The Frontier as Apocalyptic Place: Melville’s Indian Hating Revisited (III)

This is not so much a romanticized introspection into a patron-customer-relation, but rather a justification of a territorial expansion that was still rolling on when Melville and Bird wrote their novel.

Lovecraft never saw the Mississippi. Of course Lovecraft saw the Mississippi, in New Orleans (thanks to Kenneth Hite for the hint!). He never saw the west: his personal route of territorial expansion mostly took him all the way up and down the east coast and was memorized in several travelogues of varying literary merit – quote Sunand T. Joshi:

Lovecraft’s travel essays form a unique body of his work. True, few of us have the patience to wade through the eighteenth-century diction of A Description of the Town of Quebeck (1930-31) – his single longest work, and a self-conscious flaunting of his utterly non-commercial stance – but such things as “Vermont – A First Impression” (1927) or “The Unknown City in the Ocean” (1934; on Nantucket) speak poignantly of his constant need to be aesthetically revivified by actual contact with the relics of the past.

The droll caveat (“few of us have the patience” – obviously enough readers do to warrant a re-edition by Joshi`s able editory hands, and an affordable one, too) notwithstanding, the paragraph concludes concisely the terms of Lovecraft’s understanding of the land, of the country and sites in it – as a repository of memories to be cashed in on wandering through. His fictional treatment of nature and site is peculiar enough, not only because his places often tend to be so brittle and fragile that they promise to crumble even as you read them: he uses nature in a way that re-erects the frontier as it was in early generation Puritan times, pushed just slightly beyond the extents of the original colonies, but when you consequently come to this new frontier, prodded on by Lovecraft’s always prodding narrators, you find that Lovecraft was there before you, storing nasty, bileous surprises where you really don’t want to find them.

Stories like The Picture in the House depend on a sense of re-discovery, a sense of almost having been there before, but not quite – déjà vu with a generously applied layer of decay . The frontier the story leads us to is, however, a new one, not just a copy of the old Puritan style frontier: and Lovecraft seems to develop some touristy qualities when he has his narrator drone that –

But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.

and –

In such houses have dwelt generations of strange people, whose like the world has never seen. Seized with a gloomy and fanatical belief which exiled them from their kind, their ancestors sought the wilderness for freedom. There the scions of a conquering race indeed flourished free from the restrictions of their fellows, but cowered in an appalling slavery to the dismal phantasms of their own minds. Divorced from the enlightenment of civilization, the strength of these Puritans turned into singular channels; and in their isolation, morbid self-repression, and struggle for life with relentless Nature, there came to them dark furtive traits from the prehistoric depths of their cold Northern heritage. By necessity practical and by philosophy stern, these folks were not beautiful in their sins. Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed. Only the silent, sleepy, staring houses in the backwoods can tell all that has lain hidden since the early days, and they are not communicative, being loath to shake off the drowsiness which helps them forget. Sometimes one feels that it would be merciful to tear down these houses, for they must often dream.

That is rolling so many potentially and actually ridiculous notions into a jumble, that I wonder if he even was awake when he wrote it in 1920, not just sleepwriting at the guidance of a spirit in the form of Cotton Mather who whispered to him and let him in on the dark secrets of the Northern Puritan warriors of the conquering race.

[The soundtrack is here supplied by Norwegian black something band Dimmu Borgir, who I remember having the dubious pleasure of seeing live some 10 years back.

The video (rather than a hearty thundering sermon) is the first thing YouTube brings up for the search term “puritanical”: well. Satan made them do it, I guess. They do have a decent bass drum, and I can imagine that laboredly demonic sprechgesang works well enough to impress your regular 16-year old who discovers for the first time that there is a metal bottom to the pop-ping chart world of music: it certainly worked on me when I was 16.]

Lovecraft’s notion of Puritanism, as far as it can be constructed, was quite negative – when they figure, they figure as exponents of oppressive religion and ignorant narrow-mindedness. Here, they are installed with a crude racial agenda – to make up for the deficit they, as the narrator imputes, grow into by severing the ties with their kind – that is, they alienate themselves from the body politic of Mother England (“gloomy and fanatical belief”), go into exile, and there they develop and rear their “Northern” heritage, whatever that is in this context: a Danish Viking seems to be insinuated here.

Gracefully, that is not the end – under that jumble of ethnically prejudiced bias lurks the dark.

Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed.

And all out of a sudden, wouldn’t they know it, these Puritans are inscribed into a Gothic register – and pay a tribute to Lovecraft’s creative license. Puritan sins may not have been elegant, but for the most part they were out in the open, explicitly named and re-cycled in preaching culture and religious discourse, and occasionally even tagged with names, so everybody in the community knew who to lay the finger of blame on. Sure, “unspeakable” sins were unspeakable – in public – but these were few. Debaucheries, hetero-sexual licenses, alcoholism, all of them: signs of an unholy covenant with the devil, are quite explicitly present in and around, for example, the Salem trials. Naturally, all these sins nailed to the public pillory served to appeal to that sense of cohesion that the Puritan settlers had started to lose around 5 minutes after they touched American soil.

It’s in a systematical denial of the community aspect – that personal sin is, indeed, very pertinent to the welfare of the whole community – that Lovecraft is here re-invoking a Puritan populace. For the “strange people” out in the wooded hinterland, sin is a very private and personal thing, to hide, to reel in in the dark, but not to actually engage in a public discourse: Lovecraft’s Puritans wouldn’t have ostracized and trialled Hester Prynne, they would have locked her away in an attic and found her a forced mating partner among the ranks of the alien pantheon.

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2 Comments

  1. Lovecraft never saw the Mississippi. He never saw the west:

    While this is mostly true, Lovecraft did see the Mississippi on his trip to New Orleans, where he met E. Hoffmann Price. (He first saw it from Memphis, Tennessee.) Indeed, that trip is the only time he set foot west of the Mississippi; he took a ferry across to Algiers, Louisiana on June 11, 1932.

  2. Thanks for that. I had New Orleans in mind but somehow didn’t quite make the connection.

    Also, there is that novel, “Shadows Bend”, by David Barbour and Richard Raleigh where he pairs up with RE Howard to travel to California and visit Clark Ashton Smith.


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