Initial Reaction to My H.P. Lovecraft & Racism Post

For anyone interested, there are active discussions about my Lovecraft & Racism post over at the message boards on Shocklines.com and Thomas Ligotti Online.  The feedback so far is mostly negative:   a chorus of:  “Who cares, it doesn’t matter what he did in his private life!” and then a few posts rushing forward to the “But he married a Jewish woman!” defense.

Of course, the difficulty with HPL is that the racism doesn’t stop at the shores of his private life —  it extends out to the ocean of his fiction.  Sometimes in a subtle/undercurrent sort of way, but often in an explicit, impossible-to-ignore way. Over and over.  I agree that art has to be evaluated separately from the artist, but in the case of HPL this doesn’t offer any “out”, because if you separate the art from the artist you’re still left with racism littered throughout the very art itself.

During the course of the discussion at Shocklines it was brought up that Poe was — in fact — quite a racist, too (something I wasn’t aware of when writing my original post).  It was also brought up that Poe’s racism is particularly evident in his seldom-read novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

While the news of Poe’s racism is disappointing, it’s worth noting that it seems to have been rather limited in its expression in his fiction.  It’s possible for a 21st century person to read a representative collection of Poe’s horror stories and come away completely ignorant of his feelings on the matter.  In stories like “The Black Cat”, “The Mask of the Red Death”, “The Tell-Tale Heart” “Berenice” and “William Wilson, racist themes simply don’t emerge (at least, by my reading).  One can’t say the same when reading a similarly representative collection of HPL.  So I think my original point stands — Lovecraft wasn’t just “a man of his time”, because the sheer volume and magnitude of racism and antisemitism in his fiction implies an obsession with white supremacy unmatched by other authors.  Poe (for example) had other  obsessions, as did several other authors in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Regarding the “But he married a Jewish woman!” defense, I plan to address this in the next blog post.  If you want to see a preview of what I’ll be discussing, take a gander my most recent Shocklines and Ligotti Online  message board posts.

Throughout all of this, I want to repeat a sentiment I voiced in my initial post — I’m not saying Lovecraft should be  tossed from the canon.  Lovecraft’s work in the field of cosmic horror paved the way for many of that subject’s most riveting practitioners.  I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.  I just think it’s time for the horror genre to take a good, long look at the tub and come to terms with the fact that there’s an awful lot of bath water.

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Posted on June 26, 2012, in H.P. Lovecraft, Race, Racial & Ethnic Diversity. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. This may be somewhat off-topic, but I get mighty tired of seeing Poe slammed as a racist. I take it you haven’t read “Pym?” I rather wish you would, because I’d be curious to see your take on it. I know it’s become fashionable in recent years to dismiss the novel as “racist,” but I see it as modern-day observers reading a lot into it that Poe simply didn’t intend. Certainly, what Poe wrote can’t compare to some of Lovecraft’s work.

  2. I would also like to know what a “representative collection” of Lovecraft’s work would be. Would the collection include the overtly racist “The Horror at Red Hook”? If so, why? Why not Lovecraft’s much kinder Dreamlands sequence?

  3. As for the bathwater, yeah, there was a lot of it. But what about the baby in that water? I’d much rather consider that person as a whole. I mean, really, all things considered, will we ever see another one like him?

  4. Welp, a few years have passed. Your fellow zampolits got him taken off that award, and nobody talks about anything but Lovecraft’s racism any more. You must be so proud.

    • nicolecushing

      Hi “Thirteenth” (wish I knew your first name to make this more like a real face to face interaction):

      In my original post on HPL and racism (“Lovecraft, Racism, and the ‘Man of His Time’ Defense”) , I advocate for acknowledging HPL’s racism but also acknowledging his contributions. It’s all pretty complicated, and I think we have to be at ease with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance when thinking about this. HPL was the most persistent and imaginative cosmic horror author of his time, and that’s certainly an important contribution to both horror and SF. This is a point I make in the “Man of His Time” post. (I actually reiterate that sentiment in this post, too.)

      I have never taken a position on HPL’s removal from the World Fantasy Award for a couple of reasons. #1: I found compelling arguments on both sides of that controversy. #2: I have never been nominated for a World Fantasy Award and almost-certainly never will be nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Also, it’s been about five years since I went to a World Fantasy Convention or voted in the World Fantasy Awards. So it honestly feels like it isn’t any of my business.

      I’m not sure if any of this will abate your anger/frustration with me. And if not, that’s okay. But I hope I’ve led you to at least consider the possibility that my position on HPL and racism is a nuanced one.

      • Thanks for the reply, which is honestly more gracious than a random troll like me deserves. (And sorry, but I don’t use my real name in Internet fights because that’s a good way to get a mob to unemploy you these days.)

        Anyway, you were honest with me, so I’ll be honest back. When you say “I have never taken a position,” etc… well, I’m sure you didn’t mean for this to happen, but as the saying goes, you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you. All we’ve heard for the past couple of years are rants about HPL WAS A RACIST and HEY GUYS DID YOU HEAR HOW RACIST HE WAS and BOY THAT FICTION SURE HAS RACISM IN IT — as if this hadn’t been a well-known fact for decades! — with virtually no people in a position to influence it willing to change the conversation at all. And now we’ve reached the point where HPL is getting airbrushed out of history for his racism and even his fans shrug at it.

        Quite simply, declining to push back on the politicization of the past meant that the political officers, the N. K. Jemisins of this world, won, and have continued their campaign to industriously erase not just HPL but any figure in their literary field whose views would have not fit smoothly into Oberlin College in 2016. I believe that articles like yours played a part in legitimizing this erasure of history based on the panics and biases of a small group of mentally unwell people, and as they continue to gain power things are only going to get worse from now on.

        On that cheerful note, thanks again for the reply.

  1. Pingback: 30. Cosmic Horror | Radish

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