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I am providence the life.., p.81

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 81


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

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  And what a classick repast! Enchanted soup—apotheosised roast turkey with dressing of chestnuts & all the rare spices & savoury herbs that camel-caravans with tinkling bells bring secretly from forgotten orients of eternal spring across the deserts beyond the Oxus—cauliflower with cryptical creaming—cranberry sauce with the soul of Rhode Island bogs in it—salads that emperors have dreamed into reality—sweet potatoes with visions of pillar’d Virginia plantation-houses—gravy for which Apicius strove & Lucullus sigh’d in vain—plum pudding such as Irving never tasted at Bracebridge Hall—& to crown the feast, a gorgeous mince pie fairly articulate with memories of New-England fireplaces & cold-cellars. All the glory of earth sublimated in one transcendent repast—one divides one’s life into periods of before & after having consumed—or even smelled or dream’d of—such a meal![102]

  So Lovecraft was not always an ascetic—although no doubt some of this was meant as praise for Sonia’s heroic efforts in preparing the meal, especially at such a trying time.

  Another thing Sonia didn’t like about Lovecraft, aside from his lean and hungry look, was his attire.

  I remember so well when I took him to a smart haberdashery how he protested at the newness of the coat and hat I persuaded him to accept and wear. He looked at himself in the mirror and protested, “But my dear, this is entirely too stylish for ‘Grandpa Theobald’; it doesn’t look like me. I look like some fashionable fop!” To which I replied, “Not all men who dress fashionably are necessarily fops.”[103]

  To someone in the fashion business, the conservative clothing customarily worn by Lovecraft must have been irritating indeed. Sonia adds with some tartness, “I really think he was glad that this coat and the new suit purchased that day were later stolen.” Sure enough, when we read Lovecraft’s catalogue of items stolen from him in the burglary of May 1925, we find “new Flatbush overcoat 1924.” What still remained to him were overcoats dating to 1909, 1917 (both light), and 1918 (a winter coat); evidently the burglars felt these were not worth taking.

  This simple incident may go far in suggesting what went wrong with the marriage. Although in later years Lovecraft charitably claimed that the marriage’s failure was “98% financial,”[104] in reality both Sonia and Lovecraft had deceived themselves into thinking that they shared a “congeniality” (as Lovecraft stated in his marriage-announcement letter to Lillian) that went beyond intellectual and aesthetic matters and covered actual modes of behaviour and basic values. Granting that financial considerations were indeed of considerable—even paramount—importance, these differences in values would in any case have emerged in time and doomed the marriage sooner or later. In some senses it was better—at least for Lovecraft—that it occurred sooner than later.

  But in those first few months the euphoria of being married, the excitement of the big city (and of fairly promising job prospects), the fortuitous arrival of Annie Gamwell at the end of March (she had been visiting a friend in Hohokus, New Jersey[105]), and of course his many friends in the area kept Lovecraft in a buoyant mood. Amateur work was still taking up some time: Sonia, as President, and Lovecraft, as Official Editor of the UAPA, managed to issue a United Amateur for May 1924, although it must have been a month or so late, as Sonia’s “President’s Message” is dated May 1. Here she announced that there would be no annual convention in late July—a consequence both of the obstructionism of the previous administration (the “anti-literati” group hostile to Lovecraft’s faction) and of the general apathy overtaking the UAPA. The couple’s financial and health problems later in the year forced them to place amateur affairs well to the rear of their priorities.

  But social activity with amateurs still remained on the agenda. Sonia took Lovecraft frequently to the monthly meetings of the Blue Pencil Club (a NAPA group) in Brooklyn; Lovecraft did not much care for this group but would go to please his wife, and in 1925–26, when he was alone, he would skip meetings except when Sonia happened to be in town and made him go. There was some group called The Writers’ Club whose meetings Lovecraft attended in March, although this does not seem to be an amateur organisation. When asked by Morton if he would attend a meeting in May, he writes: “It all depends on the ball-and-chain. If she feels equal to a wild night, we’ll show up at The Writers. But if she doesn’t, I’m afeard I’ll have to be listed among those absent.” However we are to take the “ball-and-chain” remark (one hopes it is meant in genial flippancy), Lovecraft adds rather touchingly: “She generally has to hit the hay early, and I have to get home in proportionate time, since she can’t get to sleep till I do.”[106] The couple did share a double bed, and no doubt Sonia had already become accustomed to having her husband beside her and felt uncomfortable when he was not there.

  Lovecraft certainly found the support of his friends indispensable for maintaining emotional equilibrium during this entire period, when first the many changes in his social and professional life and, later, the successive disappointments and hardships threatened to disrupt his own mental stability. The most heart-warming portions of his letters to his aunts of 1924 are not those involving Sonia (she is mentioned with remarkable infrequency, either because Lovecraft was not spending much time with her or, more likely, because the aunts did not wish to hear about her) but those dealing with his surprisingly numerous outings with friends old and new. This was, of course, the heyday of the Kalem Club, although that term was not coined until early the next year.

  Some of these men (and they were all men) we have met already—Kleiner (then a bookkeeper at the Fairbanks Scales Co. and living somewhere in Brooklyn), Morton (living in Harlem; I am not sure of his occupation at this time), and Long (living at 823 West End Avenue in the upper West Side of Manhattan with his parents and studying journalism at New York University). Now others joined “the gang.”

  There was Arthur Leeds (1882–1952?), a sort of rolling stone who had been with a travelling circus as a boy and now, at the age of roughly forty, eked out a bare living as a columnist for Writer’s Digest and occasional pulp writer for Adventure and other magazines; he had two stories in Weird Tales. He was perhaps the most indigent of this entire group of largely indigent aesthetes. At this time he was living at a hotel in West 49th Street in Hell’s Kitchen. I do not know how he was introduced to Lovecraft, but he must have been a friend of one of the other members; in any case, he was rapidly incorporated into the circle. Lovecraft speaks warmly of Leeds, but after leaving New York he had little contact with him.

  There was Everett McNeil (1862–1929), who like Morton earned an entry in Who’s Who in America, on the strength of sixteen novels for boys published between 1903 and 1929, mostly for E. P. Dutton.[107] The majority of these were historical novels in which McNeil would sugarcoat the history with stirring tales of action on the part of explorers or adventurers battling Indians or colonising the American frontier. The most popular was perhaps In Texas with Davy Crockett (1908), which was reprinted as late as 1937. George Kirk describes him in a letter to his fiancée as “an oldster—lovely purely white hair, writes books for boys and does not need to write down to them, he is quite equal mentally.”[108] Kirk did not mean that last remark at all derogatorily. Lovecraft—who had already met McNeil on one of his New York trips of 1922—felt the same way and cherished McNeil’s naive simplicity, even though gradually McNeil fell out of favour with the rest of the gang for being tiresome and intellectually unstimulating. He was living, as in 1922, in Hell’s Kitchen, not far from Leeds.

  There was George Kirk himself (1898–1962), who had of course met Lovecraft in Cleveland in 1922 and arrived in New York in August (just before Samuel Loveman, who came in early September[109]) to pursue his bookseller’s trade, settling at 50 West 106th Street in Manhattan. Although having lived in Akron and Cleveland for most of his life up to this time, he had spent the years 1920–22 in California, where he had become acquainted with Clark Ashton Smith. His one venture into publishing was Twenty-one Letters of Ambrose Bierce (1922), Loveman’s edition of
Bierce’s letters to him. He had become engaged to Lucile Dvorak in late 1923 but did not wish to marry until he had established himself as a bookseller in New York; this took nearly three years, and in the interim he wrote letters to Lucile that rival Lovecraft’s letters to his aunts in their detailed vignettes of “the gang.” They are the only other contemporaneous documents of the sort that we have, and they are of enormous help in filling in gaps in Lovecraft’s own letters and in rounding out the general picture of the group.

  The Kalem Club existed in a very rudimentary—and nameless—form prior to Lovecraft’s arrival in the city; Kleiner, McNeil, and perhaps Morton appear to have met occasionally at each other’s homes. Long declares that “there were several small gatherings at which three or four of them were present,”[110] although he says he himself was not one of them. But clearly the group—whose chief bond was their correspondence and association with Lovecraft—fully solidified as a club only with Lovecraft’s arrival.

  Frank Long provides a piquant glimpse at Lovecraft’s conduct at these meetings:

  Almost invariably . . . Howard did most of the talking, at least for the first ten or fifteen minutes. He would sink into an easy chair—he never seemed to feel at ease in a straight-backed chair on such occasions and I took care to keep an extremely comfortable one unoccupied until his arrival—and words would flow from him in a continuous stream.

  He never seemed to experience the slightest necessity to pause between words. There was no groping about for just the right term, no matter how recondite his conversation became. When the need for some metaphysical hair-splitting arose, it was easy to visualize scissors honed to a surgical sharpness snipping away in the recesses of his mind. . . .

  In general the conversation was lively and quite variegated. It was a brilliant enough assemblage, and the discussions ranged from current happenings of a political or sociological nature, to some recent book or play, or to five or six centuries of English and French literature, art, philosophy, and natural science.[111]

  This may be as good a place as any to explore the question of Lovecraft’s voice, since several of Lovecraft’s New York colleagues have given us their impressions of it. I will later quote Hart Crane’s reference to Sonia’s “piping-voiced husband,” and there seems general consensus that his voice was indeed somewhat high-pitched. Sonia has the most detailed discussion:

  His voice was clear and resonant when he read or lectured but became thin and high-pitched in general conversation, and somewhat falsetto in its ring, but when reciting favorite poems he managed to keep his voice on an even keel of deep resonance. Also his singing voice, while not strong, was very sweet. He would sing none of the modern songs, only the more favored ones of about a half century ago or more.[112]

  Wilfred Blanch Talman offers a somewhat less flattering account:

  His voice had that flat and slightly nasal quality that is sometimes stereotyped as a New England characteristic. When he laughed aloud, a harsh cackle emerged that reversed the impression of his smile and to the uninitiated might be considered a ham actor’s version of a hermit’s laughter. Companions avoided any attempt to achieve more than a smile in conversation with him, so unbecoming was the result.[113]

  One wonders on what occasion Talman heard Lovecraft laugh, since in 1934 Lovecraft himself declared that he had laughed out loud only once in the previous twenty years.[114]

  The Kalem Club began meeting weekly on Thursday nights, although they later shifted to Wednesdays because Long had a night class at NYU. It was after one such meeting that Lovecraft began the diligent if unsystematic discovery of the antiquities of the metropolitan area. On Thursday, August 21, there was a gang meeting at Kirk’s place at 106th Street. The meeting broke up at 1.30 A.M. and the group started walking down Broadway, leaving successively at various subway or elevated stations on their respective ways home. Finally only Kirk and Lovecraft remained, and they continued walking all the way down Eighth Avenue through Chelsea into Greenwich Village, exploring all the colonial remnants (still existing) along Grove Court, Patchin and Milligan Places, Minetta Lane, and elsewhere. By this time it was “the sinister hours before dawn, when only cats, criminals, astronomers, and poetic antiquarians roam the waking world!”[115] But they continued walking, down the (now largely destroyed) “colonial expanse” of Varick and Charlton Streets to City Hall. They must have covered at least seven or eight miles on this entire trip. Finally they broke up around 8 A.M., Lovecraft returning home by 9. (So much for his coming home early so that he and Sonia could retire together. On a slightly earlier all-night excursion with Kleiner and Leeds, he returned home at 5 A.M., and, “having successfully dodged the traditional fusilade of conjugal flatirons and rolling-pins, I was with Hypnos, Lord of Slumbers.”[116] One assumes Lovecraft is being whimsical and not literal here.)

  Although the next night Lovecraft and Sonia went to see Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun, the subsequent weeks were largely taken up with activities with the gang, especially as Sonia severely sprained her ankle on August 26 and remained home for several days. On the 29th Lovecraft made a solitary exploration of the colonial antiquities of lower Manhattan, some of which—especially around Grove, Commerce, and Barrow Streets—still remain. On Sunday, September 1, he took the Staten Island ferry to that most remote and least populous of the city’s boroughs, whose sleepy villages made him think of home: “St. George is a sort of Attleboro. Stapleton suggests East Greenwich.”[117] One wonders whether these analogies were made solely for Lillian’s sake. Later in the day he took another ferry to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, which he discovered quite surprisingly to contain an abundance of colonial houses and a general New England atmosphere. (It does not anymore.) A few days later he met Edward Lazare, one of Loveman’s Cleveland friends whom he had met in 1922. Lovecraft felt that Lazare would become a “fitting accession to our select circle of The Boys,”[118] but he drops out of the picture shortly after this date. Loveman himself arrived on September 10; he had initially wished to reside at a rooming house at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn, where Hart Crane (who had come to the city in March 1923) lived, but finally settled nearby at 78 Columbia Heights.

  On September 12 Lovecraft made an interesting exploration of the lower East Side—interesting because of his reaction to the extensive colony of orthodox Jews there:

  Here exist assorted Jews in the absolutely unassimilated state, with their ancestral beards, skull-caps, and general costumes—which makes them very picturesque, and not nearly so offensive as the strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress. In this particular section, where Hebrew books are vended from pushcarts, and patriarchal rabbins totter in high hats and frock coats, there are far less offensive faces than in the general subways of the town—probably because most of the pushing commercial Jews are from another colony where the blood is less pure.[119]

  Whatever the validity of that concluding observation, Lovecraft’s general attitude is worth considering: his response is more charitable than one might have expected, and it seems to stem from his implicit approval of a group of people practising their “ancestral” modes of behaviour. The Orthodox Jews’ scorn of the modern found an echo in Lovecraft’s heart, overcoming his customary anger at the sight of “foreigners” not adopting “American” ways on American soil.

  On Saturday the 13th was another long exploration of colonial sites in lower Manhattan with Loveman, Kirk, Kleiner, and Lazare, which did not break up until 4 A.M. Yet another lone excursion took place on the 15th, “to get the taste out of my mouth” after a bootless job-hunting session at a publishing house; Lovecraft again went to lower Manhattan, where at the confluence of Hudson, Watts, and Canal Streets he saw the early construction work on what would become the Holland Tunnel. On the 18th, after meeting with Henneberger, he went to three separate museums—Natural History, Metropolitan, and Brooklyn—dropping Lillian a postcard from each of them. That evening was a gang meeting at Long’s, and Lovecraft wandered
the streets with all the members, seeing each of them off at various subway stops; he and Leeds did not part until near dawn. It is as if Lovecraft were reluctant to go home. The next day he went to Loveman’s apartment and met Crane,

  . . . a little ruddier, a little puffier, and slightly more moustached than when I saw him in Cleveland two years ago. Crane, whatever his limitations, is a thorough aesthete; and I had some enjoyable conversation with him. His room is in excellent taste, with a few paintings by William Sommer . . ., a choice collection of modern books, and some splendid small objets d’art of which a carven Buddha and an exquisitely carved Chinese ivory box are the high spots.[120]

  He and Loveman went up to the roof, where they saw a spectacular vista of the Brooklyn Bridge:

  It was something mightier than the dreams of old-world legend—a constellation of infernal majesty—a poem in Babylonian fire! . . . Added to the weird lights are the weird sounds of the port, where the traffick of all the world comes to a focus. Fog-horns, ships’ bells, the creak of distant windlasses . . . visions of far shores of Ind, where bright-plumed birds are roused to song by the incense of strange garden-girt pagodas, and gaudy-robed camel-drivers barter before sandalwood taverns with deep-voiced sailors having the sea’s mystery in their eyes.

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