I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 77
It is difficult to convey in capsule form any impression of the vast metropolis, which then as now is as diverse as any place on the globe. The city’s character can change in a single block, and the whole region defies neat generalisation. When we speak of Harlem or Hell’s Kitchen or Greenwich Village, we are in danger of letting stereotypes take the place of realities. Lovecraft discovered the city gradually over two years of peregrinations, but his heart was in those surprisingly numerous pockets of antiquity (many now sadly obliterated) that still remained even in the heart of Manhattan. Some of the outer boroughs also preserved such pockets, and Lovecraft sought them out with the zeal of desperation. The Flatbush section of Brooklyn where he and Sonia settled was then on the outskirts of the borough, and was then (as it is not now) the residence of choice for the well-to-do in the area. It was not Providence, but neither was it a wholly inferior substitute.
There is no question that, at least for the first few months, the euphoria both of his marriage and of his residence in the nation’s centre of publishing, finance, art, and general culture helped to ward off any doubts about the precipitancy of his departure from Providence. With a new wife, many friends, and even reasonably good job prospects Lovecraft had reason to believe that a promising new phase of his life was beginning.
In his 1975 memoir, Frank Belknap Long writes of first meeting Lovecraft in Sonia’s apartment in April 1922. After a time, as he sat talking with the two of them, something began to dawn upon him:
It was at this point that something which at first had been a mere suspicion began to lodge itself more firmly in my mind. During the brief talk by the window Howard had dwelt at some length on Sonia’s meeting with his aunts and on two other occasions when they had spent considerable time together on New England terrain, with the Boston convention several weeks in the past.
Could it be possible—
It was possible, of course . . . his relationship with Sonia had taken on what could only be thought of as a just-short-of-engagement character. It still was only at the friendship stage perhaps, but with the distinct possibility that it might soon become something more.
Long may perhaps be guilty of reading, in hindsight, more into this episode than is warranted; but he was probably not alone in sensing—at this time and on other occasions—that some sort of rapport was developing between Sonia and Lovecraft. And yet, the fact of their marriage seems to have produced, among their friends and associates, reactions ranging from surprise to shock to alarm. Rheinhart Kleiner writes: “. . . I do remember very well that it was while riding in a taxi with Mr. and Mrs. Houtain . . . that the news of the Lovecraft-Greene marriage was imparted to me. At once, I had a feeling of faintness at the pit of my stomach and became very pale. Houtain laughed uproariously at the effect of his announcement, but agreed that he felt as I did.” Even such recent friends as the Eddys were stunned: “The next news we had of Lovecraft was an engraved announcement of his marriage to Sonia Greene. It was a simple announcement, but it took us so completely by surprise that it was several hours before we thoroughly digested the news.” This engraved announcement, incidentally, was sent out shortly after the marriage; Lovecraft and Sonia spent $62 printing 200 copies of it. It reads simply:
Howard Phillips Lovecraft
Sonia Haft Greene
announce their marriage
Monday the third of March
One thousand nine hundred and twenty-four.
Mr. and Mrs. Howard Phillips Lovecraft
At Home on and after March thirtieth, 1924
259 Parkside Avenue
Brooklyn, New York.
It is, indeed, telling that, on Lovecraft’s last night in Providence, he visited the Eddys, saying he was leaving and offering them some furniture that he would not have use for, but never mentioning the marriage at this time.
This silence was duplicated by one of the most remarkable letters ever written by Lovecraft: the letter to his aunt Lillian announcing his marriage—six days after the fact. It is manifestly obvious that he simply boarded the 11.09 train on Sunday morning, March 2, married Sonia the next day, began settling in at 259 Parkside, and finally decided to spill the news to his elder aunt. Indeed, Lovecraft sent Lillian several postcards on March 4 and 5 from both New York and Philadelphia (where the couple honeymooned), but without any indication whatever of the true state of affairs. One such card, however, must have caused Lillian some wonderment, as Lovecraft speaks of a “permanent literary position” in New York that may fall in his lap.
Some parts of the laborious preamble to the actual announcement in this letter are astounding:
[A] more active life, to one of my temperament, demands many things which I could dispense with when drifting sleepily and inertly along, shunning a world which exhausted and disgusted me, and having no goal but a phial of cyanide when my money should give out. I had formerly meant to follow the latter course, and was fully prepared to seek oblivion whenever cash should fail or sheer ennui grow too much for me; when suddenly, nearly three years ago, our benevolent angel S. H. G. stepped into my circle of consciousness and began to combat that idea with the opposite one of effort and the enjoyment of life through the rewards which effort will bring.
Well, perhaps marriage and a move to the big city is better than suicide from poverty or boredom. But what about the critical issue of the pair’s affection for each other?
. . . meanwhile—egotistical as it sounds to relate it—it began to be apparent that I was not alone in finding psychological solitude more or less of a handicap. A detailed intellectual and aesthetic acquaintance since 1921, and a three-months visit in 1922 wherein congeniality was tested and found perfect in an infinity of ways, furnished abundant proof not only that S. H. G. is the most inspiriting and encouraging influence which could possibly be brought to bear on me, but that she herself had begun to find me more congenial than anyone else, and had come to depend to a great extent on my correspondence and conversation for mental contentment and artistic and philosophical enjoyment.
This is, certainly, one of the most glaring examples of Lovecraft’s inability to speak of “love” or anything remotely connected to it. He does not say: “I love Sonia and Sonia loves me”; he says that he and she need each other for “mental contentment and artistic and philosophical enjoyment.” Lovecraft’s natural reserve in speaking of such matters to his aunt should certainly be taken into account; but we will also have to deal later with Sonia’s own admission that Lovecraft never said the word “love” to her. In any event, he continues to explain why neither Lillian nor Annie were taken into the couple’s confidence in the whole matter:
At this point . . . you will no doubt ask why I did not mention this entire matter before. S. H. G. herself was anxious to do so, and if possible to have both you and A. E. P. G. present at the event about to be described. But here again appeared Old Theobald’s hatred of sentimental spoofing, and of that agonisingly indecisive “talking over” which radical steps always prompt among mortals, yet which really exceeds the fullest necessary quota of sober and analytical appraisal and debate. . . . It hardly seemed to me that, in view of my well-known temperament, anyone could feel even slightly hurt by a decisive and dramatic gesture sweeping away the barnacles of timidity and of blindly reactionary holding-back.
There can scarcely be any clearer indication of Lovecraft’s fear—perhaps well founded—that his aunts would not approve of his marriage, although since he was thirty-three years old there was certainly nothing they could have done about it. The aunts’ disapproval, as well as the possible reasons for it (was it because Sonia was not a New England Yankee? because she was a foreign-born businesswoman rather a member of the informal American aristocracy? because the marriage would mean Lovecraft’s departure from home?), are all conjecture, for in the total absence of written documents by their hands, and even the lack of testimony by others on their attitude to Sonia, conjecture is al
What were Sonia’s feelings on the whole matter? In speaking of the year or two prior to their marriage, she writes: “I well knew that he was not in a position to marry, yet his letters indicated his desire to leave his home town and settle in New York.” The first part of the statement presumably refers merely to financial capability; as for the second, although of course we do not have access to Lovecraft’s letters to Sonia, I have to believe that this is somewhat of an exaggeration. The only indication of Lovecraft’s wish to come to New York that I find in letters to other individuals is a mention to Clark Ashton Smith just five weeks before the marriage: “Like you, I don’t know anyone who is at all congenial here; & I believe I shall migrate to New York in the end—perhaps when Loveman does.” My feeling is that this indicates Lovecraft had already resolved upon marriage by this time, and that he was simply disguising the fact from Smith; there is nothing particularly surprising about this, as Smith was a colleague of only a year and half’s standing and one cannot expect someone like Lovecraft to reveal his personal life to him. His letter to Edwin Baird of February 3, exactly one month before the marriage, hints at the same thing (although for different reasons), when he notes that “finances will decree a final disintegration [i.e., of his Providence household] landing me in all probability in New York.” Financial considerations certainly were a factor in the marriage. It would, of course, be crass and quite unjust to Lovecraft to say that he married Sonia even in part because of her income; indeed, we may shortly discover that, in spite of her seeming prosperity, Sonia herself was not in very healthy financial shape herself at this juncture.
We each meditated and remeditated upon the possibilities of a life together. Some of our friends suspected that we cared for one another, and upon friendly inquiry I admitted that I cared very much, that I took everything into consideration and decided that if he would have me I’d gladly be his wife. But nothing definitely had been said to any one. . . .
During our few years of correspondence and the many business trips I took to New England I did not fail to mention many of the adverse circumstances that were likely to ensue, but that we would have to work out these problems between us, and if we really cared more for one another than for the problems that might stand in our way, there was no reason why our marriage should not be a success. He thoroughly agreed. . . .
Before leaving Providence for N.Y. I requested him to tell his aunts that he was going to marry me but he said he preferred to surprise them. In the matter of securing the marriage license, buying the ring and other details incumbent upon a marriage, he seemed to be so jovial. He said one would think that he was being married for the nth time, he went about it in such a methodical way.
This is all Sonia has to say on the matter. What she does not say is that she had written to Lillian a full month before the marriage, and in a manner that should clearly have tipped off to Lillian that something was afoot. In a letter dated February 9, 1924, Sonia writes:
I have nothing in life to attract me to Life and if I can help the good and beautiful soul of Howard Lovecraft find itself financially as it has found itself spiritually, morally and mentally, my efforts shall not have been in vain. . . .
Therefore little Lady, fear nothing. I am just as desirous of his success for his own sake as you are, and I am just as anxious, perhaps more so, that you should live to enjoy the fruits of his labor and the honors that will be heaped upon his beautiful and blessed name, as you may be.
That “fear nothing” must have been in response to some letter by Lillian, perhaps asking Sonia bluntly what her “intentions” toward her nephew actually were.
Lovecraft’s joviality during the ceremony is borne out by several amusing letters to his closest friends. To James Morton he writes, after another long and teasing preamble about the seeming strangeness of his residence at 259 Parkside:
Yes, my boy, you got it the first time. Eager to put Colonial architecture to all of its possible uses, I hit the ties hither last week; and on Monday, March the Third, seized by the hair of the head the President of the United—S. H. G.—and dragged her to Saint Paul’s Chapel, . . . where after considerable assorted genuflection, and with the aid of the honest curate, Father George Benson Cox, and of two less betitled ecclesiastical hangers-on, I succeeded in affixing to her series of patronymics the not unpretentious one of Lovecraft. Damned quaint of me, is it not? You never can tell what a guy like me is gonna do next!
The two ecclesiastical hangers-on were, according to the marriage licence, Joseph Gorman and Joseph G. Armstrong. To Frank Long he writes:
The license stuff? Dead easy! We beat it to the Brooklyn borough hall, and got the papers with all the coolness and savoir faire of old campaigners . . . you ought to have seen your old Grandpa, Sonny! Brigham Young annexing his 27th, or King Solomon starting in on the second thousand, had nothing on the Old Gentleman for languid fluency and casual conversation!
It is as if Lovecraft is regarding the whole thing as a lark; and indeed, we will see increasing evidence that he was quite taken with the charm and novelty of being married but was simply not aware of the amount of effort it takes to make a marriage actually work. Lovecraft was, in all honesty, not emotionally mature enough for such an undertaking.
The testimony of two of Lovecraft’s closest friends may be of some value here. Arthur S. Koki interviewed Samuel Loveman in 1959 and Frank Long in 1961, and he reports their views on the matter as follows: “Samuel Loveman thought Lovecraft had married Mrs. Greene out of a sense of obligation for the interest and encouragement she took in his work. Frank Belknap Long, Jr. said Lovecraft believed it befitted a proper gentleman to take a wife.” There is much to be said for both these opinions. The way in which Lovecraft soberly went through an Anglican ceremony at a colonial church indicates that his sense of aesthetics had overwhelmed his rationality; and his references in letters of the first few months of his marriage to “the wife” or “the missus” again suggest his being tickled at the state of being married without, perhaps, a realisation of what such a state actually meant either practically or emotionally.
It is worth pausing to ponder the sources for Lovecraft’s attraction for Sonia. It seems facile to say that he was looking for a mother replacement; and yet, the emergence of Sonia into his life a mere six weeks after his mother’s death is certainly a coincidence worth noting. Granted that the affection may initially have been more on Sonia’s side than his—she came to Providence far more frequently than he came to New York—Lovecraft may nevertheless have felt the need to confide his thoughts and feelings to someone in a way that he does not seem to have done with his aunts. Those voluminous daily letters he wrote to Sonia would no doubt reveal much; one hopes that there is more intimacy and human feeling in them than the pompous declamations we find in “Nietzscheism and Realism.” True, Lovecraft in his New York years wrote copiously to Aunt Lillian as well (less to Aunt Annie); but these letters are largely chronicles of his daily activities, with only intermittent expressions of his moods, beliefs, and sensations.
Sonia was, of course, nothing like Susie Lovecraft: she was dynamic, emotionally open, contemporary, cosmopolitan, and perhaps a little domineering (this is the exact term Frank Belknap Long once used in describing Sonia to me), whereas Susie, although perhaps domineering in her own way, was subdued, emotionally reserved, even stunted, and a typical product of American Victorianism. But let us recall that at this moment Lovecraft was still in the full flower of his Decadent phase: his scorn of Victorianism and his toying with the intellectual and aesthetic avant-garde may have found a welcome echo in a woman who was very much an inhabitant of the twentieth century.
Their marriage occurred after what can only be called a long-distance romance—something that is, then and now,
Sonia has made one further admission that is of some interest. In a manuscript (clearly written after the dissolution of the marriage, as it is signed Sonia H. Davis) entitled “The Psychic Phenominon [sic] of Love” she has incorporated a part of one of Lovecraft’s letters to her. In a note on the manuscript she has written: “It was Lovecraft’s part of this letter that I believe made me fall in love with him; but he did not carry out his own dictum; time and place, and reversion of some of his thoughts and expressions did not bode for happiness.” Sonia submitted this manuscript to August Derleth for publication; he rejected it, but published Lovecraft’s letter alone in the Arkham Collector as “Lovecraft on Love.” It is a very strange document. Going on for about 1200 words in the most abstract and pedantic manner, Lovecraft thoroughly downplays the erotic aspect of love as a product of the fire of extreme youth, saying instead that “By forty or perhaps fifty a wholesome replacement process begins to operate, and love attains calm, cool depths based on tender association beside which the erotic infatuation of youth takes on a certain shade of cheapness and degradation. Mature tranquillised love produces an idyllic fidelity which is a testimonial to its sincerity, purity, and intensity.” And so on. There is actually not much substance in this letter, and some parts of it should have made Sonia a little nervous, as when he says that “True love thrives equally well in presence or in absence” or that each party “must not be too antipodal in their values, motive-forces, perspectives, and modes of expression and fulfilment” for compatibility. Nevertheless, Sonia did manage at least to get Lovecraft to talk about the subject; we shall have to examine at a later stage whether Lovecraft did or did not “carry out his own dictum” in actual practice.