Friday, March 23, 2012

Lovecraft's Blog

So, recently while reading the Mistakonic River Press volume of Lovecraft criticism, I dug out several pamphlets from Necronomicon Press, to confirm that one of the essays printed inside the M.R.P. volume was a piece I'd read before.* In the process, I came across another such booklet that I'd bought years ago (1996) but never gotten around to reading. The last few days I've remedied that, and it's been an interesting experience.

First off, what we have here is basically Lovecraft's blog. Lovecraft did not start out a short-story writer for the horror pulps; he started out as an essayist and editorialist in an amateur press association. THE CONSERVATIVE was HPL's own apa, printed between 1915 and 1923, in which he tackles issues ranging from prosody and politics to pacifism and prohibition. Joshi, the world's pre-immenent Lovecraft scholar, has selected some representative contents to reprint in this little booklet.

So far as rational discourse goes, it's hard to take Lovecraft seriously here: he's interested less in engaging in a discussion than in demolishing those who hold a contrary opinion to his own. Thus, although I agree with Lovecraft on some points (Temperance) and completely oppose him on others (Pacifism), that's largely moot: neither his support nor his condemnation had any sway on my own views. It's best to view these as polemics, relics from flame wars of nearly a century ago. Hence, my characterization of them as Lovecraft's blog: were he alive today, this is the sort of thing he'd be posting on his website.

At it's best, these essays reveal Lovecraft's gift for pastiche: he deliberately re-creates the sustained invective that characterized Swift's vicious little pieces of some two hundred years before (cf. A TALE OF A TUB). He particularly takes care to make his opening sentence as provocative as possible, to get attention and a rise out of the reader. Here are two particularly telling examples:

"After the degrading debauch of craven pacifism through which our sodden and feminized public has lately floundered, a slight sense of shame seems to be appearing, and the outcries of peace-at-any-price maniacs are less violent than they were a few months ago." ("The Renaissance of Manhood", an anti-pacifist diatribe, p. 15; October 1915)

"Of the various intentional fallacies exhaled like miasmic vapours from the rotting cosmopolitanism of vitiated American politics, and doubly rife during these days of European conflict, none is more disgusting than that contemptible subterfuge of certain foreign elements whereby the legitimate zeal of the genuine native stock for England's cause is denounced and compared to the unpatriotic disaffection of those working in behalf of England's enemies." ("Old England and the 'Hyphen'", p. 18-19; October 1916)


Quite apart from literary quality (or the lack of it), these essays are primarily of interest for what they reveal about Lovecraft. His idealization of Pope's prosody and of the colonial era when England and America were one are palpable, but it was a pleasant surprise to find a phrase or two in praise of natural beauty (something almost altogether absent from his later works, aside from the haunting ending of the DREAM-QUEST) -- e.g. "the playing of the sun with the leaves of green trees" (p.23) as one of the things that sometimes brings happiness, or a wistful allusion to "twilight in an old garden in spring" (p.36). He's also somewhat less anti-Xian here than later, or at least less than his apostles wd have us believe. The best essay, I thought, was "Revolutionary Mythology" (p. 21-22; October 1916), in which he casts doubt on the larger-than-life status accorded what since his day have come to be called 'the Founding Fathers' (a phrase apparently invented by Warren G. Harding's speechwriter): he's a case where consensus history has more or less caught up with him (although most Americans still harbor resentments against the Tories, whom he admires). The worst are those on prosody, esp. the one on free verse, which he was constitutionally incapable of appreciating:** his arguments basically come down to a high-handed but heartfelt plea that for everybody to write just like Alexander Pope and all may yet be well.

One question any reader of these pieces has to ask himself or herself: When is a Conservative a Reactionary? Here we have ideas that were for the most part already outside the mainstream ninety-plus years ago, and the ones that did at least briefly hold center stage -- such as Lovecraft's call for something v. like the Palmer Raids (p. 33; July 1919) -- are uniformly discredited by history. The little volume's editor makes things worse with his introduction in which he rightly argues against judging Lovecraft as if he were our contemporary, but then oversteps so badly as to undercut his entire thesis:

"Lovecraft the racist; Lovecraft the political reactionary; Lovecraft the antiquated litterateur: many [of his admirers] do not like to admit these sides of his character, hence try to explain them away. But there is no need to do so, because he was none of these things" ("Introduction", p. iii; emphasis mine). Joshi's argument is that, having been raised in a different time and milieu, "Lovecraft . . . could not but have believed as he did" (p. iv). Unfortunately for this line of defense, plenty of Lovecraft's contemporaries did not in fact hold such views -- including many of his fellow apa writers. Or, for a more well-known example, take Mark Twain, who died just a few years before Lovecraft launched his apa, and who grew up in a pro-slavery environment but came to utterly reject all arguments in favor of slavery.

The argument that Lovecraft was no racist also comes a purler with the piece "In a Minor Key" (July 1915), in which HPL distinguishes between anti-Semitism ("a religious and social animosity of one white race toward another white and equally intellectual race") and laws against 'miscegenation' ("the natural and scientifically just sentiment which keeps the African black from contaminating the Caucasian population of the United States"), adding "The negro is fundamentally the biological inferior of all White and even Mongolian races, and the Northern people must occasionally be reminded of the danger which they incur in admitting him too freely to the privileges of society and government" (p.9; emphasis mine).

And as if this were not bad enough, Lovecraft devotes his next paragraph to a gushing defense of the Ku-Klux-Klan: "that noble but much maligned band of Southerners who saved half of our country from destruction at the close of the Civil War" (ibid). Although he'd not yet seen BIRTH OF A NATION, the controversy over which had sparked this discussion, he mentions having both read and seen a stage play based on THE KLANSMAN, the book of which NATION was the film adaptation. Furthermore, he asserts his authority on the subject, boasting that he "has . . . made a close historical study of the Ku-Klux-Klan, finding as a result of his [i.e., HPL's] research nothing but Honour, Chivalry, and Patriotism in the activities of the Invisible Empire. The Klan merely did for the people what the law refused to do, removing the ballot from unfit hands . . ." (p. 9; ibid). He concludes: "Race prejudice is a gift of Nature".

Granted, it's interesting to see Lovecraft grant a middle status to those who, while white, do not belong to "the real American people, the descendants of Virginian and New England Christian Protestant colonists" ("The Crime of the Century",*** p. 10; April 1915). Here he sounds remarkably like Pat Buchanan. Elsewhere he accepts assimilation so long as the immigrants are of "Teutonic stock" and forsake old-world alliances, but he indignantly and explicitly rejects the concept of "America as a composite nation whose civilisation is a compound of all existing cultures; a melting-pot of mongrelism wherein it is a crime for a man to know his own grandfather's name" ("Old England and the 'Hyphen'", p. 20; October 1916).

So, an interesting read, yes. Edifying, no. Maybe the most horrifying thing about Lovecraft's stories in the end is the realization that he toned down his racism, phobias, and hatreds in his fiction. Didn't see that coming.

--JDR


*Mariconda's, with its v. useful (albeit incomplete) chart listing Cth. elements in Lovecraft's stories, set out in chronological form.

**but then, you'd expect him to utterly reject anything called Modernism, and he does, whether in poetry or music or art (e.g., cf. p.25)

***i.e., the 'crime', for Lovecraft, being that fellow-Aryans were at war with each other.

8 comments:

Robert said...

What does 'apa' mean?

Anubis said...

'Amateur press association', I gather.

John D. Rateliff said...

Here's a link to a piece about apa's; the first paragraph or two shd tell you all you need to know.

http://www.labyrinth.net.au/~gsj/Kaje/APAs.html

The apa I'm most familiar with is the long-running D&D/rpg apa ALARUM AND EXCURSIONS, but I know there have been Tolkien apas in the past -- both Taum Santoski and David Bratman belonged to one in the long-ago.

Most of the ones I've seen consisted of mimeographed pages, with each contributor's section done in a different color paper; don't have a v. clear idea what they looked like in Lovecraft's day.

--JDR

David Bratman said...

The apas that Lovecraft belonged to would have been unbound bundles of individual publications on various sizes and colors of paper, many of them rather long, and not the stapled collection of a few sheets from each contributor that you'd have seen in recent apas. In those days, I think the individual contributions (the sf-fan term for these is "apazines"; "apa" means the whole mailing or the corporate entity) have been mostly handprinted letterset rather than mimeographed.

Amateur publishing (in those days as often called amateur journalism, or ayjay for short) began with people who were more interested in practicing and showing off their printing skills than in anything they had to say. Gradually, apas began attracting people like HPL who were at least equally interested in content, and conversations went on rather in the manner of newspaper editorials responding to news stories, but it was not until some science fiction fans (including Donald A. Wollheim, later of Ace Books fame) joined in the late 1930s that they invented "mailing comments", direct responses to items in the previous mailing, equivalent to blog comments like this one. Wollheim and the others then went on to create the first sf apas, where the form flourished for some 50 years with its own protocols and customs, rather different from those of what fandom called "the mundane apas", i.e. the pre-fannish ones of the kind that HPL belonged to.

Dale James Nelson said...

Were there apas devoted just to Tolkien?

In the 1970s I contributed to an apa called Elanor, which I believe was founded by Paul S. Ritz. It was more a fantasy-in-general apa than specifically a Tolkienian one, and some contributors, such as a NASA employee named Harry Andruschak, didn't even write very much about fantasy -- again, I'm going by memory. I would imagine that where fanzines were ephemeral compared to regular magazines, apazines were ephemeral compared to fanzines. As mailings accumulated, closet space filled, and so probably others did as I did and eventually threw away or (let us hope) recycled most of their mailings.

A great deal of what we wrote for our apazines really was just blog entry-type stuff, and (present company excepted) blog entries are of passing interest. The apazines were printed in small numbers, smaller than for fanzines; I suppose that for Elanor I printed around 20 copies of a 'zine (by ditto).

Also, apazines, for all their typical informality, didn't have the intimate interest that might prompt someone to save letters.

So, falling between letters and fanzines, in a way, apazines were likely to be casualties of house cleaning. Given the adolescent brashness sometimes committed to ditto or mimeo in these things, some of us will hope that our 'zines do not still lurk in people's basements, attics, and closets -- !

K. K. Rotwang said...

John,

I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds HPL's racism worth examining.

I wrote a book that (among other things) critiques his racism. Learn about it here: www.shadowoutofprovidence.com .

--Ezra Claverie

Martin Alvarez Milan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin Alvarez Milan said...

Like Poe, Lovecraft was a tortured soul that contemplated suicide more than once, and explored dark feelings of aggression and depression through his characters. It is not surprising then that he found some twisted sense of "honor" and "chivalry" in the Klan.

I find Lovecraft a creature of paradoxes. His racism was contradictory with some of his other ideas.