HP Lovecraft’s Madness

HPLbust

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

–H.P. Lovecraft, On the Creation of Niggers (1912)

This has been an odd Lovecraftian week for me. No, I didn’t run into Cthulhu, or go swimming with the Deep Ones. But on two occasions, the celebrated author of horror and fantasy, who has been dead since 1937, has been summoned from some infernal nether realm to haunt my thoughts.

The first was on a forum where someone was discussing Lovecraft’s story The Rats in the Walls, where one of the characters is a cat called “Nigger Man.” It so happens that Lovecraft owned a “beloved” feline by the same name. Feeling the need to explain after dropping the N-bomb, the post made it clear that quite likely Lovecraft was just using some politically incorrect colloquialism “of his times,” and probably did not mean to demean anyone’s race. While acknowledging that Lovecraft had some “disturbing notions on race,” the post went on to state this was likely an unfortunate result of the author’s isolated upbringing.

Seriously? That’s the argument we’re going with now? H.P. Lovecraft was just channeling his inner Mark Twain? He was isolated? His “notions” of race were “disturbing?” He really wasn’t trying to demean anyone? Talk about your accidental racist!

It’s always perplexing to watch the gymnastics of mental obfuscation that occur as fans of Lovecraft attempt to rationalize his racism. Yes. His racism. Not his “disturbing notions.” Not his “peculiar thoughts.” Not his “racialisms.” His unabashed full frontal racism. Lovecraft was a racist. Period. No qualifiers necessary. Sure he was other things as well–among them a fantastic writer with an amazing imagination. But he was a racist too. And he was very good at it.

I’d come to believe that by now Lovecraft’s racism was a settled matter–like declaring Wrath of Khan the best film in the Star Trek franchise. Arguing against such a thing should be absurd. I certainly thought so after the matter was thrust into the spotlight in December 2011, when author Nnedi Okorafor won the esteemed World Fantasy Award–whose statuette is none other than H.P. Lovecraft’s disembodied head. Okorafor had been unaware of the depths of Lovecraft’s pathologies fully self-aware cognizant issues, until a friend sent her his 1912 poem, On the Creation of Niggers, where blacks are fashioned by the gods as “a beast . . . in semi-human figure.”

This is no one-off, some “misspeak” by the author. Lovecraft’s pathologies racial biases ran deep and strong, as evidenced by his stories–from his exotic locales with tropic natives lacerating themselves before mad gods in acts of “negro fetishism” (Call of Cthulhu), to his description of a black man as “gorilla-like” and one of the world’s “many ugly things” (Herbert West-Reanimator). This was not merely an abstract part of his creative process, where he was trying to imbue his work with some hint of realism. Rather, these were expressions of his foremost thoughts, a key part of his personal beliefs, most notably his virulent xenophobia towards an increasingly diverse American society emerging outside of his Anglo-Saxon New England.

In his 1919 short The Street, the United States is represented as being colonized by “good, valiant men of our [Anglo-Saxon] blood who had come from the Blessed Isles across the sea” until ominous newcomers arrive,”swarthy, sinister faces with furtive eyes and odd features, whose owners spoke unfamiliar words….” They brought with them alien thoughts, and had come to “tear down the laws and virtues that our fathers had exalted; to stamp out the soul of the old America – the soul that was bequeathed through a thousand and a half years of Anglo-Saxon freedom, justice and moderation.” These swarthy men living in “rotting edifices” were “the brains of a hideous revolution” and “at their word of command many millions of brainless, besotted beasts would stretch forth their noisome talons from the slums of a thousand cities, burning, slaying, and destroying till the land of our fathers should be no more.” Eventually, the sinister hordes are destroyed when their squalid homes (referred to as an infested “nest” filled with “stench”) collapse, burying and killing all their kind in a genocidal apocalypse.

A similar story of foreign contagion, The Horror of Red Hook, goes full tilt into the race-baiting, with such wonderful descriptive characters as “an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth.” Charming. One only needs look at Lovecraft’s personal letters to catch the influences for these fantastic tales of race-war and extermination. In them he recounts a 1920s trip to New York, where he is repulsed by being jostled in the subway by “sneering, greasy mulattos” and terrified at the sight of “hideous negroes that resemble gigantic chimpanzees.” Similar to his stories, he goes on to rail against what he sees as the real-life “mongrelization” of America’s finest cities:

The New York Mongoloid problem is beyond calm mention. The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! … How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. … There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare … In New England we have our own local curses … in the form of simian Portuguese, unspeakable Southern Italians, and jabbering French-Canadians. Broadly speaking, our curse is Latin just as yours is Semitic-Mongoloid, the Mississippian’s African, the Pittsburgher’s Slavonic, the Arizonian’s Mexican, and the Californian’s Chino-Japanese.*–Letter from Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, August 21, 1926.

Disturbing notions indeed. During a visit to Chinatown in 1922, Lovecraft declared it a “filthy dump” filled with sub-human “swine … a bastard mess of stewing Mongrel flesh without intellect, repellent to the eye, nose and imagination.” He goes on to wish for a “kindly gust of cyanogen [cyanide]” that might “asphyxiate the whole gigantic abortion, end the misery and clean out the place.”

America’s black inhabitants presented Lovecraft with a most peculiar problem–a group too numerous to wipe out with a whiff of poison gas, and too entrenched to send packing. He ruminated on this on more than one occasion:

Now the trickiest catch in the negro problem is the fact that it is really twofold. The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists—eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist. But, it is also a fact that there would be a very grave and very legitimate problem even if the negro were the white man’s equal. For the simple fact is, that two widely dissimilar races, whether equal or not, cannot peaceably coexist in the same territory until they are either uniformly mongrelised or cast in folkways of permanent and traditional personal aloofness. . . . . Just how the black and his tan penumbra can ultimately be adjusted to the American fabric, yet remains to be seen. . . . Millions of them would be perfectly content with servile status if good physical treatment and amusement could be assured them, and they may yet form a well-managed agricultural peasantry. The real problem is the quadroon and octoroon—and still lighter shades. Theirs is a sorry tragedy, but they will have to find a special place. What we can do is to discourage the increase of their numbers by placing the highest possible penalties on miscegenation, and arousing as much public sentiment as possible against lax customs and attitudes—especially in the inland South—at present favouring the melancholy and disgusting phenomenon. All told, I think the modern American is pretty well on his guard, at last, against racial and cultural mongrelism. There will be much deterioration, but the Nordic has a fighting chance of coming out on top in the end.–Letter from Lovecraft to James F. Morton, January 1931.

We could do this all day. Lovecraft wrote in copious amounts, and seemed to have no filters. His words. No need to take them out of context. No need to puzzle out their subtle meanings. He could be quite blunt and forcefully direct. Still, label Lovecraft a racist and some in the geek-o-sphere waver, erupting into spasms of denial and a plethora of excuses.

“Keep in mind, he was just a man of his time” goes the most familiar argument, ignoring that victims of racism were also men and women of those times. Privileging the perpetrator by trying to reason away his/her actions doesn’t mean one whit to those on the receiving end, then or now. Further, we’re well aware that white thinking of his era was backward and retrograde. So quit with the Caucasian white-splaining already. Early 20th Century America was no doubt a time where white supremacy reigned supreme. But let’s be clear. Lovecraft was no average guy who happened to go see Birth of a Nation or spoke in quaint terms about the “Negro’s propensity for music.” He went above and beyond the more normalized requirements of whiteness, veering into the hateful and obscene. Most whites of his day likely held poor views of ethnic and racial minorities; however, most did not speak (quite repeatedly) in such vile and at times frightening exterminationist language.

Or there’s the, “well we have to separate his personal life from his works” defense. Yes, because as writers we slip out of skin, wipe our brains blank and pluck ideas from some non-personal non-reality based ether. In reality, understanding Lovecraft’s personal bigotry sheds profound insight into his writings. His racist fanaticism, eugenic pseudoscience and xenophobia lay behind the many horrors and unknown encroaching fears in his works, all lurking on the edge of human existence and threatening utter destruction.

Apologists look for any sliver of hope in Lovecraft’s life that might point away from his rampant biases, such as the fact that he married a Jewish woman. To which I reply, and? Strom Thurmond, segregationist and believer in black inferiority, fathered a child with a black woman; Lovecraft’s random act does little more than prove that racism is illogical, contradictory and filled with psychosexual complexities of Freudian proportions. Besides, one of the reasons cited for the eventual divorce from his Jewish wife, according to her letters, was his virulent anti-Semitism. She claimed he enthusiastically devoured Mein Kampf in one sitting, and often had to remind him that she herself was Jewish whenever he launched into one of his diatribes.

The more desperate defenders, grasping at the fine straws, point out that Lovecraft disavowed Nazi doctrines and were he to have lived to see the Holocaust, he most certainly wouldn’t have agreed. Of course, what’s left out is that Lovecraft’s initial thoughts on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were much more complicated, veering between a displeasure with tactics but admiration of their goals:

[Hitler's] vision is of course romantic & immature, & colored with a fact ignoring emotionalism … There surely is an actual Hitler peril–yet that cannot blind us to the honest rightness of the man’s basic urge … I repeat that there is a great & pressing need behind every one of the major planks of Hitlerism–racial-cultural continuity, conservative cultural ideals, & an escape from the absurdities of Versailles. The crazy thing is not what Adolf wants, but the way he sees it & starts out to get it. I know he’s a clown, but by God, I like the boy!–Letter from Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, November 1936.

There’s no evidence Lovecraft ever declared himself a Nazi. Nor was he a member of any of the Nazi parties that sprang up in 1930s America. In fact, his moderate Hitler praise appears to have dropped off abruptly in the last year of his life, after a German acquaintance (recently returned from the country) told him of seeing Jews beaten in the streets. Still, if one’s measuring stick of racism is where one draws the line in praising Adolf Hitler, something is seriously wrong with your argument. Besides, as Lovecraft’s personal letters remind us, his very hate-filled and raging anti-Semitism predated the Nazis:

The mass of contemporary Jews are hopeless as far as America is concerned. They are the product of alien blood, & inherit alien ideals, impulses, & emotions which forever preclude the possibility of wholesale assimilation… On our side there is a shuddering physical repugnance to most Semitic types…so that wherever the Wandering Jew wanders, he will have to content himself with his own society till he disappears or is killed off in some sudden outburst of mad physical loathing on our part. I’ve easily felt able to slaughter a score or two when jammed in a N.Y. subway train.–Letter from Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, January 1926.

When properly riled, Lovecraft could let his white supremacy freak flag fly with reckless abandon:

Of course they can’’t let niggers use the beach at a Southern resort – can you imagine sensitive persons bathing near a pack of greasy chimpanzees? The only thing that makes life endurable where blacks abound is the Jim Crow principle, & I wish they’’d apply it in N.Y. both to niggers & to the more Asiatic type of puffy, rat-faced Jew. Either stow ‘em out of sight or kill ‘em off – anything so that a white man may walk along the streets without shuddering nausea.–Letter from Lovecraft to A.E.P. Gamwell, February 1925. 

And we’ll leave it there shall we?

So what was the second incident that drew Lovecraft screaming from the mouth of the abyss and into my life this week? On May 1st, sculptor Bryan Moore launched the The H.P. Lovecraft Bronze Bust Project on kickstarter (notice how I didn’t link to it there?), dedicated to “the preservation and celebration of the famous author’s literary legacy.” The life-sized bronze, when completed, will find a permanent home at the famed Providence Athenaeum Library. As Moore notes, Lovecraft’s “cosmic imagination has influenced every region of pop culture including video games, comic books, music and film,” and he urges contributors to give “the Dark Prince of Providence the bronze monument he so rightfully deserves.”

Yes. He really said “Dark Prince of Providence.”

I’m not really against the Lovecraft bust. This is America. My predominantly African-American and Latino middle school was named for a Confederate commander. And the guy who wrote that Declaration of Independence and came up with such great ideas like the separation of church and state, was not only a slave owner and believer in black biological inferiority, but once fantastically wrote that “the Oranootan [orangutan]” was sexually drawn to black women “over those of his own species.” Not sure what that made him. I have stood in the shadow of long dead and celebrated racists and endured it my whole life. It is what it is. Conflicting. Vexing. Dubois. Double-consciousness. All that.

Neither do I have to devalue Lovecraft’s literary and imaginative genius, in order to name him a racist. He is without a doubt one of the “greats,” a giant whose influence cuts across varied genres of speculative fiction. It shows up in my own writings, either directly or indirectly–as it has been source material for everyone from Joss Whedon to Mike Mignola. Being a POC and into geekdom, you are bound to have some rather disgusting white racist grandpas; don’t really have a choice. Figure that goes for everyone else. But I ain’t sugar-coating who and what he was. And I don’t take kindly when someone tries “splaining” to me why I’m “misunderstanding” his work. Lovecraft spoke loud and clear. If you can’t hear him, you’re just not listening.

Last I checked, the kickstarter project for the Lovecraft bronze managed to surpass its $30,000 goal in little over two days. Impressive. Obviously a lot of Lovecraft fans out there. A national treasure this guy. I just hope when the bronze is unveiled the engraving reads:

H.P. Lovecraft
Beloved Racist & Anti-Semite
Also wrote stories.

Further reading:

Lots of books on Lovecraft. Here are some worthy online discussions:

Nicole Cushing, Lovecraft, Racism, & the “Man of his Time” Defense (2012)

Bruce Lord, The Genetics of Horror: Sex and Racism in H.P. Lovecraft’s Fiction (2004)

Nnedi Okorafor, Lovecraft’s Racism & The World Fantasy Award Statuette (2011)

Roundtable, Revolution SF Watercooler: HP Lovecraft and Racism (2012)

Update 5/6/2013- The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft. a Lovecraftian tale of eldritch horror by Nick Mamatas and Tim Platt in pseudopod fashion, that draws on Lovecraft’s imaginative genius AND his virulent racism–without omission or apology.

Update 5/92013- Thanks to Jaymee Goh over at the fantastic blog of steampunk, race, feminism and postcolonial theory Silver Goggles for reminding me of Innsmouth Free Press. How could I forget to mention them?! Innsmouth is dedicated to exploring Lovecraftian themes of cosmic horror and openly confront Lovecraft’s racism by inviting marginalized groups to participate in creating more diverse Lovecraftian tales in diverse geographic/cultural settings. Editor Silvia Moreno-Garcia has a wonderfully written article on just this topic from 2011 titled: Lovecraft: Racism and Literature.

47 thoughts on “HP Lovecraft’s Madness

  1. LOL. Beautifully argued my friend. I wonder if this is why no one has thought of doing a bio pic on him. They did one for REH. Though if they did and let a black filmmaker (or asian, or jewish) write and direct it I’d support it. Just to hear him turning over in his grave. Got ya bitch.

  2. Dear Phenderson Djèlí Clark,

    I just stumbled on your blog, and I love this post. I’m glad I’m not the only one with misgivings about the HPL bust that Bryan Moore is making for the Athenaeum, or about the ways white fans treat HPL’s racism.

    Last year, I launched a Kickstarter project of my own, which I billed as critical of HPL’s racism, but still a celebration of his work and continuing cultural importance. Moore heard about it and accused me, on the HPL Historical Society’s Facebook page, of trying to “demonize” HPL for his ” ‘racism’ “–which Moore put in scare-quotes. I was like, “In what parallel universe does HPL _not_ count as a racist?” (Like you, I had thought that HPL’s racism was a settled matter.) Moore trotted out the old “Lovecraft was a man of his era” bullshit, and dismissed my examples (praise of the Klan and Jim Crow, among others) as “the equivalent of off color humor”. Moore also said, “He wasn’t burning crosses in a field in a Klan robe.” He used all the evasions you discuss in your post.

    (Why is it that nobody who makes the “man of his era” defense ever notes that Lovecraft’s “era” overlapped with the Harlem Renaissance, or the rise of anti-racist anthropology? I’m increasingly of the opinion that some white fans are nostalgic for HPL’s “era” because–they imagine–whites could act just as racist as they wanted, whenever they wanted.)

    Anyway, I’m also interested in HPL academically. I’m at work on an article on movie adaptations of HPL’s stories, but I’m going to include a section on the ways that even the most “faithful” adaptations, made by fans, walk around the racist elements. (The main character never exclaims, “Look at these simian half-castes!”) As I started doing research into racism and HPL fans, I found something that horrified me: there’s a whole para-fandom out there of white supremacists (neo-Nazis, Wotanists, “Aryan futurists”) who praise and circulate HPL’s most racist texts. One guy signs his discussion-board posts with a quotation from “On the Creation of Niggers.” It blew my mind.

    Anyway, I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts on the subject (whether on here or over email). I’m sorry to go on at such length, but this has been foremost in my mind the last few days.

    –Ezra Claverie

    • Ezra,

      Thanks for the comment. Your recount of your interaction with the sculptor of the upcoming bronze is telling–and typical of the ways in which HPL is (pardon the pun) “whitewashed” in the communities of geekdom. Denial. Evasion. All the known tactics are employed. As stated previously, I’m not writing against the bust–nor did I provide a link to help anyone donate to it. If a person wants to like Lovecraft’s writings, fine. But when we bring up his racism, don’t demean our intelligence by trotting out excuses. And if you’re in the business of making certain he’s honored with a public statue, you’d best deal with that “dark” part of his life, or someone else will deal with it for you. Lovecraft was a talented writer, and a racist–that’s the reality.

      Your research sounds fascinating! Please share when you’ve completed it. And yes, Lovecraft’s writings (both literary and personal letters) are very popular with white supremacist sites/groupings, and specifically because of its racist language. Among them, he’s a superstar. And they claim him as one of their own.

  3. Very true. I moderated a panel last year at a convention to discuss Lovecraft, and the other panellists were firm in their belief that Lovecraft’s racism had been exaggerated, or that he was a ‘man of his time’. I find it very hard to believe anyone can miss it, and it shouldn’t be hard for anyone to accept that he was a very important writer in his field who was nonetheless a horrible bigot. Maybe the problem is where the dividing line between the man’s prejudices and his work actually lies- as one friend pointed out to me, The Shadow Over Innsmouth is no less a racist story about the horrors of miscegenation than, say Arthur Jermyn or The Horror At Red Hook, just better written.

    • Good point about racism informing HPL’s best stories as well as his worst. “The Call of Cthulhu,” for instance, doesn’t usually get singled out as a story with salient racism; he’s not dropping the N-bomb. But it racializes the cult as non-white, “hybrid spawn.” The white Louisiana squatters cower while the the “low, mixed-blooded” cultists crawl around making animal noises. The ALERT has a crew of “Kanakas and half-castes.”

      We could dismiss his obvious contempt for these people as belonging to TCOC’s narrator, but this narrator sounds like every other HPL narrator.

    • The Shadow Over Innsmouth is no less a racist story about the horrors of miscegenation than, say Arthur Jermyn or The Horror At Red Hook, just better written.

      Very true. It’s worth considering that HPL’s conception of the “fear of the unknown” or horrifying alien was so informed by his real-life xenophobia, when the sci-fi and fantasy genre have taken so much inspiration from him in how to conceive of the terrifying unknown. Makes you wonder how many pernicious influences are still in there relatively unrecognized.

    • Well said Simon. Lovecraft’s retrograde ideology has become less disappointing than the modern reluctance to acknowledge it. Part of the problem seems to stem from an inability to accept that a figure who so profoundly shapes much of speculative fiction (there are entire festivals, awards and more that bear his name), could at the same time hold such vile beliefs that even “for his time” go beyond the pale. Often speculative fiction has this notion that it has either transcended such mundane issues like racism, or somehow side-stepped it. That these beliefs likely also influenced the very stories many hold so dear, causes some serious cognitive dissonance. The end result- deflection or denial.

  4. But let’s be clear. Lovecraft was no average guy who happened to go see Birth of a Nation or spoke in quaint terms about the “Negro’s propensity for music.” He went above and beyond the more normalized requirements of whiteness, veering into the hateful and obscene. Most whites of his day likely held poor views of ethnic and racial minorities; however, most did not speak (quite repeatedly) in such vile and at times frightening exterminationist language.

    This post is pretty awesome (and thoughtful and well-said) altogether, but you really hit the nail on the head here, IMO. Putting aside how obnoxious the “of his time” argument is–okay, let’s not put that aside, actually. It’s really obnoxious. Temporal and cultural context matters, but radicals and even ordinary people with some level of compassion and empathy are not new, 21st-century inventions, and to claim that they are is to spare extraordinarily hateful individuals like HPL responsibility for their actions and words.

    But: anyway, yes: it’s a really silly and reductive view of American history to imagine that just about everyone went around paranoidly rabbiting on at the length and detail that he did about immigrants, miscegenation, and everything else he loathed and feared. The guy was a blithering racist. There’s really no beating around the bush there.

    • Precisely. What I also find most obnoxious about the “man of his times” meme is the way in which it wholly ignores that those on the receiving end *were also of that time.* There’s an odd way in which we privilege perpetrators and simply ignore/omit what it must have been like to be one of those marginalized people termed “filthy” or “greasy chimpanzees.” What trauma did they have to suffer living “in those times” alongside the Lovecrafts of the world, who could so casually discard them as subhuman refuse?

      • Very much so. Remarkable as HPL’s imagination was, it’s terrible to consider how many more imaginations have been silenced by the views and policies of people like him.

        As a “bastard mess of stewing Mongrel flesh” myself, I’ve always found it hard to read HPL’s racist rhetoric without giggling in incredulity; after all, it’s so ludicrous that it’s almost hard to parse. But the amusement definitely vanishes when see the way the SFF community talks about Lovecraft: why isn’t discussion of his racism front-and-center in every introduction to one of his books? It boggles the mind how much people are still trying to shove it under the rug or minimize it. I felt kind of similarly when I recently reread Oliver Twist and wondered uncomfortably why it was never pointed out to me in elementary or middle school that Fagin was a hatefully characterized Jewish stereotype, except writ x100 larger.

      • Yes. This exactly. It’s the silence that is most onerous. Followed closely by the defensive postures. It makes me want to revisit just how we (a collective and *diverse* we) decide upon the title “great” when speaking of genre writers of his importance. I remember being part of a discussion where a POC was being told she *had* to accept Lovecraft as a “great” in order to write horror, despite his sexism and racism. And I think to myself, who gets to decide that? Why should anyone be forced to apply such a weighty title on someone who they knew denied their humanity and existence? Sure, I’ve read Lovecraft–perhaps everything he’s written. My individual choice. But I could certainly understand why some may want nothing to do with him. And I don’t think this diminishes one’s legitimacy, or requires a dressing down by the fanboy police.

    • Shu. Thanks for this. Ironically, just this past week, I engaged several people in discussion on this very topic. It came up because of Dagestan (no need to go into why that was on our radar), and what many saw as media attempts to “other” people of the region who are identified as “Caucasian.” We discussed the origin of the term’s use (along with related misnomers like Aryan) in the incoherent notion of identity surrounding whiteness–namely the court cases many “Caucasians” (Armenians and others) had to pursue in the early 20th century to be declared “white.” At any rate, even knowing better, I absent-mindedly used the euphemism “Caucasian-splaining” merely because I liked it’s syllabic structure. I know, poor excuse. Thanks for the reminder on its problematic nature. I’ve crossed it out and replaced it, linking to the URL you sent. Cuz sharing is caring.

    • no problem. i often hear push back that there’s “too much written on Lovecraft’s racism.” first, that’s hardly the case. there are sites, essays, festivals, blog posts, awards (and now even a bust) dedicated to Lovecraft that explore just about *every* minutiae of his life–except his racism. second, many of those who complain of over exposure on this topic are the very ones who *never* bring it up, or minimize and gloss it over.

  5. Out of curiosity, what about Sax Rohmer? What about (very subtly and very moderately) Dashiell Hammett? What about… gad, but there were a LOT of folks writing for the pulps back in the 20s and 30s who were gushing fountains of racism.
    While I don’t think it excuses Lovecraft, or Rohmer, or even my beloved Hammett, I do think that the historical context bears note, just like it bears note that Shakespeare was growing up in a country where decades of civil strife regarding how one should worship god had followed just on the heels of decades of peaces preceded by decades of civil strife about who should wear the crown. Sure, there’s a definite racist undertone to Lovecraft’s work (and indeed, I would even say a stronger one than a lot of his contemporaries). There’s a definite racist undertone – as well as a homophobic one – to The Maltese Falcon. Does that make the Maltese Falcon a bad piece of work? Does that make Wobbly-assed Dashiell Hammett an evil person?
    I recognize that in a sense I’m setting up a straw man here, as I’m not jousting with the windmill of Lovecraft’s racism. I’m pointing out that there is a whole field of windmills from that era, and no it’s not great that they’re windmills, but it does say something ABOUT that era. Trying to shove Lovecraft under the bus for the sins of a generation (look up Henry Ford, for example) is… more than a little bit ignorant of context.

    Yes, African-American and Asian-American people of the interwar period in the US were also people of the interwar period of the US. Does that change what the existing narrative in society was, at the time? Does that somehow change the laws against ‘miscegenation’ that were on the books in those years, which only were overturned in the SCOTUS case of Loving vs. Virgina? Does that somehow alter the fact that Japanese-Americans were interred during WW2 because they were guilty of the crime of being Not White Enough? I think that it’s rather oversimplification to point at his fiction to say ‘YES LOVECRAFT WAS A RACIST’ in the light of everybody else – from P. G. Wodehouse and Sinclair Lewis down to Sax Rohmer and even (shockingly) Gernsbach – writing in a similar vein about race relations.

    I VERY much appreciate your dredging up some supporting points from outside of Lovecraft’s fiction: he was clearly intending a very different thing in his letters and journals, and it does a much better job of supporting the concept of who H. P. Lovecraft was, as opposed to what he wrote about (I, for one, sincerely doubt Asimov was a robot, or that Heinlein screwed every woman who crossed his path, or that Harlan Ellison is a festering heap of bile and animos… okay, well 2 out of 3 isn’t bad).

    • so let’s see… in one lengthy post you ask questions that you readily supply answers to, manage to condescendingly ‘splain to me how racism *really* works, continue to fanboy ‘splain to me how science fiction writing works, also manage to dismiss my thinking on this matter as “ignorant of context” and an “oversimplification.” gotta thank you for your restraint…

      first you run across the temporal map, rattling off dead white writers from Rohmer to Shakespeare. Why not Pliny the Elder while you’re at it? Herodotus maybe? i’ll stick to a more recent history. you may not be up to snuff on academic discourse, but examining racism and “othering” in such works as Rohmer’s “Fu Manchu series” is old hat. same goes for race and exoticism in Robert E. Howard. or sexism and homophobia of Norman Mailer. done, done and done. but what the heck does that have to do with Lovecraft? what, I gotta list and dissect *every* single dead white writer who dabbled in some form of bigotry before I can write a post holding one accountable? i can’t say “LOVECRAFT IS A RACIST” because there were other racists I didn’t mention? is that some Herculean task to render the criticism of any of them impossible? got some dragon’s teeth for me to sow next? FYI- i’ve tackled issues of race regarding other sci-fi writers on this space before, from Ray Bradbury to Robert Heinlein. The very name of this blog is based on my criticism of “Orientalist” othering and racialisms in JRR Tolkien’s work–Haradrim, Southrons and “black men like half-trolls.”

      I chose to write about Lovecraft in this particular post because of the two recent incidents I mentioned in my blog. I chose to write about him because his racism was so vicious and virulent, it stands out even among some of his like-minded peers. I chose to write about him because, quite frankly, of deflectors and half-way apologists. and mostly, cuz I felt like it–end of story.

      second, it seems you rushed so quickly to write your ‘splainin’ monologue to me, you didn’t really read what I wrote. exactly when and where did I decide to “shove Lovecraft under the bus?” by calling him a racist? seriously? did i call for a boycott of his work? for his books to be banned or burned? did i say his writings and stories were trash? are you sure that idiomatic phrase means what you *think* it means? where did I say any of his ugly personal beliefs made his writing “a bad piece of work?” I think I’ve read and/or listened to everything Lovecraft ever wrote. still a fan of Bradbury and Heinlein and Tolkien, though I was critical of them as well. I said as much in my post, acknowledging his established place in genre fiction. I can do that, and STILL declare him a racist prick. yeah. see how I did that there? two thoughts held in my mind at the same time–it ain’t hard. as POC, living in the shadow of the Lovecrafts of the world, we do it all the time. what you seem to want is not only that we give Lovecraft his due praise, but we either like or remain silent about his strong white supremacist streak. Nope. Sorry. that ain’t happening. i’m well versed on Henry Ford, and his anti-Semitism. since we’re handing out assignments, here’s something for you to look up as pertains to race and black existence: “double-consciousness.”

      as for the assertion that Lovecraft didn’t let his racism seep into his work, that’s simply false. there are literary articles dedicated to discussing it (along with sexism) in his stories. it comes up in books and biographies on Lovecraft. i mentioned several examples in this very blog–which you’d have seen, had you actually read it. i mean have you ever read Medusa’s Coil? i remain convinced that in fact NOT understanding (or dismissing) Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia is a hindrance in truly understanding the underlying themes of his work, his fears of the destructive forces lurking in the dark, etc.

      lastly, I see you trot out a revamped version of “a man of his times” defense, this time odiously using the indignities suffered by POC as an excuse for Lovecraft’s racism as the “existing narrative.” that’s kinda abhorrent, but unsurprising. my point was the overused “man of his times” phrase only places his racism in context; it should not be used as some reason to not render judgment, make an assessment or (as is most common) remain silent on the issue. besides, while Lovecraft certainly had compatriots in racism, his exterminationist rhetoric was beyond the pale for even average white guys of those times. if you want to make the point that all these other writers spoke in equally disturbing tones of blacks as “greasy chimpanzees” and were lovers of Mein Kampf and spoke about killing off “rat-faced Jews” in mass violence and “Asiatic filth” with poison gas–go ahead. I’m not making that argument. I’m talking about HP Lovecraft, because his ideas were expressed with a vicious streak that I found particularly egregious–beyond the criticisms I level at say Heinlein or Tolkien.

      HP Lovecraft was a RACIST. a great writer. a guy with a fantastic imagination. a troubled figure “in his times.” And still a RACIST. POC have to deal with that reality head on. For us, we don’t have the privilege of not doing so. Must be nice…

      • That’s a bang-up job of the argumentam ad whiteynem, there. Stepping away from that logical fallacy though, you make a few good points in the response.
        For a second time, my thanks for calling my eye to the undeniably (and undeniedly) racist content of Lovecraft’s personal letters. As I said in the initial comment, these are far more telling about his perspective than his fiction is.
        And don’t go looking around the white underbelly of 30s pulp if you want to keep your lunch down!

  6. I don’t disagree with your facts or the condemnation of Lovecraft’s racism in general–and the “Man of His Times” argument actually falls apart pretty rapidly when you look at his letters, since some of his peers were willing to disagree with him on a number of issues. It helps if you read not just Lovecraft’s letters, but the replies.

    That being said, I would point out that “Nigger Man” was actually the name of a black cat in an Algernon Blackwood story, long before it became the name of a black cat in Lovecraft’s personal life, or his own work. And Lovecraft was a lifelong fan of Blackwood.

    This doesn’t make the name of the cat non-racist, but it adds an element of insipid fanboy-ism to the gesture which I think is worthy of note. Perhaps equivalent to a modern fan of the Johnny Quest cartoon naming his Abyssinian cat “Hadji”, a word which has as rich a context of racial hate and violence in the modern age as “nigger” did in the 1920’s.

    The only other disagreement I have with your essay is the ending. “H.P. Lovecraft, Beloved Racist & Anti-Semite, Also wrote stories” is a pretty anti-productive approach.

    For one thing, it implies that Lovecraft’s most celebrated works are his most racist works, which is anything but the case. His most racist works are actually his least popular and least published, particularly his KKK doggerel and execrable crap like “The Street”. Often only the most ardent fans ever track this garbage down–and a sizable percentage of the fans who do find this drivel in print end up recoiling in disgust and loathing when they find it, and are never able to view his work in the same light again.

    Two, it implies that he earns a monument or a place in history for willful harm done to others, racist activism of some kind, or that his relationship to his own racism and bigotry was not ambivalent. None of this is true. If we were going to raise a monument to the men from Providence who did the most harm with racist doctrines, Lovecraft would never make the list. ; the man who ran the asylum that swallowed both of his parents was a great American patriarch of the eugenics movement.

    Lovecraft gets a bronze bust for his contribution to the literature of the 20th century, which was significant, whether we like him personally or not. The fact that he was crazy as a shithouse rat, at least at times, is very much secondary to his creative output, which you do NOT have to be a racist to admire, respect or enjoy. If he had never written anything but KKK poems, “The Street” and even “The Horror at Red Hook”, no one would give a damn that he had ever existed. So while I am not against him being acknowledged or analyzed as a racist, I think it’s pretty useless to remember him primarily as a racist, or to think that this should be stated before his stories are acknowledged.

    He wasn’t very good at being a racist.

    He was very good at writing stories.

    • Arinn, thanks for the post. you bring up some interesting points. on the use of the term “Nigger-Man,” I do know Lovecraft claimed to have had a cat by the same name as a child. “My eldest cat, ‘Nigger-Man,’ was seven years old and had come with me from my home in Bolton, Massachusetts…” I was not aware of the Algernon Blackwood connection. Are you implying he perhaps named his childhood cat from one of Blackwood’s stories? That’s possible… do you know which story? At any rate, I don’t know that this changes matters much–whether he pulled the name from a childhood pet, a story or both–when placed into the larger context of aspects of his work and his personal letters. If the use of that name was a singular incident by a man with an otherwise ambivalent or undistinguished focus on race, I could see it as a disturbing episodic event. But, even allowing for your theory on the name’s origin, Lovecraft’s vitriol was far too pervasive to dismiss as mere fanboy-ism. After all, Blackwood was a prolific writer, and Lovecraft could have chosen 1001 other things as an ode to his work; he chose that one. And given his many other remarks, that says something.

      Speaking of fanboy-ism, he was also quite taken with Robert E. Howard. Who can forget their wonderful correspondence, with Howard remarking to Lovecraft the worthy social conditioning of lynching and ritualistic terror: “I don’t know whether an Oriental smells any different than a nigger when he’s roasting, but I’m willing to bet the aroma of scorching hide would have the same chastening effect on his surviving tribesman.” Men of their times indeed.

      On my ending statement on what should be read beneath Lovecraft’s bust, judging it as reductive is of course a subjective matter. If The Street or The Horror at Redhook are Lovecraft’s most *blatant* racist works, I don’t know that racism doesn’t seep into many of his other most famous works. Certainly I can find it bubbling to the surface in the very popular Herbert West-Reanimator or Call of Cthulhu. And, as stated previously, there are essays that deconstruct and analyze many of Lovecraft’s works through the lens of race, othering and gender–theorizing that there are allegorical meanings in his writings that are reflective of his xenophobia. I just don’t believe we can compartmentalize Lovecraft’s racism into a lock box separate and apart from his creative genius. So reductive? That’s up for debate, or at least the matter remains discursive.

      Now I will admit, my final comment was quite snarky–intentionally so. I did not write my post to reach some kumbaya moment over Lovecraft. I wrote it because I have seen a continuous silencing, denial or push-back against POC and others who state equivocally that Lovecraft was a racist. It is evident throughout the blogosphere, at conferences, festivals, etc. If it wasn’t, my little blog and many others who have had to bring up the topic, wouldn’t even be necessary. This dismissive attitude is evident in none other than the *designer* and master-mind behind the Lovecraft bust–who has stated quite plainly, any attempt to call Lovecraft a racist is an attempt to “demonize” him, and does not want to hear any “PC hypersensitive cult of victimhood” from (I must assume) POC or anyone who feels victimized by Lovecraft’s racism. THAT, is what I find “useless” in any attempt to deal with Lovecraft’s racism. And it makes it pretty damn hard to honour his bust when that seems to be the normative sentiment.

      Against those prevailing attitudes, I am being *quite* deliberate in placing Lovecraft’s racism front and center. I don’t see it as useless at all. I see it as a way of negating the silences and prohibitive structures that enshrine and/or protect Lovecraft from that analysis. Still dig his stories tho’…

      Thanks again for commenting.

  7. It makes me appreciate Edgar Rice Burroughs even more. When he needed dim bulbs for one of his African stories, he had his “anthropoid apes”, 100% not the ordinary walking around Africa guys. When he needed nasty, evil, lecherous goons, he had his ape-like priests of Opar, once again, not even sharing their skin color with any African-Africans. His big racial bile was directed against Arab slavers, definitely human, but definitely at the low end of the moral scale.

    Yeah, Lovecraft was a racist and an anti-semite and probably not a particularly wonderful human being. Still, he wrote a lot of good stories. I’m not a Lovecraft fan, mainly because I don’t enjoy creepy stories, but you can hate the artist while still liking the art. If you’re a woman, for example, you’ll find your choice of art pretty narrow if you insist on artists with sane attitudes towards women.

  8. Some random updates on white revisionism and “white nationalist” HPL fandom:

    –HPL has had vocal admirers in the white-power scene for some time. The long-running white-nationalist magazine INSTAURATION (1975-2000) dedicated the cover of their 100th issue to him. The author of the cover story claims, “Since Del Rey Books, his paperback publisher, is a Jewish firm and is making a tidy sum off ‘its author,’ little is said in the book trade about Lovecraft’s “dark side.” I kid you not: racists claim that silence about HPL’s racism is evidence that HPL’s Jews-control-mass-media worldview is correct. (Of course if you attack HPL’s racism, white reactionaries will call you a hysterical PC schoolmarm, and white nationalists at Stormfront will call you a Bolshevist Jew. Such are the contradictions of the white fringe.)

    –In doing research on HPL’s “times” and Providence history, I’ve learned more about Rhode Island race relations. In 1822, RI disenfranchised black men; over the next decade, Providence had two race riots in which whites destroyed black neighborhoods. Mid-century, black children had to attend segregated so-called “caste schools.”

    –Bryan Moore’s bust project aims to raise money for the Providence Community Library system. “Together, we can help thousands of American children learn to read,” writes Moore. “And perhaps, some of them will even discover Lovecraft some day.” What percentage of those children will also discover that Lovecraft would have segregated them, called them various subhuman names, and/or called for their relocation?

    Moore’s bust bears the legend “I AM PROVIDENCE,” like the headstone that fans put over HPL’s grave in the 1970s. If HPL “is” Providence, he’s the Providence of Jim Crow, race riots, and “scientific” racism.

    I don’t object to the celebration of HPL’s fiction and its influence, but I object to the celebration of HPL the man. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell on Leibniz, Lovecraft was one of the supreme fantasists of all time, but as a human being he was not admirable.

  9. Dear P. D. Clark,

    I’d like to invite you to contribute to a project of artists and writers of ethnicities that H. P. Lovecraft considered his biological and cultural inferiors. You have my email; write me, and I’ll explain in more detail.

    We’re preparing a chapbook version for NecronomiCon 2013, in three weeks, so RSVP ASAP.

    I submitted that article on racism in HPL fandoms to to _Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media_. Cross your fingers.

    –EC

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  11. Wow. Thanks for this post. I knew that HPL was racist but the depth is overwhelming. This post was a lesson and was well written to boot. I too am of the opinion that I can appreciate the work of generally reprehensible people, usually. When I can’t get past a particular artist’s objectionability (is that a word?), then I simply refuse to partake. Simple.
    As for the “man of his times” argument I think there may be instances where that may hold up, though I don’t think it excuses a person so much as puts them and their behavior/beliefs into context, but certainly not in the case of HPL. Agreed, his racism was particularly venomous.
    People see what they want to see and seeing HPL as a good ole boy who was a mere victim of his times is mental masturbation indeed.

    • khaalidah,

      thanks for the read and the comments. yes, HPL’s racism exceeded I think even the average casual normalized racists of his day. but what i think is most problematic, beyond his virulent hatred, are modern attempts to either ignore or minimize it, or see its influence on aspects of his work. given the thorny issues of race, gender and various forms of marginality that still exist in the genre(s), that seems precisely the wrong approach.

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  19. Brilliant article! I just made a fast run through a facebook-group and the fans reactions seemed to be excusing HPL or crank out the usual stupidity about “political correctness” that privileged groups usually do when challanged. I haven´t read HPL in years, but the blatant racism in his work actually made me less and less fond about it over time. And I really loved his work and ranked him as the best. But his racism has made me think that his work hasn´t aged so well as the fans seems to think. Other writers of his generations have aged much better, among other things since they lacked the pure racist hatred and contempt that HPL express again and again. I wasn´t aware however that the fans were going to such leangths to excuse HPL and try to shoot the messenger who points out unwelcome things about their idol. That truly made me feel sick.
    Keep up the great work! And thanks for an exellent read!

  20. I’ve read this quite a while after you first posted it – but, anyway…I must admit that I’ve never actually read H.P. Lovecraft, however much I was a sci-fi/horror/fantasy geek as a teen, and however aware of HPL’s canonic stature in that world. And the reason why is very specific: at age 16 (about 30 years ago), I came across L. Sprague De Camp’s biography of HPL in the stacks of our public library, pulled the book out and just started skimming. And when I came across the mention of HPL’s beloved cat “Nigger Man,” I was shocked and personally hurt. (A boy is still capable of such shock–Richard Wright captured it so well, in his memoir; but a black man who’s lived a bit…not so much.) I would later tolerate Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and even admire their work (both were strident racists & anti-Semites, of course); but could never bring myself to pick up Lovecraft…

    The ethnicity of HPL’s wife means nothing, of course. Before the (good) example of Strom Thurmond, we have that of Philip Johnson, the architect, an ardent admirer of and polemicist for fascism and Hitler and the Nazi Party in the 1930s (and who cooled the shit down publicly after a while, for the sake of his career), who had a relationship with a black man even as he indulged his racist psychosis.

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