Saturday, March 12, 2016

Making Excuses for Lovecraft's Racism


By Charles Hoffman  (copyright 1999, 2016)

In 2015 it was announced that the World Fantasy Award would no longer bear the likeness of H. P. Lovecraft.  This decision was made in the wake of complaints that Lovecraft’s privately-expressed racial views were so offensive that a miniature bust of HPL was an inappropriate trophy to present as an award, especially to minorities, in the 21st Century. 

For the most part, Lovecraft fans and scholars have been straightforward in acknowledging Lovecraft’s racial prejudices.  Of course there have been attempts to mitigate the charges of racism leveled against him.  In Crypt of Cthulhu # 98, Dirk W. Mosig asked the question “Was Lovecraft a Racist?” in his essay of that title.  Mosig observes that Lovecraft did not actually commit any antisocial acts, and even befriended people of various ethnic backgrounds.  He also cites the stress Lovecraft endured during his New York years, when some of HPL’s most offensive diatribes were written.  Mosig makes the valid point that racial attitudes were far different in Lovecraft’s day, but is on shakier ground in asserting that Lovecraft was only telling certain correspondents what they wanted to hear.  While admitting “HPL indeed disliked aliens”, [1] Mosig concludes that H. P. Lovecraft was not a racist in any meaningful sense.

Nice try.  Now here’s the rebuttal:  “When, long ago, the Gods created Earth, / In Jove’s fair image Man was shap’d at birth…”  [2] Need I go on?  In his biography, H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, S. T, Joshi concludes that Lovecraft’s racial views are “the one true black mark on his character”. [3]  While endeavoring to place those views in context, Joshi is nonetheless forthright in admitting that Lovecraft was a racist. Knowing that to conquer death you only have to die, Joshi elects to censure and move on.

In this article, I’m taking a different approach from either Mosig or Joshi.  I bluntly admit that Lovecraft was a racist.  I also bluntly admit that I’m going to make excuses for him.  This approach can’t help but to generate controversy.  Race is a taboo subject today, just as sex was for the Victorians.  Any frank discussion of it is nearly impossible.  In the wake of the O. J. Simpson murder trial, former president Bill Clinton called for a “national dialogue” on race.  This was doomed to failure due to the fearsome taboo surrounding the subject (plus the fact that Clinton was essentially saying “Let’s you and him fight.”)  Another point of controversy will be my attempt to lighten things up with humor along the way.  In the current climate of “political correctness,” people are incredibly thin-skinned.  Mel Brooks’ outrageous film Blazing Saddles could not be made today. My attempts at levity may actually increase tension rather than ease it, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Why even bother to make excuses?  Because everybody else does it.  Bleeding-heart liberals routinely excuse violent criminals based on their disadvantaged background.  In fact, they make so many excuses that it seems like racism is the only thing they find morally reprehensible.  Unfortunately for H. P. Lovecraft, his main character flaw just happens to be the one thing most thoroughly condemned in today’s society.  His reputation could never have been so besmirched by alcoholism, drug abuse, or most other forms of private behavior.  Thus I feel the need to defend him, or at least place his attitudes in perspective.

Here, without further ado, are my excuses for Lovecraft’s racism.

1.  It wasn’t such a big deal back then.


As far as I’ve been able to determine, the terms “racist” and “racism” first appeared in the English language around the turn of the 20th Century --and not always as pejoratives.  Comparatively few people in Lovecraft’s day would have even known what the hell a racist was.  It’s important to realize that the very concept underlying the term “racism” is a fairly recent development.  For uncounted millennia, human society consisted of small groups banded together against outsiders.  Distrust of the stranger was universal.  As tribes grew into nations, first contact with foreigners usually proved antagonistic. For a very long time, most wars were waged between hereditary foes. Squabbles among neighboring peoples of similar ethnicity and language were troublesome enough.  When exploration and expansion finally brought the different races into contact with one another the differences they noted in language, culture, and physical appearance were that much more pronounced.  That the outsider was as either a threat or fair game is the sad story of humanity. Whether you like it or not, what we call “racism” is in unfortunate fact the default state of human perceptions regarding other ethnic and racial groups. Aggression is innate; ethics are learned behavior.

Of course multi-ethnic societies did eventually come into being, but these were usually restricted to port cities, border towns, and caravan crossroads.  The truest multi-ethnic, multi-racial civilization came about very recently, in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The process was by no means a smooth one.  The Statue of Liberty with its “huddled masses” poem was a slick attempt to make a virtue of necessity.  During the Gilded Age, America was making a transition from an agrarian society to an industrial one.  Cheap labor was needed for industry, and immigration provided this.  As America struggled to assimilate wave after wave of immigrants, the commonplace ethnic stereotypes (the drunken Irishman, the amorous Frenchman, etc.) became staples of pulp fiction and the Vaudeville stage.  With the latter, humor helped to break the ice between groups.  Today this sort of ethnic comedy is usually viewed in hindsight as wrong-headed, despite the innovative use of such humor by Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, and others. 

In any event, it is important to realize that social evolution is the slow work of centuries.  We don’t live long enough to see the big picture.  One can only expect so much progress during one’s own lifespan.  I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed the progress in race relations since my birth in the mid-fifties.  We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.  I do think we’ve turned a corner, however.  Various groups were once seen as being more different then they were alike.  Now, I believe, people are seen as being more alike than they are different.  This is a fairly recent outlook that owes much to technological advances in transportation and communications that have taken place over the last two centuries --not a terribly long time in the course of human events.  The average Englishman in 1800 had only a vague idea what a Chinese even looked like.  Inventions such as photography and, later, motion pictures, helped to show people societies in distant parts of the world.  But in 1900, mass communication was in its infancy.  We need to keep that in mind as we consider my next point.

2.  HPL was a product of his environment.


The wave of foreign immigration was at its high tide during Lovecraft’s boyhood in the 1890s and early 1900s.  As Mosig points out, many of his attitudes concerning various ethnic groups were widespread and respectable.  The world was a larger place when Lovecraft was born, with no movies or television to show Americans distant corners of the globe.  The newcomers, with their strange tongues and peculiar ways, were regarded with curious bewilderment.  One can easily imagine Grandpa Whipple, role model for the young HPL, expressing his dismay around the supper table.  Mosig and Joshi concur that many of Lovecraft’s more severe ethnic diatribes were expressed in letters to his Aunt Lillian.  This indicates that his attitude was shared by his immediate family.  Such views were commonplace in the social class into which HPL was born.

Even so, some of Lovecraft’s utterances are unforgivably harsh whatever the context.  We can’t let him off the hook simply because of his environment.  However, it is folly to hold Lovecraft and his contemporaries to the same post-1960s standards of tolerance that we expect of our fellows. Previously racial and ethnic distinctions were given more attention, though not necessarily in a disparaging way.  It was common to speak of the “English race” and the “German race” and so forth. I’ve noticed this through personal observation. I once mentioned to my aunt, a member of the World War II “Greatest Generation,” that Bruce Lee was one quarter German. She was moved to remark that that meant Brandon Lee was five eighths white. I replied, “Yeah, I guess so.“  My aunt did not have a mean bone in her body; it was just a more significant fact to her than it was to me.

3.  Nobody’s perfect.

This is a matter of who gets to cast the first stone.  I doubt that anyone walking the earth today is totally bereft of some form of prejudice.  Even the most enlightened, gentle person is tainted by it.  We have to acknowledge that people are not perfect.  For example, I’m not homophobic and have really liked nearly every gay person I’ve ever met.  Yet I was not always above an occasional remark like, “J. R. R. Tolkien is for faggots.”  I suppose it stems from growing up in a society in which homosexuals were universally scorned (plus not really being into the little Hobbits.)  Most of the time, though, I endeavor to be sensitive, yet still inadvertently commit the occasional gaffe.  Not long ago, someone objected to my use of the term “Chinaman.”  To me this was no different than referring to someone as an Englishman or a Frenchman, but apparently not everyone sees it this way.

Most people are no better than I am regarding prejudice of one form or another.  I doubt, however, that we’ll see many people come clean about this anytime soon.  One of the most insidious things about political correctness is the way in which one need only step a little out of line in order to be branded a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, or whatever.  This can only lead to rancor and ill feeling far more serious than that which originally existed.  James Ellroy remarked that it is very difficult for hidebound liberals to see a person’s racism as a casual attribute rather than a defining characteristic, even when such is the case.  In such a climate, a “national dialogue” on race can only do harm rather than good.  It would be just like picking at a scab.

Of course in Lovecraft’s case, it’s obvious from the virulence of some of his rants that he was affected by more than vestigial traces of prejudice clinging to him like gum to the sole of his shoe.  Yes, Lovecraft could be an ass.  He could also be much more than that.  Just as people are not perfect, they are not always on their best behavior.  Some commentators on Lovecraft --De Camp comes to mind--  seem unable to tell when he is serious and when he is kidding, when he is being thoughtful and when he is being flippant, when he is good humored and when he is cranky.  In his letters, Lovecraft presented all his thoughts in the same lucid style.  Thus it is not so surprising that a commentator might give the same weight to Lovecraft’s snap judgments and hasty generalizations as to his most carefully considered opinions. 

Then there’s the matter of all those letters.  Lovecraft wrote thousands of letters, a mere fraction of them published in the five volumes of his Selected Letters.  The Cardinal Richelieu once said that, given ten lines written by any man, he could find something in them to hang him.  With Lovecraft, Richelieu would have had millions of lines to work with.  Lovecraft’s letters to far-flung correspondents took the place of face-to-face conversation and could range over a broad spectrum of topics.  Sometimes he presented careful systematic arguments, but at other times he was simply speaking his mind at the moment.  Who of us could not be condemned to the pit for some utterance made while mouthing off in private?

Lovecraft’s letters, along with his essays and other writings, cover the full range of his thoughts and beliefs concerning civilization, aesthetics, history, science, current events, philosophy, and so much more.  He put it all down on paper, basically documenting the complete workings of his mind.  Such extensive documentations exists for no other figure that I know of.  Essentially, we have an extremely comprehensive catalog of a man’s mind and its contents, and guess what?  It’s not all sunshine and lollipops.

We all have a dark side, boys and girls.  Some darker than others.  The brighter the picture, the darker the negative.  Here’s the negative of “The Shadow Out of Time”:

On the Creation of Niggers

When, long ago, the Gods created Earth,
In Jove’s fair image Man was shap’d at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next design’d;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill this gap, and join the rest to man,
Th’ Olympian host conceived a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, a semi-human figure.
Fill’d it with vice, and call’d the thing a NIGGER. [4]

Don’t blame me; I didn’t write it.  I only bring it up to make a point. First, somebody out there just laughed.  Like a lot of tasteless ethnic jokes, this is funny (less so if your people are the butt of the joke.)  The humor derives from the juxtaposition of the high-flown language and classical imagery with the crude, heartless vulgarity of the last six words.  So to create this, Lovecraft had to have realized that he was being crude, heartless, and vulgar.  By extension, he knew he was being an ass.  Sometimes people are just being nasty and they know it.

It’s also worth noting that Rap-master H. P. was only 21 or 22 when he wrote this charming ditty.  A callow youth, in other words.  When I was 21 or 22, my friends presented me with a birthday cake with an enormous red swastika drawn in icing on top of it.  It was a “German chocolate cake,” get it?  It didn’t mean we were pro-Nazi.

“Creation” is indeed a smoking gun for anyone seeking to condemn Lovecraft on the count of racism.  HPL left a lot of ammunition lying around too.  In putting so much of himself on paper, Lovecraft allows us to see him at his worst.  He did not intend to, however.  Each letter he wrote was intended for the addressee alone, and there are times when we would do well to remember that.  “Creation,” too, was doubtless intended for very few eyes.  Most of us can breathe a sigh of relief that our own worst foibles have never been brought to light.  Lovecraft’s racist and anti-Semitic rants in his private correspondence are the equivalent of venting behind what he thought were closed doors.  They are not what he endeavored to offer the world.  That would be “The Dunwich Horror,” At the Mountains of Madness, and his other literary creations.

4.  Lovecraft’s bark was worse than his bite.

The portrait of Lovecraft the bigot has always been balanced by the portrait of Lovecraft the gentleman.  The latter has long been the trump card of apologists like myself.  Lovecraft’s adherence to a gentlemanly code of conduct is perhaps the best-documented aspect of his personality.  Lying at the core of HPL’s system of ethics, this code demanded that others be treated with civility, courtesy, and respect.  It extended to members of various minority groups, regardless of how much Lovecraft may have despised the group as a whole in abstract.  Why he actually had Jewish friends and even married a Jewess, et cetera, et cetera.

Usually this has been weighed as a mitigating factor whenever Lovecraft’s bigotry has been considered.  Of course, it has also led to charges of hypocrisy on Lovecraft’s part as well.  People are so hard to please.  More serious is Joshi’s suggestion of the possibility that Lovecraft wasn’t all mouth.  In H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, he recounts Lovecraft’s recollection of his high school days in which HPL remarks, “I became rather well known as an anti-Semite…”.[5] Joshi comments that this “is considerably embarrassing to those who wish to exculpate Lovecraft on the ground that he never took any direct action against the racial or ethnic groups he despised but merely confined his remarks to paper…[C]learly some form of physical demonstration, if only verbal, is suggested.”.  [6]

Since I wish to exculpate Lovecraft, I would like to point out that HPL was thirteen or fourteen at the time.  An obnoxious teenager; imagine that.  Also, Lovecraft was a frail, sickly boy, so it’s hard to picture him going around picking fights.  Crude taunts like “Hey, Hebe,” don’t seem his style either.  If he confronted Jewish students directly, he’d be more likely to say something like, “I’m sorry, but your culture is clearly inferior.”  In all probability, however, he just ran them down in conversation with non-Jewish classmates.

As an adult, Lovecraft avoided shrill rancorous arguments as distasteful.  Therefore he tended to share his more bigoted opinions with those whom he believed would not be offended.  In general, he did not look for trouble.  I can’t help but regard this as at least somewhat commendable, considering my next point.

5.  He really had it rough.

Here’s a brief biographical sketch of H. P. Lovecraft:  Lovecraft was born into an affluent family of old New England stock, and reared amid an environment of culture and privilege.  The bottom fell out of everything during his adolescence, when his family lost all of its money.  As an adult, Lovecraft endured humiliation and poverty.

You really could not come up with a better scenario for warping someone’s personality if you planned it that way.  And it should come as no surprise that Lovecraft’s bigotry became most strident during his “New York exile,” the most miserable period of his entire life.

All things considered, it’s remarkable that HPL remained as stable as he did.  Some of the tribulations he endured were worse than previously thought.  Joshi quotes a letter from Lovecraft’s New York period in which HPL enthuses about having acquired a heater that would enable him to prepare hot meals.  Lovecraft mentions subsisting on cold beans out of a can and (yuck!) cold canned spaghetti.  Possibly, he had been doing so for many months.  Yet he didn’t go to a tower with a sniper rifle, or send out any letter bombs, or physically lash out at anyone even in a small way.  He simply did not have it in him.  I, too, have known hard times, though not as hard as Lovecraft’s.  From experience, I know that his despair and inner rage must have been monumental at times.  Can we cut him any slack on the racism yet?

It is no mere happenstance that Lovecraft held himself together by adopting a dispassionate low-key outlook on life.  Freaking out was not an option for him.  Both his parents died insane, and the specter of insanity was his ultimate terror in both his life and fiction.  He had personally known chronic headaches, depression, and bad nerves.  As an adult, he remained vigilant against any pressures capable of spiraling him down into a withdrawal or breakdown from which he might not be able to emerge.  The stress brought on by his poverty and humiliating circumstances was no mean threat.  Lovecraft had to muster every inner resource at his disposal.  Among his chief defense mechanisms were the aristocratic values of his native class and culture.

Lovecraft would have considered the preservation of stoic dignity in the face of adversity the attribute of a true gentleman.  Money he may lack.  Material comfort he may lack.  But his aesthetics and values could not be taken from him.  He clung to these desperately, like a miser hoarding gold coins.  One unfortunate result is that unsympathetic critics have ridiculed him for affectation and snobbery.  More unfortunate is the fact that the Phillips family values included assumptions of Anglo-Saxon superiority.

The most insidious thing about our prejudices is that, even if we try to shed them, they’re always there to fall back on in a pinch.  Lovecraft’s served him as a security blanket most of his life, but never more than in New York.  There a number of factors combined to make Lovecraft’s intolerance all the more livid.

First, having lived in New York myself for more than a decade, I can attest that nothing brings out the worst in people like piling eight million on top on one another.  Add to this HPL’s abject poverty.  Finally, whereas Lovecraft had previously dealt with various ethnic types mostly in the abstract, he was now forced to deal with them in the flesh on a daily basis.  He was trapped in a world he never made, where all the bad buttons were being pressed.  Hence the rants about the “loathsome Asiatic hordes who trailed their slimy carcasses where white men once walked.”

6.  Lovecraft mellowed with age.

Here is another big favorite of us apologists.  Lovecraft took back a lot of his intolerant rhetoric in later life.  Even L. Sprague de Camp, who hammered HPL on bigotry throughout his biography, gives him credit on this score.  It need not surprise us.  Lovecraft was only 46 when he died, but certain comments made during his last years indicate his awareness on some level that time was running out.  Many a man has sought to put aside old hatreds late in life.

This is particularly true of those who have fought long and hard against someone.  For example, the brilliant Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest was a slave trader before the Civil War.  During the war, troops under his command carried out the infamous Fort Pillow massacre of black Union soldiers.  During Reconstruction, he was appointed the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.  Yet Forrest ultimately repudiated the Klan’s racial hatred and publicly ordered it to disband.  (It actually died out in the 1870s; the modern KKK began as a recreation, circa 1920, with no links to the original organization.)  He ended his days as a racial moderate, believing blacks had much to contribute to American society.

Had Lovecraft lived a fuller lifespan, he would have been seventy in 1960.  He would have lived to see the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement. It seems reasonable to assume that his views would have become progressively more tolerant.

7.  Some of Lovecraft’s views on race and culture actually have merit
.

I believe I may be the first to make this point.  Lovecraft may have been misguided in his strident insistence that Jews and foreign immigrants would pollute the integrity of Anglo-American culture.  However, in formulating his argument, he did recognize that various peoples’ distinctive cultural traditions were worthy of preservation.

Such recognition is especially notable in a spate of letters HPL wrote in 1933.  At that time the Nazis had just come to power in Germany, and Lovecraft discussed the pros and cons of Hitler’s policies with various correspondents.  Lovecraft has taken considerable flak for his alleged sympathy for Hitler.  It is worth noting that HPL died in early 1937, well before Crystal Night of 1938 marked the true beginning of the holocaust.  Five years earlier, in 1933, Hitler had just been elected chancellor.  Lovecraft is therefore discussing a figure currently in the news, not “history’s greatest monster.”  Even so, HPL is astute enough to declare Hitler an “unscientific extremist” [7] and “a clown.” [8] He qualifies his view of Hitler’s policies, adding, “I do not mean to imply that his actual programme is not extreme, grotesque, and occasionally barbarous.” [9]

One element of the Hitler agenda that HPL did respond to sympathetically was the perception that the indigenous German culture was being undermined by foreign (Jewish) influences.  Lovecraft often expressed the opinion that Jews wielded too much influence in New York’s literary, artistic, and intellectual circles, and this was antithetical to mainstream American culture.  HPL considered this Jewish influence incompatible with American society purely on the basis of culture, rather than biology (he was not so charitable in regard to blacks).  Time and again he stressed that minorities should conform to the society in which they cast their lot.  However, he did not hold that Anglo-American culture, or Western European culture, was intrinsically superior to all others.

Lovecraft does indeed remark that, “Aryans ought not to leave their guidance and interpretation to persons of an irreconcilable Semitic culture,” but in the same breath insists that “Chinamen ought not to let American missionaries dictate & interpret their policies.” [10]  He qualifies his anti-Semitism by saying, “If the Jews had a nation of their own (and they would if they had our guts and self-respect) I’d be the first to insist that it be kept free of Aryan influences.  As it is, I honestly regret the Aryan taint (any infusion is a taint if it’s where it doesn’t belong) in the noble and ancient culture of Japan.” [11]  That same year, Lovecraft prophetically warns that America must be prepared to respond to an inevitable military onslaught by Japan at some point in the future.  All the same, he is moved to comment, “The Japanese carry the spirit of art into the smallest details of life more fully than any other people since the Greeks -- & it will be an irreparable loss if their newer generations lost the old spirit of it in an effort to assimilate western traditions.  Hybridism never pays.” [12]

Today, there is a word for this sort of outlook; multiculturalism.  It is a contemporary view that negates the old ideal of the “melting pot.”  Extreme versions of it can be found on both ends of the political spectrum.  On the right, we encounter white separatists (as opposed to white supremacists), who believe the races should dwell in peace, but apart. On the left, similar notions are held by Louis Farrakhan and his followers.

To weigh the validity of this position, we must consider the plight of the American Indian.  In America, we revile the Nazi “Final Solution.”  After all, it’s not like we ever tried to kill every Indian on the prairie.  Oops, never mind.  Seriously, though, it is believed that Hitler was inspired by the institution of the “reservation” to try something similar.  Truly, the expansion of European civilization into the Western hemisphere was a catastrophe for the indigenous peoples.  However, not every white person in 19th Century America was blithely indifferent to it.  The subjugation of the Indian was roundly and rightly condemned in the liberal press.  This, however, brings us to an important point:  Even the most bleeding-heart liberal --even the most saintly pacifist-- felt that American Indians should be transformed into Christian farmers.  The modern notion of “culturecide” did not as yet exist.  And yet H. P. Lovecraft would have immediately recognized and condemned this development, even if he didn’t have the trendy catchphrase.

It is supremely ironic that certain of Lovecraft’s racial views would now actually be considered progressive.  Certainly, they seem less offensive now than they did forty years ago.

8.  Remarkable individuals often do have flaws commensurate with their stature.

Imagine John Lennon beating the snot out of friend and fellow band member Stu Sutcliffe. It’s easy if you’re aware that he had a bad temper and violent streak that led to the physical and mental abuse of his wives.  Alfred Hitchcock had an unhealthy obsession with his female stars, and sabotaged Tippi Hedren’s subsequent film career.  Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Martin Luther King engaged in extramarital affairs.  Henry Ford was a notorious anti-Semite, as was Richard Wagner. Woodrow Wilson was an unreconstructed Southerner with all the racist views that went along with it.  Thomas Edison had a reputation for unscrupulous business practices and cheating important colleagues like Nikola Tesla.

Narrowing our focus to notable literary figures, it is disconcerting to learn that Charles Dickens was a xenophobe who subjected his wife to extreme mental cruelty.  Sylvia Plath, like many another writer, was suicidal --so much so that she took her life even though she was abandoning two small children.  Oz creator L. Frank Baum once advocated the extermination of American Indians.  In addition to being a chronic alcoholic, Jack London expressed racist sentiments, particularly in regard to the “yellow peril.”  Knut Hamsun, Nobel Prize winner and Norway’s greatest author, was a Nazi sympathizer and outspoken supporter of Hitler. Ezra Pound supported Mussolini and Hitler, and even made propaganda radio broadcasts on behalf of Italy’s Fascist regime.  Both Hamsun and Pound were formally charged with treason. So why isn’t Ezra Pound currently being subjected to the same flak as Lovecraft?  Possibly because there are no Cantos role-playing games. Unfortunately, Lovecraft is to some extent a victim of his own popularity and posthumous success.

H. P. Lovecraft was in good --or bad-- company, depending on your point of view.  Also it is worth noting that Lovecraft’s bigotry remained confined to his privately-expressed personal views and did not lead him to undertake any form of political activism.

9.   H. P. Lovecraft would not be the same man, or the same writer, without the rough edges.

And now for the big one.  If this whole essay consisted of just this one point, it would be more than enough.  It really renders my first eight excuses superfluous.  I just wanted to stack the deck in HPL’s favor as much as possible. But the bottom line is this: what looms larger in the big picture?  Is it tasteless comments and faulty reasoning expressed to friends and relatives? Or is it “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and At the Mountains of Madness?  And, yes, the former does have something to do with the latter.

The most telling thing about Lovecraft’s bigotry is not its depth but its breadth.  Lovecraft routinely vents his spleen on more than just the usual suspects (blacks and Jews).  He remarks that, “in New England we have our own local curses…in the form of Simian Portugese, unspeakable Southern Italians, and jabbering French-Canadians.  Broadly speaking, our curse is Latin, just as yours is Semitic-Mongoloid, the Mississippian’s African, the Pittsburgher’s Slavonic, the Arizonian’s Mexican, and the Californian’s Chino-Japanese.” [13]

Thus we realize that to do Lovecraft’s “racism” justice, we must call it by its proper name: xenophobia.  The term “xenophobia” has long been used in connection to Lovecraft due to the fact that his aversion to various ethnic types extends to virtually all non-WASPs.  Nor does he stop with the squalling Italians and jabbering Portuguese.  I even recall him referring to a fellow New Englander as a “Massachusetts high hat.”  Clearly, Lovecraft was capable of regarding anyone whose background disturbed him in some way as an alien.

Recognizing Lovecraft as a xenophobe does alter our estimation of him somewhat.  The term indicates a deep-seated pathological dread, no less real than an acrophobic person’s fear of heights or a claustrophobic person’s terror of enclosed spaces.  This in itself mitigates Lovecraft’s intolerance just a little.  He was not indulging in hate for hate’s sake.  Rather, he was seriously troubled by a sense of fear and revulsion that was deeply rooted in the core of his personality.  Possibly, he is more deserving of pity than contempt.  That said, I’m not about to excuse the neo-Nazi or Klansman on the basis of their insecurities or inadequacies.  No one is likely to mistake either of these for kindly gentlemen.  Lovecraft, on the other hand, seems to me not truly a bigot, but a man with a bigot on his back.

The notion of bigotry as a kind of personal demon is by no means exclusive to Lovecraft.  It’s important to recognize that bigotry bedevils good men as well as bad.  We can admire individuals for their accomplishments without condoning everything they do.  Again, nobody’s perfect.  It is largely a matter of degree that determines how reprehensible the presence of racism is in an individual, since it is hard to do away with it completely.  Everyone is prey to fear and insecurity, and these are the natural manure of intolerance.  Nowhere is this more true than in regard to sex.

Bet you didn’t see that coming.  Sex is the true litmus test for vestigial racism among basically tolerant, easy-going males.  I’ve seen more than one white liberal clutch his Channel 13 tote bag a little more tightly when some athletic black man happened to glance in the direction of his significant other.  Lovecraft’s colleague, Robert E. Howard, cuts to the heart of the matter in one of his reincarnation fantasies, making this bold statement:

A man is no better and no worse than his feelings regarding the women of his blood, which is the true and only test of racial consciousness.  A man will take to himself the stranger woman, and sit down at meat with the stranger man, and feel no twinges of race-consciousness.  It is only when he sees the alien man in possession of, or intent upon, a woman of his blood, that he realizes the difference in race and strain.  So I, who had held women of many races in my arms, who was blood brother to a Pictish savage, was shaken to mad fury at the sight of an alien laying hands upon a woman of the Aesir. [14]

Yow!  Sounds like something touched a nerve.  We also detect a little bit of a double standard here. I should point out that Howard, though he did make use of racial stereotypes, was also capable of portraying blacks and other ethnics sympathetically.  In the thirties, this was a rather rare quality among Southerners, and even some New Englanders.  I cite the paragraph above to call attention to a common, if not universal, male insecurity.  It begins as an extension of simple jealousy; the average male doesn’t really care to see an attractive female in the arms of any other man, let alone a [fill in the blank].  This particular prejudice is common to all males, regardless of their ethnicity.  It has to do with competition for females, which reaches back to the dawn of time.  It must, therefore, be regarded in some sense as innate and instinctive, as Howard seems to suggest in the above passage.  Only social conditioning can serve to alleviate this tendency.

I mention all this because it lies at the root of the concept of miscegenation.  Miscegenation, of course, was the name given to the concern that a people’s bloodline would be tainted if diluted with an incompatible foreign (read: “inferior”) strain.  The term is not heard so much today, but it was bandied about freely in Nineteenth Century America.  Lovecraft was most definitely familiar with it.  The very word “miscegenation” was a weighty expression with the power to batten and feed on men’s most morbid anxieties.  The Nazis got considerable mileage out of crude caricatures of troll-like Jews slavering over golden-haired Rhine maidens.  Of course, the double standard decrees that women of other races are fair game.  A white man lying with a black woman is having an adventure; a black man lying with a white woman threatens the pillars of civilization.

This is no mere digression as far as HPL is concerned.  H. P. Lovecraft wrote the great parable of miscegenation, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”  Ironically, the asexual Lovecraft was among the small minority of men least likely to be troubled personally by sexual jealousy and its resultant anxieties.  However, he did buy heavily into the belief that miscegenation posed a ghastly threat to the white race and Western civilization.

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” stands as one of the best-known horror stories of the Twentieth Century, and rightly so. Generations have been enthralled by Lovecraft’s tale of the isolated, decaying New England seaport and its sinister inhabitants.  These inhabitants, hybrids of human beings and the ocean-dwelling “Deep Ones,” are one of Lovecraft’s most fully realized horrors.  They represent a nightmare of miscegenation.

Readers will recall that the Innsmouth natives begin life as more-or-less normal looking humans.  As they mature, however, they acquire the loathsome “Innsmouth look,” with its leathery skin, bulging eyes, and so on.  Finally, they complete their metamorphosis into full-blown Deep Ones, leaving the land behind to dwell in the depths of the ocean.

Lovecraft considered the malign suspension of natural law the most terrible conception of the human brain.  With the Deep Ones, we see evolution itself thrown into reverse.  Life began in the oceans, slowly migrated onto land, and developed into complex organisms.  The Deep One hybrids start out on land and return to the sea.  The life-cycle of natural amphibians begins with the water-breathing tadpoles that mature into air-breathing frogs and salamanders.  The people of Innsmouth start out human, then devolve into sea creatures.  The human fetus passes through an early stage in which vestigial gills are present, then vanish.  This too is reversed in the case of Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, resulting in a backwards-running parody of natural growth.

The spawn of human and Deep One does not ultimately take after the human parent.  In the end, humanity is only made monstrous.  Thus we see that one of Lovecraft’s most famous classics is based on the theme of miscegenation, rooted in the author’s xenophobia.

But wait.  The relationship of Lovecraft’s racism to his art involves more than just the simple equation “no xenophobia = no ‘Shadow Over Innsmouth.’”  Let’s look at the Lovecraft canon as a whole.  Lovecraft’s vision of cosmic horror depicts a universe in which  humanity’s position is threatened by the encroachment of alien beings.  These alien beings are possessed of an intelligence that is foreign to us, so much so that their mindset, objectives, and place in the universe are all utterly incompatible with our own.  Sound familiar?

To read Lovecraft is to evoke the gripping dread of paranoia.  This is not to say that Lovecraft was fundamentally a “paranoid.”  The cogency with which he framed his thoughts in his letters, and the stoic dignity that he exhibited during hardship and before his death, indicate that he was fundamentally stable.  Lovecraft’s xenophobia was an aberration, a fluke in his behavior where we can actually catch him frothing at the mouth on occasion.  Here’s a memorable example from a March 1924 letter to Frank Belknap Long:

…I find it hard at present to conceive of anything more utterly and ultimately loathsome than certain streets of the lower East Side where Kleiner took Loveman and me in April 1922.  The organic things --Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid-- inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human.  They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep sea unnamablities.  They --or the degenerate gelatinous fermentation of which they were composed-- seemed to ooze, seep and trickle thro’ the gaping cracks in the horrible houses…and I thought of some avenue of Cyclopean and unwholesome vats, crammed to the vomiting-point with gangrenous vileness, and about to burst and inundate the world in one leprous cataclysm of semi-fluid rottenness. [15]

It is revealing to note that such racist rants are the portions of Lovecraft’s non-fiction writing that most closely resemble key passages of his horror fiction.  Lovecraft’s xenophobia had one positive aspect --and by no means an insignificant one-- in the sense that it put him in touch with an emotional state that he was able to approximate for creative purposes in his fiction.  It was, therefore, germane to his art.

For this reason, it should not be glossed over by scholars.  Many commentators, due to their personal fondness for HPL, tiptoe around his xenophobia unless it is simply unavoidable.  Intellectually, there is no need for such coyness.  Since at least some of his racist paranoia was sublimated into his art, it requires no apology. The panicked racist dementia Lovecraft was moved to express in the 1924 letter to Long noted above came to infuse his 1925 story, "The Horror at Red Hook."  In this story Lovecraft's terror of the malignant alien invader becomes globalized, permeating the universe, but his presentation was embryonic.  The following year, 1926, Lovecraft escaped New York and the foreign element that so distressed him, and returned to his native Providence. Later that same year he composed "The Call of Cthulhu," inaugurating the cycle of fully-realized cosmic horrors upon which his literary reputation rests.  Interestingly, as Lovecraft's cosmic horror becomes more cogently expressed in fiction, his racist views begin to mellow and abate.  I do not consider this a matter of coincidence.  Rather, I see it as an example of anxiety and aggression being channeled into a positive creative outlet.

If, however, we must demand some punishment of Lovecraft for the crime of racism, let it be this: HPL’s bigotry stands out as an ugly  crack in his cherished façade of an emotionally low-key personal demeanor befitting a coolly rational intellect.  In spouting bile and pseudo-scientific claptrap, he allows emotion to overwhelm intellect --and veers closer to unreason and dreaded insanity than he’d care to realize..

And that should be enough to quiet the voices of indignation.  It would be unwise to tamper with an artist’s personality for the sake of “improvement” even if we could.  It would be like pulling on a thread in a tapestry; you can’t change one thing without changing everything.  Could Robert E. Howard have written so convincingly of carnage and doom if he hadn’t been suicidal?  Could H. P. Lovecraft have portrayed malignant alien beings so grippingly if he hadn’t regarded non-WASP ethnics with some degree of suspicion or even revulsion?  It’s hard to say.  Better we never find out.

Since no scholarly treatise is complete without a Star Trek analogy, I’m going to cite an early episode of the original series, “The Enemy Within” by Richard Matheson.  This is possibly one of the most insightful dramatic works ever televised.  In it, a teleportation accident splits Captain Kirk into two beings, one good and one evil.  The evil Kirk guzzles “Saurian brandy,” sexually harasses a micro-skirted crewwoman, and causes all sorts of trouble.  However, the point of the story is that the good Kirk can’t function without him.  The latter is a marshmallow, unable to make the harsh but necessary decisions that enable him to command.

Consider the result of a similar experiment on Lovecraft.  The bad Lovecraft might be out burning crosses, while the good HPL is home writing for Parisian Life or Baseball Stories.  Maybe --just maybe-- the bigot is Lovecraft’s “enemy within.”

And with that, I’m plumb out of excuses.  And I hope my attempts to lighten things with levity didn’t backfire on me.  I certainly do not take bigotry itself lightly.  To prove just how seriously I take it, I offer this parting message to each individual reader out there:  You may be black, or you may be white.  You may be a woman or you may be a man.  You may be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a non-believer, or something else.  But whatever the case, I absolutely guarantee that there are plenty of other people out there who would be very happy to see you dead because of it.  So you see, this really is everyone’s problem.

No, I’m not making light of racism.  I’m just making excuses for Lovecraft.

NOTES

[1] Dirk W. Mosig, “Was Lovecraft a Racist?”, Crypt of Cthulhu No. 98 (Eastertide 1998), p. 6.

[2]  HPL, in S. T. Joshi, H. P. Lovecraft, A Life (West Warwick, RI; Necronomicon Press, 1996) p. 90.

[3]  S. T. Joshi, H. P. Lovecraft, A Life (West Warwick, RI; Necronomicon Press, 1996) p. 651.

[4]  Op cit.  See note No. 2.

[5]  Joshi, p. 70.

[6]  Ibid.

[7]  HPL to J. Vernon Shea, 25 September 1933 (Selected Letters IV, p. 247).

[8]  Ibid., p. 257.

[9]  HPL to J. Vernon Shea, 14 August 1933 (Selected Letters IV, p. 235).

[10] HPL to J. Vernon Shea, 29 May 1933 (Selected Letters IV, p. 194).

[11] HPL to James F. Morton, 12 June 1933 (Selected Letters IV, p. 206).

[12] HPL to Elizabeth Toleridge, 25 March 1933 (Selected Letters IV, pp. 164-5).

[13] HPL to Frank Belknap Long, 21 August 1926 (Selected Letters II. p. 69).

[14] Robert E. Howard, Marchers of Valhalla (New York, Berkley Medallion, 1978), pp. 105-6.

[15] HPL to Frank Belknap Long, 21 March 1924 (Selected Letters I, pp. 333-4).

3 comments:

Arkham Studios said...

Excellent and very well researched essay! I wish there were more voices of common sense as yours, sir. Well done! Bry

Magister said...

This is probably the sanest dissection of this issue that I have seen. Well done!

One of these days I am going to sit down and read all Lovecraft texts available to me dating from 1 January 1936 to 15 March 1937, to see where HPL stood in his last year.

Martin Andersson

Bobby Dee said...

Very solid post, though I might quibble with a few points. I think #9 is probably the most cogent point of the discussion - it's sort of the rough edges that make Lovecraft who he was, and make his fiction what it is. We know now that many of his views on race were factually incorrect (he lived in the days before DNA, and often talked about "races" the way we might talk about breeding dogs or flowers), but many of the same misconceptions of race, genetics, and evolution that Lovecraft had, and which so informed and appeared in his works, are with us today. You can't really squirm at the ending of "Medusa's Coil" without being acutely aware of what miscegenation is, for example.

I touched on some aspects of this in SEX AND THE CTHULHU MYTHOS and "The Shadow Out of Spain" articles about Hispanics in the fiction and correspondence of Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard - and I'm working on a much more in-depth examination of Lovecraft's beliefs regarding race and prejudice - but I think it also worth remembering that in his own light, Lovecraft acknowledged many of his prejudices but did not think himself a bigoted. He wrote to Rheinhart Kleiner in 1915:

"I hardly wonder that my racial ideas seem bigoted to one born & reared in the vicinity of cosmopolitan New York, but you may better understand my repulsion to the Jew when I tell you that until I was fourteen years old I do not believe I ever spoke to one or saw one knowingly." (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 27)

Personally, I think Lovecraft neither needs to be apologized nor demonized for his views - but only that those views should be better understood, placed in their proper context, and that their effects on us today are realized.