Race and Decay (VI)

I couldn’t possibly enlist more than a few weak, but very pertinent excuses for my personal blogging inertia – such as: teaching obligations, more teaching, and then some teaching when you’re hanging in there in the afternoon, just barely surviving for the sake of it. So. It only seems that my blogging habits are slackening while, indeed, I’m doing background work…by indoctrinating my students with the wisdom of the honorable, magnificent, and oh so very colonial Cotton Mather.


Meanwhile, crucially, yeah, dramatically – the Sauk Prairie Eagle reports that Sauk City, Wis. is in danger of losing one of its most eminent historical sites: the August Derleth blacksmith shop, that is, a former blacksmith’s sweatshop that houses the city’s August Derleth memorial site, aka museum – as far as I can judge that from researching the spare bits the internet gives on the city and the site. It’s about to be razed in favor of a Walgreens.

I liked that inconspicuous paragraph best:

Many of the 60 residents who packed into the Sauk City Village Hall April 24 wanted direction in a long awaited decision.

The paragraph gives away one thing: not only is Sauk City real small (3.000-some inhabitants) , it also has a very small city hall, if 60 people are able to “pack” it. Then, in the next paragraph –

Several residents opposed to the rezoning want the village to relocate and preserve the old August Derleth blacksmith shop before it is demolished.

That is something – at least there is some resistance up and running. Although, as the article goes on, it doesn’t seem very productive: Walgreens, after all, translates, to money.

What would the inhabitants of, say, Dunwich or Innsmouth – two of Lovecraft’s fictional New England municipalities – do if Walgreens carried a commercial interest into their town? Nod it off? Hide the monsters in the barn so as not to intimidate too many potential customers? Charging a lynch attack at the construction workers? Summon great Cthulhu to raze the site far better than any Caterpillar could? I guess they would just nod it off and be content with it.

Attempts to come up with rational explanations for the cases of disease that madly inspired the Salem witchhunt back in 1692, to toggle the focus from Wisconsin to Massachussets, recently included symptoms of food poisoning – the ergot it was, the bastard! When I read over that, in preparation for the class on Cotton Mather, it came to me that Lovecraft’s task forces of decay, whether located in the swamp or in Dunwich or wherever, might be so terribly inertiatically complacent as they are because, well, they don’t eat the right stuff. They may be suffering from food poisoning. Lovecraft never explores that idea, or I can’t think of any instance, and indeed, it seems too terribly light-weighted and trivial to qualify as a reason: madness, decay, and inertia are labors of hate and time in his prose, reared over centuries and hereditary.

Their response to evil is necessarily slow also because evil in Lovecraft is, basically, a covert thing, private and withdrawn into nooks of places that are nooks by themselves. His concept of evil is nothing like Cotton Mather’s who declares in his Memorable Providences, a 1689 precursor to the more conspicuous Wonders of the Invisible World

The Report of the Calamities of the Family for which we were thus concerned arrived now unto the ears of the Magistrates, who presently and prudently apply’d themselves, with a just vigour, to enquire into the story.

Evil is a public affair, Mather leaves no doubt about that and stresses again and again (and then some more) that an insight into the machinations of witchcraft will be essential to the welfare of New England: since it is so tightly interlocked with the public sphere, its solution must also be as much. Hence, the 20-some victims of the Salem witch craze were put to injustice not in lynching massacres but in trials that followed the legal code of the day. They were also executed in public – a public remedy for what the Puritan intelligentsia perceived as a public evil. Mather was one of these mentioned magistrates, and throughout the Memorable Providences, as well as through the later Wonders, you can see him ambitiously cling to a notion of form and formality. Basically, the two works are, or: pretend to be, protocols, as neutral and factual as possible, and his understanding of them rests on his claim for objectivity –

[…] that I have permitted the ensuing Histories to be published. They contain Things of undoubted Certainty, and they suggest Things of Importance unconceivably.

Of course, he gives his passionate and personal involvement away, when he gets all upset about the obstinacy of defendants in the witch trials and insinuates that they owe the community (and in particular: him) at least as much as a full and repentant disclosure of their supposed evil, so the shape of the legal process may be kept in order. The community had an answer at hand when evil came knocking at its door and bellowed it away in a cruel and sanguinary charge that was loud enough to frighten themselves: the trials, consequently, were stopped short after the first bloody wave, and the spring of 1693 saw the last of them.


Next to come: the private nature of Lovecraft’s evil/the community’s response/civic and state responses (or: is that a genocide you see there in Innsmouth?)/race and evil



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