I am providence the life.., p.5

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 5


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

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  I do not know that much attention has been paid to why Winfield was in Chicago at the time of his attack. I have been informed that the Gorham Company owned one-third of a silversmith firm in Chicago called Spaulding & Co.,[46] and it is conceivable that Winfield (if indeed he was working for Gorham) had been sent out there for a salesmen’s meeting or something of the sort. He could not have gone there permanently, else his residence would not have been given on the medical record as Auburndale. Lovecraft makes no mention of this Chicago trip or any other trips by Winfield outside of the Boston area; perhaps, therefore, Winfield was somewhat more peripatetic than Lovecraft suggests.

  The critical issue, of course, is what—if anything—Lovecraft himself knew of the nature and extent of his father’s illness. He was two years and eight months old when his father was committed, and seven years and eleven months old when his father died. If he was already reciting poetry at two and a half, there is scarcely any question that he must at least have been aware that something peculiar had happened—why else would he and his mother have moved suddenly back from Auburndale to the maternal home in Providence?

  It is obvious from Lovecraft’s remarks about his father’s illness that he was intentionally kept in the dark about its specific nature. One wonders, indeed, whether Susie herself knew all its particulars. Lovecraft’s first known statement about his father’s illness occurs in a letter of 1915: “In 1893 my father was seized with a complete paralytic stroke, due to insomnia and an overstrained nervous system, which took him to the hospital for the remaining five years of his life. He was never afterward conscious . . .”[47] It need hardly be said at this point that nearly every part of this utterance is false. When Lovecraft refers to a “complete paralytic stroke,” he is either remembering some deliberate falsehood he was told (i.e., that his father was paralysed), or he is making a false inference from the medical record (“General Paralysis”) or some account of it that he heard. The medical record does confirm that Winfield was overworked (“Has been actively engaged in business for several years and for the last two years has worked very hard”), and no doubt Lovecraft was told this also; and the remark about Winfield not being conscious may have been the excuse that was given for not visiting his father in the hospital. And yet, Lovecraft must have known something was not quite right here: he knew that Butler Hospital was not a place for the treatment of ordinary physical maladies but was in fact an insane asylum.

  Lovecraft’s later references to his father’s illness are variations on the 1915 statement. In 1916 he states that “In April 1893 my father was stricken with a complete paralysis resulting from a brain overtaxed with study & business cares. He lived for five years at a hospital, but was never again able to move hand or foot, or to utter a sound.”[48] This last statement is a remarkable elaboration, and I think that Lovecraft is again simply making his own inferences from the hints and outright deceptions he must have received about his father. I am certainly not criticising Lovecraft’s mother for not elaborating upon the nature of her husband’s illness: there are some things that one does not tell a three-year-old—or even an eight-year-old. Moreover, Lovecraft is under no obligation to be wholly candid about such a delicate matter even to close friends or correspondents.

  I do not think that Lovecraft knew very much about his father’s illness and death, but I think he wondered a great deal. One matter of transcendent importance is whether Lovecraft ever saw his father in Butler Hospital. He never says explicitly that he did not, but his late statement that “I was never in a hospital till 1924”[49] certainly suggests that he himself believed (or claimed to others) that he never did so. There has been speculation that Lovecraft did indeed visit his father in the hospital;[50] but there is absolutely no documentary evidence of this. I believe that this speculation is an inference from the fact that on two occasions—August 29, 1893, and May 29, 1894—Winfield was taken out into the “yard” and the “airing-court”; but there is no reason to believe that the three- or four-year-old Lovecraft, or his mother, or anyone at all, visited him at this or any other time.

  Another highly significant but unresolvable issue is the provocative statement in the medical record that “For a year past he has shown obscure symptoms of mental disease—doing and saying strange things at times.” This information must have been supplied to the doctors at Butler Hospital by whoever had accompanied Winfield at his admission, whether it be Susie herself or Whipple Phillips. The question becomes: To what degree was Lovecraft himself aware of his father’s odd behaviour? If this behaviour had been manifesting itself as early as around April 1892, it would have predated the entire stay with the Guineys and have gone back to the family’s days at Dorchester (if that is where they were at this time). If Winfield had been working “very hard” for the last two years (i.e., since about the beginning of 1891), then was the vacation in Dudley in the summer of 1892 a means of giving him some much-needed rest? Again, we can only conjecture.

  Perhaps more important than all these matters is the image and tokens of his father which Lovecraft retained in maturity. There were, in the first place, some tangible relics: he reports inheriting his father’s two-volume edition of War and Peace, adding wryly: “The fact that its text leaves are cut, plus the evidence supply’d by the fly-leaves that they were originally uncut, leads me to the conclusion that my father must have surviv’d a voyage thro’ it; tho’ it is possible that he merely amus’d himself of an evening by running a paper knife thro’ it.”[51] The bantering tone is very singular; almost all other references to his father are sombre or at best neutral.

  Lovecraft retained his father’s copy of James Stormonth’s Dictionary of the English Language (1st edition 1871; Lovecraft’s edition is a revised edition of 1885). This is of somewhat greater importance, for Lovecraft remarks that Stormonth was “a Cambridge man” and “esteemed as a conservative authority & used by my father.”[52] This connects with Lovecraft’s assertion of his father’s preservation of his English heritage. Remarking that “In America, the Lovecraft line made some effort to keep from becoming nasally Yankeeised,” he continues: “. . . my father was constantly warned not to fall into Americanisms of speech and provincial vulgarities of dress and mannerisms—so much so that he was generally regarded as an Englishman despite his birth in Rochester, N.Y. I can just recall his extremely precise and cultivated British voice . . .”[53] We need look no further for the source of Lovecraft’s own Anglophilia—his pride in the British Empire, his use of British spelling variants, and his desire for close cultural and political ties between the United States and England. He notes that

  I suppose I heard people mentioning that my father was ‘an Englishman’ . . . My aunts remember that as early as the age of three I wanted a British officer’s red uniform, and paraded around in a nondescript ‘coat’ of brilliant crimson, originally part of a less masculine costume, and in picturesque juxtaposition with the kilts which with me represented the twelfth Royal Highland Regiment. Rule, Britannia![54]

  At about the age of six, “when my grandfather told me of the American Revolution, I shocked everyone by adopting a dissenting view . . . Grover Cleveland was grandpa’s ruler, but Her Majesty, Victoria, Queen of Great Britain & Ireland & Empress of India commanded my allegiance. ‘God Save the Queen!’ was a stock phrase of mine.”[55] It would be going too far to suggest that Lovecraft’s father actually induced his son to take the British side in the American revolution; but it is clear that the maternal side of his family, proud Yankees as they were, did not share that view. Winfield Townley Scott reports that a “family friend” referred to Winfield as a “pompous Englishman.”[56] This appears to be Ella Sweeney, a schoolteacher who knew the Lovecrafts from as early as their 1892 vacation in Dudley; the information was passed on to Scott by a friend of Sweeney’s, Myra H. Blosser.[57] Even individuals beyond Lovecraft’s immediate family appear to have found Winfield’s English bearing a little trying.

  It is poignant to hear Lovecraft tell o
f his one genuine memory of his father: “I can just remember my father—an immaculate figure in black coat & vest & grey striped trousers. I had a childish habit of slapping him on the knees & shouting ‘Papa, you look just like a young man!’ I don’t know where I picked that phrase up; but I was vain & self-conscious, & given to repeating things which I saw tickled my elders.”[58] This litany of his father’s clothing—“his immaculate black morning-coat and vest, ascot tie, and striped grey trousers”—is found in an earlier letter, and Lovecraft adds touchingly: “I have myself worn some of his old ascots and wing collars, left all too immaculate by his early illness and death . . .”[59] The photograph of the Lovecraft family in 1892 shows Winfield wearing this attire, while Lovecraft himself appears to be wearing some of his father’s clothing in the photograph of him printed on the cover of the September 1915 United Amateur.

  Winfield Scott Lovecraft was buried on July 21, 1898, in the Phillips plot in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence. There is every reason to believe that young Howard attended this service, even though the very brief notice in the Providence Journal does not identify the attendees.[60] The mere fact that he was buried here is (as Faig has noted[61]) a testimony to Whipple Phillips’s generosity of heart, and perhaps even an indication that Whipple paid for Winfield’s medical expenses; Winfield’s estate was valued at $10,000 upon his death,[62] a substantial sum (Whipple’s own estate was valued at only $25,000), and it is unlikely that it could have been so great if it had been used for full-time hospital costs for more than five years.

  The immediate effect of the hospitalisation of Winfield Scott Lovecraft was to bring the two-and-a-half-year-old Howard more closely than ever under the influence of his mother, his two aunts (both of whom, as yet unmarried, were still residing at 454 Angell Street), his grandmother Robie, and especially his grandfather Whipple. Naturally, his mother’s influence was at the outset the dominant one. Lovecraft remarks that his mother was “permanently stricken with grief”[63] upon her husband’s illness, although one wonders whether shame and loathing were intermixed with this emotion. We have already seen that the onset of Susie’s own psychiatric trouble is likely to have begun at this time. The Providence city directory for 1896–99 anomalously lists Susie as “Miss Winfield S. Lovecraft”; it is unlikely that this error would have occurred four years running by mere accident.

  For his part, Whipple Van Buren Phillips proved to be an entirely satisfactory replacement for the father Lovecraft never knew. Lovecraft’s simple statement that at this time “my beloved grandfather . . . became the centre of my entire universe”[64] is all we need to know. Whipple cured his grandson of his fear of the dark by daring him at the age of five to walk through a sequence of dark rooms at 454 Angell Street;[65] he showed Lovecraft the art objects he brought from his travels to Europe; he wrote him letters when travelling on business; and he even recounted extemporaneous weird tales to the boy. I shall elaborate upon some of these points later; here I wish to give only one indication of how completely Whipple had replaced Winfield in Lovecraft’s consciousness. In 1920 Lovecraft had a dream that was the ultimate inspiration for his seminal tale, “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926). In the dream he has made a bas-relief and presents it to a museum curator, who asks him who he is. Lovecraft replies: “My name is Lovecraft—H. P. Lovecraft—grandson of Whipple V. Phillips.”[66] He does not say “son of Winfield Scott Lovecraft.” At the time of this dream Whipple Phillips had been dead for sixteen years.

  And so, with Whipple virtually taking the place of his father, Howard and his mother seemed to lead a normal enough life; indeed, with Whipple’s finances still robust, Lovecraft had an idyllic and rather spoiled early childhood. One of the first things that came to his notice was his immediate surroundings. Lovecraft frequently emphasised the quasi-rural nature of his birthplace, situated as it was at what was then the very edge of the developed part of town:

  . . . I was born in the year 1890 in a small town, & in a section of that town which during my childhood lay not more than four blocks (N. & E.) from the actually primal & open New England countryside, with rolling meadows, stone walls, cart-paths, brooks, deep woods, mystic ravines, lofty river-bluffs, planted fields, white antient farmhouses, barns, & byres, gnarled hillside orchards, great lone elms, & all the authentick marks of a rural milieu unchanged since the 17th & 18th centuries. . . . My house, tho’ an urban one on a paved street, had spacious grounds & stood next to an open field with a stone wall . . . where great elms grew & my grandfather had corn & potatoes planted, & a cow pastured under the gardener’s care.[67]

  Lovecraft could not have had these memories much earlier than the age of three or four; in fact, he states in a late letter that “When I was 3 years old I felt a strange magic & fascination (not unmixed with a vague unease & perhaps a touch of mild fear) in the ancient houses of Providence’s venerable hill . . ., with their fanlighted doorways, railed flights of steps, & stretches of brick sidewalk . . .”[68]

  What is frequently ignored is that this return to Providence from Auburndale essentially allowed Lovecraft to grow up a native of Rhode Island rather than of Massachusetts, as he is very likely to have done otherwise; he himself emphasises this fact in an early letter, saying that the return to the Phillips household “caus[ed] me to grow up as a complete Rhode-Islander.”[69] And yet, Lovecraft retained a passionate fondness for Massachusetts and its colonial heritage, finding wonder and pleasure in the towns of Marblehead, Salem, and Newburyport, and the wild rural terrain of the western part of the state. But the heritage of religious freedom in Rhode Island, and the contrasting early history of Puritan theocracy in its northeasterly neighbour, caused Massachusetts to become a sort of topographical and cultural “other”—attractive yet repulsive, familiar yet alien—in both his life and his work. It is not too early to stress that many more of Lovecraft’s tales are set in Massachusetts than in Rhode Island; and in most of those set in the latter, Lovecraft is careful to eliminate completely the horrors he has raised, whereas those in the Massachusetts tales linger and fester over the generations and centuries.

  Lovecraft makes clear that his fondness for the antiquities of his native city were of very early growth:

  . . . how I used to drag my mother around on the ancient hill when I was 4 or 5! I hardly know what I was after, but the centuried houses with their fanlights & knockers & railed steps & small-paned windows had a strong & significant effect of some sort on me. This world, I felt, was a different one from the Victorian world of French roofs & plate glass & concrete sidewalks & open lawns that I was born into . . . It was a magic, secret world, & it had a realness beyond that of the home neighbourhood.[70]

  Who can fail to recall the description of the young Charles Dexter Ward, whose “famous walks began” when he was a very small boy, “first with his impatiently dragged nurse, and then alone in dreamy meditation”? This combination of wonder and terror in Lovecraft’s early appreciation of Providence makes me think of a letter of 1920 in which he attempts to specify the foundations of his character: “. . . I should describe mine own nature as tripartite, my interests consisting of three parallel and dissociated groups—(a) Love of the strange and the fantastic. (b) Love of the abstract truth and of scientific logick. (c) Love of the ancient and the permanent. Sundry combinations of these three strains will probably account for all my odd tastes and eccentricities.”[71] This is really a remarkably apt summary, and we will see that all three of these traits emerged in the first eight or nine years of his life; but the emphasis must be laid on the idea of “combinations”—or, rather, the likelihood that the third trait (which, if Lovecraft’s testimony is to be believed, seems to be of earliest development) led both directly and indirectly to the first.

  In particular, what seems to have emerged at a remarkably early age in Lovecraft’s consciousness is the notion of time—time as “some especial enemy of mine,”[72] one that he was always seeking to defeat, confound, or subvert. Occasionally Lovecraft tried to trac
e the origin of this feeling, and in a letter he enumerated certain possibilities: the illustrations in an unspecified book over which he pored at the age of two and a half or three, before he could read; the ancient houses and steeples of Providence; and the “fascinating isolation of the 18th century books in a black, windowless attic room”[73]—all appear to have played a part. Lovecraft states that his first acute realisation of time was

  when I saw newspapers bearing the heavily-inked date-line TUESDAY, JANUARY 1, 1895. 1895!! To me the symbol 1894 had represented an eternity—the eternity of the present as distinguished from such things as 1066 or 1492 or 1642 or 1776—& the idea of personally outliving that eternity was absorbingly impressive to me . . . I shall never forget the sensation I derived from the idea of moving through time (if forward, why not backward?) which that ’95 date-line gave me.[74]

  Lovecraft frequently, in later years, yearned to move backward in time, and many of his stories carry out that wish, plunging their narrators not merely to the eighteenth century but into a prehistoric world hundreds of millions of years ago.

  It was that “black, windowless attic room” at 454 Angell Street which proved to be the gateway to a remarkable intellectual development, one that very early on encompassed not only antiquarianism but weird fiction, belles lettres, and science. Lovecraft states frequently that he began reading at the age of four, and one of his earliest books appears to have been Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We do not know what edition of Grimm he (or, rather, his family) owned; no doubt it was some bowdlerised version suitable for the very young. Nor do we know exactly what Lovecraft derived from Grimm; at one point he merely remarks that the fairy tales “were my truly representative diet, & I lived mostly in a mediaeval world of imagination.”[75] Some of the Grimm tales are very peculiar: one, “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,” tells of a young man who does not know what it is to be afraid, and so he goes to a haunted castle and phlegmatically fends off various supernatural forces; in the end he is still unable to feel fear. The imagery of this fairy tale may have stimulated Lovecraft, although one cannot know whether it was included in the edition he read.

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