I am providence the life.., p.93

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 93

 

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



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  How can we not think of Lovecraft’s letter to Sonia on the subject, in which sex is regarded as a momentary and irrational passion of youth which “mature middle age” should relinquish? How can we not recall Lovecraft’s squeamishness at the mere mention of the word “sex”? Sonia rightly declared that the whole of The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft should be read to understand Lovecraft; in his attachment to his home, his disdain for society, his devotion to books, and in so many other ways Ryecroft seems an uncanny echo of Lovecraft, and one can imagine the latter’s sense of wonder at reading a book that seemed to be laying bare his own inmost thoughts.

  The point is, of course, that Sonia read Ryecroft and knew of Lovecraft’s general unsuitability as a husband; but, as she declares, she overestimated her “self-assurance” and believed she could relieve his “complexes” and make him, if not a conventional bourgeois breadwinner—she surely knew he could never be that—at least a somewhat more outgoing, loving husband and an even more gifted writer than he was. I do not doubt that Sonia genuinely loved Lovecraft and that she went into the marriage with the best of intentions, and with the idea of bringing out what she felt was the best in her husband; but she really ought to have known that Lovecraft was not so easily malleable.

  It seems hardly profitable at this juncture to blame Lovecraft for his many failings as a husband—nothing can be accomplished now by such a schoolmasterly attitude—but much in his behaviour is inexcusable. The most inexcusable, of course, is the decision to marry at all, a decision he made with very little awareness of the difficulties involved (beyond any of the financial concerns that emerged unexpectedly at a later date) and without any sense of how unsuited he was to be a husband. Here was a man with an unusually low sex drive, with a deep-seated love of his native region, with severe prejudice against racial minorities, suddenly deciding to marry a woman who, although several years older than he, clearly wished both a physical as well as intellectual union, and deciding also to uproot himself from his place of birth to move into a bustling, cosmopolitan, racially heterogeneous megalopolis without a job and, it appears, entirely content to be supported by his wife until such time as he got one.

  Once actually married, Lovecraft displayed singularly little consideration for his wife. He found it much more entertaining to spend most of his evenings, and even nights, with the boys, and quickly ceased bothering to get home early so that he could go to sleep together with Sonia. He did make a concerted effort to find work in 1924, however bunglingly he set about it, but virtually gave up the attempt in 1925–26. Once he came to the realisation that married life did not suit him, he seems to have become entirely content—when Sonia was forced to move to the Midwest in 1925—to conduct a marriage at long distance by correspondence.

  And yet, mitigating factors must be brought to bear. Once the glamour of New York wore off, Lovecraft’s state of mind rapidly deteriorated. At what point did he sense that he had made a mistake? Did he come to believe that Sonia was in some way responsible for his plight? Perhaps it is not surprising that he found more comfort in the presence of his friends than of his wife.

  Three years after the débâcle Lovecraft pondered the whole matter, and to his words not much need be added. Although he later maintained the charade that the collapse of the marriage was “98% financial,”[27] he plainly admitted that a fundamental difference in character caused the breakup:

  I haven’t a doubt but that matrimony can become a very helpful and pleasing permanent arrangement when both parties happen to harbour the potentialities of parallel mental and imaginative lives—similar or at least mutually comprehensible reactions to the same salient points in environment, reading, historic and philosophic reflection, and so on; and corresponding needs and aspirations in geographic, social, and intellectual milieu . . . With a wife of the same temperament as my mother and aunts, I would probably have been able to reconstruct a type of domestic life not unlike that of Angell St. days, even though I would have had a different status in the household hierarchy. But years brought out basic and essential diversities in reactions to the various landmarks of the time-stream, and antipodal ambitions and conceptions of value in planning a fixed joint milieu. It was the clash of the abstract-traditional-individual-retrospective-Apollonian aesthetic with the concrete-emotional-present-dwelling-social-ethical-Dionysian aesthetic; and amidst this, the originally fancied congeniality, based on a shared disillusion, philosophic bent, and sensitiveness to beauty, waged a losing struggle.[28]

  Abstract as this sounds, it reveals a clear grasp of the fundamentals of the matter: he and Sonia were simply not temperamentally suited to each other. In theory Lovecraft conceded that some woman more similar to him, or to his mother and aunts, might make a suitable wife; but elsewhere in this same letter, while defending marriage as an institution, he virtually ruled it out for himself:

  . . . I’ve no fault to find with the institution, but think the chances of success for a strongly individualised, opinionated, and imaginative person are damn slender. It’s a hundred to one shot that any four or five consecutive plunges he might make would turn out to be flivvers equally oppressive to himself and to his fellow-victim, so if he’s a wise guy he “lays off” after the collapse of venture #1 . . . or if he’s very wise he avoids even that! Matrimony may be more or less normal, and socially essential in the abstract, and all that—but nothing in heaven or earth is so important to the man of spirit and imagination as the inviolate integrity of his cerebral life—his sense of utter integration and defiant independence as a proud, lone entity face to face with the illimitable cosmos.

  And that is about all that Lovecraft has to say on the matter.

  As for Sonia herself, she is remarkably reticent—publicly, at least—on what she believed to be the causes of the marriage’s failure. In her published memoir, she appears in some sense to lay the blame on Lillian and Annie for their unwillingness to allow her to set up a shop in Providence; but in an appendix to her memoir, titled “Re Samuel Loveman,” she writes at length about the burgeoning of Lovecraft’s racial prejudice while in New York and concludes, “If the truth be known, it was this attitude toward minorities and his desire to escape them that prompted him back to Providence.”[29] This point is elaborated upon in a letter to Samuel Loveman, in which she disputes the belief (whether held by Loveman or not is unclear) that the marriage dissolved because of Lovecraft’s inability to earn an income. “I did not leave him on account of non-providence, but chiefly on account of his harping hatred of J—s. This and this alone was the real reason.”[30] This certainly seems unambiguous enough, and I think we are obliged to accept it as at least one reason—and perhaps the major one—for the collapse of the marriage. There were financial problems, there were temperamental differences; but overriding these, or exacerbating them, was, on the one side, Lovecraft’s increasing hatred of New York and its denizens and, on the other side, Sonia’s inability to relieve Lovecraft of his rooted prejudices.

  What is more remarkable is that in later years Lovecraft would in many instances actually conceal the fact that he ever was married. When giving the essentials of his life to new correspondents, he would mention the New York episode but not Sonia or his marriage; and only if some correspondent bluntly and nosily asked him point-blank whether or not he was ever married would he admit that he was. A letter written to Donald Wandrei in February 1927 is typical: “A good nine-tenths of my best friends reside in New York from accident or necessity, & I thought three years ago that it was the logical place for me to settle—at least for several years. Accordingly I transferred my belongings thither in March 1924, & remained till April 1926, at the end of which time I found I absolutely could stand the beastly place no longer.”[31] Now Lovecraft is claiming that he came to New York only to be in close contact with “friends”! If this reticence to new colleagues in private correspondence is perhaps excusable (Lovecraft was under no obligation to tell of his personal affairs to anyone if he chose not to do so), it
is perhaps less so when it is manifested in the formal autobiographical essays of the last ten years of his life. It is as if his marriage, and his entire New York stay, had never happened.

  One subject on which Lovecraft never tired of expatiating was both the wretched state of his existence in New York, especially at Clinton Street, and more generally his loathing of the metropolis and everything it stood for. As for the first:

  The keynote of the whole setting—house, neighbourhood, and shop, was that of loathsome and insidious decay; masked just enough by the reliques of former splendour and beauty to add terror and mystery and the fascination of crawling motion to a deadness and dinginess otherwise static and prosaic. I conceived the idea that the great brownstone house was a malignly sentient thing—a dead, vampire creature which sucked something out of those within it and implanted in them the seeds of some horrible and immaterial psychic growth. Every closed door seemed to hide some brooding crime—or blasphemy too deep to form a crime in the crude and superficial calendar of earth. I never quite learned the exact topography of that rambling and enormous house. How to get to my room, and to Kirk’s room when he was there, and to the landlady’s quarters to pay my rent or ask in vain for heat until I bought an oil stove of my own—these things I knew, but there were wings and stairways that I never saw opened. I know there were rooms above ground without windows, and was at liberty to guess what might lie below ground.[32]

  If there is a certain amount of playful hyperbole here, his other remarks are anything but playful:

  . . . in New York I could not live. Everything I saw became unreal & two-dimensional, & everything I thought & did became trivial & devoid of meaning through lack of any points of reference belonging to any fabric of which I could conceivably form a part. I was stifled—poisoned—imprisoned in a nightmare—& now not even the threat of damnation could induce me to dwell in the accursed place again.[33]

  There is little here that is not found, for example, in the opening pages of “He”; but to read it in unvarnished form in letters, without even a thin veil of fictionalisation, is poignant. It is telling that Lovecraft never said anything like the above to Lillian until right at the end of his New York stay: would such an admission make it too clear that he was “crawling back ignobly in defeat”?

  Lovecraft was, of course, at liberty to hate New York; where he seemed to commit a lapse of logic was in maintaining that all “normal” or healthy individuals ought to find the place unendurable. The underlying theme of these rants is, of course, the “foreigners” who have presumably overrun the city, although I do not believe that Lovecraft’s sentiments can be reduced to simple racism; instead, the foreigners are the most noticeable symbol of New York’s departure from the norms he had known all his life:

  In a colourless or monotonous environment I should be hopelessly soul-starved—New York almost finished me, as it was! I find that I draw my prime contentment from beauty & mellowness as expressed in quaint town vistas & in the scenery of ancient farming & woodland regions. Continuous growth from the past is a sine qua non—in fact, I have long acknowledged archaism as the chief motivating force of my being.[34]

  Even here—or, rather, in his application of this credo to his discussions of New York—Lovecraft falls into a fallacy; for he imagines that New York’s immigrants have somehow caused the city to deviate from its “natural” development, evidently by their mere presence (his continual contrasts of New York with Boston or Philadelphia, then still dominantly Anglo-Saxon, are noteworthy). At times this view becomes comically absurd: “New York represents such a stupendous ruin & decay—such a hideous replacement of virile & sound-heritaged stock by whipped, cringing, furtive dregs & offscourings—that I don’t see how anyone can live long in it without sickening.”[35] How remarkable that these whipped dregs have managed to overwhelm the virile Aryans!

  But these rants really served a largely psychological purpose: New York is now the “other,” a symbol of everything that is wrong with modern American civilisation. It is not surprising that, although now once again ensconced in the comfortable and familiar haven of Providence, Lovecraft began in the late 1920s to develop his notions of the decline of the West—notions that his reading of Oswald Spengler’s great work on the subject only helped to clarify and develop.

  Meanwhile there was the actual move from Brooklyn to Providence to undertake. Lovecraft’s letters to his aunts for the first half of April are full of mundane details on the matter—what moving company to hire, how to pack up his books and other belongings, when he will arrive, and the like. I have previously mentioned that Sonia was planning to come back to assist in the move; indeed, this whole issue led to another testy passage in her memoir. She quotes Cook’s statement that the aunts “despatch[ed] a truck which brought Howard back to Providence lock, stock and barrel” and then says that she “came on a special trip from out of town to help him pack his things and saw to it that all was well before I left. And it was out of my funds that it was paid for, including his fare.”[36] Sonia arrived on the morning of Sunday, April 11; that evening they went back to their old stamping-grounds in Flatbush, had ice cream, saw a movie, and came home late. The next day was similarly spent in frivolity, as the couple saw the film of Cyrano de Bergerac and dined at the Elysée on East 56th Street. Lovecraft admits that Sonia quite consciously wished “to remove to some extent my extreme disgust with N Y, & to substitute in my mind some more favourable parting impressions”;[37] too little too late, but at least Lovecraft got a nice meal out of it (fruit cocktail, soup, lamb chop, french fries, peas, coffee, and a cherry tart).

  The packing was all done by Tuesday the 13th, which left Lovecraft time to take in one final Kalem meeting at Long’s on Wednesday. Morton, Loveman, Kirk, Kleiner, Orton, and Leeds came; Long’s mother served dinner; and, as always, spirited conversation ensued. The meeting broke up at 11.30, and Lovecraft and Kirk decided to undertake one final all-night walking tour. They walked from Long’s home (West End Avenue and 100th Street) to all the way down to the Battery. Lovecraft did not come home until 6 A.M., but got up at 10 A.M. to receive the movers.

  Lovecraft’s letter to Lillian of April 15 is the last letter we have prior to the move, so that the last two days are not entirely clear. He boarded a train (probably at Grand Central Station) in the morning of Saturday, April 17, and arrived early in the afternoon. He tells the story inimitably in a letter to Long:

  Well—the train sped on, & I experienced silent convulsions of joy in returning step by step to a waking & tri-dimensional life. New Haven—New London—& then quaint Mystic, with its colonial hillside & landlocked cove. Then at last a still subtler magick fill’d the air—nobler roofs & steeples, with the train rushing airily above them on its lofty viaduct—Westerly—in His Majesty’s Province of RHODE-ISLAND & PROVIDENCE-PLANTATIONS! GOD SAVE THE KING!! Intoxication follow’d—Kingston—East Greenwich with its steep Georgian alleys climbing up from the railway—Apponaug & its ancient roofs—Auburn—just outside the city limits—I fumble with bags & wraps in a desperate effort to appear calm—THEN—a delirious marble dome outside the window—a hissing of air brakes—a slackening of speed—surges of ecstasy & dropping of clouds from my eyes & mind—HOME—UNION STATION—PROVIDENCE!!!! [38]

  The printed text cannot tell the whole story, for as Lovecraft approaches the triumphant conclusion his handwriting begins to grow larger and larger, until that final word is nearly an inch high. It is symmetrically balanced by four exclamation marks and four underscores. Maurice Lévy is right to say of this passage: “There is something moving in the account he gives of this mythical return to his home, something that betrays a vital, primordial experience.”[39]

  This entire letter to Long, written two weeks after his return, is full of astonishing insights. In effect, Lovecraft was attempting to maintain that the two years spent in New York simply did not happen—that they were a “dream” and he had now simply waken up. To be sure, this was said with tongue in cheek, but t
here was clearly an undercurrent of sincerity to it: “. . . 1923—1924—1925—1926—1925—1924—1923—crash! Two years to the bad, but who the hell gives a damn? 1923 ends—1926 begins! . . . What does a blind spot or two in one’s existence matter?” Perhaps Lovecraft should be allowed his moment of wish-fulfilment; in no long time he came to understand that he would have to come to terms with those two New York years and reshape his life accordingly. Much as he might yearn to return to the carefree state he enjoyed prior to his marriage, he knew it was only a fantasy. The subsequent eleven years of his life will, I think, sustain the truth of W. Paul Cook’s celebrated remark: “He came back to Providence a human being—and what a human being! He had been tried in the fire and came out pure gold.”[40]

  Did Sonia accompany Lovecraft back to Providence? His letter to Long is singularly ambiguous on the point: he never mentions her by name in the entire ten-page document, and the early pages of the account are entirely in the first-person singular; but perhaps Long knew the situation so well that Lovecraft did not feel the need to specify. From what I can ascertain, Sonia did not in fact come with him, but joined him a few days later to help him settle in; Lovecraft indirectly confirms this speculation by using the first-person plural in the latter stages of his letter to Long.[41] After spending a few days unpacking, Lovecraft and Sonia went to Boston on Thursday, April 22, and on the next day they explored Neutaconkanut Hill on the west side of Providence, where Lovecraft had gone in October 1923. It is not clear when Sonia returned to New York, but she probably did not stay for much more than a week.

 
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