I am providence the life.., p.92

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 92


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

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  This passage makes it clear that the matter had been discussed previously, but the quoted phrase “a threat of having to return to N.Y.” appears in no surviving letter. In any event, it appears that Lillian had made a suggestion to relocate to New England, but only temporarily; and this is something Lovecraft could not have endured. He goes on to say that “S H fully endorses my design of an ultimate return to New England, & herself intends to seek industrial openings in the Boston district after a time,” then proceeds to sing Sonia’s praises in a touching manner in spite of its almost bathetic tone:

  S H’s attitude on all such matters is so kindly & magnanimous that any design of permanent isolation on my part would seem little short of barbaric, & wholly contrary to the principles of taste which impel one to recognise & revere a devotion of the most unselfish quality & uncommon intensity. I have never beheld a more admirable attitude of disinterested & solicitous regard; in which each financial shortcoming of mine is accepted & condoned as soon as it is proved inevitable, & in which acquiescence is extended even to my statements . . . that the one essential ingredient of my life is a certain amount of quiet & freedom for creative literary composition . . . A devotion which can accept this combination of incompetence & aesthetic selfishness without a murmur, contrary tho’ it must be to all expectations originally entertained; is assuredly a phenomenon so rare, & so akin to the historic quality of saintliness, that no one with the least sense of artistic proportion could possibly meet it with other than the keenest reciprocal esteem, respect, admiration, & affection . . .

  What I believe has inspired this long-winded passage is a suggestion by Lillian that Lovecraft simply come home and forget about Sonia, leading Lovecraft to counter that he cannot countenance “any design of permanent isolation” from her given her boundlessly patient and understanding attitude. If this conjecture is correct, it lends further support to the belief that Lillian had opposed the marriage all along.

  But after December, the issue of Lovecraft’s return was evidently dropped, perhaps because all parties concerned were waiting to see whether his possible securing of employment at Morton’s museum in Paterson might eventuate. Three more months passed with no prospect of work for Lovecraft except a temporary job as envelope-addresser; and so, on March 27, he finally received the invitation to come home.

  What, or who, was behind the invitation? Was it merely Lillian’s decision? Did Annie add her vote? Were there others involved? Winfield Townley Scott spoke to Frank Long on this matter, and he writes as follows:

  Mr. Long says “Howard became increasingly miserable and I feared that he might go off the deep end. . . . So I wrote,” Long continues, “a long letter to Mrs. Gamwell, urging that arrangements be set in motion to restore him to Providence . . . he was so completely wretched in New York that I was tremendously relieved when he boarded a Providence-bound train a fortnight later.”[11]

  Long told Arthur Koki the same thing about fifteen years later.[12] But in his 1975 memoir Long tells a different story:

  My mother quickly realized that his sanity might indeed be imperiled if another month passed without a prospect of rescue and wrote a long letter to his aunts, describing the situation in detail. I doubt whether Sonia even knew about that letter. At least she never mentioned it in recalling that particular period. Two days later a letter from Mrs. Clark arrived at the Brooklyn rooming house in the morning mail, accompanied by a railway ticket and a small check.[13]

  So who wrote the letter, Long or his mother? The latter theory is not at all improbable: during Lillian’s month or so in New York during December 1924 and January 1925, she and Lovecraft visited the Longs frequently; and it seems that a bond was established between these two elderly women whose son and nephew, respectively, were such close friends. Still, Long’s earlier mentions that he wrote the letter may perhaps be more reliable; or perhaps both Long and his mother did so.

  Long is, however, clearly wrong in one detail in his later memoir: a railway ticket could not have been included with Lillian’s March letter to Lovecraft, for it was another week or so before Providence was actually decided upon as his ultimate haven. After making the preliminary invitation, Lillian had evidently suggested Boston or Cambridge as a more likely place for Lovecraft to find literary work. Lovecraft grudgingly admitted the apparent good sense of this idea (“Naturally, since Providence is a commercial port whilst Cambridge is a cultural centre, the latter would be expected to fit a literarily inclined person much better”), but went on to maintain that “I am essentially a recluse who will have very little to do with people wherever he may be,” and then, in words both poignant and a little sad, made a plea for residing in Providence:

  To all intents & purposes I am more naturally isolated from mankind than Nathaniel Hawthorne himself, who dwelt alone in the midst of crowds, & whom Salem knew only after he died. Therefore, it may be taken as axiomatic that the people of a place matter absolutely nothing to me except as components of the general landscape & scenery. . . . My life lies not among people but among scenes—my local affections are not personal, but topographical & architectural. . . . I am always an outsider—to all scenes & all people—but outsiders have their sentimental preferences in visual environment. I will be dogmatic only to the extent of saying that it is New England I must have—in some form or other. Providence is part of me—I am Providence . . . Providence is my home, & there I shall end my days if I can do so with any semblance of peace, dignity, or appropriateness. . . . Providence would always be at the back of my head as a goal to be worked toward—an ultimate Paradise to be regain’d at last.[14]

  Whether this letter turned the trick or not, Lillian shortly afterward decided that her nephew should come back to Providence and not Boston or Cambridge. When the offer had first been made in late March, Lovecraft assumed that he might move into a room at Lillian’s boarding-house at 115 Waterman Street; but now Lillian reported that she had found a place for both herself and Lovecraft at 10 Barnes Street, north of the Brown University campus, and asked Lovecraft whether she should take it. He responded with another near-hysterical letter:

  Whoopee!! Bang!! ’Rah!! For God’s sake jump at that room without a second’s delay!! I can’t believe it—too good to be true! . . . Somebody wake me up before the dream becomes so poignant I can’t bear to be waked up!!!

  Take it? Well, I should say so!! I can’t write coherently, but I shall proceed at once to do what I can about packing. Barnes near Brown! What deep breaths I can take after this infernal squalor here!![15]

  I have quoted these letters at such length—and several of them go on for pages in this vein—to display just how close to the end of his tether Lovecraft must have been. He had tried for two years to put the best face on things—had tried to convince Lillian, and perhaps himself, that his coming to New York was not a mistake—but when the prospect of going home was held out, he leaped at it with an alacrity that betrays his desperation.

  The big question, of course, was where Sonia fit in—or, perhaps, whether she fit in. In his letter of April 1 he casually noted, “S H endorses the move most thoroughly—had a marvellously magnanimous letter from her yesterday”; and five days later he added briefly, “I hope she won’t consider the move in too melancholy a light, or as anything to be criticised from the standpoint of loyalty & good taste.”[16] I am not sure of the exact context or connotation of this remark. About a week later Lovecraft reported to Lillian that “S H has abandoned the immediate Boston plan, but will in all probability accompany me to Providence”[17]—although this means she will merely come back to Brooklyn to help him pack and accompany him home to get him ensconced in his new quarters; there was certainly no thought at this juncture of her actually living in Providence or working there.

  And yet, such a course was clearly considered at some point—at least by Sonia, and perhaps by Lovecraft as well. She quotes the line from “He”—“I . . . still refrained from going home to my people lest I seem to crawl back ignobly i
n defeat”—which Cook had cited in his memoir, and adds tartly: “This is only part of the truth. He wanted more than anything else to go back to Providence but he also wanted me to come along, and this I could not do because there was no situation open there for me; that is, one fitting my ability and my need.”[18] Perhaps the most dramatic passage in her entire memoir relates to this critical period:

  When he no longer could tolerate Brooklyn, I, myself, suggested that he return to Providence. Said he, “If we could but both return to live in Providence, the blessed city where I was born and reared, I am sure, there I could be happy.” I agreed, “I’d love nothing better than to live in Providence if I could do my work there but Providence has no particular niche that I could fill.” He returned to Providence himself. I came much later.

  H. P. lived in a large studio room at that time, where the kitchen was shared with two other occupants. His aunt, Mrs. Clark, had a room in the same house while Mrs. Gamwell, the younger aunt, lived elsewhere. Then we had a conference with the aunts. I suggested that I would take a large house, secure a good maid, pay all the expenses and have the two aunts live with us at no expense to them, or at least they would live better at no greater expense. H. P. and I actually negotiated the rental of such a house with the option to buy it if we found we liked it. H. P. was to use one side of it as his study and library, and I would use the other side as a business venture of my own. At this time the aunts gently but firmly informed me that neither they nor Howard could afford to have Howard’s wife work for a living in Providence. That was that. I now knew where we all stood. Pride preferred to suffer in silence; both theirs and mine.[19]

  This account is full of difficulties. First, it is clear that Sonia was not the one who “suggested that he return to Providence,” otherwise Lovecraft would not have told Lillian repeatedly that she was merely “endorsing” the move. Second, it is not possible to ascertain exactly when this “conference” in Providence took place. Sonia goes on to say that she initially accepted a job in New York (having presumably given up the position at Halle’s in Cleveland) so that she could be near Lovecraft and perhaps spend weekends in Providence, but that she received an offer of a job in Chicago that was too good to refuse. She therefore asked Lovecraft to come back to New York for a few days to see her off; and Lovecraft did indeed return to New York for a brief period in September, although Sonia claims she left for Chicago in July. It is possible, then, that the conference in Providence took place in early summer. Then again, Sonia’s mention that she came to Providence “much later” may mean that she came only years later—perhaps as late as 1929, for it was only at this time that actual divorce proceedings, undertaken at Sonia’s insistence, occurred.

  The critical issue is the “pride” cited by Sonia. We here see the clash of cultures and generations at its clearest: on the one side the dynamic, perhaps domineering businesswoman striving to salvage her marriage by taking things into her own hands, and on the other side the Victorian shabby-genteel matrons who could not “afford” the social catastrophe of seeing their only nephew’s wife set up a shop and support them in the very town where the name of Phillips still represented something akin to an aristocracy. The exact wording of Sonia’s comment is of note: it carries the implication that the aunts might have countenanced her opening a shop somewhere other than Providence.

  Are the aunts to be criticised for their attitude? Certainly, many of those today who believe that the acquisition of money is the highest moral good that human beings can attain will find it absurd, incomprehensible, and offensively class-conscious; but the 1920s in New England was a time when standards of propriety meant more than an income, and the aunts were simply adhering to the codes of behaviour by which they had led their entire lives. If anyone is to be criticised, it is Lovecraft; whether he agreed with his aunts on the issue or not (and, in spite of his Victorian upbringing, my feeling is that at this time he did not), he should have worked a little harder to express his own views and to act as an intermediary so that some compromise could have been worked out. Instead, he seems to have stood idly by and let his aunts make all the decisions for him. In all honesty, it is highly likely that he really wished the marriage to end at this point—or, at the very least, that he was perfectly content to see it continue only by correspondence, as indeed it did for the next several years. All he wanted was to come home; Sonia could shift for herself.

  How are we to judge Lovecraft’s two-year venture into matrimony? There is, certainly, enough blame to spread to all parties: to the aunts for being cool to the entire matter and for failing to provide either financial or emotional support to the struggling couple; to Sonia for feeling that she could mould Lovecraft to suit her wishes; and, of course, to Lovecraft himself for being generally thoughtless, spineless, emotionally remote, and financially incompetent. There is nothing but circumstantial evidence for this first point; but let us consider the last two more carefully.

  Sonia’s memoir makes it clear that she found in Lovecraft a sort of raw material which she wished to shape to her own desires. The fact that a great many women enter into marriage with such conceptions is no great mitigating factor. I have already noted the seriocomic episode of Sonia forcing Lovecraft to get a new suit because she disliked the old-fashioned cut of his old ones. Recall also how she wished to get rid of his lean and hungry look by beefing him up. In a broader way she also wanted to remake his entire personality—ostensibly to benefit him, but really to make him more satisfactory to herself. She bluntly declared that she initially wished Lovecraft and Loveman to meet in order to “cure” Lovecraft of his race prejudice; it would certainly have been a good thing if she had succeeded, but clearly that was beyond her powers. When discussing the nicknames Socrates and Xanthippe, she notes her belief in Lovecraft’s “Socratic wisdom and genius” and goes on to say:

  It was this that I sensed in him and had hoped in time to humanize him further by encouraging him toward the wedded path of true love. I am afraid that my optimism and my excessive self-assurance misled me, and perhaps him, too. I had always admired great intellectuality perhaps more than anything else in the world (perhaps, too, because I lacked so much of it myself) and had hoped to lift H. P. out of his abysmal depths of loneliness and psychic complexes.[20]

  This is the closest Sonia comes to admitting that she was partly to blame for the marriage’s collapse. Whether her offhand psychoanalysis of Lovecraft has any merit, I shall not venture to say; probably she is right at least in noting his fundamental need for solitude and, perhaps, his inability (or unwillingness, if that does not amount to the same thing) to establish an intimate union with someone other than a close relative.

  And yet, Sonia should have known what she was getting into. She states that, “early in the life of our romance,”[21] Lovecraft sent her a copy of George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903); she does not give Lovecraft’s reason for doing so, but he must have been attempting to supply at least some hints about his own character and temperament. Lovecraft, strangely enough, does not mention this book to any other correspondents, as far as I know; but that it contains many suggestive passages is unquestionable.

  Gissing’s novel is the purported first-person account of a struggling writer who, late in life, receives an unexpected inheritance that allows him to retire to the country. He spends his time writing offhandedly in a diary, and Gissing as “editor” presents a carefully selected and organised series of excerpts from it, arranged generally by the course of the four seasons. It is, indeed, a very poignant work—but, I think, only if one agrees with the views being expressed by Ryecroft. I suspect that many modern readers would find these views in various ways repulsive or at least antiquated. Sonia herself claims that there is in the novel the same attitude toward minorities that she found in Lovecraft, but this is not one of its prominent features. What is more significant is Ryecroft’s attitudes toward art and, by extension, society.

  Ryecroft, although having spent much
of his life writing articles for money, always hated such a life and now is in the position of scorning it. Writing is not, or ought not to be, a “profession”: “Oh, you heavy-laden, who at this hour sit down to the cursed travail of the pen; writing, not because there is something in your mind, in your heart, which must needs be uttered, but because the pen is the only tool you can handle, your only means of earning bread!”[22] This leads more broadly to a scorn of the masses of humanity who read this lifeless work. “I am no friend of the people,” he declares bluntly—a line that Sonia herself quotes in her memoir.[23] “Democracy,” Ryecroft goes on in a passage that Lovecraft surely relished, “is full of menace to all the finer hopes of civilization . . .”[24]

  In a more personal way, Ryecroft ruminates on himself and his capacity for emotion. Although he is himself a widower with a grown daughter, he declares: “Do I really believe that at any time of my life I have been the kind of man who merits affection? I think not. I have always been much too self-absorbed; too critical of all about me; too unreasonably proud.”[25] Later on, in another passage that must have warmed Lovecraft’s heart, Ryecroft defends prudishness:

  If by prude be meant a secretly vicious person who affects an excessive decorum, by all means let the prude disappear, even at the cost of some shamelessness. If, on the other hand, a prude is one who, living a decent life, cultivates, either by bent or by principle, a somewhat extreme delicacy of thought and speech with regard to elementary facts of human nature, then I say that this is most emphatically a fault in the right direction, and I have no desire to see its prevalence diminish.[26]

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