Ech-Pi-El to Klarkash-ton: I am a bore

I’d like to divert attention away from this post and to this article by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post (per – a short, but insightful piece on one of Lovecraft’s closest buddies, Clark Ashton Smith, or Klarkash-ton, as Lovecraft transcribed the name in his regular epistolary follies. I just finished re-re-re-reading the five volume selection of Lovecraft’s letters (yeah, the price for the full set is whopping – my alma mater’s library may be a near total failure in Lovecraft terms, but at least they hold these five volumes, now semi-permanently shelved close to my desk), and once again they’re leaving me behind more perplexed than enlightened: can it be that the man was really such a complete bore?

I know, the five volumes offer a sparing empirical evidence, given the total number of his letters that ranks somewhere in the higher five figures, but the image one draws from the letters doesn’t get any more colorful in the more recent and complete selections mapped out by Joshi and Schultz. On what merits could one possibly build the assumption that Lovecraft’s place in the literary afterlife should be defined, more than anything, by his epistolary corpus?

His gentlemanly behavior? He was painfully polite to virtually all correspondents and doled out heartfelt encouragements to any rookie writer that might turn to him in search of advice.

The breadth of his thought? It’s a shame to say it but the letters, all of them, are highly redundant, buzzing around a small circle of topics that the man tackled again and again and again. Every now and then, a new correspondent from the wider amateur journalism and weird tales-realm would drop in, which would habitually provoke a new round on the favorite topics, aka obsessions: race, “cosmicism”, the New England site, and, oh yeah, race. He grew wiser with age, thank goodness, and the later letters from the 1930s are way milder and less nerve-killing to read than those of 20 years before, but even there he will make a very habitual case for the superiority of the “Teuton”, pared down to the late “insight” that alleged racial differences are mere cultural (rather than biological) differences, yet so insistently argued toward a strict segregation of races that it becomes a gesture. The prize for the WASP of the years 1915-1937 goes to…tadaa!…Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

It gets even more pathetic where issues are concerned that Lovecraft a) didn’t care about and b) didn’t know anything about – like female sexuality. To see him trying to explain that in a rash but helpless & clumsy manner really provides the strong feeling that he didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.

He had many bright moments, though. In fact, he’s sincere and most personal when he’s writing on his profound love for New England and Providence, in particular, planting himself into that soil time and again when he’s narrating how spryly he’s jostling to this and that backwood of the greater Providence area. It’s in these passages you get a feel for Lovecraft, the man – not Lovecraft, the machismo bigmouth – his various ways of relating to the site uncover, indeed, nuances of the personality better than the touchy issues he seems most confident about. Here he is most fragile, most volatile, most easily accessed. Here, and in the literature field, of course. He knew his weird literature to the core and provides real insights on authors such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and naturally Poe, his revered idol, and other such authors that pre-furrowed his personal field.

There is a very emotional passage in a letter to Frank B. Long from February 1931, featuring Lovecraft, the person – “Hell! If you ever had such a breath of reality, you’D forget all about the cute little sentences, literary, ‘inevitable’ words, kittenish mock-irony, & artificial sophistication, & just write, write, write like the devil – SINCERELY & SIMPLY – because of a creative demon within you & a sincere, bursting emotion which would suffocate you if you couldn’t get it on paper.”

Then, critically – “I wish I had the art to write out the stuff I want to get down on paper” – that was in early 1931, post-dating stories like The Music of Erich Zann, The Colour out of Space, The Call of Cthulhu, and slightly preceding At the Mountains of Madness, at a time, that is, when he had already established his corpus as the next great thing on the Gothic timeline. I’ll explore in another post how much genuine despair is in these (frequent!) appeals to his own literary inability and how far these are a realization of the modesty topos.