In Defence of Dagon’s Author
A campaign against H. P. Lovecraft took advantage of his 125th birthday on August 20th to rear its head again, and it ticked me off, so I’m going to vent.
This campaign stems from Lovecraft’s racism, and there’s no two ways about it, HPL was a racist, although, to be fair to Lovecraft and the campaigners, HPL is not the only pulp writer having his literary status reappraised because of racism. For one example, see this article on Edgar Rice Burroughs.
That said, it’s one thing for a group like the one behind the World Fantasy Awards to consider changing its statuettes, which look like Lovecraft, because at least one recipient and other authors have made it clear they cannot bring themselves to forgive Lovecraft’s “fundamental racism.” Whether or not you agree with this protest, the awards belong to the group, so what they do with the statuettes is their business. It’s another thing, however, to write an article like “The Unlikely Reanimation of H. P. Lovecraft” that appeared on Lovecraft’s birthday on The Atlantic website. The writer, Philip Eil, does a nice job of summarizing HPL’s rise from obscure writer of weird tales to current literary and culture phenomenon, but he also twists himself into knots trying and failing to rectify his admiration for Lovecraft:
“My feelings on Lovecraft—as a bibliophile, a lover of Providence history, a Jew, a fan of his writing, a teacher who assigns his stories—are complicated … [M]y admiration is always coupled with the knowledge that Lovecraft would have found my Jewish heritage repugnant, and that he saw our shared hometown as a haven from the waves of immigrants he saw as infecting cities … I haven’t made peace with this tension, and I’m not sure I ever will.”
I have a suggestion for Eil and anyone else suffering from such tension: get over yourself.
Yes, Lovecraft was a racist, but articles like Eil’s are more about Eil than Lovecraft, but even that isn’t what ticked me off.
HPL’s racism is not a new criticism of the gentleman author from Rhode Island. It was public knowledge during his lifetime, and Robert Bloch acknowledges it in his 1982 introduction to The Best of H. P. Lovecraft. Until recently, however, Bloch’s “product of its time” explanation for Lovecraft’s racism may not have been a satisfying excuse but it was acceptable to most folks, especially those who lived during the pulp era.
If reading racist remarks makes you uncomfortable, I believe that is evidence you have a healthy conscience; but I pray I never become so enlightened that I forget that reading racist remarks is not the same as accepting them, and, when it comes to Lovecraft, it’s impossible for me to read even his most detestable remarks and not remember that he was a bit of a blowhard. Maurice Levy explains this better than I ever could in Lovecraft, A Study in the Fantastic:
“[Lovecraft] declared himself essentially a ‘Teuton and a barbarian,’ a Nordic son of Odin, brother of Hengist and Horsa, ready to drink the hot blood of his enemies in the freshly hollowed-out skull of a Celt. If we are to believe this, we have to forget the New York episode of his life when he threw away the mousetraps after each use to avoid touching the corpus delicti! … He is to be more pitied than blamed. His racism, like his political extremism, was a direct consequence of his philosophical views, which were totally nihilistic. We are astonished that he even took the time and trouble to express his distaste so vigorously, for he felt nothing ultimately is of any great importance [p. 30].”
I am a Lovecraft fan, but that doesn’t mean I ignore the ugly and reprehensible comments in his stories. I acknowledge them, and in this way I make sure not to overlook that the world we live in today is very different, and, in many important ways, so much better than it was only a few decades ago.
Getting back to Eil’s article and his tension, I found a couple of facts about Lovecraft interesting by their absence.
Lovecraft’s racist remarks in his stories and letters tended to be directed in the aggregate and not individuals. By all accounts, Lovecraft was gracious and courteous to everyone he met, regardless of race. Lovecraft also married a Jewess, Sonia Greene, and retained a Jewish literary agent, Julius Schwartz. (Yes, comic fans, that Julius Schwartz.) And, for what it’s worth, Lovecraft’s racism softened as he matured, until, as Bloch points out, “the racist element of earlier efforts is muted or absent in later tales.”
None of this excuses HPL’s racism, but nothing excuses oversights like Eil’s, either. What has me ticked off is, berate Lovecraft if you must, but be fair about it, and realistic.