H. P. Lovecraft: A Life

The Lovecraft series continues with a look at S. T. Joshi’s biography of that writer.

Joshi has expanded this 708 page book into 1,200 pages with the updated edition called I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m going to do my wrists a favor, when I do, and get the kindle edition.

Raw Feed (2005): H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, S. T. Joshi, 1996, 2004.H P Lovecraft A Life

Joshi is such a concise writer that it would do little good to sum up all the points of interest in this book’s 655 pages of text, and some it, expectedly, repeats Joshi’s H. P. Lovecraft and H. P. Lovecraft:  The Decline of the West. Since Joshi sums up all of Lovecraft’s fiction including some of his most important revisions, I think this book comes about as close as you can get to a one volume introduction to Lovecraft without reading his work.

He gives brief summaries of Lovecraft’s most important correspondents and professional contacts, the magazines he published in, and other matters related to Lovecraft’s interests, life, and times.

Granted, some of this gets a bit far afield.

Is it really necessary to give a summary of Antarctic exploration when mentioning Lovecraft’s interest in it even though it is, of course, relevant to his “At the Mountains of Madness“?

Still, I learned a lot about Lovecraft.

Joshi believes L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of Lovecraft was so unsympathetic because de Camp was so opposite the decidedly unprofessional, introspective Lovecraft. He also thinks de Camp didn’t appreciate the integration of Lovecraft’s personal philosophy with his stories. On the other hand, he credits de Camp looking at material no one else had in regards to Lovecraft, interviewing some of those who knew Lovecraft before they died, and generally helping Lovecraft to be taken more seriously.

Contra de Camp’s claim, Lovecraft was not tone deaf. Lovecraft was in a musical group called the Blackstone Military Band (a reference to which is in his poem “Waste Paper”, a parody of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”) and something of a violin prodigy before he lost interest in it. He seems to have had an excellent sense of rhythm which helped his excellent adherence to form — which is about all that can be said for a great deal of his poetry.

Until he had to leave his first childhood home at age 14, Lovecraft seemed to have had a rather spoiled childhood which included an interest in trains. That was the only time Lovecraft later said he contemplated suicide, but intellectual curiosity, the thought of not knowing so many things, saved him.

That sensitivity and attachment to landscape shows up again and again in Lovecraft’s life. He said his first sight of Marblehead, Massachusettss was one of the great events of his life. His return to Providence after his exile in the “pest-zone” of New York City was another case of the view of a landscape being important — indeed it shows up in the description of the city Randolph Carter seeks in Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath“. (One of the peculiarity’s of Lovecraft’s writing is the coining of all sorts of hyphenated terms. It reminded me of the writing of his contemporary, Charles Fort. Was such phrase creation a feature of 1920s writing?)

Joshi also details what specific geography inspired particular Lovecraft stories. Lovecraft’s travels are detailed — indeed, the longest thing he ever wrote was an account of his travels to Quebec. Most of his travel pieces were written for his own amusement.

The darkest period of Lovecraft’s life, his laying about from 1908-1913, is covered.

Another of Lovecraft’s nervous breakdowns prevented him from attending college, and Joshi seems appalled at the number of model railroading magazines and pulps he consumed in this period.

Joshi’s only faults as a Lovecraft biographer are his rather snobbish disdain of most popular literature and his unthinking liberal dismissal of Lovecraft’s view of race and culture (yes, some of Lovecraft’s thinking was outmoded, but race and its connection to culture can not be as easily dismissed as Joshi would have it). Joshi can not entertain the notion that Lovecraft learned something about constructing a story from his pulp reading — even though he later came to despise most pulp literature as too concerned with action and unrealistic romantic sentiments (like those of Edgar Rice Burroughs who he admired when young). Lovecraft also thought that writing for pulps had tainted his style with too much explicitness. That is why he regarded “The Music of Erich Zann” as one of his best stories.

On the other hand, Joshi’s classical training is helpful when talking about classical influences on Lovecraft.

Lovecraft’s teenage publishing of astronomy articles in local papers was interesting. Lovecraft later linked the “cosmicism” of his writing to this exposure to astronomy. He wanted to be a professional astronomer but a lack of mathematical aptitude foiled him.

He also learned a lot about chemistry when young, and among many of his early writings was an amazing number of “periodicals” devoted to science and distributed to family and friends.

Lovecraft early on dabbled at writing detective fiction as well as played at being detective with local boys. (Lovecraft was the only one that carried a real revolver, and he said he had a fair number of .22 caliber guns and was a good shot till his eyesight went bad.)

The biography makes clear that most of Lovecraft’s health problems leading to his nervous breakdowns, frequent absences from school, and failure to be admitted to the Army were probably psychosomatic. Lovecraft initially passed the Army physical during World War One — he had been a firm advocate of America entering World War One since it began, but his mother pulled some strings and had the family physician speak to the Army which caused him to be evaluated as permanently unfit for duty. Based on personal experience, I suspect Lovecraft, given his migraines and fainting spells, may have suffered from vasovagal syncope. Joshi doesn’t talk much about Lovecraft’s sensitivity to cold.

Certainly after the death of his mother, who seems to have both smothered Lovecraft and also resented his economic uselessness at providing an income, Lovecraft seems to have been robust. (She also supposedly remarked on Lovecraft’s ugliness.) He frequently out walked all his friends on his New York jaunts and the various trips he made (ranging from New Orleans to Quebec to Key West and his beloved Charleston — where he said he would have liked to live if he couldn’t live in Providence) were done on nervous energy since he ate little and walked for long periods of time, sleeping little and, thereby, made the most of travel time severely limited by finances.

Joshi talks about Lovecraft’s strange marriage to the Russian Jew Sonia Greene, senior to him by seven years. Joshi thinks Greene pursued the marriage. By her own admission, in a memoir written in 1948 (she didn’t find out about Lovecraft’s death until 1945), she hoped (in that typically mistaken way of women who enter failed marriages) to remake Lovecraft.

Joshi won’t say that Lovecraft hoped for a replacement for his dead mother, but he says, rightly I think, Lovecraft didn’t appreciate what marriage meant. (That was probably one of many ways Lovecraft matured in his hellish New York years.) He spent a lot of time hanging out with his friends and returned late at nights even though Sonia wanted him to sleep (in the literal sense) with her.

In the euphemistic sense, Lovecraft was a virgin until marrying Greene. She pronounced him an “adequately excellent” lover (a rather odd admixture of low and high praise) though she noted he never initiated sex or even said he loved Greene. He seems to have been genuinely asexual. Indeed, he became agitated at the mention of sex though he had read several books on the subject.

There is a lot of mention of Lovecraft’s revision clients. He charged for everything from merely commenting on work to full scale ghostwriting. Indeed, most of his work for Zealia Bishop was expansion of bare, one paragraph story germs. His most profitable client was David Van Bush, a self-help, pop-psych guru of the ’20s and ’30s as well as a wouldbe poet. Lovecraft also, in his New York years, briefly wrote ad copy.

He also did a brief stint as a ticket taker at a Providence theater. That’s about as close as Lovecraft ever came to a conventional job.

Joshi takes Lovecraft’s aunts and mother to task for not putting aside their aristocratic airs and providing some practical job training for Lovecraft. His aunts also seemed to have sabotaged the idea of Sonia setting up a millinery shop in Providence. They seemed to have been horrified at the idea of their nephew supported by his wife. (Though Aunt Annie Gamwell seems to have gotten on well with Sonia.)

Lovecraft later said the marriage failed mostly due to financial difficulties. Sonia earned a very good wage when they married, but shortly thereafter she tried to start her own business which failed. The couple only lived together for nine months. They officially divorced in 1929.

Despite Joshi’s conventionally wrong views on race, there is no doubt that Lovecraft was a racist by most definitions. Sonia recounts him reacting violently to seeing blacks on the subway, and she lamented that he never lost his anti-Semitism toward Jews who hadn’t assimilated to New England culture like Sonia and his friend Samuel Loveman had.

Joshi details how some “flaws” of Lovecraft’s were deliberate aesthetic choices.

Like his idol Poe — the one author he consistently admired and imitated early on — he was interested in creating a mood, examining a state of mind, one particular incident and not character. Lovecraft dismissed his celebrated early and much anthologized work “The Outsider” as simply an exercise in imitating Edgar Allan Poe. (Lovecraft also traveled to Richmond and other cities that were associated with Poe.) Critic Edmund Wilson’s infamous dismissal of Lovecraft — Joshi does consider him a good critic apart from this lapse — was that he was a third-rate Poe imitator. However, one of the pre-eminent Poe scholars of the time liked Lovecraft and didn’t share that view.

Joshi also says that calling Lovecraft’s prose too adjective laden assumes there is some mathematical formula for the right number of adjectives in a story.

Joshi does regard later imitators of Lovecraft as mostly silly. Trapped by August Derleth’s erroneous interpretation of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, they spawned a complex pseudo-mythology and battle of good and evil where Lovecraft and his friends simply used their fake gods as a joke and a device for creating a sense of verisimilitude. (Joshi has a brief section discussing the exact chronology and relation of Lovecraft’s various Cthulhu entities to those later created by his friends and imitators and concludes it with the acid remark about the subtleties of Lovecraft scholarship.)

The inferior imitators didn’t capture the indifference of Lovecraft’s universe or his atmosphere. He does have good things to say about those inspired by Lovecraft. Ramsey Campbell (who Joshi has also written critical works about) started out imitating Lovecraft but moved in his own direction. He notes that R. H. Barlow, a teenage protege of Lovecraft’s, produced sophisticated work unlike Lovecraft’s.  Barlow later when on to help found Mexican archaeology — before committing suicide when exposure of his homosexuality was threatened. Robert Bloch went on to his own voice. James Blish and C. L. Moore corresponded with Lovecraft. Frank Belknap Long was a long time friend. But Joshi says Lovecraft’s most distinguished correspondent turned out to be Fritz Leiber (whose father Lovecraft remembered seeing in a performance of a Shakespeare play in Providence).

As for Derleth, Joshi notes the sophistication of his Proust-like mainstream Wisconsin novels (which Lovecraft liked), but he thinks that not only was the promulgation of Derleth’s wrong interpretation of Lovecraft’s work (including the contention that Lovecraft’s pseudo-deities were like elementals) harmful to Lovecraft’s reputation, but so was his insistence, after Lovecraft’s death, that Lovecraft’s stories be published in the rather uncommercial three volume series he envisioned. While those collections kept Derleth and Lovecraft associate Donald Wandrei’s Arkham House afloat, they kept Lovecraft from mainstream exposure.

However, Lovecraft bears some blame for his slow to form reputation in the wider world. He refused to seek a publisher for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. He wrote a self-destructively diffident response to a publisher seeking to anthologize his stories thus bearing out the old saw about an editor not having confidence in your work if you don’t.

He was also very sensitive to rejection. In the 1930s, he wrote comparatively little fiction sense his work was either rejected or published in mangled form. His letters show he was much more likely to write when his work was being favorably responded to.

One peculiarity of Lovecraft was that the themes and images of his earlier works are taken up again after 1926 in more sophisticated form.

The personal side of Lovecraft is covered in his maniacal quest to replace the suits stolen from him in New York and his love of cats and hot weather and the image of him sitting in parks on his travels answering his correspondents.

De Camp thought Lovecraft should have cut back on his correspondence (he had over seventy regular correspondents at his death), but Joshi rightly points out that his letters provided him a stimulation not found in his native Providence and that responding to letters was what the gentleman he thought himself as would do. Lovecraft also liked writing, and many now find his letters Lovecraft’s greatest, most enduring work. Certainly they created the loyal friends who helped preserve and build his reputation after his death.

Joshi also covers what happened to Lovecraft’s reputation and associates after his death — including the various pastiches and film adaptations of his work.

He also describes the world of amateur journalism which Lovecraft discovered in 1914. It gave him someplace to display his talents and be appreciated. He credited it with doing much for him. Today, of course, the amateurs who inhabited the movement would all have websites and spend hours in newsgroups.

Joshi also talks about the specific authors and works that inspired various Lovecraft’s works. He does not seem to have been a completely original author in terms of ideas (few authors are), but his reworking of others’ themes often produced works of note.  Indeed, you could argue that a lot of authors (as well as others associated with Lovecraft) are remembered only because of that association.

Joshi opens the book with a somewhat interesting account of Lovecraft’s genealogy. Lovecraft himself was interested in such matters and, in autobiographical pieces, talked about it.

Joshi also relates how the Lovecraft’s name as the “dreamer of Providence” was not a myth. Lovecraft really did find inspiration for some works in his dreams.

Other myths about Lovecraft are not true.

He doesn’t seem, even though both parents died mentally disturbed, to have been afraid of going insane. (At least, not in articulations for which records still exist.) Nor did he starve to death — though certainly his economic circumstances were desperate enough at the end, and he often remarked that he would probably become destitute enough to warrant suicide.

Joshi also talks about how Lovecraft’s beloved grandfather introduced him to his love of Roman things (the grandfather had actually been to Italy) and how his uncle Dr. Clark helped him polish his prose style. (Lovecraft often thought his uncle’s translations of classical works should have been published).

All in all, quite an impressive exploration of Lovecraft’s work and life.


More works related to Lovecraft are indexed on the Lovecraft page.

5 thoughts on “H. P. Lovecraft: A Life

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