Lovecraft, Racism, & the “Man of His Time” Defense

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about H.P. Lovecraft’s racism for months now. I’ve managed to hold myself back from discussing it because I realized that if I started writing about this topic, I’d probably go on for about five or ten thousand words. I felt I needed enough time and space to do the topic justice.

I’ll try not to write five or ten thousand words. At least, not all at one time. Think of this as the first in a possible series of blogs on the subject.

A Stroll through the Minefield

Broaching this subject is difficult, because most Lovecraft fans have an affection not just for the work itself, but also for the man who wrote it. I suspect many misanthropes and cosmic horror junkies find solace in identifying with H.P.L. For a brief period of time (before I learned more about him), I even counted myself in that number. Certainly, there are many aspects of his life that invite sympathy – the madness and premature death of both of his parents, the sense of alienation he felt from the world around him, and his struggles with poverty (just to name three). In spite of what some have described as a sort of personal awkwardness, Lovecraft seemed to possess – at least in some settings – a surprising charisma that attracted a circle of admirers and disciples (and it seems that circle has only increased in number and intensity in the several decades since his passing).

Broaching this subject is also difficult because it has to be handled with some nuance (which is difficult to achieve in a discussion of a topic as justifiably emotionally-charged as American racism). It would be too easy to point to Lovecraft’s racism (and some of his other failings as an author), and dismiss him as an undistinguished crackpot who deserved nothing better than publication in the pulps. I’m not going to do that here. My stance is that Lovecraft made an important contribution to horror and science fiction by focusing (in a persistent and compellingly imaginative way) on the terror induced by the revelation of human non-significance in the cosmos.

Now, Lovecraft wasn’t the first author to do this, and he might not have even been the best author to do this (I’m beginning to think Algernon Blackwood handled the topic both earlier and better in “The Willows” and, if I’m not mistaken, “The Man Who Found Out”). But Lovecraft was the most persistent and imaginative cosmic horror author of his time, and without him we might not have the work of Thomas Ligotti and W.H. Pugmire. We’d probably still have Ramsey Campbell and Caitlin Kiernan’s work – but it probably wouldn’t be the same Ramsey Campbell and Caitlin Kiernan. Lovecraft has had a meaningful influence over horror fiction (in particular) for many years, an influence that transcends his racism. He’s had an influence on my own fiction. Hell, I even had a story published in an online magazine named in his honor. All of this is just a long-winded way of explaining that Lovecraft’s racism doesn’t negate his accomplishments.

But his accomplishments don’t negate his racism. (Enter, cognitive dissonance).

Another reason this discussion is difficult is that Lovecraft – a New England city-dweller and a voracious bookworm with a fervent love of astronomy – defies our stereotype of what a racist looks and sounds like. I think white America has subconsciously tried to distance itself from allegations of racism by creating a caricature of what a racist looks like – a caricature informed by ’60s newsreel footage of thick Southern accents railing against integration and of overweight Good Ol’ Boy sheriffs siccing dogs on protesters. The syllogism goes something like this: “racism = Southern rubes; I’m not a Southern rube; therefore, I’m not a racist (and neither was H.P.L.)”

Need I even go into how comforting this stereotype is to those in the urban North, and how unfair it is to those in the rural South or Midwest?

But I digress…

The evidence of Lovecraft’s racism abounds: both in his letters and in his work. I recently received the Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s stories as a gift (I’ve read some of his work before receiving the gift, but I wanted the Library of America edition and read a few more of the stories there). In the process of reading the stories, anti-immigrant and anti-black sentiment erupted constantly – like speed bumps in a subdivision – interrupting my reading pleasure. Everything would be smooth sailing, I’d be enjoying the story and then – sometimes predictably in an “Oh crap, I can tell he’s gonna go there” way and sometimes seemingly out of the middle of nowhere – Lovecraft would toss a vile piece of racism into the mix.

Much “WTF?!” ensued…

The most egregious example of this that I’ve discovered, so far, is Lovecraft’s depiction of an African-American boxer, Buck Robinson (“The Harlem Smoke”) in the “Six Shots by Moonlight” section of “Herbert West, Reanimator”. Frankly, I’m surprised this example doesn’t come up more often, as it may be one of the most glaringly racist depictions of a black man ever to find its way into the canon of American literature. The life, death, and reanimation of Buck Robinson is given a treatment ten times worse than the worst minstrel show. There are other examples, of course, the fact that the protagonist of “The Rats in the Walls” has a cat named after an infamous anti-Black slur, the anti-immigrant railings in “The Horror at Red Hook,” and…well, many other examples. I’ve not taken the time to catalog them all, because then I’d be writing a book instead of a blog post.

The Big Four: The Most Common Arguments Against The Assertion That Lovecraft Was A Racist/Anti-Semite

In preparing to write this blog, I realized that…upon broaching this topic, some of Lovecraft’s most ardent fans would likely come to his defense by brandishing the usual defenses: (1. “He wasn’t a racist, he was just an Anglophile xenophobe”, 2. “But he married a Jewish woman!”, 3. “But he got better over the course of his life”, and – most frequently – 4. “He was just a man of his time!”)

In today’s blog post, I’m going to address the “man of his time” defense. Trust that in future blog posts, I’ll get to the others. Indulge me, if you can, to restricting comment just to the “man of his time” defense for this particular blog post. We’ll get to the others later.

Just A Man of His Time?

I want to use today’s blog to focus on the “man of his time” defense because it’s probably the most commonly trotted-out argument against the allegation of racism. In the documentary, Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown various and sundry commentators (including Guillermo del Toro and Robert M. Price) explain away Lovecraft’s racism with this argument.

The tactic here seems to be to point out that America as a whole was pervasively racist at the time Lovecraft was writing, and that Lovecraft was in no way unique. At first glance, the argument seems to have merit. Hell, it even sounds a little convincing – “a man of his time” carries a sort of pseudo-intellectual connotation and it  hints at taking into account the context in which Lovecraft wrote.

But if you just dig a tiny bit deeper, the argument falls apart.  There’s a reason we have this discussion about race in regard to H.P. Lovecraft and not in regard to, say, Edgar Allan Poe (who lived in a culture every bit as racist, if not more so, than the one HPL lived in).

If writers are all just “men or women of their time”, then we’d probably, according to conventional wisdom, expect Poe (a writer born almost a century before Lovecraft, raised in the antebellum South – hell, in the future capital of the Confederacy – by a merchant who traded in slaves) to write stories even more filled with racist sentiment. And yet, I’ve yet to find any overt racism in Poe’s work at all (I’m not saying it’s not there, just that I haven’t seen it yet — and I’ve read just as much Poe as Lovecraft, maybe a little more). We’d probably expect Ambrose Bierce (born and raised in the Midwest, in the 1840s) to likewise express racist leanings, and yet one academic article I’ve taken a look at actually argues that he wrote against anti-immigrant sentiment.

But let’s go back to Poe, since his approach to race may be more typical of his time. In Poe’s fiction, blacks (and, if I’m not mistaken immigrants, or any non-WASP people) basically don’t exist. He doesn’t pay attention to them. If non-whites are in the stories at all, they’re mentioned fleetingly as background characters – as servants. In that capacity, they’re presented without comment. This, of course, is far from ideal, but (at least in his stories) he doesn’t harbor them any ill will or describe them in ways that strongly suggest they’re biologically inferior.  I find a similar approach in the fiction I’ve read by Algernon Blackwood and Barry Pain.

Lovecraft, on the other hand, seems positively obsessed with the theme of white supremacy, taking opportunities to shoe-horn it into stories even when it’s completely unnecessary. There’s no narrative reason Lovecraft had to name the cat in “The Rats in the Walls” after a racist slur, or depict Buck Robinson in the degrading, animalistic way in which he did. These references are wholly gratuitous, apparently for Lovecraft’s own amusement and what he may have fancied to be the amusement of his audience (and before you leap to a “he did it for his audience” defense, take note that his private letters – not intended for an audience – are also littered with racist references).

My second main point I have to offer against the notion that Lovecraft was “just a man of his time” is that it presents HPL as passively going with the flow of his culture – an image that’s at odds with what we know of his temperament and personality. Men of Lovecraft’s time were supposed to be Christian – Lovecraft was an atheist. Men of Lovecraft’s time were supposed to be married by a certain age – Lovecraft didn’t marry until he was well into his thirties. Perhaps most tellingly of all – men of Lovecraft’s time weren’t supposed to be writing tales of encounters with tentacled aliens who drove you mad by negating your species’ place in the cosmic order!

Okay – so at this point I’ve written almost 2,000 words. Enough.

Like I said earlier, I want to – as much as possible – keep comments focused on the “man of his time” defense. Trust that there will be future blog posts engaging the other defenses, and that there will be ample time and space to explore them.

At this point, I’m going to stop writing and post this, because if I write another word I’ll keep writing for another thousand.

Comments (polite, of course) are always welcome to be posted below. Note that they will be moderated to keep the discussion productive and engaging (but your comments won’t be moderated out just for disagreeing with me).

Posted on June 20, 2012, in H.P. Lovecraft, Race, Racial & Ethnic Diversity. Bookmark the permalink. 65 Comments.

  1. I’m afraid I don’t have anything particularly productive to add, except that I found this an excellently-reasoned post on a very difficult subject. I, admittedly, have not read a great deal of, or about Lovecraft, for precisely the reasons you outlined above. While I recognize he was an interesting, imaginative, and fairly important writer, when I tried dipping into his work, I kept encountering examples of a mind that I found, at times, to be almost pathological. I simply couldn’t stand to read any more, because, to put it bluntly, the guy gave me the creeps. And not in the way he intended.

    I look forward to reading more from you on the topic.

    P.S. And thank you for putting in a good word for Poe!

  2. Really interesting post, I found it via Goodreads. It’s the one thing that’s always worried me about HPL (well, that and his prose style sometimes too!) He is undoubtedly a great horror writer, but you are quite right his flaws as a person shouldn’t be swept aside.

    I once tried to write a story using Lovecraftian ideas but to make an explicitly anti-racist point. One of the hardest stories I’ve ever written.

    Anyway, again, great piece.

  3. Very interesting. If we can all agree that he’s a racist, then what? Where do we go? On short notice, I can come up with the names of these racists: Joseph Conrad, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Darwin, Phillip Larkin, Evelyn Waugh (his racist stuff was *unbelievable*), and Tolkien. Heck, Stephen King wrote that awful story about the black hotel chambermaid and how she… er… ‘stole’ the talent of a famous writer. And let’s not forget ‘The Green Mile’. The list of racist writers could get pretty long.

    Perhaps the ‘Man of his Time’ defence is not valid, but the time made it a lot easier to be a racist, and there was little in the time to compel one to change one’s ways.

    Do we expunge these authors from our curricula? Do we change the texts, edit them, or just make footnotes stating ‘this passage is acknowledged to be racist’? Or, as some reactionary feminist bloggers do, write the terms ‘rape trigger’, ‘warning:racism’, or ‘caution: white privilege alert’. Or would that take too much time from legitimate learning? A lot of the great, albeit racism-tinged works need a lot of teaching before they sink in, and too many obligatory warnings might detract from class time.

    I have no idea what to do. Discuss it and keep it out in the open, I suppose.

    • Charles Darwin was not a racist. He spoke poorly of “savage” peoples because he encountered people during his travels that practiced human sacrifice, self-mutilation, infanticide, and slavery. He did not, however, endorse the idea that any race of man was inherently or genetically superior to another, nor did he abide the argument that different races and civilizations represented different species of mankind, a common thesis during his life time. Instead, he felt that all peoples of the earth were cut from the same cloth and that what separated the many civilizations of the world was culture, technology, and education.

  4. „It is difficult to look at that period impartially; since it disappeared it has been either arrogantly censured or stupidly praised, for those who lived in it are dazzled by precious memories, and the later-born do not understand it.“ (Anette von Droste-Hülshoff: „The Jews’ Beech-Tree“).

    This seems to be a good statement, although it is nearly 200 years old. Eventually this may help finding an answer to many questions … but at the end I’m not sure myself.

    However, thank you for this quite interesting reading! We really need more works on Lovecraft like this, instead of these never-ending, pseudo-funny Cthulhu issues.

  5. I think you’re broadly right, Nicole, but I don’t think the cat’s name in “The Rats in the Walls” is meant as derogatory. It was the name of Lovecraft’s only pet cat, which he loved. Recall also that the Dam Busters’ canine mascot was called N—–r (note: comment edited by N.C. for language) – I can’t imagine that was meant as an insult either.

  6. I think the “Man of his Time” defense is valid only as an observation. In other words, yes, HPL lived during a time when his extreme brand of racism was probably more rife than it is today; certainly a time where the public and private expression of such racism was more socially acceptable. But I don’t think it has much strength as a revisionist defense per se; i.e. plenty of folks living in Lovecraft’s day were enlightened enough to view such racist ideas as preposterous.

    So why didn’t HPL?

    L. Sprague de Camp, in H.P. Lovecraft: A Biography, argues that, while this does not excuse HPL’s racism, much of the man’s attraction to the Aryan-Teutonic cult may have had to do with his insecurities as an individual. Sprague suggests that Lovecraft, as a sickly child who went on to drop out of high school and who never really developed into a fully self-supporting adult, likely took comfort from the idea that, at the very least, he could count himself a member of “the superior [Anglo-Saxon] breed of man.” And again, this is not so much a defense as a possible (and incomplete) explanation for his racism.

    As a big HPL fan myself, I prefer to ignore the artist in favor of the art when it comes to this issue. Yes, that reprehensible racist stuff makes it into the stories sometimes, but I try not to let that spoil everything that’s good (nay, great) about his fiction. However, I couldn’t rightly harbor much blame toward someone who, after reading HPL’s article “The Crime of the Century,” his poem “On the Creations of N—-rs,” (Note: post edited for language by N.C.) or similar racist writings, decided never to read him again.

    Oh and great post, Nicole.

  7. nicolecushing

    Just a quick note on the use of “the n-word” in this thread.

    Because this word has such an extensive, painful history (and continues to be a much bandied-about racial slur into the present day, where I live), I’m editing references to it here (even when it’s just being used, as Ramsey and Douglas have both used it, to cite someone else’s use of the word). Maybe I’m being a politically-correct-bowdlerizer. I’m willing to take that risk, because I just feel very, very, uncomfortable with the word appearing here in it’s entirety. (Note: I’m actually against sanitizing the literary texts of writers like Twain or Lovecraft to get rid of the n-word, because I think the text is the text and should stay the text. But here…on a blog post that’s designed to generate discussion…I think different rules apply.)

    In posts where “the n-word” would appear, I’ve edited it to be “N—-r” or some similar arrangement. That way, readers should be able to get the gist of what the commenter is referring to without having to gaze at the word, itself.

    Consider that an editorial policy for Laughing at the Abyss.

    I’m willing to admit that this policy might not be perfect …this is just my attempt to maintain the positive direction of the conversation.

  8. Here’s my take. There should be no doubt that HPL was racist (and sexist). That doesn’t make him not a great or very influential writer. If he was a “product of his time” (which I think your observations strongly suggest he wasn’t “just”) then readers have to face disappointment that their idol wasn’t perfect enough to be beyond that. Facing up to a hero not being perfect is always difficult.

    Where the real problem comes in, the part that upsets me, is that even if he was just a product of his time WE are not. Writers these days who love the Lovecraft should absolutely keep the racial/gender skewing in mind and actively try to rise above it in their writing. We should work to honor the good, but also overcome the flaws. Reveling in the -isms for the sake of copycat writing is just lazy.

    Of course that brings us directly into a discussion of homage versus knock off, which is a completely different blog I’m sure :)

  9. To be honest, I don’t know many Lovecraft imitators who mimicked the racism. Gender skewing – I’m not sure. Do you mean there are few female characters in his work? Mostly the imitators (such as me) produced a poor copy of the most easily imitated elements of his style rather than attempting to learn from the structure and background documentary realism of his best work.

  10. “There’s no narrative reason Lovecraft had to name the cat in “The Rats in the Walls” after a racist slur…”

    I disagree. Really, why *wouldn’t* he name it that? Was it a racist “slur” back then? It certainly wasn’t considered such in 1904 (the last time HPL saw his real-life cat NM).

  11. spookyparadigm

    If you read just Lovecraft’s fiction (especially the more popular pieces and not, say, “He”), then the “man of his time” argument might be somewhat defensible, especially if you don’t look too hard.

    But you read his letters and unpublished poems/essays (I could be wrong, but “On the Creation of ….” was a poem he wrote for family, and that has only become well-known because of the obsessive publishing of Lovecraft letters and ephemera over the decades. Not a defense, but context), and there is no possible way the “man of his time” argument holds water. Yes, there were other people of Lovecraft’s time that obsessed with race the way he did, but they were, well, avowed racists.

    Instead, I think an argument could be made that Lovecraft was a man “of an earlier time,” and not the 18th century he so loved, and that has been constantly mentioned in discussions of his life. Rather, Lovecraft’s racism seems quite a-piece of the scientific racism of the mid- to late-19th century. Lovecraft was an autodidact, and much of what he used to teach himself were science and history books of the 19th century, from his grandfather’s library. This is why Haeckel is such an impact on his works (go look through Haeckel’s biological illustrations and the Elder Things will stare back at you). Likewise, at one point Lovecraft lists his five favorite anthropologists, and while some of them were still active during his lifetime, they were generally either well past their prime (though influential as the old guard) or reflected the racial obsession of the later 19th century.

    This isn’t a defense either so much as an explanation, as Lovecraft did keep up with some new publications and ideas if he cared to. An obvious one is Margaret Murray’s witch cult, first published in 1922 I believe, which became a massive influence on the Cthulhu mythos.And we know that he read (or at least suggested) archaeological books that included the realization that Great Zimbabwe was built by locals, and yet at least in his letters to friends, he still referred to it as either built by non-Africans or that it contained horrible ancient secrets, either way ignoring this bit of his reading.

    I will be curious to see the post on the “he got better” argument, because while he was a racist through his life, I think it can be argued that he did get better in the 1930s. He continued to be racist against Africans and indigenous Australians, though I don’t know that he obsessed about as he once did. Much of his other racism seems to have lessened to levels that were more “of the time.”

  12. spookyparadigm

    Just rechecked Joshi’s “A Life” and “On the Creation of …” was copied, presumably for friends and family. So not published, but not just a scribble in a notebook either.

  13. Wow. This comment thread is as awesomely well argued and informed as the post. I am impressed, everybody.

    Just a quick note on your argument, Nicole. I would suggest that it is not the case that we could expect someone of Poe’s era to be equally or more racist when compared to Lovecraft. That would suggest that historically people started out super racist and gradually got better: not true. In Lovecraft’s era, eugenics (a term coined by Francis Galton, a Brit, in 1883) steadily gained in popularity and interest. Many in the early twentieth century considered “racial purity” and “preservation” to be a worthy goal. Hitler didn’t pull his ideas from a vacuum.

    I agree with others that I wonder why it is necessary to turn Lovecraft the man into a flawless hero in order to admire his works, and why it is necessary to deny the very obvious racism in his work in order to enjoy it. Take what you like and leave the rest seems a prudent principle here.

  14. Actually, the fact that he was racist somehow makes me like him even more… It just shows that he was one f****d up, insecure, talented individual, and unfortunately I can relate to that at this point in time.

    • I also kind of enjoy the racism in Lovecraft’s work, because I like imagining that his descriptions of “cosmic horrors” are just over-the-top racist caricatures, and they really aren’t quite as bad as he makes them out to be.

  15. I certainly have not read anything more of Lovecraft than part of an essay purportedly lauding Poe’s influence on “horror” literature that I came across due to its being referenced on Twitter. But in that essay I immediately recognized an almost adolescent admiration for the philosophy of Nietzsche. As I have always had a severe dislike for Nietzsche as nothing more than a purveyor of the proto-Nazi ubermensch ideology, I immediately wrote off Lovecraft without having to delve any further. It follows that he would be a convinced and apparently quite rabid racist.

    • “As I have always had a severe dislike for Nietzsche as nothing more than a purveyor of the proto-Nazi ubermensch ideology” if you ask me, that’s pretty fucking shallow, but whatever. Do you also dislike Wagner’s music?

    • You should delve. What does ‘purportedly lauding Poe’s influence on “horror” literature’ mean?

  16. There’s a good quote from another author which I think applies here;

    “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good.” – George RR Martin

    Racism comes from ignorance or fear, and fear is clearly something Lovecraft had more than his fair share of. You could probably read a lot into the fiction if you had a mind to– fear of being displaced by alien things from other places, in a land you know your people have not long since arrived in themselves. Shub Niggurath the black goat of the woods with a thousand young.

    I can’t approve of his racism, but I’ve never really thought about it much, just cringed slightly and read on. Thinking about it now, though, it paints an image of a man besiged in his nice little town which he knows, in its own way, to be doomed by aliens beings.

    The key thing is that I can’t see it promoting racist attitudes today. I don’t think a 15 yr old would read it and think, “hey, yeah, black people are scary”, but a content warning on it as a text for younger readers would be good, just so that they see it for what it is. A talented broken man, afraid of the dark.

  17. I remember reading Lovecraft when I was about 12 and being struck by his racism. It was confusing and disturbing. I never developed the kind of passion I had, and have, for Poe. His blatant and ugly racism got in the way.

    • of course you thought he was racist when you were 12, you were fricken’ 12! hell, when I was 12 I thought ayn rand’s prose was okay.

  18. I think Christopher Gutteridge’s comment is an excellent and enlightening perspective on the man.

    Personally, I believe Lovecraft’s racism should be noted, but set aside for the sake of enjoying his better works. If you start boycotting the works of long dead authors I think you do yourself a disservice because nothing is gained by it, Lovecraft cannot change his opinions and no fan (that I’m aware of) uses his stories as racist propaganda. His fear of miscegenation woven into The Shadow Over Innsmouth doesn’t have the impact on me I imagine he’d have expected because I don’t share that fear, his descriptions of black people seem alien and foolish to me – his racism is based on ignorance and so whimpers out feebly in the light of modern understanding.

    I know many hero worship him, because frankly his cosmic horror works are astounding feats of imaginative creation (Call of Cthulhu, Mountains of Madness, Colour out of Space, Shadow out of Time), but the man wasn’t a hero, he was a flawed, bitter, angry xenophobe with ignorant views.

    However, I don’t think those views are any reason to demonize him either. He wasn’t a violent man, and he never encouraged violence or oppression of minority races, despite his anti-Semitic views he still expressed abhorrence at learning of the Nazi treatment of the Jews in WW2. If he lived today I think he’d be very much like millions of people living in the UK (where I live), reading the Daily Mail, voting UKIP and moaning about immigrants, multiculturalism and the dilution of Britishness. Not a pleasant person to converse with, but hardly a monster.

    • Rebecca:

      Thanks for your comments.

      Lovecraft’s views about Hitler and Nazi Germany are more complex than your comment would have us believe. (For example, HPL wrote in one letter “I know he (Hitler) is a clown, but I LIKE the boy.”) There’s also significant evidence that HPL’s antisemitism led him to treat his wife (who was Jewish) poorly (that his acceptance of her was conditional on the erasure of her Jewish identity; that he insisted that if they have company over, a majority of the guests should be “Aryans”). In the late ’40s, HPL’s ex-wife Sonia wrote letters to a friend (which have been recovered in recent years) indicating she believed that his antisemitism hadn’t abated over the years, and asserting her belief that had HPL lived he would have continued to be virulently antisemitic (perhaps even supporting the extinction of Jews). A decent summary of a fraction of these letters appears on this web page… http://chrisperridas.blogspot.com/2008/01/letters-from-sonia-surface.html

      In spite of my concerns about Lovecraft’s racism, I don’t think I’ve ever advocated boycotting him. (In fact, if you read my blog post, I think I bend over backwards to point out that this is an issue of cognitive dissonance…that we have equally compelling reasons to both praise and revile HPL.) I think your approach, however, risks minimizing the role of a belief in white supremacy in his work. Such minimizing helps resolve the cognitive dissonance, but I think falls short in capturing the complexity of the man and of his work.

      • Hi Nicole,

        Thanks, for the link. I was completely unaware those letters even existed. Most of what I know of Lovecraft has been garnered via Joshi, from whom I got the impression his anti-Semitism was much milder and his relationship with Sonia more amicable.

        Regarding the boycotting comment, it wasn’t reffering to your article, but was a more broad comment about how some people react to authors, artists etc when they learn of negative aspects to their character. A couple of people in the comments section mentioned they were put off reading Lovecraft because of a racist comment, or because of what they’d heard of him, which I think is a shame.

        I can’t wrap my head around him being so anti-Semitic and yet marrying a Jewish woman and being great friends with Loveman. As you say, he was obviously a far more complex man than I realised.

      • He also praised a pro-New Deal rabbi in the 1930s, in another letter, and even defended him from those who attacked from an anti-semitic perspective (IIRC). From what I’ve read of the letters, Lovecraft continued his racism towards Africans and Australians for his entire life, though he was less likely to rail on about it in letters or use it in his fiction. His racism against other groups substantially lessened in the 1930s, though he still had a kind of ethnic nationalist perspective we would consider racist today, but it wasn’t the full-throated racism he had in the earlier 1920s. When he was married to Sonia Greene. I think Greene had every right and then some to be bitter about Lovecraft. Especially when you look at his letters and life, and you can tell she fell in love with him for real, whereas he basically seems to have been looking for a mother replacement. But her later comments should be taken with both contexts (the time period was Lovecraft at almost his most racist, and the fact that she is Lovecraft’s ex-wife and was treated fairly poorly in a number of ways) in mind.

  19. CosmicallyTerrorized

    Lovecraft has become the touchstone for people to demonstrate their superiority: “I read Lovecraft when I was 5 and was so offended by his racism I could never read him again.” Right. I wonder whether people realize that EVERYONE, to some degree or another, is a racist. (Oh, I can hear the outraged protests.) But I didn’t intend that to be my point. I wanted to compare Lovecraft’s experiences in New York with my own, when I moved from central Arizona to Emeryville, CA in 1980. As I didn’t have any money to speak of, I had to live in the poorest of neighborhoods. What happened there was a shock to my naive and basically hick upbringing. My house was robbed, by people I had befriended and with whom I had shared my meagre resources. My car was stolen. I was attacked in the street. There were shootings at midnight. The men used the foulest language I have ever heard, making sexually suggestive and insulting remarks. I was harrassed every time I left the house. The houses and streets were utterly filthy, and the citizens did nothing but add to it. It was the first and only time I had ever heard the word “nigger” spoken by a real-life person, and it wasn’t caucasians using the word; it was in constant use by black people referring to other black people. In short, it was the most demoralizing year in my life, and I wanted nothing more than to get the hell away. I did. I moved to Richmond, then Berkeley, then Oakland, and though I still had some problems, it was nothing like that year in Emeryville. If I had never encountered any other black people, my impression of them would have been completely determined by that one year. I’ve told you all this because I wonder whether Lovecraft had a similar experience. He was poor. He lived in the most deprived neighborhoods. He probably saw the worst of humanity. He fled, and, unfortunately for generations of admirerers of his writing, expressed his prejudices in his fiction. If you want to avoid writers–mostly white men, but some women–who used racial slurs and denegration of black people, see the list above, and add to it: William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Raymond Chandler, and John Steinbeck. I’ve only read one novel by a black man, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. His depiction of white people is not flattering, nor is his depiction of black people. If you want me to feel guilty for Lovecraft, I will, but I’ll be bearing the burden of earth’s history.

  20. Interesting post and it is a tricky subject to deal with for most HPL fans. You might want to check out (if you haven’t already) Michel Houellebecq’s essay ‘HPL: Against the world, Against Life. There’s also a really nice French documentary that takes a similar line called ‘The Case of HPL’ (1998). It takes an interesting approach to both the biog of HPL and the process of documentary filmmaking too.

  21. “Another reason this discussion is difficult is that Lovecraft – a New England city-dweller and a voracious bookworm with a fervent love of astronomy – defies our stereotype of what a racist looks and sounds like.”

    Some of the most brilliant people in history have been racists or had qualities (or flaws depending on your point of view) that are considered politically incorrect. The common belief is that RACIST = UNSOPHISTICATED MORON because modern cosmopolitan effetism has a superiority complex about being open minded. It’s kind of suffocating, actually.

    I see a similar attitude by educated elites when they pooh pooh religion and their adherents: CHRISTIANS = ANTI-SCIENCE TEABAGGERS is what they’re basically saying. Yet I could perform a Google search and come up with an extensive list of brilliant creators and academics who had sincere religious conviction.

    Lovecraft was largely unknown during his lifetime. His racism is only becomes a controversy because his fiction is now quite known and admired. How could such a brilliant writer who eschewed religious woo be such a virulent and hateful racist?

    I’m only familiar with Lovecraft’s fiction, and not his letters. From my understanding, he was quite poor. Was his racism driven by the downward pressure on wages that the flood of immigrants was causing? Not to defend hatred, but hatred doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Writers prior to Lovecraft’s time were likely just as racist as HPL but because blacks and other minorities weren’t economic competitors, there was no motive to express such views quite as prominently as HPL did. The public backlash against immigration was so great that Calvin Coolidge passed a law to restrict it in the 1920s.

    HP Lovecraft was definitely a man of his time. His fiction wouldn’t have been the same if he wasn’t racist. If he had been a staunch advocate for multiculturalism, he couldn’t even begin to write about the fear of the unknown.

  22. I, too, find any enjoyment of HPL’s work marred by the frequent and ignorant racist elements in his stories, but you mist not have read much People if you didn’t notice racism in his work. The slave Jupiter in “The Gold Bug” is a caricature of a minstrel show black, and it remains one of his most reprinted works.

  23. hmm… well when you put it that way, I guess he was racist! along with every other author who put racists as characters in literature. I mean, who knew that bram stoker, mark twain, maya angelou, harper lee, and just about every author that has ever had a racist or anti-semetic charactor or statement is by your definition a racist. well, I guess I’ll just have to burn my all of my steinbeck and swift collections because they are all just so racist. oh! and my gadsby original edition, can’t have any books written by anti-semites can we?
    Now that I think about it, he used the word queer a whole lot too! well I guess thats that, I guess we just can’t have any respect for an underpaid, underpublicized, unappreciated visionary of the literary world.

  24. Enjoyed this post and the intelligent replies here. I am a white woman who grew up loving Lovecraft and his eldritch influence on horror and pop culture. I am a bit “culty” about him. Takes dirt in an oyster to make pearls. Most artists (especially great and influential artists) are not perfect people.

    I agree that people should acknowledge the racism (and general misanthropy) of his work. (anyone who really does any reading on him cannot deny the fact that he was racist and had a fear of women). Part of what I love in Lovecraft is his reliably hysterical narrators in so many of the stories. He has a distinct point of view (overwrought intellect seething in it’s own juices locked away from the unacceptable world and steeped in obsessive antiquarian research) and develops it to a fever pitch.

    Part of what is unique in Lovecraft is the feeling that he held nothing back, and allowed us inside his reeling brain – uncensored. I agree with others who say he himself was weak, ill, neurotic, obsessive…and his racism is filled with projections. In “the Outsider”, the protagonist himself is the awful one. Lovecraft’s racism needs to be seen in context of a larger disgust with humanity in general.

    There are indeed passages that make me uncomfortable to read – but I think art is supposed to make you uncomfortable. I am not “sold” on the racist POV – but I find it edifying to view the world through this Klansman on Acid viewpoint (I see the horror in a different light than the author – his viewpoint itself is part of the horror). I want to deal with the awkwardness of uncensored work from Lovecraft. I admit, I will not bother to read most work with such racism, but Lovecraft’s vision touched me, and the flaws in his tangled soul are bound up in his work. I don’t think his work should be sanitized when published any more than Flannery O’Connor’s should. (although Flannery’s relation with race is more complicated.)

    If people do want cosmic horror without the racism, they can indeed read the exquisite Algernon Blackwood, or a long list of those who followed HPL – but his rantings are unique- and cast a singular spell.

  25. A fascinating piece and certainly food for thought – however, I don’t know if I can accept that Lovecraft was more racist than Poe, precisely because Poe completely ignores non-white races (oh, apart from a certain slur on Native Americans I seem to recall being perpetuated in ‘The Squaw’). To Poe non-whites were nothing more than furniture or scenery – chattels, in fact. Is the total dehumanising of a person not as bad as turning them into an object of terror? But then, Poe was a man of HIS time, too, when chattel slavery was a given and justified by the fact that non-white races were less than human.

    It seems to me that HPL was more openly racist in his work than some contemporaries – but less than others. So he was a man of his time in that his attitude was not universal, but it was pretty common and even accepted. The cat’s name really was not seen as a racist slur, it was a common name for a black cat. I have three neighbours who own black dogs they have named ‘Blackie’, which could be seen as a racial slur but our neighbours from Somalia don’t seem to feel that way.

    If people are really bothered about these issues, perhaps they could issue editions of his work with an introduction putting it into context (and do the same for L Frank Baum and his atrociously sexist Oz books, Charles Dickens and his antisemitism and distaste for the disabled, and so on).

    • Oz books sexist? What?? You’ve obviously never read the actual books. You must be referring to Disney’s modern movie adaptation of Oz. Baum was the son and husband of two of the most vocal feminists of his day. Susan B Anthony was a friend of the family and stayed at his house when in town. His family was a huge supporter of women’s suffrage. His books are probably some of the greatest feminist literature of the day and the fact that he wrote them for children, inspiring countless girls with his strong female heroes, completely unlike the other children’s literature of the time, is worthy of great respect. Baum’s name is pretty much synonymous with positive feminism in children’s literature.

  26. Adrian Kleinbergen

    I wouldn’t try to defend Lovecraft’s racism at all. That’s what he was and that’s that. Read his work or don’t read it. Everyone has flaws and racism was Lovecraft’s.

  27. Jeremy Needleman

    The problem with decontextualizing Lovecraft’s time — with not addressing the circumstances in which he became a racist — is that it’s more revealing to understand his situation and how it informed his deeply xenophobic cosmology than to ignore it.

    Many have pointed out that Lovecraft grew up in almost the same area as Eliot. I would also point out that both men were racist and anti-Semitic in roughly the same way. Poe wouldn’t have been threatened by the idea of immigrants and other races usurping his position in the sense that Lovecraft was. For one thing, Poe self-identified as a kind of bohemian of his time. He did not assume the mantle of the Repressed White Male Whose Economic Class Is Slipping, as did Eliot and Lovecraft. This is not to say that Poe necessarily would have written overtly racist stories if he had been. It is to say that he wasn’t tested and therefore couldn’t fail the test.

    In both Eliot and Lovecraft, a profound sense of horror is directed largely at a metaphorical lower class. Both abhor what they consider to be primitive and impure — it’s practically horror and disillusioned poetry written by phrenologists.

    When I first noticed this in Lovecraft, I was not only disgusted but disappointed. The disappointment comes from seeing the thread of prejudice in Lovecraft’s conception of horror and attempting to separate it — as one does in a D.W. Griffith flick — to see if enough survives that is of sufficient value to learn from. In Lovecraft’s case, I think there is enough there, but its efficacy and intensity is diminished by the level of *hatred* involved in Lovecraft’s idea of horror. Much horror works on the subconscious by destroying the reader’s sense of the rational — no one knew this better than Arthur Machen when writing about the idea of evil as *alien* and *irrational* rather than merely transgressing rote boundaries. Lovecraft added xenophobia to Machen’s conception of evil as the Nazis did anti-Semitism to Nietzsche.

    That’s the quandary that remains for me. I have no problem with Lovecraft’s being a good-bad artist. I have a big problem with the effectiveness of his cosmology and tone being compromised by his ethnic and socioeconomic myopia.

    I also wouldn’t put King in the same category because his books weren’t understood to be racist until the 90s; his characterization of black people was often said to be ahead of its time. I personally have always hated King’s use of what I used to call the Mystical Negro (until Chris Rock coined the term Magic Negro). William Gibson is guilty of the same thing with Rasta guides in Neuromancer, but it’s a different kind of racism in both writers than Lovecraft’s: It portrays black people exclusively as reflecting characters (to borrow a term from screenplay writing). They might have special powers, but nothing can help them become central characters in a story. They exist only to help non-black characters who *are* central. This is a form of racism to which writers were often blind because they mistook it for racial tolerance.

    I believe that that is going to happen to writers like us — perhaps even in our lifetimes — and that you and I might well write things that will be revealed as prejudiced later no matter how diligent we might try to be. Being diligent helps, but tolerance is a lens that is constantly pulling back — revealing more and more of the picture until at last the people who took the last photo can actually be seen in the next.

  28. Steven Lohring

    Im a fan of his work and my feeling on the matter is that yes, he was a racist and there’s nothing anyone can say or do to change that fact. It seems some people need to feel that he wasn’t racist to relieve their own guilt of making him one of their literary heroes. Kind of the same way people still defend Mel Gibson when the evidence of his bigotry is right there on tape for the public to witness. I admit, it bothers me and if it wasn’t for the fact that he uses racism and anti-semitism so freely in some of his work, I would probably ignore it. Im sure some of my other favorite authors, artists, musicians, celebs,etc harbor(ed) some kinds of prejudices, be it racial, cultural, religious, national, etc. Heroes are human too. I don’t feel guilty for liking any of them, even Lovecraft because my adoration for them involves their work and positive contributions and not them as people or how they would see me as an immigrant.

  29. Jeremy Needleman

    My problem with Lovecraft’s racism is that it compromises the concepts behind the fiction and therefore the *effectiveness of the symbolism*. It impacts on the characters and even the monsters in many of his stories — the “degenerate race” of worshipers in “The Call of Cthulhu,” for example.

    The problem for me is that said worshipers resemble Conrad’s supposed savages in Heart of Darkness, which means that Lovecraft’s portrayal of scary followers gets undermined by his repugnance at the genetically impure (which is itself repugnant, which is why so many horror stories have used unbridled prejudice as their *subject*).

    Ligotti’s misanthropic pessimism feels more resonant than Lovecraft’s to me partly because it calls the validity of the *entire* human race into question and so approaches metaphysical horror on a grander scale.

    Nihilism and pessimism can easily spring from dismay at the supposed degeneracy of human beings; for that reason, they’re often used to justify inhumane political beliefs (early Cioran). But the idea that *all* of humankind is being used by something hideous can be far more resonant when the point isn’t an obvious comment on someone else’s perceived inferiority.

  30. Judgements through our 21st century raceometer lens is interesting but non-substantive. Who cares ? is too simplistic, but it’s a dead horse. HPL’s teenage president, T. Roosevelt had asinine views of blacks and Indians, but it doesn’t diminish his work to make the US a far better place. He had moral and character flaws. My kids will think I’m a dipshit upon learning I thought gay marriage was messed up when I was a young guy. I’m all white and conspicuous and live in a mixed heritage community dominated by American Indians. I witness racism in myriad forms. But from what I see, all humans that employ a bit of critical thinking–not looking to support a position or make a persuasive argument on period racism–get that past generations had biases rooted in things like culture, time, place and personal experience. Was he or wasn’t he might be worth talking about, but in the final analysis…there is no problem. Get into the now.

    With all that said, I’m glad to read your blog post and all the views that followed. Seems so often that in looking through the rearview “great but flawed” go hand-in-hand.

    • Jeremy Needleman

      It’s a mistake to dismiss criticisms of Lovecraft’s effectiveness to Pharisaical nitpicking about his political incorrectness. General statements about his character (“we’re all flawed,” etc.) can’t possibly excuse any faults in the writing itself.

      Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is as great a work of literature as it is a dismal example of antisemitism. If the value of Lovecraft’s writing were even slightly comparable — if it didn’t consist of the *resonance, metaphysics and scale* of his ideas — then realizing that said ideas were reductive would have little effect on one’s opinion of his work.

      The problem is not that he was racist. It is that his racism compromised the visceral and intellectual effect of his horror. To quote T.S. Eliot, the issue should never be framed as a conflation of Lovecraft’s character (“the man who suffers”) with his writing (“the mind which creates”).

      We read Lovecraft to feel the resonance of his concept of a terrifying and anti-human vastness involving untranslatable perceptions — a condition that I find expressed more frighteningly in classic Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist texts (and in Crowley) than At the Mountains of Madness. That’s why the literal-minded aspect of Lovecraft’s depiction of the Infinite flattens the scope and effect of the concept, making it greatly unequal to that of Baudelaire’s “Le Gouffre,” for example.

      One question to ask might be this:

      What happens to Lovecraft’s concept of the Old Ones, the limits of human perception and our imaginary history of grand-scale atavism if you remove the part that is dependent on his genteel recoil at so-called savagery? Does it hold up if you pare away the reactionary impulse that drives it? Shakespeare’s value remains despite his prejudices; what about Lovecraft’s?

      • To answer the question of value you pose, I think it does remain.
        .
        I never personally saw the horror as stemming from the “savage” or “inferior” followers, it’s like in Lovecraft’s world these people (i.e. anyone who doesn’t live up to Lovecraft’s personal standard of a modern, civilised person) are simply more susceptible to the influence of his cosmic horrors.
        The hillbilly Dutch, Louisiana swamp dwellers, the families of Arthur Jermyn, and Lavinia Whateley, the people of Innsmouth, inuit tribes, the poverty stricken inhabitants of Red Hook. What they share isn’t savagery or degeneracy, rather it’s that they never had or at some point rejected the modern (19th century), rational, genteel, upper middle-class worldview Lovecraft saw as some kind of pinnacle of human existence. With the exception of Arthur Jermyn the horror doesn’t arise from their personal degeneracy, but from what the lack of Lovecraft’s pinnacle allowed to happen to them.

        It’s never suggested that the narrator – usually the epitome of rational skepticism and advanced learning Lovecraft admired – is in any less peril or any less at the mercy of cosmic indifference than the worshipers or victims of his horrors (think Charles Dexter Ward). The validity of all of humanity *is* being called into question, the entire human race are all *equally* insignificant in the eyes of Cthulhu or Dagon or Yog-Sothoth. The narrator is simply exposed to the horror more acutely because he stands outside (and in Lovecraft’s mind, above) the events that he becomes entangled in.

        Yes, the worshipers are usually (though not exclusively) non-white and non-English. But that’s because in Lovecraft’s racist mind they’re the logical embodiment of the irrational, coarse and unlearned people who, lacking a modern education and middle-class “civilised” upbringing, would fall more easily into Cthulhu-style cult worship.

        Think about the scene in the swamp in Call of Cthulhu, we have a savage display with bodies on poles and a big fire with people dancing around semi-nude, blood and mud mixing together. The emotion he was trying to convey, I feel, is one of unbridled, unrestrained chaotic worship. Sure, he didn’t really need to go on about them being “mulattos” and so forth, it *could* have been equally effective with any ethnicity, but I genuinely think that Lovecraft found these usages the best way to convey a sense of these people being anything but the Anglophonic, white gentleman we find in the narrator.
        He could have set the scene entirely differently, with Anglophonic white gentlemen in long robes worshiping Cthulhu in the comfort of a large hall, somewhat like an Order of the Golden Dawn ceremony, and in another story that may well have been able to induce a sense of fear, but what it wouldn’t have been would have been the chaotic and carnel scene he desired to write.

        Plus, there are plenty of great stories that don’t rely on the gentleman recoiling at savagery motif to generate their horror. The Colour out of Space, A Shadow out of Time, At the Mountains of Madness, Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, Pickman’s Model etc.

        No-one ever said he was a literally genius. He wrote about things that scared him, as every horror author does, which in some cases was alien incursion into his reality – be they aliens from Yuggoth or aliens from Spain and China. If you accept the *emotional premise* of what Lovecraft is trying to convey with his racist slurs, of the fear these people generated in him and that he’s trying to convey to the reader, then there is no need to “pare away” the reactionary impulse. Because, like it or not, Lovecraft *is in his stories*, there’s no need for conflation, he’s usually the narrator himself.

        Or, to use your T.S. Eliot reference, the product of the reaction (story) does still suffice once you remove the platinum (Lovecraft), however, in this case leaving the platinum in both taints and intensify’s the product in equal measure.

  31. Skimmed, will read closer later but this is unnecessarily long-winded. I mean, it could be literally half this length with the same actual content. -_-

  32. I vehemently agree that Lovecraft was not just a “man of his time,” and people that say this in general are shutting down discourses that need to happen.

    That being said, I can’t help but disagree with the arguments you’ve made here. In regard to your first point, saying that Lovecraft was a “man of his time” does not at all imply that we should expect racism in Poe or others that came before him; Poe could have simply NOT been a man of his time, or racism then might have taken on a different form. Poe not being an abject racist does not somehow make Lovecraft more racist than those of his time; this logic just doesn’t work. If Poe was neutral on the ordeal, but Lovecraft believed only that black people were biologically inferior (a popular pseudo-scientific belief in even “intellectual” groups up until the last decade of his life) but did not preach his violent hatred of both black people and every other non-Anglo Saxon group, then we might begrudgingly admit that he is racist, but his views are in line with the times. Quite plainly, no one from another time period has anything to do with this; it has only to do with the mindsets of his contemporaries.

    In regard to the second point, that doesn’t really counter the “man of his time” argument either. We all know he wasn’t a man of his time in terms of all of his philosophies—in fact, he was quite ahead of his time in regard to a few of them (while behind in several others). People say he is a “man of his time” in regard to his racism, and they only mean it in relation to that. I know plenty of people who are progressive in terms of lesbian/gay/bisexual rights, but fail miserably in maintaining similarly progressive ideals in regards to transgenderism. If equal rights and fair treatment of these groups is looked positively upon in the future (which I’m sure we can agree is likely), then those friends might be considered “of their time” in terms of transgenderism, even if they are forward-thinking in regards to lesbian/gay/bisexual rights.

    Neither of these arguments actually refute the “of his time” hogwash in the least, in my opinion. What does refute it, though, is the extent of Lovecraft’s violent racism; what he actually said makes him not just a man of his time, but worse. He actively denied science, studies, and discourses of the time that refuted his ideas, no matter how publicly accepted (e.g. the falsity of “black people are biologically inferior” studies that were debunked roundly in the last decade of his life). This recent article (http://mediadiversified.org/2014/05/24/the-n-word-through-the-ages-the-madness-of-hp-lovecraft/) has some samples of the things he said that go far beyond what could be considered “of the times” in terms of racism.

    Of course, there’s also the argument that regardless of him being of his time or not, those despicable views need to be discussed openly, and they should not be considered somehow disjoint from his stories. Even if I disagree with your reasoning, I am glad you are contributing to an open discourse about the subject, of which it appears most Lovecraft fans seem to be afraid.

  33. Thank you for your post. I’ve loved reading Lovecraft for the past

    I would offer a middle ground on the “victim of his time” argument and say that Lovecraft was truly a part “of his time”. Poe has been mentioned as not have made racist comments in his writing. It would be an error to assume that means he didn’t hold racist beliefs. The same can be said about Hemmingway and other contemporaries of Lovecraft (though Eliot is also made seriously racist statements in his life). However, attacking others does not alleviate Lovecraft. Lovecraft was a racist and his “time” was one of shocking racism. In my opinion, commenting that other contemporaries didn’t publicly (or privately) hold racist beliefs is more a comment on these authors being “ahead of their time” with social issues.

    Eugenics has been mentioned several times on this page, but has appeared to me that every mention of eugenics is mediated by evidence that it is pseudo-science and “no excuse” for Lovecraft’s behavior. Perhaps it is no excuse, but it could possibly be an explanation. Eugenics, social Darwinism, racial purity are all pseudo-sciences and disgusting forms of racism…but it was considered accepted scientific and social science until WWII. The Nazi’s racial purity laws were based on American eugenics and racial hygiene laws.

    I don’t think this has been mentioned here in significant detail. Scientific racism was a powerful and accepted mentality that was rife in American academia (up until at least 1930). The United States had laws in the late 19th century and early 20th century that prevented marriage outside of the races to maintain racial purity and avoid homogenization of race/culture (and these laws were legal until the 1960s). As early as 1907, there were laws in the United States that had forced sterilization of undesirable people to prevent the spread of their “inferior genes” (over 30 states, thousands of people sterilized over sixty years). Racial segregation was rampant. The specific racism concerning Grant’s “The Passing of the Great Race” diminished from American thought in the 1930s, but the eugenics and other racial purity beliefs didn’t simply vanish.

    Additionally, the attitude about immigration in the United States was equally appalling. The Immigration Act of 1924 was a federal law that limited certain groups from immigrating legally to the United States for the express purpose of not diluting “American heritage”.

    Then there’s Lovecraft: a brilliant but horrifically insecure man wracked with mental illness. He wanted to cling to something that gave him meaning, elevated him to this ideal of a “learned gentleman”. Academia and science lent him this; unfortunately he embraced the scientific and academic beliefs that were very racist. There is some evidence that is views may have started to soften towards the end of his life, or perhaps just became quieter. He was reportedly upset at the scale of violence being visited on the German Jews in 1936, even though he famously said that Hitler was right to “suppress Jewish influence in German culture” in prior letters. But, even though some of his cringe-worthy beliefs may have subsided, other beliefs continued throughout the last years of his life. He was a complicated man, with dark elements to him who was fearful of losing his identity and was very resistant to change.

    To use the “victim of his time” defense as an excuse is dismissive and dangerous, but to ignore the paradigm of the time is white-washing history. Personally, I hope that the horrors of the Holocaust would have opened Lovecraft’s eyes to the hate that he thought was scientific and justified. I also hope that if he had been born in “our time”, these beliefs never would have taken hold because they lacked social acceptance or had false scientific credence.

  34. Dancy Lawrence

    Lovecraft was certainly a racist. But in regard to Poe vs. Lovecraft, the comparison is not entirely fair.

    Poe lived before the Civil War, in an era where his sense of racial superiority, if it existed, was not threatened. He may or may not have been racist – but he had no reason to write racist screeds: he was comfortable in his privilege, his position in society was not threatened.

    Lovecraft lived in a post-Civil War world where new ideas – some of them racist ones – were rising and where blacks were no longer slaves and they and immigrants were making themselves heard and visible.

    They lived in different worlds. Lovecraft – and many whites of his class – felt threatened by a changing world. Poe generally lived in one without these same “threats” to his position.

    Poe could certainly write racially charged material – read the Narrative of Arthur Gorden Pym with its “jabbering” black “savages” who are portrayed as “the most wicked, hypocritical, vindictive, bloodthirsty, and altogether fiendish race of men.” But most of the time he didn’t, because unlike Lovecraft, he didn’t live in a society where his sense of privilege was challenged on a regular basis.

    In short: Lovecraft was a man of his times – and they were racist times, but uncomfortable, making him afraid. Poe was a man of his times – and they were racist times, but “comfortable” ones for racists, so Poe was not, in general, afraid. Comfortable racists write fewer racist screeds than fearful ones, and so Poe looks less racist than Lovecraft.

  35. Allow me post a comment that will in no doubt be buried under a sea of already similar or better comments.
    I would first like to say something controversial, namely that I actually enjoyed some of the racism in Lovecraft’s work. Although it wasn’t intentional, it did portray racist characters from a racist time period. Of course there were moments reading Lovecraft when I was a bit “Dude! Seriously?” and the aforementioned Buck Robinson is an excellent example of such a moment. My main hangup being that he was a racist depiction of a character, rather than a charter with racist values, such as the guy in “Rats In The Walls” who named his cat Niggerman.

    Yes it is offensive, but I’d prefer to read a modern day fiction where a Christian character hates Muslims because race, rather than one where everyone lives in peace and harmony and tobacco and alcohol are replaced by fairy dust and unicorn piss.

    That having been said, I agree that the “Man Of His Time” argument is flawed, but not just because Lovecraft wasn’t a man of his time, but because it doesn’t matter if he was influenced by his environment or not. It’s still racist and we shouldn’t see it in any other way.

    To put it another way:
    Imagine someone who lives in a run down shack in the middle of a racist, white bred township in a Southern state in the USA. Now imagine a not-white dude steps into town one day and mister Whitebred decides to lynch him. Whitebred is a man who was influenced by his surroundings, he didn’t know any better.
    Does this make it any better?

    (I am not an American, so I apologies if this representation is offensive, but the current view of America is that it is a breading pot for racist bigots. And I am just a man of my time.)

  36. As you mention, “man of his time” falls apart when compared to other authors. Especially Mark Twain, who, while having many of the intellectual failings of his time, seemed to go out of his way to point out the stupidity of racism and rail against boxing people together with stereotypes. His portrayal of Jim (even using the N word) is more of a mocking parody along the lines of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” where the N word is used probably 100 times in the first ten minutes of the show, but only to show how stupid the people that say it are.

    I have followed a few white nationalist blogs as well (always like to keep an eye on people who would like to kill me) and they are quite clear on their admiration of Lovecraft. For him, he is one of the volkisch heros for the very fact that he did not mince his words or his racism.

    Yes, most white people at the turn of the last century were suspicious of non-whites. They used unflattering and often insulting terms for asians, black people, and my own group, the latinos. But from what I’ve read about Lovecraft’s rants, I’d bet even the “average” person in the 1890s, 1910s would have raised eyebrows and thought Lovecraft’s racialism a bit over-the-top.

  37. Lovecraft’s racism is indeed inexcusable (in fact, why are we trying to “excuse” any person who’s died already, if not for insecurity and self-protection?). However, the comparison of Lovecraft to Poe is more open for dispute. Modern social justice theory would argue that Poe’s lukewarm emotion towards a race (especially one as disadvantaged as the black person in his time) displays not tolerance, but passive acceptance of the status quo and erasure of an entire people from his crafted worlds.

  38. I don’t even have to read the article to know it’s probably well reasoned and on point, but who cares? Why does it matter this much if the guy was racist? It fits right in with the rest of his offensive puritanical views which make his horror the interesting fiction it is. I just read The Horror At Red Hook which was completely loaded with racist overtones, undertones and blatant in-your-face racism. I felt no need to come up with a defense, I am not an apologist. I thought, “there’s that racism people talk about” and went on reading. In the Horror At Red Hook, he offends Jews and Kabballists, by equating their beliefs with savages and black magic devil-worshippers and rattles off a bunch of other non-Christian beliefs as he ties it all in with the supposed “devil-worshipping” Yazidis. I think he actually uses the phrase “filthy mongoloid” in there if I recall correctly. As I read all this, I am sucked into his paranoid worldview and it is what creates the heavy and somewhat frightening atmosphere. I’m not reading Lovecraft for philosophical reasons. His writing itself isn’t even particularly good, it’s the ideas and worlds he creates that are entertaining. I think the only way I could possibly care that he was racist would be if I worried quite illogically that I might somehow start to think like him by reading his books, which is absurd.

  39. phillipaellis1968

    Regarding Lovecraft being of his time, there are a few considerations that are helpful to consider.

    1) His family: his mother’s side was an established part of Providence society, which, in the 1890s, remained staunchly conservative, with racism a major cultural element in the white society. Consider, also, his childhood pet (black) cat, whose name is the origin of the cat in “The Rats in the Walls”. Consider, also, his father’s delusions while suffering tertiary syphilis initially involved the idea that blacks were sexually assaulting Lovecraft’s mother.

    2) “On the Ceation of Niggers”: This poem was written for his family, and it was preserved by Lovecraft’s aunts. They, in turn, passed it along to Barlow, who had it deposited with Lovecraft’s other poems; it remained unpublishd during Lovecraft’s lifetime, and I have yet to see any mntion of it in Lovecraft’s letters that I have seen so far.

    3) The critical response: Lovecraft’s racism has been a topic of a number of items, especially my piece on the construction of race in Lovecraft’s poetry. This paper sets out how Lovecraft talked about race in his poetry, and where and how he was racist. It is an area that needs wider discussion.

    4) Herbert West: Given that the serial is a parodic work, the characterisations of the boxer needs to be considered in that light. Note, also, that there is a racist premise in the following: the characters initially believ that the serum fails to work because the boxer is (if I may) subhuman, yet it does work, which can be read as an example where Lovecraft is interrogating the racist concept of subhumanity.

    5) Culture: insufficient consideration has been placed on the roles of tradition, culture, the canon and canon formation, and the rise of the nation and nationalism as a result of the Industrial Revolution, in regards Lovecraft’s racism. I surmise that, in him, the intersection of the nation (England) and the region (New England) is an understudied area, specially in the ways that Lovecraft reveals himself as both a regional (New England) writer & a writer of the English diaspora.

  1. Pingback: Lovecraft, racism, and the “Man of His Time” defense « Madeleine Swann

  2. Pingback: Anonymous

  3. Pingback: HP Lovecraft’s Madness | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

  4. Pingback: Fall/Winter 2012 Books – Fiction | Gender Focus – A Canadian Feminist Blog

  5. Pingback: “I back” – Lovecraft Month Roundup. | Your Coleridge

  6. Pingback: Outside in - Involvements with reality » Blog Archive » Horrified

  7. Pingback: The ‘Product of Its Time’ Defense: No Excuse for Sexism and Racism – Noah Berlatsky – One Business – One Business

  8. Pingback: Cthulhu Fhtagn!

  9. Pingback: 30. Cosmic Horror | Radish

  10. Pingback: Review of Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes | The Book Armada

  11. Pingback: Lovecraft’s Bust (fnar fnar) | A.W.Hendry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 83 other followers

%d bloggers like this: