I am providence the life.., p.79

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 79


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

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  In the meantime Lovecraft would need his papers and effects. He asked Lillian to send such things as his tin box full of unpublished manuscripts, his complete file of Weird Tales and Home Brew, his calendars (he had several), his Webster’s Unabridged (also an older dictionary compiled by James Stormonth, which he preferred because it was British), his Gillette blades, and other items—including “my blue jumbo cup, whose capacious depths have dealt me out so much nourishment, and which has become so much a part of my essential background!”[39] Later much of his personal furniture was sent and somehow inserted into Sonia’s four-room first-floor apartment at 259 Parkside.[40] This furniture did not arrive in its entirety until June 30,[41] but Kleiner reports seeing some of it as it arrived—“heaps of fine linen, quite a few pieces of heavy, old-fashioned silverware, and other items which had probably been stored away for years”—and also on how homelike the apartment looked. “Why, this looks as if you had lived here always.” Lovecraft, beaming with pride, replied that a gentleman always made himself at home no matter where he happened to be.[42]

  One occupant the couple would not have to worry about was Sonia’s daughter. Florence Carol Greene appears to have had a falling out with her mother a few years previously: she had fallen in love with her half-uncle Sydney (only five years her elder), and Sonia, enraged, had adamantly refused to allow her to marry him. (Such a marriage would, in any event, have been prohibited by the tenets of the Orthodox Judaism.) This dispute led to a schism that, unfortunately, lasted for the duration of both women’s lives. Florence left Sonia’s apartment sometime after she came of age (March 19, 1923), although continuing to remain in New York.[43] There are reports that she herself did not care for Lovecraft and did not approve of her mother’s marrying him.[44] Florence’s later life is both distinguished and tragic: she married a newspaperman named John Weld in 1927 but divorced him in 1932; she herself went to Europe and became a reporter, attaining celebrity as the first reporter to cover the romance of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) and Mrs Wallis Simpson. Returning to America, she worked for newspapers in New York, later moving to Florida and becoming a film publicist. She died on March 31, 1979. But in all that time she refused to speak to her mother. And aside from a passing reference in her memoir, Sonia never speaks of her. Lovecraft too alludes to her only twice in all the correspondence I have seen.

  In the meantime, however, Lovecraft had to think of work. This was, in fact, a somewhat pressing concern. Sonia had been making $10,000 per year at Ferle Heller’s—a princely sum considering that the “minimum health and decency” wages for a family of four in the 1920s was $2000[45]—but had already lost this position, evidently, by February 1924. She wrote to Lillian: “Just at the moment I am down on my luck as it were but I know it can’t last much longer. I simply must find a position, for I feel sure there is one waiting for me somewhere.”[46] Nevertheless, she had savings in five figures,[47] so perhaps there was no immediate need to replenish the coffers.

  It is true that Lovecraft had never held any regular salaried position, and it is also true that he seemed to have no especially regular revision client except David Van Bush; nevertheless, a likely prospect seemed in the offing in something called “The Reading Lamp.” This was a magazine as well as a literary agency that would generate commissioned articles or books on behalf of its clients; it was run by one Gertrude E. Tucker. The one issue of the magazine that has come up for sale recently (no copy appears to exist in any library in the world) declares it to be “A Convenient Guide to the New Books including new editions of old favorites as issued by the Publishing Houses of Canada.” The last part of that sentence relates to the fact that this issue—Volume 1, Number 1 (December 1923)—was published by the Ryerson Press, Toronto. Possibly there was also a corresponding edition of the magazine published in the United States, presumably from New York. In any case, it was Edwin Baird who had “recommended”[48] Lovecraft to Tucker in January 1924; Sonia, learning of this, took it upon herself to see Tucker and bring a sheaf of Lovecraft’s manuscripts to her. On March 10 Lovecraft interviewed at the Reading Lamp office, with the following result:

  Miss T. thinks a book of my antiquarian & other essays would be quite practicable, & urges me to prepare at least three as samples at once. Also, she thinks she can get me a contract with a chain of magazines to write minor matter to order. And more—as soon as my MSS. arrive, she wants to see all of them, with a view to a weird book. . . . What Miss T. wants in the way of essays is quaint stuff with a flavour of the supernatural.[49]

  All this sounds promising, and at one point Lovecraft even reports the possibility that The Reading Lamp might be able to secure him a regular position at a publishing house,[50] although this clearly did not happen. Later in the month he reported working on several chapters of a book on American superstitions; the idea evidently was that he would do three chapters and Tucker would then try to get a contract from a book publisher for the project. My feeling is that Lovecraft actually did write these chapters, although they have not come to light; but since on August 1 he made note of the “non-materialisation of sundry literary prospects,”[51] the obvious inference is that the Reading Lamp business came to nothing. He did, however, apparently write a review for the magazine—of J. Arthur Thomson’s What Is Man? (London: Methuen, 1923; New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924), an anthropological work.[52] This item has not been located.

  But, again, this was not in itself a disaster. Lovecraft always had Bush to rely on. He met him on May 25[53] and reported doing “Bush work” in July. Bush published at least eight books in 1924 and 1925 (all of them psychology manuals—he had evidently given up poetry), and no doubt Lovecraft derived at least a modest income from revising them. Checks from Weird Tales were no doubt trickling in also—for “The Hound” (February), “The Rats in the Walls” (March), “Arthur Jermyn” (April), and “Hypnos” (May–June–July) along with “Under the Pyramids,” although I have no information on how much any of these stories aside from the Houdini job actually brought in.

  The couple, indeed, felt so relatively prosperous that in May they purchased two home lots in Bryn Mawr Park, a development in Yonkers. The real estate company that negotiated the purchase, the Homeland Company of 28 North Broadway in Yonkers, has of course long ago ceased to exist. I cannot find much information on this matter and certainly do not know where in Yonkers this property actually was. A home lot would, of course, be much cheaper than a house, and in her autobiography Sonia declares that a home for Lovecraft, herself, and his two aunts was planned for the larger lot and that the other would be used for speculation.[54] Yonkers is the city immediately north of the Bronx in lower Westchester County, and within easy commuting distance of Manhattan by trolley or train. Since the turn of the century it had become a fashionable bedroom community for New Yorkers; but it was still an idyllic small town with plenty of greenery and a sort of New England feel to it, and might have been the ideal place for Lovecraft to have settled so long as he needed to remain in the New York area for purposes of employment.[55]

  What is, of course, remarkable about this whole episode is that it exactly duplicates Lovecraft’s parents’ purchase of a home lot in Auburndale, Massachusetts, a few years after their marriage in 1889. Lovecraft knew of this matter, as he mentions it in an early letter to Kleiner;[56] was he consciously wishing to follow his parents’ footsteps here, as he apparently did in going through an Anglican wedding service?

  Although Lovecraft met with a Mr Bailey of the Homeland Company about “the type of house we would wish,”[57] on July 29 he wrote to the real estate firm that “Owing to financial difficulties of the most acute and unforeseen sort, I find myself unable at present to make the remittances now due on the property which I purchased last May at Bryn Mawr Park.”[58] (Actually, Sonia states that she managed to retain control of the lots for some years by paying a rate of $100 per week.[59]) What was the nature of these difficulties?

  We have already seen
that Sonia either lost or gave up her very remunerative job at Ferle Heller’s. Why? It appears that she attempted to start her own millinery business. This strikes me as an extremely risky undertaking. Even if she had simply lost her position at Ferle Heller’s (as her letter to Lillian stating that she was “down on [her] luck” would seem to indicate), she might have been better off attempting to secure a position with an existing firm rather than striking out on her own—an undertaking that no doubt involved a considerable initial outlay of capital. In days when all men and women wore hats in public, the millinery business was an extraordinarily competitive one: the 1924–25 city directory for Manhattan and the Bronx lists a minimum of 1200 milliners. It is not surprising that Sonia would have gone into this profession: in both New York and Chicago, Russian Jewish immigrants specialised in the clothing trade.[60] My only thought as to Sonia’s attempt to make it on her own is that, as a married woman, she did not wish to do the extensive amount of travelling that her position at Ferle Heller’s evidently required her to do, and wished to open a shop of her own so as to remain in the city as much as possible. (I am not certain whether Sonia’s shop was in Manhattan or Brooklyn; there is no city directory for Brooklyn at this time. The shop she attempted to establish in 1928 was certainly in Brooklyn.) But if this were the case, the ironic circumstance is that Sonia remained out of work for much of the rest of the year and was then forced to take a series of jobs in the Midwest, separating her from her husband far more than her Ferle Heller’s position is likely to have done. She says nothing about this whole matter at all in her memoir; but Lovecraft, writing to Lillian on August 1, makes clear reference to “the somewhat disastrous collapse of S. H.’s independent [my emphasis] millinery venture,” with the result that there is now “something of a shortage in the exchequer.”[61]

  The upshot of all this was that Lovecraft was forced to look much more vigorously for a job—any job—than before. Now, and only now, begins the futile and rather pathetic hunting through the classified ads every Sunday in the New York Times for any position that might conceivably be available; but Lovecraft came face to face with a realisation as true then as now: “Positions of every kind seem virtually unattainable to persons without experience . . .”[62] What he says is the job that “came nearest to materialisation” was a salesman’s position with the Creditors’ National Clearing House, located at 810 Broad Street in Newark, New Jersey. This was a bill collecting agency, and Lovecraft would be responsible, not for actually collecting bills, but for selling the agency’s services among wholesalers and retailers in New York City. He appears to have been hired on a trial basis, and on Saturday, July 26, he attended a salesmen’s meeting in Newark to learn the ropes after spending the better part of the previous week studying the literature given to him by the firm. On Monday the 28th he began the actual sales campaign with wholesalers, but did not generate a single sale; he tried again on Wednesday, canvassing retailers in Brooklyn, but with the same results. On Thursday Lovecraft was taken around by the head of the Newark branch, William J. Bristol, who quickly took him aside:

  my guide became very candid about the tone of the business, and admitted that a gentleman born and bred has very little chance for success in such lines of canvassing salesmanship . . . where one must either be miraculously magnetic and captivating, or else so boorish and callous that he can transcend every rule of tasteful conduct and push conversation on bored, hostile, and unwilling victims.

  Bristol accepted Lovecraft’s immediate resignation, without the usual one week’s notice. And although Bristol, admiring Lovecraft’s command of English, made vague proposals to go into business with him privately in the insurance business, this obviously came to nothing.

  This whole episode—as well as a later one in which Lovecraft tried to secure a job in the lamp testing department of an electrical laboratory[63]—shows how difficult it was for Lovecraft to secure the job that most suited him, namely something in the writing or publishing business. There is no reason why, with his experience, he should not have been able to secure some such position; but he was unable to do so. Several of his friends have commented on a notorious letter of application that he sent out around this time (a draft of it is written on the back of his letter to the Homeland Company of July 29), the first paragraph of which reads as follows:

  If an unprovoked application for employment seems somewhat unusual in these days of system, agencies, & advertising, I trust that the circumstances surrounding this one may help to mitigate what would otherwise be obtrusive forwardness. The case is one wherein certain definitely marketable aptitudes must be put forward in an unconventional manner if they are to override the current fetish which demands commercial experience & causes prospective employers to dismiss unheard the application of any situation-seeker unable to boast of specific professional service in a given line.[64]

  And so on for six more paragraphs, commenting pointedly that Lovecraft has, in the last two months, answered over a hundred advertisements without a single response (reminiscent of his noting to Weird Tales that “Dagon” and “The Tomb” had been previously rejected), and concluding with a feeble joke (Lovecraft is neither a round peg trying to fit a square hole nor a square peg trying to fit a round hole, but a trapezohedral peg).

  To be sure, this may not have been the ideal letter, but standards of business writing were different seventy years ago. Nevertheless, Kleiner remarks of this letter, and others like it: “I think I am justified in saying that they were the sort of letters a temporarily straitened English gentleman might have written in an effort to make a profitable connection in the business world of the day before yesterday.”[65] Frank Long is more blunt: “As specimens of employment-seeking correspondence, few letters could have been more incredibly off-target. But surprisingly enough, he received at least four sympathetic replies.”[66] Long seems entirely unaware how the second half of his comment completely undercuts the first.

  A paper among Lovecraft’s effects appears to indicate the newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses to whom he sent this letter. Among the newspapers in New York are the Herald Tribune, the Times, the Evening Post, the Sun, the World, and the Brooklyn Eagle. (In another column, interestingly, are listed four papers in the Boston area—the Transcript, the Herald, the Post, and the Christian Science Monitor.) Magazines listed are the Century, Harper’s (crossed out), Munsey’s, and the Atlantic (in Boston). Publishers are Harper & Brothers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, E. P. Dutton, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Doubleday, Page, George H. Doran, Albert & Charles Boni, Boni & Liveright, and Knopf. Lovecraft was certainly aiming high, and there is no reason why he shouldn’t have. It is not clear that the letter of application was actually sent to all these places; some have check marks beside them, others do not. I do not know what the four responses alluded to by Long are.

  Then, in the classified section of the New York Times for Sunday, August 10, appeared the following advertisement in the “Situations Wanted—Male” category:

  WRITER AND REVISER, free-lance, desires regular and permanent salared connection with any responsible enterprise requiring literary services; exceptionally thorough experience in preparing correct and fluent text on subjects assigned, and in meeting the most difficult, intricate and extensive problems of rewriting and constructive revision, prose or verse; would also consider situation dealing with such proofreading as demands rapid and discriminating perception, orthographical accuracy, stylistic fastidiousness and a keenly developed sense of the niceties of English usage; good typist; age 34, married; has for seven years handled all the prose and verse of a leading American public speaker and editor. Y 2292 Times Annex.[67]

  This advertisement—taking many phrases from his application letter—is rather more open to criticism than the letter itself, for it is far longer than any other one in this section and really does go on at needless length when a more compact notice would have conveyed many of the same points far more cheaply. The expense was, indeed, quite considerab
le: the rate for ads in the “Situations Wanted” section was 40¢ per word, and this ad—99 words—cost a full $39.60. This would be the equivalent of a month’s rent in the one-room apartment Lovecraft would occupy in 1925–26. I am amazed that Sonia let Lovecraft take out an ad of this length, for surely she paid for it with whatever savings she had at this time.

  The ad generated at least one response, but not a very promising one. M. A. Katherman, Merchandising Counsellor, wrote to Lovecraft on August 11, saying: “If you will call at this office the writer will assist you to locate the position you are seeking.”[68] In other words, Katherman himself was an agent of some sort (a headhunter, in today’s jargon) rather than someone who actually had a job to offer. Lovecraft makes no mention of this individual, nor of any other responses to his ad, in any correspondence I have seen.

  Then, in September, an old friend reappeared on the scene—J. C. Henneberger. He may have visited Lovecraft in late March: Lovecraft states that he was planning to come then[69] (clearly to discuss the editorship of Weird Tales), but I cannot ascertain whether he actually did so. Nothing is heard of him until on September 18 we suddenly hear of the following:

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