Race in Lovecraft Scholarship (II)

What’s the next best thing to a front page ad in the New York Times? Right you are – a front page appearance in that magnificently expertised blog here…

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There are a few things I would like tap.

First: it’s getting empirical. A little. The tiniest bit. In my last post, I quoted from a Joshi riposte from 1980 and sort of tried to dissect it. I might add, at this time, that I was not particularly neglectful to choose a 27-year-old passage. The graceful assumption that the branches of science are invariably proceeding to a beneficial end, all while straightening out bumps, factual and methodological, to finally reach at a smooth end, is not one that applies in Lovecraft scholarship – so far. Here, you might say, the great metanarrative of scientific progress is finally being disemboweled and halted in its course. Here, nothing is ever moving. And certainly not in this touchy fields of inquiry: race.

Let’s see. I started in 1980, and for the sake of convenience I’ll take the quote from the last post and pull it over here –

[1980] 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. (Joshi, Sunand T. “In Defense of Lovecraft.” Science Fiction Studies 7.1 (1980): 111-112.)

[1990] “I have no interest either in condemning or defending Lovecraft’s view on this matter; it is of greater importance to ascertain their origin and purpose.” (Joshi, Sunand T. The Weird Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990)

[1996] (in explaining the name of Lovecraft’s feline companion, Niggerman) “Its name, it need hardly be pointed out, was not regarded as offensive at the time – or at least not as offensive as it would be now.”

[…]

“The whole issue of Lovecraft’s racism is one I shall have to treat throughout this book; it is an issue that cannot be dodged, but it is also one we must attempt to discuss – difficult as it may be – without yielding to emotionalism and by placing Lovecraft’s views in the context of the prevailing intellectual currents of the time.” (Joshi, Sunand T. H.P. Lovecraft: A Life. West Warwick: Necronomicon Press, 1996)

[1999] “As for the first point, Lovecraft is as justified in seeking homogeneity of culture as many of us today are in seeking diversity and heterogeneity; these are simply two different ways to conceive of the makeup of a society, and there are virtues and drawbacks to both.” (Joshi, Sunand T. A subtler Magick. The Writings and Philosophy of H.P. Lovecraft. Berkeley Heights: Wildside Press, 1999)

Maybe at this point I should spare a word or two to explain why I’m doting, the way I am, on Joshi – it’s important to note that since the 1970s his name has been practically synonymous with Lovecraft scholarship as a whole (= Joshi and satellites). This has done a whole lot of good – by making L his personal pet author and focussing his scholarly energy on his afterlife, Joshi is responsible, , for opening Lovecraft to the world by making accessible, among other things, reliable editions of his works, of his myriad letters and his non-fiction writings that were just not available before. That alone would be grace and blessing enough, & reason to be grateful, and I am, honestly.

I can imagine that it is a real challenge to the man to describe L’s not so desirable traits, most notably his racism, “without yielding to emotionalism”, not only because he, Joshi, is more profoundly involved in Lovecraft’s afterlife than any person on this planet, but also because he would easily slide on the list of targets of Lovecraft’s racist invectives, being the son of Indian immigrants and not at all compliant with the WASP-standard. It might therefore be no more than a precautionary measure on his part not to problematize Lovecraft’s racism – and even he seems to reach a point where he feels the need to simply drop the well-cultured impetus that keeps him from bashing the man’s racism back into his face, straight on and no mistake.

My heart couldn’t help but bump, wildly, for joy and excitement, when I read an interview with Joshi where he comes to a bold apprise that he never reached in any one of his magisterial and influential scholarly and somewhat-scholarly works –

There is no denying the reality of Lovecraft’s racism, nor can it merely be passed off as “typical of his time,” for it appears that Lovecraft expressed his views more pronouncedly (although usually not for publication) than many others of his era.

This seems like a complete repudiation of his long-grown stance on Lovecraft’s racism and I found hard to believe in the very existence of it. I will have to try to verify that source before I set about on that chapter on Lovecraft scholarship, postponed until early next year. If this is indeed a verbatim quote, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a major step forward.
On the downside of the phenomenon that Joshi is in Lovecraft studies, his more than seminal position has also effected some not so blissful by-products – it has, very naturally (Joshi is, after all, a strong intellectual force in a very small and secluded field, and you would expect he’s making some major impact), streamlined Lovecraft scholarship and united it on a few battle positions, especially on the crucial issues that direct attention.

It’s quite a temptation to whisk away all pretense and let the polemic steamtrain roll, roll, roll…but instead of bowing to it, I’ll rather continue my nitpicking, in order to fish out some more instances for the big unnamable, race, and how it fares in Lovecraft scholarship – my next post will concentrate on the satellites to the Joshi moon. This may take some time – I also need to get rolling on that second chapter of my dissertation which I bravely managed to procrastinate on for several weeks, for sheer terror of the blank page.

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I’ll move on, once this banter is concluded, to actually read some of the stories (the problematic one, that is). Meanwhile, for the time being, I’m busy waving my index finger at this post here, by the constructivist Hawthornian (who also blogs on Hawthorne – I figure there must be other constructivist Hawthornians around, and just possibly some of these even blog), where he recounts, from memory, a line of conversations with his grandfather, on Hawthorne –

And speaking of “his time,” is it really so different than ours that we can’t attempt to evaluate it? Isn’t such an attempt also an attempt to evaluate our own time, as well? It’s not like I’m trying to let us off the hook by positing racism as a past problem–quite the opposite, in fact.

I find that opening sentence a little confusing – isn’t the constellation rather working in the reverse: the more different a time is from ours, the more removed it is in time and the less actual, historical substance there is, the more we need our own (value) judgments to re-construct a historical scene? Modern day attempts to write the personality (and personal traits) of grand figures of the ancient world, for example – Alexander, Hannibal, Augustus – usually tell way more about the historian than about the historicized, simply because a lot of imagination has to flow in to delineate these scarcely documented persons’ characters. Hawthorne and Lovecraft are much closer to our time and far more extensively documented than any of these ancient warlords, but that doesn’t mean we are under a greater obligation to get inside their heads, as it were, to pursue their logic as intimately as possible – rather, we need to find that logic (in their language, their deeds, and so on) and then translate it into our (moral – linguistic, if necessary) terms (which have changed remarkably over the past 150 years, as they are wont to), so as to make it comprehensible to a modern reader (for who we are writing, in the first place)…or at least that is my understanding of our profession when it’s talking about long past literary eras.

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1 Comment

  1. Also have time for a quick response to your last para, finally. You’re absolutely right and I pick up on the idea in today’s post (without realizing I was doing it until now!). When my friend Jeff Tucker can write about the several Samuel Delanys critics have constructed in his no-longer-that-new Delany and race book–and Delany’s still quite with us–of course the further back we go the more versions of an author we can expect to find.

    And Hawthorne himself helped contribute to that mystery by getting al his college friends to burn his letters–that’s decades of correspondence gone, particularly from the 1820s and 1830s that I am most interested in and have the most original contributions to make to Hawthorne and race scholarship on–so I feel that loss quite deeply. Combined with his editors’ failures to publish his first two short story collections in the shape he envisioned, his pre-1837 career is more veiled than it could have been.

    But my point in that para was I think still valid–that there are continuities and parallels between his time and ours, along with the differences. One of the things that first drew me to Hawthorne and race was the way in which his writings seemed to be similar to what Balibar analyzed as “neoracism” and Zizek as “metaracism” in the early ’90s in Europe. He certainly wasn’t a pro-slavery ideologue and he wasn’t a proponent of the new racial science, yet his anti-abolitionism and suspicions of free blacks’ and slaves’ capacities present a larger problem than Stowe’s or Emerson’s or Whitman’s or Melville’s racisms–to pick up on recent bloggy arguments, it may be that he functioned as a kind of “transmitter” of racialized doubts about abolition. The way in which respectable liberals and conservatives today repeat his rhetorical strategies when it comes to racial politics in our time is what I was trying to get at–badly–toward the end of the post you responded to.

    Thanks for pushing me to respond to your point and clarify my original one.


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