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Not Lovecraft’s Providence

As I recently confessed, I found it strangely moving to visit the haunts of cult horrormeister H. P. Lovecraft in his beloved Providence. But why would I care about this man’s erstwhile lodgings? Unmentioned last week was that in much of his life, having drunk deeply from the well of early 20th-century political and anthropological pseudo-science, Lovecraft was a raving foreigner-hating racist nutball. I’m not exaggerating. Read this passage from a 1926 letter he wrote to a young friend:

The New York Mongoloid problem is beyond calm mention. The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! … How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. … There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare—but not till such time as our own minds are fully freed of the humanitarian hindrances of the Syrian superstition imposed upon us by Constantinus. … In New England we have our own local curses … in the form of simian Portuguese, 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.*

Prosecution rests. This is the unsavory language of a man unhinged by repulsion and contempt for everyone whose ethnicity differs from his own. And it’s not peripheral: I think Michel Houellebecq is quite correct to see Lovecraft’s horror at other races as the inspiration for the monstrous aliens of his fiction.

So why pay reverent visits to addresses where Lovecraft once lived? To sense the presence of a Nazi lunatic?

Well, you can’t just dismiss all racists as if their racism defined them totally. People have faults. One racist may be a great philosopher or writer (Gottlob Frege was fiercely anti-Semitic; and who knows how Shakespeare would have reacted to a Moor or a Jew moving in next door?); the next may be your mother. Deluded racial views don’t make someone cease to exist.

I’m not letting Lovecraft off the moral hook: His effusions suggest a real lack of humanity. But Lovecraftian apologists point out that to some extent he was just venting: An unhappy period of living in the poverty-stricken Red Hook area of Brooklyn apparently traumatized him.

Moreover, he was probably humiliated to see the “yellow, soulless enemies” of the “stew of Asiatic filth” working hard for their living. He couldn’t emulate them. Lovecraft was an utter failure at supporting himself. Affecting the manners of a New England gentleman couldn’t conceal the fact that he could barely pay his rent. Sonia Greene, his Ukrainian-Jewish ex-wife from his failed marriage, helped him with train fares.

In his last years, as news of Hitler’s policies filtered in, he began to change his political sympathies. He deserves little respect for that, I think: Racists don’t earn brownie points from me for mere failure of permanent commitment to their announced hatreds.

Still, although racism is dangerous and evil, it seems to me that poor Lovecraft wasn’t. Pathetic is more like it.

One recent evening I walked westward from downtown Providence for half an hour or so, out to areas where the population and the retail establishments are predominantly Caribbean, Central American, or Cape Verdean. I found a tiny restaurant where a friendly Guatemalan woman speaking no English at all brought me tacos suaves con pollo and plátanos con crema. The place was warm and cosy and welcoming, the patrons almost 100 percent Latino. The food was great.

This was not Lovecraft’s Providence. This was the ethnically diverse modern America that he foresaw with terror. He should have had more faith in our common humanity and the vitality of our country.

*Letter from Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, August 21, 1926; quoted by L. Sprague de Camp in Lovecraft: A Biography (Doubleday, New York, 1975), 266-267.

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