I am providence the life.., p.80

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 80


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

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  Am ceasing answering advts for a while, to give Henneberger a chance to prove his business sincerity. ¶ He has—or says he has—hired me for his new magazine at a salary beginning at $40.00 per wk & later going up (HE SAYS) to $100. I’ll have to give him my undivided time, of course, but I’ll lose nothing thereby, since the moment he stops paying I can stop working. First payment—a week from tomorrow. His plans sound more businesslike than ever before.[70]

  Although Lovecraft met Henneberger in New York on September 7 and reported to his aunts that “he told me of the new lease of life achieved by Weird Tales, and of the fine job he had in store for me,”[71] it cannot have been the editorship of Weird Tales that Henneberger had in mind: Wright had surely been appointed by now (the first issue wholly under his editorship, dated November 1924, would appear in October). I think the two parts of Lovecraft’s comment are meant to be taken separately; that is, that Weird Tales had achieved a new lease on life, thereby allowing Henneberger to create a new magazine for which Lovecraft would be editor. What was this magazine? College Humor, founded in 1922, was going strong and was not likely to need a new editor; but there was another magazine called the Magazine of Fun that Henneberger started about this time,[72] and, incredible as it seems, the editorship of this magazine or something like it is what Henneberger appears to have been offering. Lovecraft speaks of Henneberger telephoning him and “want[ing] me to turn out some samples of my adapting of jokes for his proposed magazine.”[73] It was on the basis of these samples that Henneberger “hired” Lovecraft in mid-September.

  But, of course, nothing came of the plans: either Henneberger did not have the resources for starting the magazine at this time (I can find no information on the Magazine of Fun, if this was indeed the magazine in question), or he decided that Lovecraft was not the appropriate editor. The former seems more likely, given that Henneberger did not have much cash at his disposal. The promised pay for Lovecraft’s editorial work metamorphosed into a $60 credit at the Scribner Book Shop; and although Lovecraft tried to get this credit converted to cash, he was unable to do so and finally, on October 9, he took Long to the bookstore to purchase a sheaf of books—four by Lord Dunsany, seven by Arthur Machen, five on colonial architecture, two miscellaneous volumes, and one book for Long (The Thing in the Woods by Harper Williams, a recent horror novel) for his help in making the selection. Long treats the whole episode engagingly in his memoir,[74] but seems under the impression that the credit was a payment for stories in Weird Tales, when in fact it was for this editorial job that never materialised.

  Lovecraft accordingly returned to answering the want ads, although by this time the strain was becoming pretty severe for someone who had no particular business sense and may perhaps have felt the whole activity somewhat beneath his dignity. He wrote to Lillian in late September: “That day [Sunday] was one of gloom and nerves—more advertisement answering, which has become such a psychological strain that I almost fall unconscious over it!”[75] Anyone who has been out of work for any length of time has perhaps felt this way.

  Meanwhile Lovecraft’s friends were trying to lend a hand. When Lovecraft completed “Under the Pyramids,” Henneberger personally visited Houdini, who was then in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to show it to him; Houdini was enthusiastic and in March wrote Lovecraft “a most cordial note.”[76] Houdini maintained an apartment at 278 West 113th Street in Manhattan and urged Lovecraft to call. He may or may not have done so at the time, but he certainly got in touch with Houdini in September, when the latter offered to assist him in securing work. In a letter of September 28 he asked Lovecraft to telephone him at his private number in early October, “as I want to put you in touch with someone worth-while.”[77] This person was one Brett Page, the head of a newspaper syndicate, whom Lovecraft met for an hour and a half at his office on Broadway and 58th Street on October 14; but he had no actual position to offer. In mid-November Samuel Loveman attempted to set up Lovecraft with the head of the cataloguing department of a bookshop on 59th Street, but this too proved fruitless.

  Sonia was not, to be sure, unemployed during this entire period; no doubt she was also answering want ads, and in late September Lovecraft spoke of the “place where she has been the last few weeks”[78]—presumably a milliner’s or a department store. But she felt that this position was insecure and was looking around for something better. But then things took a turn very much for the worse. On the evening of October 20 Sonia was stricken with “sudden gastric spasms . . . whilst resting in bed after a day of general ill-feeling.”[79] Lovecraft took her in a taxicab to Brooklyn Hospital,[80] only a few blocks away. She would spend the next eleven days there, finally being released on the 31st.

  There can hardly be any question but that Sonia’s illness was in large part nervous or psychological in origin; Lovecraft himself acknowledged this later when referring to it as “a double breakdown, nervous and gastric.”[81] Sonia herself must have been acutely worried over the many disasters, financial and otherwise, that had overtaken the couple, and had no doubt sensed Lovecraft’s increasing discouragement at his failed job-hunting efforts and perhaps his belief that his entire life had taken a wrong turn. Lovecraft never makes any such statement in his letters of the period, but I have trouble believing that something of the sort was not going through his mind. Could there have been any actual quarrels? Neither party says so, and it is useless to conjecture.

  Lovecraft was unusually solicitous to Sonia in the hospital: he visited her every day (this representing his first time he had actually set foot in a hospital, since he had never entered Butler when his mother was there), bringing her books, stationery, and an “Eversharp pencil,” and—what must have been a great sacrifice in the name of married bliss—relearned the game of chess so that he could play it with Sonia. She beat him every time. (Lovecraft had a violent antipathy to games and sports of any kind, feeling them an utter waste of time. In speaking years later of puzzles, he remarked to Morton: “After I solve the problems—if I do—I don’t know a cursed thing more about nature, history, and the universe than I did before.”[82]) In turn he began learning to be more independent in the running of a household: he made coffee, a twenty-minute egg, and even spaghetti from Sonia’s written instructions, and showed obvious pride in keeping the place well cleaned and dusted for her return. These remarks on cooking suggest that he had never made a meal for himself up to this time: he had either had his mother, his aunts, or Sonia to do it for him if he did not go to a restaurant.

  Lovecraft states that one of Sonia’s doctors, Dr Westbrook, actually recommended an operation for the removal of her gall bladder; but Lovecraft—consciously remembering that his mother had died of just such an operation—strongly urged Sonia to get a second opinion, and another doctor (an unnamed “woman graduate of the Sorbonne with a high Paris reputation”[83]) advised against surgery; it was either she or Dr Kingman, a nerve specialist, who then recommended six weeks’ rest in the country before Sonia resumed work. Accordingly, she checked into a sort of private rest home in New Jersey on November 9. This was actually a farm run by a Mrs R. A. Craig and her two sons (her husband was a surveyor who did not spend much time at home) near Somerville, New Jersey, in the central part of the state. She would be given her own room and three meals a day for $12.50 a week.[84] Lovecraft was particularly taken with the place because it had at least seven cats. He stayed overnight at the farm on the 9th, then left the next morning to spend the rest of the week in Philadelphia examining colonial antiquities. Returning on the 15th, he was surprised to find that Sonia had come home the day before, one day early; evidently she had not found the place entirely to her liking: “the standard of immaculateness in housekeeping left something to be desired, whilst the company of the one other boarder—a nervous woman with alternating moroseness & loquacity—was not exactly inspiring.”[85] She felt, however, good enough after only six days to resume job-hunting efforts.

  Almost immediately after Sonia’s return, a dramatic
decision was made: Sonia would leave for a job in the Midwest while Lovecraft would relocate to a smaller apartment in the city. The couple planned to move out of 259 Parkside as early as the end of November, but as it happened the dispersal did not occur until the end of December. Lovecraft sent a telegram to Lillian (and perhaps to Annie also) to ask their assistance in the move, but later wrote that he and Sonia could manage everything by themselves. How all this came about is not entirely clear. All that Sonia says is the following:

  After we were married and I found it necessary to accept an exceedingly remunerative position out of town I suggested he have one of his friends live with him at our apartment, but his aunts thought it best that since I would be in town only a few days a time every three or four weeks when I’d come to town on a purchasing tour for my firm, it would be wiser to store most of my things and find a studio room large enough for Howard’s book-cases and furniture that he brought with him from Providence.[86]

  Sonia goes on to reveal considerable irritation and even anger that it was her furniture that was sold off and not Lovecraft’s, since he clung to his “old (many of them dilapidated) pieces . . . with a morbid tenacity.” Sonia’s piano had already been sold for $350 in September,[87] although this was probably purely for the sake of money, since Lovecraft promptly cashed the cheque he had received for it and paid a $48 grocer’s bill. Now more material was sold, including some of Sonia’s books (for $20) and several items of furniture (whether Sonia’s or Lovecraft’s is not made clear; perhaps some from both). Unfortunately, an appraiser who looked at the latter said that his company would pay nothing for it, but Lovecraft thought that selling it to private individuals might net $25 or $30. Whether it did or not is unclear. He does reveal a certain “tenacity” in holding on to his Providence furnishings, whether it be morbid or not: “I must have the Dr. Clark table & chair, the cabinet, the typewriter table, the 454 library table, & several bookcases—to say nothing of some sort of bed or couch, & a bureau or chiffonier.”[88]

  Lovecraft’s first choice for a place to settle was Elizabeth, New Jersey, which he had visited earlier in the year and found a delightful haven of colonial antiquity. It was not far from New York so far as a commute was concerned; presumably, as now, there was both rail and bus service, as well as a ferry. If this could not be managed, then Lovecraft would opt for Brooklyn Heights, where Loveman and Hart Crane lived. He continued to make a rather pitiable plea for Lillian to come down and set up housekeeping with him: “Best of all would be if . . . you & I could find some means of co-operative housekeeping here which might once more light the Phillips home-fires, albeit on distant sod.”[89]

  Lillian naturally did not accept this offer, but she did come down around December 1 to help in the transition. The month of December is a blank, since Lillian stayed the entire month and into early January, so naturally Lovecraft wrote no letters to her; no letters to others have come to light either. The one thing I am unclear on is exactly when or how Sonia secured her job in the Midwest. Lovecraft spoke in mid-November of her answering a want ad for a companion for an elderly lady[90]—which would be nothing more than a stopgap while she looked for a more permanent position in her field—and the next year, when recounting the year’s events to Maurice Moe, he wrote: “. . . when, in December, she received a sudden offer of an important and highly salaried post in the largest department-store of Cincinnati she determined to try it for a while . . .”[91] Whether Lovecraft was wrong about the date of this offer, I cannot say: clearly the decision to leave 259 Parkside was made in mid-November, and I find it hard to imagine why such a move would be contemplated unless Sonia had already accepted the position in Cincinnati at this time.

  It should be pointed out that this separation was not—at least outwardly—anything other than an economic move; there is no real indication that any dispute or emotional crisis had occurred. It is, to be sure, somewhat puzzling that Sonia, with her manifest qualifications in the millinery field, could not find suitable employment locally. When her own hat shop collapsed, her former employers, Ferle Heller, must have refused to take her back; and her gastric attack and subsequent stay in the rest home surely put an end to whatever job she had had in September. Still, these are the facts. Are we permitted to wonder whether Lovecraft was secretly pleased at this turn of events? Did he prefer a marriage by correspondence rather than one in person? It is time to backtrack and see what we can learn about the actual personal relations between Sonia and Lovecraft.

  Sonia’s dry remark that, after typing the Houdini manuscript, they were “too tired and exhausted for honey-mooning or anything else” is surely a tactful way of referring to the fact that she and Lovecraft did not have sex on their first night together. The matter of Lovecraft’s sexual conduct must inevitably be addressed, although the information we have on the subject is very sparse. We learn from R. Alain Everts, who interviewed Sonia on the matter, that:

  1) he was a virgin at the time he married;

  2) prior to his marriage he had read several books on sex;

  3) he never initiated sexual relations, but would respond when Sonia did so.[92]

  None of this, except 2), is a surprise. One wonders what books Lovecraft might have read (one hopes it was not David Van Bush’s Practical Psychology and Sex Life [1922]!—quite possibly he may have read some of James F. Morton’s writings on the subject). His Victorian upbringing—especially from a mother whose husband died under distasteful circumstances—clearly made him very inhibited as far as sex is concerned; but there is also every reason to believe that Lovecraft was simply one of those individuals who have a low sex drive, and for whom the subject is of relatively little interest. It is mere armchair psychoanalysis to say that he somehow sublimated his sex urges into writing or other activities.

  Sonia herself has only two comments on the matter. “As a married man he was an adequately excellent lover, but refused to show his feelings in the presence of others. He shunned promiscuous association with women before his marriage.”[93] I do not know what an “adequately excellent” lover is. The other remark is a trifle more embarrassing: “H. P. was inarticulate in expressions of love except to his mother and to his aunts, to whom he expressed himself quite vigorously; to all other[s] it was expressed by deep appreciation only. One way of expression of H. P.’s sentiment was to wrap his ‘pinkey’ finger around mine and say ‘Umph!’”[94] Move over, Casanova! Sonia later admitted that Lovecraft did not like to discuss sex and became visibly upset even at the mention of the word “sex,”[95] although it is mentioned frequently—if disparagingly—in the “Lovecraft on Love” letter. The note about “appreciation” leads to one of the most celebrated passages in her memoir: “I believe he loved me as much as it was possible for a temperament like his to love. He’d never mention the word love. He would say instead ‘My dear, you don’t know how much I appreciate you.’ I tried to understand him and was grateful for any crumbs from his lips that fell my way.”[96] One of the very few times the word “love” is mentioned in the entire range of his correspondence occurs in a letter to Long written a month before his marriage: “One who so values love, shou’d realise that there are only two genuine kinds of it: matrimonial and parental.”[97] This may well be another indication that Lovecraft and Sonia had decided to marry by this time; nevertheless, the word “love” does not seem otherwise to have crossed his lips, at least as far as Sonia was concerned. Again, none of this is entirely surprising given what we know about Lovecraft’s upbringing. It is possible that that upbringing rendered him emotionally stunted, at least so far as sex and even personal relationships in general (especially with women) are concerned. In later years he would have a small number of women correspondents, but they would only be friends or associates whom he would address in an excessively formal and avuncular way. His letters to Helen Sully, Elizabeth Toldridge, C. L. Moore, and others are full of philosophical interest, but he never let his hair down to them the way he did to Long or Morton or Galpin.
  If Sonia could not make Lovecraft perform sexually quite as much as she would like, she could change him in other ways. First there was his diet. Although he had put on considerable weight in the 1922–23 period, Sonia nevertheless remarks:

  When we were married he was tall and gaunt and “hungry-looking”. I happen to like the apparently ascetic type but H. P. was too much even for my taste, so I used to cook a well-balanced meal every evening, make a substantial breakfast (he loved cheese soufflé!—rather an untimely dish for breakfast) and I’d leave a few (almost Dagwoodian) sandwiches for him, a piece of cake and some fruit for his lunch (he loved sweets), and I’d tell him to be sure to make some tea or coffee for himself.[98]

  Elsewhere she says: “Living a normal life and eating the food I provided made him take on much extra weight, which was quite becoming to him.”[99] She may have thought so, but Lovecraft didn’t: he would later refer to himself as a “porpoise,”[100] and indeed he ballooned to nearly 200 pounds, which is certainly overweight for someone of his general build. It may be true that what he considered his ideal weight—140 pounds—is a trifle lean for a man of 5'11", but he came to hate the extra baggage he carried during this period. The amusing thing is that Sonia herself, according to George Kirk, was “continually bewail[ing] her avoirdupois”[101] at this time.

  Both Sonia in her memoir and Lovecraft in his letters remark on the frequency with which, at least in the early months of their marriage, they would go out to restaurants. At a time when Sonia was making an enviable income (and when a reasonably good meal at a good restaurant could be had for a dollar or less), there is nothing to wonder at in this. Sonia gradually expanded Lovecraft’s taste beyond the simple Anglo-Saxon fare to which he had no doubt been accustomed at 598 Angell Street. He became especially fond of Italian cuisine (which was at the time still regarded as “ethnic” food not meant for regular consumption by non-Italians), both in restaurants (especially the Milan at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street) and as cooked by Sonia, with her special sauce; during his fifteen months alone in New York it would become his staple cuisine. Even with the impending breakup of their household, Sonia managed to cook a splendid Thanksgiving dinner for Lovecraft and his friends:

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