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