Race in Lovecraft Scholarship (I)

In my undergraduate years, back in the early 2000s, I was wildly and deeply into a book I had found, not by chance but by recommendation (of my friend Amittai Aviram, a former University of South Carolina literature professor that I had the pleasure to study with) – John M. Ellis’ 1997 Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities.

I was madly in love with it. And I didn’t understand it a bit, or rather – I understood it as complimentary to the New Critical doctrines that had quite an appeal to me at the time. That’s not what Ellis wanted at all, of course, when he argued against politically correct race-gender-class-criticism in literature classes. While in no way pushing forward the idea of a somehow autonomous or suspended text, the way the New Critics did, he argues for an informed inside view of the text that academic critics should make their task to provide. Race, gender, and class, it goes, are overstressed categories attached to a more or less sterile text construct whose inside – all those metrical, narrative, and stylistical gear wheels that you see locked together when you go into the text, all those mechanisms you get to know if you understand literary studies as a craft that you, the critic, have the tools to practice- is no longer being explored because all these categories stick only on the surface of the text and need no more than surface adhesion. A similar argument was brought forward very recently by Terry Eagleton in his How to read a Poem, by the way, a real fun read and one of those books of criticism that make me envious, in an aspiratorial way, because their theory is so sound, their style so suave and mature and forcefully alive that you, the reader, really grow into the strong conviction that theory is a blessing, a welcome necessity.

Race, I thought, is just a category in description of a context that is simply not necessary to explain a text. Then, critically, Lovecraft swung back into my professional life, after I had sucessfully evaded him for quite some time – not a challenge, really, when noone at your alma mater even knows him, the little deserted ghetto child of American literature, bless him. And I came to realize, well before I started that dissertation on his work, that I would have to find some productive way of dealing with race in his fiction.

Or not? Couldn’t I read his texts, work them into contexts, without taking notice of the race issue? After all, he doesn’t make productive use of it, so why should I? Michael Cisco, in his review of the long overdue English translation of Michel Houellebecque’s H.P. Lovecraft – Contre le monde, contre la vie, is right to the point when he finds –

When Houellebecq cites the frothier passages from the New York era as characteristic of Lovecraft’s racism, he doesn’t follow through any more than most other readers have. Certainly Lovecraft hated with as much emotional intensity as he could muster, but I would say these passages are at least as much characterized by a joy in invective for its own sake, so much so that I can imagine Lovecraft losing sight utterly of the actual objects of his hatred and becoming lost in whipping up those long chewy sentences of his.

Losing sight utterly – that’s the point: there is something very systematic and rigorous in Lovecraft’s racism, which is so reppelent because it happens instinctively, not in any way reflectedly. You can read the finest story…and then, suddenly (but predictably) he takes his racist invectives and flings them into your spine like a pickaxe: impossible to get used to, like the whole of his prose, anyway. [Cisco accidentaly cannot help but get my most wholehearted assent when he shortly alludes in his review to the complicity of Lovecraft’s narrators in evil, “evil”, or Evil, a notion I pursue at full length in my work.]

And impossible to ignore. Lovecraft scholarship, au contraire, thought it appropriate to instate a strict no-go-policy to make the issue a non-issue: not seeing any functional distance between themselves and their object of study, critics like ST Joshi have taken it on as a task to defend Lovecraft and place him on familial terms. An analog for Lovecraft scholars: the soccer mom driving her kid to the pitch and debating his coach to take him into first team.

I know it can’t seem fair when I go ahead and ahead to pick on ST Joshi, but then his presence in Lovecraft scholarship is so wide, his influence so poignant, that I may be excused for it. I also supply an advance excuse for the fact that for the following quote I turn back the wheel to 1980. In a riposte, published in Science Fiction Studies 7.1 (1980), to a not so hostile review of Barton Levi St. Armand’s 1977 The Roots of Horror in the Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Joshi writes a short, compact one-page-defense, from which the following quote is taken –

Mr Fredericks also makes note of Lovecraft’s “ugly racism”. He has passed a value judgment upon Lovecraft without consideration for the temper of the times and of Lovecraft’s social position. Virtually all members of his class were “racists” (although such a word is obviously inappropriate), and it would be as malapropos to blame Lovecraft for his racial views as to blame Herodotus for calling all non-Greek speaking people “barbaroi”. I do not wish to explain away Lovecraft’s views – they are significant in understanding certain aspects of his work and thought – but I feel that Lovecraft ought not to be condemned for holding the views he did.

The fact that it is slightly malapropos to launch a fighting riposte at all to a review that is sound, as far as it goes – which is not very far – and not even overly critical either of St. Armand (who Fredericks is taxing for his muddled, “amorphous” style, correctly from what I know of his works, and his overacted concision) or Lovecraft (who is indicted, predictably, for redundancies in his prose – and, quote, “his ugly racism (his belief that blacks were at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder), his paranoia about the modern world, marked suicidal tendencies, and his extreme irrational nonconformism” – judgments a little over the top – I’m not so sure his suicidal tendencies were far more than bouts of worldweariness – but not much) – that fact notwithstanding, the passage above is built on rotten logics.

That’s the point where I usually turn from a somewhat cultured, half-literate scholar into a polemical, acid-spitting machine of death, Mencken-style. Polemics can be a lot of fun but they are usually not very precise…and in this, clinical precision had better be my second name.

1) He has passed a value judgment upon Lovecraft without consideration for the temper of the times and of Lovecraft’s social position.

When, just when, has any historian or any commentator on things and people past and gone ever been objective, in a sense that precludes value judgments? Isn’t that the first thing that makes such a comment a worthwhile thing, the value judgment glossed over the historical facts? Joshi’s way of considering the “temper of the times” and “Lovecraft’s social position” is to render them into arguments for the defense: that is, living in the time and class he was living in, Lovecraft did just what was expected from one in his position, he was a racist. And there is something to it – after all, the 1920s and 1930s were a time of intense racial conflicts. It’s just that his racism was not exactly de rigeur, no, not even that – reading through Elise Lemire insightful study on Miscegenation and the making of race in the pre-Civil War era, I found Lovecraft’s racism described again and again – a pre-Lincoln artifact, viciously racist at the same time that it was utterly irrespective of his own social rank that had, by the 1920s, declined irretrievably: the family had seen much better days and Lovercraft was fond of recalling them. In so far as it is outdated, it’s not representative of the temper of the “times”, be it the early 20th or the 19th century – 19th century racism at least made something of the exchange with the racial other (as in “inter-racial” marriages), then to connote it negatively. In Lovecraft, not even that exchange is possible.

2) although such a word is obviously inappropriate

Huh? What else could you call it, if not racism? Diet Racism? Racism for Beginners? Xenophobia? No, no, it’s bad old-fashioned racism, and no verbal philandering will be a way out here. The man was a racist.

3) and it would be as malapropos to blame Lovecraft for his racial views as to blame Herodotus for calling all non-Greek speaking people “barbaroi”.

That is a wild and brutal argument that is hurting my cortex…like that pickaxe would. To begin with, the term barbaroi was not nearly as negatively connoted and denoted as, say, the term nigger. Barbaroi were simply people living outside the civilized world, but there were ways into it – Alexander practically devalued the term’s restrictive meaning when he went about to incorporate vast parts of the oikumene, the known world, into Greece – Persians, Indians, a wide array of different people, and his habit of founding new Alexandrias every few dozen miles was a vivid reminder to them just who had conquered them. There were ways to become an Athenian, as much as there were ways, later on, to become a Roman – there are no ways, however, to shed the color of your skin to conform to Lovecraft’s default image of the human body, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

Also, the argument is fiercely ahistorical. An American in the 1920s and 1930s had some grave civilizational advantages over Herodotus, the 5th century-BCE-godfather of historiography (ancient history was one of my minors, and my memories of him tend to be more than fragmentary) – sources to open for himself or herself an alternative to blank racism, such as the Emancipation Proclamation. Jeez, this was 150 years after the Enlightenment era had kicked new life into Western civilization – 60 years after the Civil War had been fought out – there was no way you absolutely had to be racist, by default, and honestly I don’t give a damn what others in his position did or did not.

4) I do not wish to explain away Lovecraft’s views

Oh yes, he does…or at least he does his utmost to defer them to a position that allows him not to deal with them, which amounts to the same thing.

5) they are significant in understanding certain aspects of his work and thought

That sounds like common sense. That is common sense.

6) but I feel that Lovecraft ought not to be condemned for holding the views he did.

And I feel that driving instructors should be allowed to ply their trade only entirely in the nude. But my feeling alone will never move driving instructors to shed their clothes before they direct a student through the city. Too bad. We do well to reconstruct the morals and views of past generations, we do equally well to judge them by our morals and views, not theirs – judge them by living, not dead, morals.

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1 Comment

  1. Well done. I respond here.


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