I am providence the life.., p.61
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 61
It is difficult to characterise the non-Dunsanian stories of this period. Lovecraft was still experimenting in different tones, styles, moods, and themes in an effort to find out what might work the best. Once again we should note the relative absence of “cosmic” stories in this period, in spite of Lovecraft’s manifest declaration (in the In Defence of Dagon essays) of his scorn for the “humanocentric” pose. Only the prose-poem “Nylarlathotep” can be considered genuinely cosmic. Still, other themes that would be greatly elaborated in later tales find their origins here: miscegenation (“Arthur Jermyn”); alien civilisations dwelling unknown in obscure corners of the world (“The Temple,” “The Nameless City”); the horror latent in old New England (“The Picture in the House”); the transcending of the limitations of sense-perception (“From Beyond”).
Perhaps the fact that so many of these tales were inspired by dreams is the most important thing about them. Lovecraft’s letters of 1920 are full of accounts of incredibly bizarre dreams, some of which served as the nuclei for tales written years later. It would be a facile and inexpert psychoanalysis to maintain that Lovecraft’s worries over Susie’s health were the principal cause of these disturbances in his subconscious; as a matter of fact, it appears that Susie’s health had, after a fashion, stabilised and that there was no suspicion of any impending collapse until only a few days before her death. Suffice it to say that the dozen or more stories Lovecraft wrote in 1920—more than he wrote in any other year of his life—point to a definitive shift in his aesthetic horizons. Lovecraft still did not know it yet, but he had come upon his life-work.
13. The High Tide of My Life
Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft died on May 24, 1921, at Butler Hospital, where she had been confined since March 13, 1919. Her death, however, was not a result of her nervous breakdown but rather of a gall bladder operation from which she did not recover. Winfield Townley Scott, who had access to Susie’s now destroyed medical records, tells the story laconically: “She underwent a gall-bladder operation which was thought to be successful. Five days later her nurse noted that the patient expressed a wish to die because ‘I will only live to suffer.’ She died the next day . . .” Her death certificate gives the cause of death as “cholecystitis cholangitis,” or inflammation of the gall bladder and the bile ducts.
Lovecraft’s reaction was pretty much what one might expect:
I am answering letters promptly these last few days, because I lack the will and energy to do anything heavier. The death of my mother on May 24 gave me an extreme nervous shock, and I find concentration and continuous endeavour quite impossible. I am, of course, supremely unemotional; and do not weep or indulge in any of the lugubrious demonstrations of the vulgar—but the psychological effect of so vast and unexpected a disaster is none the less considerable, and I cannot sleep much, or labour with any particular spirit or success.
Later on in this letter, written nine days after the event, Lovecraft adds disturbingly:
For two years she had wished for little else [than death]—just as I myself wish for oblivion. Like me, she was an agnostic with no belief in immortality . . . For my part, I do not think I shall wait for a natural death; since there is no longer any particular reason why I should exist. During my mother’s life-time I was aware that voluntary euthanasia on my part would cause her distress, but it is now possible for me to regulate the term of my existence with the assurance that my end would cause no one more than a passing annoyance . . .
Evidently his aunts did not figure much in this equation. But it was a passing phase, and three days later he was urging Frank Long: “The only real tranquillity—the true Epicurean ataraxia,—comes from the assumption of the objective, external point of view whereby we stand off as spectators and watch ourselves without caring much; a triumph of mind over feeling.”
What, in the end, are we to make of Lovecraft’s relations with his mother? He writes after her death: “My mother was, in all probability, the only person who thoroughly understood me, with the possible exception of Alfred Galpin.” There is too little evidence to judge whether this was truly the case, but it is of some interest that Lovecraft thought it to be so. Susie Lovecraft has not fared well at the hands of Lovecraft’s biographers, and her flaws are readily discernible: she was overly possessive, clearly neurotic, failed (as Lovecraft himself and the rest of his family did) to foresee the need for training her son in some sort of remunerative occupation, and psychologically damaged Lovecraft at least to the point of declaring him physically hideous and perhaps in other ways that are now irrecoverable. It is telling that in one of the two surviving letters to her—February 24, 1921, telling of his trip to Boston—Lovecraft cannot help remarking on his appearance: “The new suit, worn for the first time, was a work of art, and made me appear as nearly respectable as my face permits—and even the face was almost at its best.”
But the verdict on Susie should not be entirely negative. Kenneth W. Faig, Jr correctly remarks: “Lovecraft’s finely honed aesthetic sensibilities and seasoned artistic judgment undoubtedly owed something to the early influence of his mother. . . . The wonderful home which Susie and her young son shared with her parents and sisters at 454 Angell Street during the 1890s must have been truly a delight . . .” Her indulging Lovecraft in many of his early whims—the Arabian Nights, chemistry, astronomy—may seem excessive, but it allowed Lovecraft fully to develop these intellectual and aesthetic interests, and so to lay the groundwork for both the intellect and the creativity he displayed in later years.
The critical issue is whether Lovecraft knew and acknowledged—at least to himself—the ways in which his mother affected him, both positively and adversely. In letters both early and late he speaks of her with nothing but praise and respect. In many letters of the 1930s, when recalling his early years, he makes statements such as: “My health improved vastly and rapidly, though without any ascertainable cause, about 1920–21”; which gives—or appears to give—little hint that Susie’s death might actually have been a liberating factor of some kind. But was Lovecraft really so lacking in self-awareness on this issue? I have already cited Sonia’s noting that Lovecraft once admitted to her that Susie’s influence upon him had been “devastating.” Another very interesting piece of evidence comes not from a letter or an essay, or from a memoir by a friend, but from a story.
“The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933) tells the tale of Edward Derby, who was an only child and “had organic weaknesses which startled his doting parents and caused them to keep him closely chained to their side. He was never allowed out without his nurse, and seldom had a chance to play unconstrainedly with other children.” Is Lovecraft recollecting that summer vacation in Dudley, Massachusetts, in 1892, when Susie told Ella Sweeney to stoop when walking with Howard so as not to pull his arm out of its socket?
Lovecraft continues in the story: “Edward’s mother died when he was thirty-four, and for months he was incapacitated by some odd psychological malady. His father took him to Europe, however, and he managed to pull out of his trouble without visible effects. Afterward he seemed to feel a sort of grotesque exhilaration, as if of partial escape from some unseen bondage.” That last sentence is all the evidence we need: it makes it abundantly clear that Lovecraft knew (by 1933, at any rate) that Susie’s death had in a sense made the rest of his own life possible. It is telling that, in his litany of “near-breakdowns” beginning in 1898, he lists no breakdown of 1921.
In the short term Lovecraft did the most sensible thing he could have done—continue the normal course of his existence. He may not, like Derby, have travelled to Europe, but there was always New Hampshire. He had naturally thought of cancelling Myrta Alice Little’s invitation to visit her in Westville on June 8–9, but his aunts—Lillian Clark had by now moved into 598 Angell Street to accompany her sister Annie Emeline Phillips Gamwell, who had already been there since March 1919—urged him to go, and he did so. On the morning of t
. . . I like him immeasurably, for he is the most unspoiled, simple, contented, artless, and altogether delightful small boy of his age that I have ever beheld. He never grew up, but lives on without any of the dull complexities of adulthood—active, busy with his little press, stamp album, cat, and woodland excursions—in short, a perfect old Damoetas whom Theocritus would have loved to delineate.
Lovecraft wrote up the trip charmingly in “The Haverhill Convention” (Tryout, July 1921). He had already penned a whimsical poem to Smith, “Tryout’s Lament for the Vanished Spider” (Tryout, January 1920), and when Smith’s cat died on November 15, 1921, he produced a touching elegy, “Sir Thomas Tryout” (Tryout, December 1921):
There’s many an eye that fills tonight,
And many a pensive strain
That sounds for him who stole from sight
In the November rain.
Lovecraft returned to New Hampshire in August. On the 25th he visited Tryout Smith in Haverhill; on the 26th he visited the museum of the Haverhill Historical Society with Myrta Alice Little and her mother, who were acquainted with the director and so were allowed into the museum even though it was not open to the public on that day; he returned home the next day.
Need we make anything of these two visits to Little in quick succession? She seems virtually to drop out of the picture after this date, except for one further visit Lovecraft paid her in the summer of 1922. Even if, as I doubt, there was some romantic—or even the nascent nucleus of a romantic—involvement here, it was clearly terminated, perhaps for reasons that will soon become apparent.
August was, indeed, a travelling month for Lovecraft. On the 8th Harold Bateman Munroe summoned Lovecraft out of the bath at 9.30 A.M. to revisit their Great Meadow Country Clubhouse in Rehoboth. Munroe, now a businessman as well as a deputy sheriff, had some calls to make in nearby Taunton, and wanted to spend the rest of the day reminiscing with his boyhood pal about their long-lost youth. (An unnamed woman accompanied them on this trip, but Lovecraft remarks that she was properly quiet and unobtrusive.) For Lovecraft, ever ready to return in spirit to his idyllic youth, the moment was full of emotion, especially since the clubhouse was found to be nearly intact in spite of its fifteen-year-long abandonment:
There had been no decay, nor even vandalism. Tables stood about as of yore, pictures we knew still adorned the walls with unbroken glass. Not an inch of tar paper was ripped off, & in the cement hearth we found still embedded the small pebbles we stamped in when it was new & wet—pebbles arranged to form the initials G.M.C.C. Nothing was lacking—save the fire, the ambition, the ebulliency of youth in ourselves; & that can never be replaced. Thus two stolid middle-aged men caught for a moment a vision of the aureate & iridescent past—caught it, & sighed for days that are no more.
Twelve days before his thirty-first birthday Lovecraft is declaring himself “middle-aged.” But for an afternoon he could revel in the past. There was even a plan (suggested by Harold) to revive the G.M.C.C., and holding monthly meetings with Ronald Upham and Stuart Coleman, who were still in Providence. But Lovecraft correctly declared a week and a half later that “H B M has no doubt forgotten all about it now. He does not miss youth as I do.” It was probably just as well: the worst thing that could have happened to Lovecraft, so soon after his mother’s death, was a return to childhood and its irresponsibility: he needed to move on and engage himself in the world.
On August 17 Lovecraft made another trip to Boston to meet amateurs. An increasing tension between the UAPA and the NAPA created some awkwardness. Lovecraft was forced to meet his UAPA group on Wednesday the 17th rather than take in the Hub Club meeting (consisting mostly of Nationalites) on the next day. In addition, Alice Hamlet wanted Lovecraft to visit her in Dorchester, since she hated the Nationalites so much that she did not even wish to risk meeting any of them at the scheduled UAPA meeting. But Lovecraft missed the 11.00 A.M. train to Boston, and had to catch the 12.25 instead; he arrived in Dorchester at 1.44, but by this time Hamlet and her party had already left to visit an invalid friend in a nursing home in Quincy. “As a matter of prosaic fact, my loss of this trip caused me no very profound grief; but the Dorcastrians seemed amazingly disappointed. . . . Miss H. appeared to view the exploded schedule as little short of calamitous.” One gets the impression that Alice Hamlet was more fond of Lovecraft than he was of her.
Moving on to Boston, Lovecraft went to the Curry School of Expression on Huntington Avenue near Copley Square, where he met for the first time Anne Tillery Renshaw, a longtime amateur whom he had supported for various official posts almost from the time he entered amateurdom. She had come from Washington, D.C., where she was head of the English department at Research University. Lovecraft pays her a mixed tribute: “In aspect stout & homely, she is in conversation pleasant, cultivated, & intelligent; with all the force of mind & speech becoming a philosopher, poet, & professor of English, drama, & public speaking.” Lovecraft and Renshaw argued philosophy most of the afternoon. In the evening the main gathering occurred at Lilian McMullen’s home at 53 Morton Street in Newton Centre, where Winifred Jackson, Edith Miniter, and others congregated; but Lovecraft was diverted all evening by a grey kitten brought by one of the amateurs. Once again he refused to sing, although both McMullen and Renshaw gave renditions. At one point Renshaw made a suggestion that Lovecraft write a textbook on English—an irony given that Renshaw herself would write a wretched textbook on speech which Lovecraft would revise at the end of his life. As usual, Lovecraft caught a late train and returned home at 1.20 A.M.
Meanwhile events in the amateur world were heating up. Lovecraft had easily been elected Official Editor for the 1920–21 and 1921–22 terms, and his “literary” faction was in both political and editorial control of the association: Alfred Galpin was President in 1920–21 (serving, anomalously, also as Chairman of the Department of Public Criticism), and Ida C. Haughton of Columbus, Ohio, was President in 1921–22; other associates of Lovecraft such as Paul J. Campbell, Frank Belknap Long, and Alice Hamlet all held official positions. All this puts the lie to the statement Lovecraft had made as early as August 1919: “But I am gradually getting through with amateur journalism. What I have done for it has brought me only slights and insults, except from an intensely appreciated few to whom I shall ever be fervently grateful. I shall always cling to the Kleicomolo and Gallomo circle, and shall always be glad to help any writer who wishes me to do so; but with the organisation I am done.” But the picture was by no means rosy. Lovecraft had considerable disagreements with President Haughton, and years later he claimed that she “ran the very gamut of abuse & positive insult—culminating even in an aspersion on my stewardship of the United funds!” (This latter point refers to Lovecraft’s running of the Official Organ Fund, a record of dues or donations by members for the publishing of the United Amateur.) It does not appear as if this dispute got into print, at least from Haughton’s side; but Lovecraft did indeed respond by writing “Medusa: A Portrait” in late 1921. This is the most vicious and unrestrained of his poetic satires, and in it he mercilessly flays Haughton for her large bulk and her supposed foulness of temper:
Soak’d in her noxious venom, puff’d with gall,
Like some fat toad see dull MEDUSA sprawl;
Foul with her spleen, repugnant to the sight,
She crudely whines amidst eternal night.
When the poem was published in the Tryout for December
There was trouble on other fronts also. I have already told how such individuals as William J. Dowdell and Leo Fritter had expressed resentment against what they believed to be Lovecraft’s high-handed running of the United Amateur, filling it with material by his own colleagues. In the Woodbee for January 1922 Fritter continued his attacks, writing: “The Official Organ is the medium of all the members, and as such should become a clearing-house for all shades of literary endeavor within the Association.” Lovecraft spat back in his “Editorial” in the January 1922 United Amateur:
Our constitution does not define the functions of The United Amateur beyond making imperative the publication of certain official documents. The rest is left to an unwritten combination of tradition and editorial judgment. Any editor, once elected, is absolutely in control of the magazine aside from the essential official matter; his only external obligation being a tacit recognition of the prevailing objects of the Association.
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