I am providence the life.., p.83

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 83


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

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  Lovecraft read the story to the gang on November 16 and was heartened at the response: they all “waxed incredibly enthusiastick in affirming that it is the best thing I ever writ.”[132] Loveman was particularly keen, and wanted Lovecraft to type it by Wednesday the 19th so that he could show it to a reader at Alfred A. Knopf. This did not happen, as Lovecraft did not finish typing the story until the 22nd, but Loveman continued throughout the next year to try to promote the story. We shall discover, indeed, that its experiences in print were not entirely happy.

  More gang activity followed, especially during Sonia’s hospital stay in late October. A schism had developed in the gang when McNeil took offence at Leeds’s inability to pay back $8.00 he had borrowed from him; McNeil therefore refused to attend any meetings at which Leeds was present. This proved to be more unfortunate for McNeil than for anyone else, since the other members (except Lovecraft) found him a trifle old-fashioned and not a good conversationalist. The result was that separate “McNeil” and “Leeds” meetings of the gang had to be held, and many members did not even bother attending the McNeil sessions; but Lovecraft always did.

  Lovecraft and Kirk were becoming close friends. “In beliefs,” said Lovecraft, “he & I are exactly as one—for despite a stern Methodist upbringing he is an absolute cynick & sceptick, who realises most poignantly the fundamental purposelessness of the universe.”[133] Kirk, for his part, writes to his future wife: “I do enjoy HPL’s company. Girl, if you ever give me a more enjoyable time I shall hand you the skid-proof banana peel.”[134] The two had another all-night walking session on October 24–25, talking philosophy into the wee hours, exploring the cryptlike basement of the American Radiator Company in the morning, and stopping off at various coffee shops or automats along the way. Lovecraft described the latter to Lillian: “a restaurant where the food is arranged on plates in glass-doored pigeonholes along the walls. A nickel in the slot unlocks the door, & the plate of food is taken by the purchaser to one of the many tables in the great room.”[135] A great place for people with meagre funds to stop for refreshment. Although it may seem that these establishments were the havens of derelicts and homeless people, they were in fact clean and well lit, and served a wide spectrum of the middle and lower classes of the city; and since none of the gang except Kleiner, Long (who would rarely go on these nightly jaunts), and perhaps Morton had much money, they were welcome resting-places. There are almost no automats in New York anymore; what few there are do not cost a nickel anymore.

  On Monday, November 3, Lovecraft welcomed Edward Lloyd Sechrist (1873–1953), an amateur associate from Washington. Sechrist, a beekeeper by trade who had spent much time in the South Seas and central Africa, had apparently visited Lovecraft in Providence just prior to the latter’s move to New York.[136] Naturally, Sechrist was shown the city’s museums and colonial antiquities by the indefatigable Lovecraft. On the 4th the two of them went to the Anderson Galleries on Park Avenue and 59th Street to meet a friend of Sechrist’s, John M. Price; Lovecraft had some dim hope that Price might be able to help him get a job at the gallery, but obviously nothing came of this.

  If Lovecraft gives the impression, in his various accounts of evenings or all nights out with the boys, that he was not spending much time with Sonia, it is perhaps because he actually wasn’t—at least by August or September. Some months earlier the picture was a little different, and we get a charming vignette of a few days in early July:

  The next day—the so-called glorious fourth of the Yankee rebels—S.H. and I devoted to open-air reading in Prospect Park. We have discovered a delightfully unfrequented rock overhanging a lake not far from our own door; and there we while away many an hour in the pages of chosen friends from our well-stocked shelves. . . . Saturday, the fifth, this reading programme was repeated; and on Sunday we spent most of the day answering the help wanted advertisements in the Sunday papers. Monday the seventh, we dedicated to pleasure and travel—that is, after one business interview—meeting at Trinity about noon, paying our respects to [Alexander] Hamilton’s grave, visiting the fine Colonial town house of President James Monroe . . ., threading some Colonial alleys in Greenwich-Village, and finally taking the omnibus at Washington Square and riding all the way up to Fort George, where we descended the steep hill to Dyckman Street, took lunch in a humble restaurant . . . and proceeded to the ferry. Here embarking, we crossed the spacious Hudson to the foot of the Palisades; changing to an omnibus which climbed the precipitous slope by a zigzag road arrangement affording some magnificent views, and which finally turned inland through a forest road lined with fine estates and terminating at the quaint and sleepy village of Englewood, N.J. . . . After that we rode down to Fort Lee (opposite 125th St.) by trolley, crossed to the ferry, and rode all the way home by various changes of open surface car. It was a great day . . .[137]

  A great day indeed, and a perfectly wholesome way for a husband and wife to spend it, even if both are unemployed. But this sort of activity seems to stop with the passage of time. Indeed, it is typical that, after depositing Sonia at her rest home in Somerville, New Jersey, on November 9, he proceeded the next day down to Philadelphia, whose colonial marvels he wished to examine in greater detail than he was able to on his honeymoon. He arrived on the evening of November 10 (having stayed overnight in Somerville) and checked into the YMCA. Not willing to wait till the next morning, he began a “nocturnal tour of the colonial past—in the older section toward the Delaware waterfront.”[138] The “mile on mile of Georgian houses of every sort” made Greenwich Village’s colonial section seem meagre by comparison.

  On the 11th he raided the public library for guidebooks and historical matter, then set forth. St Peter’s Church at Third and Pine particularly captivated him, especially since “there was the most friendly big yellow cat imaginable on a corner diagonally across the street.”[139] Next he saw the Market House, the Maritime Exchange, Independence Hall, Congress Hall, the Betsey Ross house (where he met a garrulous old antiquarian who gave him further tips), then, after a trolley car ride south, the Old Swedes’ Church and churchyard. By this time it was evening, so he returned, had a bean and spaghetti dinner with a chocolate sundae for dessert, took his first shower-bath in twenty-five years (as opposed to his usual tub bath), and wrote postcards in his room. In his letter to Lillian he spoke of having no previous meal during this entire peregrination; this may be an oversight, but more likely he did not in fact have any meals. When antiquarian exploration was on the agenda, enthusiasm and sheer nervous energy took over.

  On Wednesday the 12th there was more. First he examined both the exterior and interior of the superb Christ Church, one of the most magnificent Georgian churches in the country, then along the river to the Pennsylvania Historical Society with its rich collection of colonial memorabilia, then to William Penn’s house in Fairmount Park. Again dusk set in, so he returned and had a dinner of beef pie, macaroni, apple pie, and coffee at an automat for 40¢. He noted at this point that he stocked up on “my breakfast supply of cheese and peanut butter sandwiches” (10¢).[140]

  On Thursday the 13th he decided to do some exploration in more remote suburban areas. First was the peculiar Bartram house in the Kingsessing district in the southwestern part of the city, beyond the Schuylkill. This stone structure was built by the botanist John Bartram in 1731 with his own hands and is very eccentric and heterogeneous in design. Then Lovecraft proceeded to Chester, a separate community well to the southwest of the Philadelphia city limits on the Delaware River. Returning to Fairmount Park, he saw a number of fine colonial homes before stopping for dinner (beans, cinnamon bun, and coffee for 25¢). That evening he proceeded to the home of the amateur poet Washington Van Dusen in Germantown, a remote suburb to the northwest; he was evidently not asked to spend the night there, as he returned to the Y late in the evening.

  On the 14th Lovecraft rose before dawn in order to “observe the gold & rose dawn from the hills beyond the Schuylkill.”[141] He then went back to Ger
mantown, exploring that colonial haven thoroughly before proceeding still farther west to the Wissahickon valley: “It is a deep, wooded gorge of prodigious scenic magnificence, at the bottom of which flows the narrow, limpid Wissahickon on its way to join the Schuylkill. Legend has woven many beautiful tales around this piny paradise with its precipitous walls . . .”[142] Regretfully he returned to Philadelphia where, at the Broad Street station, he caught the train back to New York.

  Lovecraft was much taken with Philadelphia:

  None of the crude, foreign hostility & underbreeding of New York—none of the vulgar trade spirit & plebeian hustle. A city of real American background—an integral & continuous outgrowth of a definite & aristocratic past instead of an Asiatic hell’s huddle of the world’s cowed, broken, inartistic, & unfit. What a poise—what a mellowness—what a character in the preponderantly Nordic faces![143]

  Now, perhaps, it could be said that the honeymoon with New York was over.

  The rest of the month was tranquil. He and Sonia played more chess and went to see the museum of the New York Historical Society. James F. Morton took an examination for a job as curator of the Paterson (New Jersey) Museum, a job he would ultimately secure early the next year. On the 24th Lovecraft ate ravioli for the first time and read H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (“thoroughly entertaining in every detail”[144]). The next day he and Sonia went to the Bronx Zoo. The gang meeting on Wednesday the 26th was spoiled by Morton’s urging the members to solve crossword puzzles, so that instead of scintillating conversation there were merely “grunts such as ‘23 vertical’, ‘13 horizontal’, ‘word of 17 letters beginning with X & meaning cloudy in the attic’, &c. &c. &c.”[145] Crossword puzzles had only been introduced about a year or two before and must have been the Rubik’s cubes of 1924. Nevertheless, after the meeting Lovecraft and Kirk went on another all-night walking tour, this time along East River Park, past the Gracie Mansion (now the residence of the mayor) and the Queensboro Bridge, across to the west side, down to Greenwich Village and finally, at 7 A.M., to their respective homes. Thursday, of course, was the lavish Thanksgiving banquet. On the 29th Loveman and Kirk were evidently to introduce Lovecraft to Allen Tate, then a reviewer for the Nation; but I cannot ascertain whether this meeting actually took place. Tate was also a great friend and supporter of Hart Crane.

  Lillian herself arrived, as I have mentioned, on December 1 and stayed until January 10. Kirk wrote to his fiancée that Lovecraft talked with him one Saturday at his place from 10 P.M. till 8 A.M. Sunday; on the 20th the gang meeting lasted until 4.30 A.M.[146] But the breakup of the household was the prime activity. Lovecraft was still hankering to move to Elizabeth, but must later have decided that this was impracticable and resolved instead on Brooklyn Heights, specifically a one-room apartment (with two alcoves) for $40.00 a month at 169 Clinton Street. Sonia left for Cincinnati at 4 P.M. on the 31st, after which Lovecraft proceeded to Kirk’s to see the old year out.

  Lovecraft and Sonia cohabited for only ten continuous months; the occasions on which she returned to New York from the Midwest over the next year and a quarter amounted to a net total of about thirteen weeks. It is too early to pass judgment on Lovecraft as a husband; we must first examine what the next fifteen months would bring. He may or may not have been secretly pleased at Sonia’s departure; but if he thought that 1924 was a year he would rather forget, he had no idea what 1925 would be like.

  16. The Assaults of Chaos


  On December 31, 1924, I established myself in a large room of pleasing & tasteful proportions at 169 Clinton St., cor. of State, in the Heights or Borough Hall section of Brooklyn, in an house of early Victorian date with white classick woodwork & tall windows with panell’d seats. Two alcoves with portieres enable one to preserve the pure library effect, & the whole forms a pleasing hermitage for an old-fashion’d man, with its generous view of ancient brick houses in State & Clinton Sts.[1]

  So begins one of the most unusual documents in Lovecraft’s entire corpus: his “Diary” for 1925. If it is asked why this document, so seemingly vital for the understanding of his life in this critical year, has only recently been published (in the fifth volume [2006] of the Collected Essays), given that just about every other scrap of Lovecraft’s work exclusive of his letters has seen print regardless of its merit or importance, the answer may lie in its somewhat mundane function. It does not have—and was not designed to have—the literary value of the diaries of Pepys or Evelyn, but was intended merely as a mnemonic aid. It is written in an appointment book for the year 1925, measuring about 2½" × 5¼", with only about four lines given for each date; Lovecraft, although not observing the ruled lines very well (he loathed ruled paper), has nevertheless written entries in such a cryptic and abbreviated fashion that some words or terms are still not clear to me. Here is a sample entry, for January 16:

  Saw SH off—shopping for SL desk Fix SL room—trips to & fro—find SL & RK at 169—McN & GK arrive, converse cafeteria adjourn to SL’s—surprise—break up 2 a m—GK McN & HPL subway—HP & GK to 106 St. Talk—sleep

  Not exactly enthralling reading. But the fact is that this diary served a purely utilitarian purpose, namely as an aid to writing letters to Lillian. This practice may have developed years before: during his stay in New York in late summer 1922 Lovecraft, in the midst of a long letter to Lillian, writes: “This is a letter & a diary combined!”[2] In later years it appears that he kept a diary of this sort on all his trips, although none aside from this one have come to light. There may well have been a diary for 1924, and it would clarify much that remains cloudy and uncertain about his life in that year.

  The diary for 1925 quite literally allows for a day-by-day chronicle of Lovecraft’s activities for the year, but such a thing would serve little purpose. While it is true that some of his letters to both Annie and Lillian—where he elaborated, in great detail, the sketchy notes recorded in the diary—are missing, leaving us with only the skeletal diary entries as a guide to his daily life, it is less his activities on any single day than the general pattern of his existence that is of importance. For the first time in his life, Lovecraft was living alone without any relative—by blood or by marriage—with him. Of course, there were his friends, and 1925 was certainly the heyday of the Kalem Club, when the various members would flit in and out of each other’s humble apartments as if they were a sort of literary commune; nevertheless, Lovecraft was on his own as he had never been before, having to prepare his own meals, take care of his laundry, purchase new items of clothing, and perform all the other tedious mundanities of life that most of us accept as a matter of course.

  Lovecraft later admitted that 169 Clinton Street was selected “with the assistance of my aunt.”[3] The search was clearly undertaken during Lillian’s long stay in December, and Lovecraft’s later mention of a trip he and Lillian took to Elizabeth in that month[4] suggests that that New Jersey haven was also considered as a residence; but perhaps a site more convenient to Manhattan was preferred. Lovecraft found the first-floor apartment itself pleasing, since the two alcoves—one for dressing and the other for washing—allowed him to preserve a study-like effect in the room proper. He supplies a plan of it in a letter to Maurice Moe:[5]

  It is no surprise that bookshelves line the entirety of two walls of the room; and at that, a good number of his books were kept in storage. There were no cooking facilities in the apartment. He did his best, however, to keep the place neat, and in fact noted to Lillian that he was not spending any unwarranted amount of time in household chores: “I dust only once in three days, sweep only once a week, & eat so simply that I seldom have to do any dishwashing beyond a simple plate, or cup & saucer, plus one or two metallic utensils.”[6] The only thing Lovecraft found disappointing, at least initially, was the seediness of the general area; but he knew that beggars could not be choosers. At $40 a month the place was a pretty good deal, especially as Sonia—during her infrequent visits there—could be accommo
dated well enough, as the sofa could be folded out into a double bed. When Sonia was not there, Lovecraft would frequently lie on the couch without opening it, or sometimes doze in the morris chair.

  The peculiar thing about the locale is that the gentrification movement of the last three or four decades has markedly improved nearly the whole of Brooklyn Heights, so that it is now one of the more sought-after (and expensive) areas of the borough; conversely, the once-posh Flatbush area, where 259 Parkside Avenue lies, has suffered a deterioration as Flatbush Avenue has become the haven of a dismal array of tawdry discount stores. In other words, the socioeconomic status of the two areas of Brooklyn in which Lovecraft lived has been exactly reversed. Clinton Street, however, then as now provides easier access to Manhattan by subway, as it is far closer to Manhattan than Parkside Avenue, which is all the way on the other side of Prospect Park. Only a few blocks from 169 Clinton Street is Borough Hall, the governmental centre of Brooklyn and the hub for two of the three subway lines in the city, IRT (2, 3, 4, 5) and BMT (M, N, R); the F train (IND) stops at nearby Bergen Street. Most of these lines were already operating in Lovecraft’s day, so that he could easily come home at any hour of day or night from almost any point in Manhattan—a fact worth noting in conjunction with his many late-night outings with the gang.

  Let us first examine the precise degree to which, in the year 1925, Lovecraft was alone. Sonia’s job at Mabley & Carew’s, the Cincinnati department store, evidently allowed her to make monthly trips of a few days to New York. But as early as late February Sonia had either lost or had resigned from this position; Lovecraft wrote to Annie: “. . . despite a marked improvement in health since her last visit here, S H has at last found the hostile & exacting atmosphere of Mabley & Carew’s intolerable; finally being virtually forced out of her position by quibbling executives & invidious inferiors.”[7] Elsewhere Lovecraft noted that Sonia spent a short time on two separate occasions in a private hospital in Cincinnati.[8] Accordingly, Sonia returned to Brooklyn for an extended period in February and March, at that time deciding belatedly to take the six weeks’ rest recommended to her by her doctors. She spent most of the period from late March to early June in the home of a woman physician in Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York; strangely enough, however, Lovecraft notes in April that there is a “child under her governance”[9] there, suggesting that her stay there involved some sort of work as a nanny. Perhaps this work was agreed upon in lieu of a fee or rent, since this was clearly a private household rather than a rest home or sanitarium. In May Lovecraft writes to Lillian: “She is holding out well at Saratoga; & though her last small hat venture did not succeed, is still looking about for better openings . . .”[10] I do not know what this hat venture was.

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