I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
S. T. Joshi has created what I find to be the definitive biography of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. It must have been a true labor of love for Joshi.
There are two things, unfortunately, that will deter many people from picking this book up and giving it a read:
- its size alone will be the first detriment (nearly 1200 pages)
- preconceived, and often false, notions that people have regarding the subject of this book will also be a deterrent, I believe.
This is sad. H. P. Lovecraft was an extremely interesting man. Sure, he had his faults, as we all do. He is definitely on my list of authors with whom I would love to spend an evening by a fire in some cozy den discussing many things.
This book has truly increased my knowledge of Lovecraft, but it has also brought me closer to the man. You cannot absorb this much about a person without beginning to feel that you actually knew them. My esteem for H. P. Lovecraft has most definitely surged.
I’m also extremely impressed with S. T. Joshi, the author of this work. I cannot even begin to imagine the years of toil that were involved in researching for this project. It was worth it, though. Joshi has managed to humanize Lovecraft. He doesn’t hide the ugliness, but attempts to explain it a bit; understanding assists in developing a less biased opinion of a subject.
I would most assuredly recommend a reading of Joshi’s book for anyone with the slightest interest or curiosity regarding its subject.. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, his philosophies, his struggles, his likes and dislikes, his life. If life had thrown just a few less curve balls at Howard, one may wonder just how far and how successful he may have been; particularly if he had kept his health and lasted into his 70s or 80s. Instead, he was lost to us way too soon (46 years old), just as one of his inspirational mentors, E. A. Poe. (died at 40).
Howard never attained any commercial success in his lifetime. He never had a published book of any of his works while still living. His stories were mostly disseminated via amateur presses or magazines, such as Weird Tales.
There is a decent biographical article in Wikipedia regarding Lovecraft that may stir your interest toward the full story found in Joshi’s biography on Lovecraft. I hope you give it a go someday.
Shortly after posting the above review of S. T. Joshi’s biography of H. P. Lovecraft, I began to receive negative comments stating that I was complicit in Lovecraft’s racist proclivities by not mentioning them in my review. I did not mention them because I was not reviewing that aspect of the man’s life. I was focusing on his talents and his struggles throughout his short life. I was also reviewing S. T. Joshi’s outstanding work in researching and writing this exhaustive study of Lovecraft.
I was having trouble defending myself against these aforementioned negative comments. My only reply was that Mr. Joshi’s book should be read in order to educate and aid in understanding Lovecraft a bit more before slamming him… and by association, myself.
With that in mind, via email correspondence with Mr. Joshi, I asked if he has experienced this himself during the many years that he has written about Lovecraft. His reply to me was outstanding. It made all the points that my poor command of the English language could not. With the author’s kind permission, I’m going to post the document that he sent me in reply to my query.
H. P. Lovecraft’s Racism and Recognition
S. T. Joshi
The posthumous career of H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) is as bizarre as any of the horror tales he ever wrote. Utterly unknown in his own day except to readers of cheap “pulp magazines” such as Weird Tales and Astounding Stories, and unable to secure the publication of even a single book of his stories in his lifetime, he has experienced a renaissance of interest virtually unprecedented in literary history. As a result, almost everything he wrote—not only his acclaimed “weird tales,” but his essays, poetry, and especially his thousands of surviving letters—have been published. The smallest facets of his life, work, and thought have been pored over by fans, critics, and scholars, and his work has appeared in more than thirty languages around the world.
Although Lovecraft officially entered the canon of American literature with the publication of a volume of his Tales in the prestigious Library of America (2005), his presence in popular culture is even more pervasive. Hundreds of films and television shows have been made from his tales, most notably Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) and Dagon (2001) and, more recently, Richard Stanley’s Color out of Space (2019) and Jordan Peele’s Lovecraft Country (an HBO miniseries based on a Lovecraft-inspired novel by Matt Ruff). Guillermo del Toro has been a particularly ardent devotee of Lovecraft’s work, and his film The Shape of Water (2017) is unmistakably influenced by Lovecraft’s masterful tale of hybrid human/fish entities, “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” His presence in comic books, role-playing games, video games, and even merchandising is extensive.
One of the more curious results of this posthumous fame is Lovecraft’s emergence as a kind of patron saint of atheism.1 Born in Providence, R.I., and spending most of his life there, he shed his Baptist faith as a teenager, and in many bracing letters he vigorously heaped abuse upon the truth-claims of religion, scorned mysticism, and condemned the criminal brainwashing of the young into religious dogma.
But an unfortunate side-effect of the wide dissemination of his work—especially his private correspondence—was the revelation that Lovecraft occasionally expressed prejudicial views on African Americans, Jews, and other minorities. These views have been known since the 1950s, but over the past decade a number of commentators have seized upon them to condemn Lovecraft as a “vicious racist.” And now, he has in a small way become embroiled in the otherwise legitimate protests of recent months against the ongoing racism of American society. Some activists in Providence have objected to the display of a bust of Lovecraft, fashioned by the artist Bryan Moore and set up in 2013 in the Providence Athenaeum, a private library.2
As a person of color (a native of India) who has spent most of his life studying Lovecraft’s life and work, I believe I have some authority to speak on this subject. I believe there is considerable reason to withhold our outrage—transiently satisfying as it may be—and present a more balanced perspective.
There is abundant evidence that Lovecraft’s racial views were initially shaped by the influence of his family and of the general culture of New England, which was extremely conservative (both socially and politically) in his day. What is more, Lovecraft—a devotee of the sciences, especially chemistry, astronomy, anthropology, paleontology, and others—believed that the findings of nineteenth-century biology and anthropology (as found in the work of, say, Thomas Henry Huxley, whom Lovecraft cited as early as 1915) endorsed the view that some human races were superior to others. It took generations of scholars, beginning in the 1920s and led by Franz Boas (1858–1942), a professor of anthropology at Columbia University, to overturn this bogus science, and the work was not completed until long after Lovecraft’s death.
What Lovecraft desired, in essence, was the preservation of culture—and not only his own (Anglo-Saxon) culture, but all cultures. It should not be forgotten that during his day the United States was experiencing an unprecedented influx of immigrants. Between the years 1890 and 1920, more than 15 million immigrants came to America—and not just from places like England or Germany, but from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia.
Lovecraft was far from alone in believing that his own culture was being threatened by these new arrivals. The public press thundered with fulminations on the subject. One of the best-selling books of 1920 was Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy.3 As a result, Congress passed three highly restrictive immigration bills—in 1917, 1921, and 1924—by overwhelming majorities. These laws were not amended until 1965.
In 1924 Lovecraft made the somewhat precipitate decision to marry Sonia Greene, a dynamic businesswoman in New York, and move into her apartment in Brooklyn. Sonia was a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine. Many have wondered why Lovecraft, with his anti-Semitic tendencies, married a Jewish woman; but Lovecraft maintained that Sonia had become, through her long residence in England and America, thoroughly westernized (Nietzsche’s “good European”), as he believed himself to be. But over the next two years he suffered extreme misery by an inability to find work in the teeming, heterogeneous metropolis. And yet, even in the depths of his despair, he expressed admiration for the Hasidic Jews of the Lower East Side, who clung to their heritage while surrounded by an alien culture.
Returning to Providence in 1926, he began writing the great tales—“The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Colour out of Space,” At the Mountains of Madness, “The Shadow out of Time”—that we now admire. He also traveled widely. In 1930 he ventured up to Quebec and found much to praise in the way the French-Canadians there—even after their military defeat at the hands of the English in 1759—tenaciously preserved their culture. Then, as now, Quebec is thoroughly French. In 1931 Lovecraft visited Florida and was impressed by the remnants of the old Spanish culture in St. Augustine and other cities.
Lovecraft did express prejudice in two or three poems (out of the 350 he wrote in his lifetime) and in a small number of letters.4 But to what extent do racial elements enter into his highly acclaimed fiction? Some critics believe these elements are pervasive; others, such as the philosopher John Gray, have concluded that “the core of his work has nothing to do with his social and racial resentments.” I am inclined to agree with Gray, for a number of reasons.
It is easy to point to a story such as “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), written during his New York “exile” and exhibiting distaste for minorities. Another story written at the same time, “He,” is also assumed to be racist, but a very different interpretation can be made. Here, the narrator, on his lonely walks around lower Manhattan, meets a preternaturally aged individual (clearly an Anglo-Saxon of aristocratic lineage) who, two centuries earlier, had built a lavish mansion in the area. It is then revealed that this person obtained the land by poisoning the Native Americans who were living there; but the spirits of those Native Americans emerge from the dead and destroy the man, and the narrative takes great satisfaction in this action.
Other stories present white people in a highly dubious light. “The Rats in the Walls” (1923) depicts an aristocratic Anglo-Saxon family in England that has descended to the level of cannibals. “The Lurking Fear” (1922) portrays a well-bred Dutch family in upstate New York that has degenerated into mole-like monsters through inbreeding. “The Dunwich Horror” (1928) is the story of decadent white rustics in central Massachusetts who attempt to commune with monsters from another dimension. On the basis of these three stories, one would be justified in believing that Lovecraft was prejudiced against white people.
Many commentators today seem unaware that around 1930 Lovecraft converted from political and economic conservatism to moderate (non-Marxist) socialism. He did so after witnessing the devastation caused by the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, and came to a reasoned belief that unsupervised capitalism was causing untold misery to the population at large. Initially his socialism was inspired by a fear of a revolution of the “have-nots” that might overthrow civilization; but he later contended that the distribution of economic wealth among the many was a simply a matter of (shall we say it?) social justice:
I agree that most of the motive force behind any contemplated change in the economic order will necessarily come from the persons who have benefited least by the existing order; but I do not see why that fact makes it necessary to wage the struggle otherwise than as a fight to guarantee a place for everybody in the social fabric. The just demand of the citizen is that society assign him a place in its complex mechanism whereby he will have equal chances for education at the start, and a guarantee of just rewards for such services as he is able to render (or a proper pension if his services cannot be used) later on.5
If Lovecraft were alive today, he’d probably be a Bernie Sanders supporter—and wouldn’t have the slightest concern that Sanders is Jewish.
Lovecraft has taken a lot of heat for his conflicted support of Hitler, as expressed in some letters of 1933–34, when Hitler first came to power. But he was by no means alone in this, and persons of far greater renown and influence—including Charles Lindbergh and King Edward VIII of England—were much more full-throated in their admiration of Hitler. Moreover, one of Lovecraft’s friends reports that in 1936 he spoke to a neighbor who had visited Germany and was appalled at her account of the cruelties the German government was inflicting upon Jews and other disfavored minorities.
What is more, his late conversion to socialism caused him to be strongly opposed to various right-wing extremists—ranging from fat-cat capitalists to unabashed bigots—whom he believed to be hindering the cause of economic justice. This makes it abundantly clear that at this time Lovecraft in no sense a supported anything that could remotely be called white nationalism:
Granting the scant possibility of a Franco-like revolt of the Hoovers and Mellons and polite bankers, and conceding that—despite Coughlinism, the Black Legion, the Silver Shirts, and the K.K.K.—the soil of America is hardly very fertile for any variant of Nazism, it seems likely that the day of free and easy plutocracy in the United States is over.6
It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that Lovecraft renounced his racial views toward the end of his life, but evidence suggests that he was indeed rethinking his beliefs in the wake of what he believed to be the desperate need for political and economic reform.
It is also worth noting that Lovecraft was one of the most universally beloved figures of his day. He was tremendously generous (not with money, for he had little, but with his time and expertise) in helping fellow writers perfect their craft. One friend, Ernest A. Edkins, said of Lovecraft that “he remains enshrined in my memory as a great gentleman, in the truest sense of that much abused term.”7 And not one of Lovecraft’s friends and colleagues has reported that he ever expressed a racist sentiment in their presence. His assistance and support extended to a number of Jewish colleagues, among them the poet Samuel Loveman and the young Robert Bloch, later the author of Psycho (1959). Bloch’s four-year correspondence with Lovecraft (1933–37) was so meaningful to him that he has declared that, had he known that Lovecraft was dying, he would have crawled on his hands and knees from Milwaukee to Providence to be at his bedside.
It is curious that Lovecraft is so widely condemned for his views when many other figures are given a pass for their deviations of current sociopolitical orthodoxy. Edgar Allan Poe was an unabashed supporter of slavery. H. G. Wells spoke disparagingly of “primitive” cultures. Jack London revealed strong anti-Asian prejudice, writing the article “The Yellow Peril” (1904), in which he heaped scorn on the Chinese immigrants in California. Lovecraft’s Robert E. Howard, the inventor of Conan the Barbarian, wrote the story “Black Canaan” (1936), a far more egregiously racist story than anything Lovecraft wrote, as it expresses sympathy with white slaveowners suppressing a revolt by African American slaves in Texas before the Civil War.
T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were unequivocal anti-Semites; Pound was so virulent on the subject, as exhibited in radio talks he gave during World War II, that he was locked up for a few years in an insane asylum. Roald Dahl was a ferocious racist and anti-Semite—and had far less excuse for it, since he was aware of the effects of the Holocaust, as Lovecraft was not. Even the sainted George Orwell has now been revealed to have been a homophobe. The list could go on and on.
In a peculiar way it is a tribute to Lovecraft that he is singled out for his racism when other writers are not: there is an inherent power in his work that many find compelling, and as a result they seem to take personal offense at his lapse on the issue of race. Lovecraft is now pervasive in popular culture in a way that highbrow poets like Eliot and Pound could never be. But it is also interesting to note that this obsession with Lovecraft’s racial views is largely a product of Anglo-American culture. I am in nearly daily touch with editors, publishers, and devotees of Lovecraft from around the world, and very few of them exhibit any interest in his racism. These are the very people you would think would be most disturbed by his attitudes, but in fact they simply don’t care. What they do care about is disseminating Lovecraft’s work as widely as they can in their own societies.
At this fraught moment in our own society, it would appear that many of us are not very tolerant of nuance. It is more emotionally satisfying to see things in black and white. But I trust that cooler heads will at some point prevail and that H. P. Lovecraft, whose immensely powerful weird tales have inspired generations of readers, writers, and scholars, will not be lumped with Confederate generals and others whose racism actively harmed persons of color, and who justly deserve to be dethroned from their positions of respect and authority. It is horribly reductive to see Lovecraft as just a “vicious racist” and nothing more. He was a racist, but hardly “vicious”; he was unfailingly courteous to everyone he met, including people of other races. And his views on this and the myriad other subjects that engaged his mind are complex and not easily pigeonholed.
There is always a danger in casting moral judgments on figures of the past—and the greatest danger is that we ourselves will be subject to similar censure fifty or a hundred years from now for all manner of derelictions of which we are unaware or which we blandly accept as an immutable part of present-day society. So a certain humility may be in order. The continual harping on this one aspect of Lovecraft’s thought may itself constitute a kind of bias or prejudice that ought to be deprecated.
1 See my article “H. P. Lovecraft: Denier of God—Creator of Gods,” Truth Seeker (May–August 2020).
2 The bust makes a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s film Irrational Man (2014), set in a fictitious Rhode Island college.
3 Excerpts of this book, along with many other material of the same sort, can be found in my compilation Racism in America: A Documentary History (Sarnath Press, 2020).
4 And I mean a small number. Out of the 4.5 million words of his surviving correspondence, I would be surprised of racial matters are discussed in more than 5% of that total wordage; the true figure may be as little as 2%. Lovecraft had many other things on his mind.
5 Letter to Kenneth Sterling (October 18, 1936); in Letters to Robert Bloch and Others, ed. David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2015), 285–86.
6 Letter to C. L. Moore (7 February 1937); in Letters to C. L. Moore and Others, ed. David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2017), 213.
7 Ernest A. Edkins, “Idiosyncrasies of H.P.L.” (1940); in Ave atque Vale: Reminiscences of H. P. Lovecraft, ed. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 2018), 363.
Thank you for posting this. I thought the author’s reply was thoughtful and considered against ridiculous criticism. Fictional characters have failings, as do humans. I would point you to Oscar Wilde’s preface to the Picture of Dorian Grey, wherein the author defends depiction of sinful characters in literature. We used to recognize that we all harbor sin but are called to walk the correct path. Lovecraft acknowledges that prejudice is a part of human nature, and has unpleasant aspects.
Hi, Jordan… Yes, I was somewhat surprised and very thankful that Mr. Joshi replied to the email I sent him regarding this topic. He and I both felt that it would be a positive thing to add it here as an addendum. I’ve received much more positive feedback from this than I initially did from the review alone.
Have a great weekend. Stay safe and HEALTHY!
Was considering reading some Lovecraft again and stumbled upon this. I love that you added the author’s input. I think people forget that authors and their works are products of their time and place. Even when they look with an eye to a distant planet or future, there’s something of their life in what they write, in how they envision it. I think a lot of folks forget that the South wasn’t the only place racism existed, and it’s uncomfortable when they think of so called “white country” like Rhode Island and the old New England states as having casual racism all over. It was the norm, and pretty crazy.
We had an old family bible that was falling apart and had some family letter shoved in it’s pages from about 1898 (wish like hell someone hadn’t thrown it out). It was hard to read that flowy calligraphy, but there was some part that struck out at me. The great aunt or whoever had moved to one of the midwest states and commented that there were lots of Catholics, Irish, blacks, Then said “There aren’t but three white families in this whole town.” That struck me, and then I remembered my history and that only WASPs were considered “white” back then. It’s disconcerting to see casual racism to the point where if you went back in time and pointed it out to them, they would wonder what you were so bent out of shape about, they’re just saying what’s “true.”
I wondered about the Lovecraft backlash that I started hearing about and I think why he’s got so much of it with the racism and all is because people know OF him, but they don’t know him like they do Poe or other authors of the fantastic, so there’s really no refutation they can make. The only thing most people know is Cthulhu references, but they couldn’t tell you much of what it was or where it came from or why. So people see a few racist snippets and there we go. I found his stuff weird and interesting, and very ahead of it’s time. Shame he’s not taught alongside Poe and other early sci-fi authors in school, though maybe that’s changing.
I definitely want to read this book now that you’ve mentioned it. Not the biggest fan of biographies, but as someone who wants to write for a living as well, learning what created the person who created all kinds of other things is worth knowing.
Read this one @ChattyIntrovert! It’s well worth the time. Also, thank you for your comments. I’d reply in more detail in response but I’m 5 double bourbons into it at the moment whilst listening to some excellent Rock and Roll from the ’60s. I’m sure you’ll excuse me for this. Rock on! \m/