I am providence the life.., p.47
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 47
Then, in May 1917, came Lovecraft’s attempt at enlistment in the R.I.N.G. and, later, in the regular army. We have seen how Susie put a stop to the first of these efforts by pulling strings; but Lovecraft’s remark to Kleiner that she was “almost prostrated with the news” speaks eloquently of the mental perturbation she must have felt at the prospect (relatively remote, admittedly, since it is unlikely that Lovecraft would actually have been sent overseas) of losing her only son to the war. Lovecraft goes on in this letter to say: “My mother has threatened to go to any lengths, legal or otherwise, if I do not reveal all the ills which unfit me for the army.” And if he is sincere in declaring that “If I had realised to the full how much she would suffer through my enlistment, I should have been less eager to attempt it,” then it reveals a staggering failure of communication and empathy between mother and son. Susie must have been aware of Lovecraft’s militarism and his eagerness to see the United States enter the war on England’s side; but she must genuinely have been caught off guard at this attempt at enlistment—which, let us recall, came before President Wilson’s announcement of the resumption of the draft. Susie was forced to acquiesce in Lovecraft’s registering for the draft, since Lovecraft was legally obliged to do so; but it was by then a foregone conclusion that he would have been deemed suitable only for clerical work, and in the end he was rejected even for that.
Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, is surely correct in noting that “Susie’s sharp decline . . . seems to have begun at about the time of her brother’s death” in November 1918. Edwin was the closest surviving male member of Susie’s generation: of two cousins (both sons of Whipple Phillips’s brother James Wheaton Phillips), Jeremiah W. Phillips had died in 1902, while Walter H. Phillips (1854–1924) was still alive, but his whereabouts at this time are not well known and in any event he does not seem to have had much contact with Susie or her sisters. This means that Susie, Lillian, and Annie were all wholly reliant on Whipple Phillips’s and (in the case of Lillian) Franklin C. Clark’s estates for their income. (Since Annie never formally divorced her husband, Edward F. Gamwell, it is not clear whether she received any financial support from him; I think it unlikely.) Lovecraft was the only possible wage-earner in the family, and he was clearly not doing much to support himself, let alone his mother and aunts.
The result, for Susie, was perhaps inevitable. In the winter of 1918–19 she finally cracked under the strain of financial worries. On January 18, 1919, Lovecraft wrote to Kleiner: “My mother, feeling no better here, has gone on a visit to my elder aunt for purposes of complete rest; leaving my younger aunt as autocrat of this dwelling.” It is not entirely clear where Lillian was residing at this time: the 1917 city directory gives her address as 144 Dodge Street (in the West Side, several miles away from 598 Angell Street), but she disappears from the city directories thereafter; the 1920 federal census lists her as residing with a Mrs C. H. Babbit at 135 Benefit Street on the East Side, but here she was serving as a companion to Mrs Babbit and it is not likely that Susie was staying there in early 1919. On March 13, Susie, “showing no signs of recovery,” was admitted to Butler Hospital, where her husband had died more than twenty years before and where she herself would remain until her death two years later.
Lovecraft noted in his January letter to Kleiner that “such infirmity & absence on her part is so unprecedented,” but one wonders whether this was really the case. Once again Clara Hess provides some very disturbing testimony:
I remember that Mrs. Lovecraft spoke to me about weird and fantastic creatures that rushed out from behind buildings and from corners at dark, and that she shivered and looked about apprehensively as she told her story.
The last time I saw Mrs. Lovecraft we were both going “down street” on the Butler Avenue car. She was excited and apparently did not know where she was. She attracted the attention of everyone. I was greatly embarrassed, as I was the object of all her attention.
I believe that these incidents occurred just before Susie’s breakdown. But Clara Hess already noted, when finally visiting at 598 Angell Street after Susie’s frequent urgings, that “She was considered then to be getting rather odd”; this may have occurred as early as 1908, since it was the time when Susie referred to Lovecraft as being “hideous.” Again, if Lovecraft was oblivious to Susie’s gradual decline, he must have had very little close or meaningful contact with his mother.
And yet, Lovecraft himself was profoundly shaken by Susie’s nervous collapse. In the January letter to Kleiner he wrote:
. . . you above all others can imagine the effect of maternal illness & absence. I cannot eat, nor can I stay up long at a time. Pen-writing or typewriting nearly drives me insane. My nervous system seems to find its vent in feverish & incessant scribbling with a pencil. . . . She writes optimistic letters each day, & I try to make my replies equally optimistic; though I do not find it possible to “cheer up”, eat, & go out, as she encourages me to do.
One of the things he was “scribbling” was a poem, “Despair,” which he included in his February 19, 1919, letter to Kleiner. It is one of his most powerful weird poems, even if its general atmosphere, and even some of its specific language, are clearly influenced by Poe’s late poem “For Annie.” “Once,” the narrator writes, “I think I half remember . . . Liv’d there such a thing as bliss,” but now there is only the “Deadly drowsiness of Dis”; what will be the end?
Thus the living, lone and sobbing,
In the throes of anguish throbbing,
With the loathsome Furies robbing
Night and noon of peace and rest.
But beyond the groans and grating
Of abhorrent Life, is waiting
Sweet Oblivion, culminating
All the years of fruitless quest.
Rarely has Lovecraft’s “cosmic pessimism” achieved such concentrated expression as this.
It is obvious that Lovecraft felt very close to his mother, however much he may have failed to understand her or she to understand him. I have no warrant for saying that his response to her illness is pathological; rather, I see it as part of a pattern whereby any serious alteration in his familial environment leads to extreme nervous disturbance. The death of his grandmother in 1896 leads to dreams of “night-gaunts”; the death of his father in 1898 brings on some sort of “near-breakdown”; the death of Whipple Phillips and the loss of his birthplace in 1904 cause Lovecraft seriously to consider suicide. Even less tragic events result in severe traumas: school attendance in 1898–99 and violin lessons produce another “near-breakdown”; yet another breakdown causes or is caused by his inability to complete high school and leads to a several-year period of vegetation and hermitry.
The state of Lovecraft’s own health during this entire period is somewhat of a mystery, since we have only his own testimony on the matter. He obviously had no physical ailments: his R.I.N.G. examination, however cursory, was clear on that score. To Arthur Harris, Lovecraft made the remarkable assertion in 1915: “I can remain out of bed but three or four hours each day, and those three or four hours are generally burdened with an array of amateur work far beyond my capabilities.” His letters to John Dunn and Alfred Galpin of the period 1915–18 are full of references to his pseudo-invalidism:
I was offered the official editorship [of the UAPA in June 1916], but was forced to decline on account of ill health.
. . . it is rather difficult for me to determine how I can best help [in the war effort]; for my feeble health makes me very unreliable where steady work is concerned.
I am only about half alive—a large part of my strength is consumed in sitting up or walking. My nervous system is a shattered wreck, and I am absolutely bored & listless save when I come upon something which peculiarly interests me. However—so many things do interest me, & interest me intensely, . . . that I have never actually desired to die . . .
That last remark is, strictly speaking, untrue, if we believe that his thoughts of
Lovecraft honestly believes he is not strong—that he has an inherited nervousness and fatigue wished upon him. One would never suspect in his massive form and well constructed body that there could be any ailment. To look at him one would think seriously before ‘squaring off.’ . . .
Many of us are Lovecrafts, in the peculiar sense, that we have lots of things wished upon us—and are ignorant how to throw them off. We react always to the suggestion—shall I call it curse?—placed upon us. It was never intended in the great scheme of things that such a magnificent physique should succumb to any mental dictation that commanded it to be subject to nervous ills and fatigue—nor that that wonderful mentality should weakly and childishly listen to that—WHICH ISN’T.
Lovecraft responded to this in a letter to Frank Belknap Long:
If Houtain knew how constant are my struggles against the devastating headaches, dizzy spells, and spells of poor concentrating power which hedge me in on all sides, and how feverishly I try to utilise every available moment for work, he would be less confident in classifying my ills as imaginary. I do not arbitrarily pronounce myself in invalid because of a nervous heredity. The condition itself is only too apparent—the hereditary part is only one explanatory factor.
Lovecraft’s account must be given its due, but in the event it appears that Houtain was more on the mark, and eventually Lovecraft realised it:
Lovecraft did not express surprise at my pronouncements. In fact he was receptive to them. I came to the conclusion that he was willing to overcome this and would but he isn’t allowed to do so, because others in his immediate household won’t permit him to forget this hereditary nervousness. As it is Lovecraft is a mental and physical giant, not because of, but in spite of these conditions. I venture the prediction that were he to lose all thoughts of this handed down idea, get out in the world, and rub elbows with the maddening crowd, that he would stand out as a National figure in Belles-Lettres; that his name would top the list in the annals of the literature of the day and I will go so far as to say it would become a house-hold name throughout the breadth and length of this land.
Even now that final pronouncement is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is more accurate than Houtain—or Lovecraft—could ever have imagined. How Lovecraft finally emerged—intellectually, creatively, and personally—from the claustrophobic influence of 598 Angell Street to become the writer, thinker, and human being we know will be the subject of the subsequent chapters of this book.
10. Cynical Materialist
The immediate effects of Susie’s absence from the household at 598 Angell Street were mixed: at times Lovecraft seemed incapable of doing anything because of “nerve strain”; at other times he found himself possessed of unwonted energy: “I wrote an entire March critical report [i.e., the “Department of Public Criticism” for March 1919] one evening recently, & I am this morning able to write letters after having been up all night.” A month after Susie came to Butler, Lovecraft reported that she was “slightly improved in general physical condition, but not so far as nerves are concerned”; two months later it seems that “My mother’s health remains so stationary that I fear present arrangements must be considered as semi-permanent.” In a sense, this turn of events—especially in light of Lovecraft’s repeated assurances, which he himself no doubt received from Susie’s doctors, that she was in no physical danger—may have been a relief, for it definitively moved Susie out of the picture as far as Lovecraft’s daily life was concerned.
What exactly was the matter with Susie is now difficult to say, since her Butler Hospital records were among those destroyed in a fire several decades ago. Winfield Townley Scott, however, consulted them when they were still in existence, and he paraphrases them as follows:
She suffered periods of mental and physical exhaustion. She wept frequently under emotional strains. In common lingo, she was a woman who had gone to pieces. When interviewed, she stressed her economic worries, and she spoke . . . of all she had done for “a poet of the highest order”; that is, of course, her son. The psychiatrist’s record takes note of an Oedipus complex, a “psycho-sexual contact” with the son, but observes that the effects of such a complex are usually more important on the son than on the mother, and does not pursue the point.
It was presumed that Mrs. Lovecraft was suffering from an “insufficiency complex.” This had been brought about by the increasingly perilous state of her finances, complicated by the fact that neither she nor her son was a wage earner. However she adored him, there may have been a subconscious criticism of Howard, so brilliant in promise but so economically useless. Or perhaps not; perhaps she would not have changed him any more than she could have changed herself, and so, distraught and helpless, she at last collapsed.
I imagine the second paragraph is Scott’s, not Susie’s doctor’s, interpretation of the medical evidence. The most seemingly spectacular item is the curious mention of a “psycho-sexual contact”; but it is surely inconceivable that any actual abuse could have occurred between two individuals who so obviously shared the rigid Victorian sexual mores of the time. There seems every reason to regard Susie’s collapse as primarily brought on by financial worries: there was, let us recall, only $7500 for the two of them from Whipple’s estate, and in addition there was a tiny sum in mortgage payments (usually $37.08 twice a year, in February and August) from a quarry in Providence, the Providence Crushed Stone and Sand Co., managed by a tenant, Mariano de Magistris. Given that Lovecraft at the age of twenty-eight was still showing no ability at—nor even much inclination toward—economic self-sufficiency, Susie’s distress was entirely understandable.
Scott adds one further note of interest: “[Lovecraft] used to visit his mother at the hospital, but he never entered the buildings: always she met him on the grounds, usually at ‘the grotto,’ and they would stroll together through the Butler woods above the river. To other patients she spoke constantly and pridefully of her son, but they never saw him. And in her final illness, when she was confined to her bed, he apparently did not visit her.” I do not know that much need be made of this: there are many who are disinclined to enter hospitals—especially someone who had suffered so many youthful ailments as Lovecraft—and the grounds at Butler are to this day exquisitely maintained and very pleasant for strolling. It may not even be very surprising that Lovecraft did not see her during her final illness; for it was not believed to be life-threatening until almost the very end.
In the meantime Lovecraft restricted himself to visiting Susie on the grounds and to writing leters and occasional birthday and Christmas poems to her. Even if he himself was never seen by other patients, perhaps Susie showed these brief and insignificant ditties as proof that her son was a “poet of the highest order.” The first birthday tribute, “Oct. 17, 1919,” is a slight eight-line poem that concludes with the wish “that future birthdays bright / May this excel, as noon excels the night!” No Christmas poem for this year survives, but probably Lovecraft did write one. For her next birthday Lovecraft wrote “To S. S. L.—October 17, 1920,” which evidently accompanied a box of chocolates, which are designed to “shew that life, howe’er its course unfold, / Amidst the gall some sweetness yet can hold.” “S. S. L.: Christmas 1920” was written to accompany some
It was perhaps inevitable that Susie’s absence from 598 produced at least the possibility of a certain liberation on Lovecraft’s part, if only in terms of his physical activities. By now a giant in the world of amateur journalism, he was increasingly in demand at various local and national amateur conventions. It was some time before Lovecraft actually ventured forth; but when he did so, it betokened the definitive end of his period of “eccentric reclusiveness.” In October 1919 (as I shall relate in detail in the next chapter) he accompanied several amateurs to Boston to hear his new literary idol, Lord Dunsany. On the evening of June 21, 1920, Edward F. Daas—the man who had introduced Lovecraft to amateur journalism six years before, and was currently First Vice-President of the UAPA—came to Providence. Lovecraft met him at Union Station at 9 P.M. and took him back to 598 for conversation till midnight. The next day he met Daas downtown and showed him various points of interest. Daas caught the 2:20 train to Boston to meet with the members of the Hub Club (a NAPA group). That summer and fall Lovecraft himself made three separate trips to the Boston area for amateur gatherings.
The first meeting took place at 20 Webster Street in the suburb of Allston. This house—occupied jointly by Winifred Jackson, Laurie A. Sawyer, and Edith Miniter—no longer exists, as the entire block has been razed; but at the time it was a central meeting-place for the Hub Club. The members had decided that, since most of them could not attend the national NAPA convention in Cleveland, they would hold their own gathering—one that appeared to go on for nearly two weeks. Lovecraft arrived on Monday, July 4, in the company of Rheinhart Kleiner, who—along with others of a New York delegation of amateurs including E. Dorothy McLaughlin and George Julian Houtain—had come to Providence the day before. On this occasion Lovecraft spent the night under a roof other than his own for the first time since 1901. His sleeping-place was the home of Alice Hamlet at 109 Greenbriar Street in Dorchester. But, lest we look askance at Lovecraft’s spending the night alone in a young lady’s home, let us be reassured: a convention report in the Epgephi for September 1920 discreetly informs us that “he said he’d just got to have a ‘quiet room to himself’” and that he and Hamlet were properly chaperoned by Michael Oscar White and a Mrs Thompson. The Dorchester party returned to 20 Webster Street the next day to resume festivities, and Lovecraft caught a train home in the early evening. He commemorated the event with a whimsical piece in Epgephi, “The Conquest of the Hub Club,” in which he declared that the club had been “captured” by such stalwart UAPA members as himself and Winifred V. Jordan.
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