon cleared a considerable space around himself, meanwhile shouting various disconnected bits of quotation, among which was prominently repeated, ‘. . . the sons of Belial, blown with insolence and wine.’” And his attempt at lower-class slang isn’t bad: “‘Well, here’s yer stuff,’ announced Sheehan jovially as a tray of bottles and glasses was wheeled into the room. ‘Good old rye, an’ as fiery as ya kin find anyw’eres in Chi’.’” Galpin notes that at the end of the story Lovecraft has added: “Now will you be good?!”
Although Lovecraft suggested that his closeness to Galpin stemmed largely from the similarity of their philosophical views, Galpin also had a taste for weird fiction. This taste did not persist very long, and Galpin noted in his memoir that in high school “I was in a passing phase of fondness for Poe and the weird.” But that phase allowed the production of at least two interesting experiments by Galpin in weird writing, the poem “Selenaio-Phantasma” (Conservative, July 1918) and the story “Marsh-Mad: A Nightmare” (Philosopher, December 1920), written under Galpin’s pseudonym Consul Hasting. “Selenaio-Phantasma” is a rather able pastiche of Lovecraft’s “Nemesis”:
When, in midst of this immundane dreaming
Come effulgent the first rays of light,
Bringing back my rapt soul with their beaming,
Lending splendour to all within sight;
And I wake to the sunrise at dawning, fit close to the dusk’s mad delight.
“Marsh-Mad” is just what its title declares: a nightmare about being lost in a weird, quasi-sentient swamp. It is an effective piece of atmosphere, although it doesn’t amount to much as a story and is more adjective-choked than Lovecraft’s work ever was. It was written in August 1918, and Lovecraft claimed to find great merit in the piece: he addressed his letter to Galpin of August 29, 1918 to “Edgar A. Poe, Esq.,” deeming the tale “fully up to your usual standard, though in some respects surpassed by your former story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’”
Although the amateur world was still the focal point of Lovecraft’s world, he was slowly—probably through his mother’s urging—making tentative forays at professional employment. His scorn of commercial writing prevented him from submitting his work to paying magazines, and the small number of his poems that were reprinted in the National Magazine all saw prior publication in amateur journals, and moreover were presumably not sent in by Lovecraft but were selected by the editors of the magazine itself from an examination of amateur papers. But if Lovecraft was not at the moment inclined to make money by writing, in what way could he earn an income? Whipple Phillips’s inheritance, some of it already squandered by bad investments, was slowly but inexorably dimin
The first sign we have that Lovecraft was actually attempting to earn an income occurs in a letter to John T. Dunn in October 1916. In explaining why he is unable to participate as thoroughly in amateur affairs as he would like, Lovecraft stated: “Many of my present duties are outside the association, in connection with the Symphony Literary Service, which is now handling a goodly amount of verse.” There was no mention of this service in previous letters to Dunn, so one imagines that Lovecraft’s participation in it commenced about this time. This was a revisory or ghostwriting service featuring Lovecraft, Anne Tillery Renshaw (who edited the amateur journal the Symphony), and Mrs J. G. Smith, a colleague of Renshaw’s (although not in the UAPA), both of whom lived at this time in Coffeeville, Mississippi. Three years later, in “For Official Editor—Anne Tillery Renshaw” (Conservative, July 1919), Lovecraft noted that Renshaw was now an instructor at Pennsylvania State College; he did not mention any revisory service, but perhaps that is because it was irrelevant to her amateur activity or because it had already ceased to exist.
If all this is a reasonable conjecture, then it means that Lovecraft had already commenced what would become his only true remunerative occupation: revising and ghostwriting. He never managed to turn this occupation into anything like a regular source of income, as he generally took on jobs only from colleagues and placed advertisements for his services very sporadically and, apparently, with little result. In many senses it was exactly the wrong job for him in terms of his creative work: first, it was too similar in nature to his fiction writing, so that it frequently left him too physically and mentally drained to attempt work of his own; and second, the very low rates he charged, and the unusual amount of effort he would put into some jobs, netted him far less money than a comparable amount of work in some other profession.
Nevertheless, it is clear that this work grew directly out of his amateur activity, specifically his work as Chairman of the Department of Public Criticism, his editing of the Conservative, and his assistance in issuing the paper of “credentials” in 1916 (which, as we have seen, may never have appeared): “I am now struggling with reams of crude MSS. for the forthcoming paper of credentials; in fact, I have before me the entire contents of both MSS. Bureaus for revision. It is a monstrous task, and I fear I shall delay the appearance of the paper with my tardiness in completing work.” This is exactly the sort of thing he would later do for pay. As for editing the Conservative, the frequency with which Lovecraft remarks how some item or other by a contributor had not been revised shows how routinely he did revise the contributions he received: in the “Department of Public Criticism” for July 1917 he noted that Ira A. Cole’s poem “In Vita Elysium” was printed “practically without revision.” No doubt he touched up most of the contributions to the two issues of the Providence Amateur and also to the United Amateur during his editorship. This work very likely would now be classified as copy editing, and it is a pity that Lovecraft could not have secured an actual position in this capacity with a publisher. He attempted to do so during his New York period, but in vain.
The reference to the Symphony Literary Service in October 1916 is anomalous in that there appears to be no mention of it in any subsequent correspondence that I have seen, although in a later letter to Dunn he made note of “the increasing amount of professional work I am doing for writers outside the Association.” There is then little on this subject until early 1920, when Lovecraft noted that “I have just emerged from a veritable ‘killer’ [i.e., a headache], contracted by working half the forenoon and all the afternoon on Bush junk.” This, of course, refers to Lovecraft’s most pestiferous revision client, the Rev. David Van Bush (1882–1959), a preacher, itinerant lecturer, pop psychologist, and would-be poet who would be the bane of Lovecraft’s existence for several years. In the “News Notes” section of the United Amateur for May 1922 Lovecraft described him as follows:
Dr. David V. Bush, introduced to the United in 1916 by Andrew Francis Lockhart, is rejoining this year and observing the progress lately achieved. Dr. Bush is now a psychological lecturer, speaking in the largest cities of the country and drawing record-breaking crowds wherever he goes. He is the author of several published volumes of verse and prose, the latter mainly psychological in nature, and has been rewarded by phenomenally extensive sales.
This is clearly a “puff,” but it tells us several things of importance. First, it is obvious that Lovecraft came into contact with Bush through his amateur connexions. A letter by Bush (February 28, 1917) to the Symphony Literary Service requests information on “the costs for Mr. Lovecraft’s revising of 38 pages of poetry.” As the bulk of Lovecraft’s work for Bush occurred at a slightly later date, I shall discuss him in greater detail later.
One further enigmatic reference to possible remunerative work occurs in the In Defence of Dagon essays of 1921. Lovecraft remarked that one of his “verses on America and England,” when published in the professional National Magazine of Boston, “brought me an offer (albeit an impracticable one) from the book-publishing house of Sherman, French, & Co.” I know neither what the poem might have been (probably “Ode for July Fourth, 1917,” the only poem by Lovecraft in the National Magazine that might be thought to be about America and England) nor what sort of “offer” might have been involved. Was Lovecraft asked to write a book of patriotic propaganda? Actually, it is likely that Sherman, French & Co. was offering to publish a book of Lovecraft’s poetry—at his expense. This is no doubt why he found the suggestion “impracticable,” and he must have turned it down.
In August 1919 Lovecraft and Maurice W. Moe claimed to have teamed up in a “new professional literary partnership”: hack writing. In a letter to Kleiner, Lovecraft outlines the plan:
Mo has long been urging me to try professionalism, but I have been reluctant on account of my variation from the tastes of the period. Now, however, Mo has proposed a plan for collaboration in which his modern personality will be merged with my antique one. I am to write the material—mainly fiction—because I am the more fertile in plots; whilst he is to revise to suit the market, since he is the more familiar with contemporary conditions. He will do all the business part, also; since I detest commercialism. Then, IF he is able to “land” anything with a remunerative magazine, we shall “go halves” on the spoils of victory.
The pseudonym under which we shall offer our composite wares for sale, is a compound of our own full names: Horace Philter Mocraft.
All this sounds very amusing, and no doubt Lovecraft regarded it as a lark; but it came to nothing, and probably he and Moe never really made any attempt to put the plan into practice. In later years he would scorn the idea of writing for a specific market, and one of the pillars of his aesthetic theory became the need for “self-expression” without any thought of an audience. Collaboration, too, proved very difficult for Lovecraft, as he and his coauthors could never mesh their ideas into a satisfactory amalgam. It is one of Lovecraft’s great virtues that he never buckled down to hackwork even in the face of ever-increasing poverty; as he wrote poignantly in 1924, “Writing after all is the essence of whatever is left in my life, and if the ability or opportunity for that goes, I have no further reason for—or mind to endure—the joke of existence.”
What of Lovecraft and his family at this time? We have seen that aunt Lillian, upon the death of her husband Franklin Chase Clark in 1915, lived in various rented quarters in the city. W. Paul Cook’s account of his visit in 1917 makes it clear that she spent considerable time with her sister and nephew. Aunt Annie, upon her separation from Edward F. Gamwell (probably in 1915 or 1916) and the death of her son Phillips at the end of 1916, returned from Cambridge and probably lived with her brother Edwin in Providence. The death of Edwin E. Phillips on November 14, 1918, passes entirely unnoticed in the surviving correspondence by Lovecraft that I have seen; letters from this period are
Meanwhile Lovecraft himself, as he had been doing since 1904, continued to live alone with his mother at 598 Angell Street. The nature of their relations for much of the period 1904–19 is a mystery. We have seen that both Susie and Lillian disapproved of amateur journalism in general and Lovecraft’s ardent enthusiasm for it in particular. Susie’s son may have quickly become a giant in this tiny field, but that was not helping in any way to retard the family’s inexorable decline into shabby gentility. His sporadic efforts to earn an income by revision, and his whimsical thoughts of turning into a hack writer, give the impression that he was not very serious about supporting himself; but we shall see that Susie was very concerned about this matter. Lovecraft may have come out of his hermitry of 1908–13 to some degree, but his singular lack of interest in women did not bode well for the eventual continuance of the Lovecraft family in America.
All in all, relations between Lovecraft and Susie could not have been very wholesome. Lovecraft was still doing almost no travelling outside the city, and the lack of a regular office job must have kept him at home nearly all day, week after week. And yet, Clara Hess, their neighbour of twenty-five years, remarks disturbingly: “In looking back, I cannot ever remember to have seen Mrs. Lovecraft and her son together. I never heard one speak to the other. It probably just happened that way, but it does seem rather strange . . .”