An examination of my Documents of American Prejudice (Basic Books, 1999) will show conclusively that, in comparison to the astounding vitriol that was produced in his day, Lovecraft’s words are as mild as baby shampoo—and those screeds can be found in books and magazines of very wide distribution, as opposed to the private correspondence where most of Lovecraft’s racist discussions occur.
But Joshi is not entirely wrong that people of the era had racist beliefs, often expressed in atrocious terms. Thomas Sinclair gave a speech at a meeting of the Sinclair family fan club (the De Santo Claro Society) in 1893 that was filled with racist fear of Italians, for example, and prejudice against Blacks and Native Americans was widespread through the middle twentieth century, and not uncommon thereafter. Any era, like the 1920s and 1930s, that saw the Ku Klux Klan marching through the nation’s streets to cheering crowds could not have been particularly racially enlightened.
Joshi, however, wishes us to measure Lovecraft against, in essence, the Klan, and not against the better angels of American society, which had by 1930 spent decades arguing against racial prejudice. While scientific racism was still the convenient and accepted dogma in many fields, anthropologists increasingly argued against it, and Lovecraft’s views reflected a scientific consensus that began breaking down before 1900.
Yet Guran is not right either in ascribing to Lovecraft almost exclusively racist motives. Here is how Joshi, in typically angry fashion, describes Guran’s view:
Guran concludes her discussion with the remarkable utterance that Lovecraft chose to infiltrate his stories with racism “to alarm and distress the primarily male, supposedly ‘superior’ possessors of light-skinned Nordic genes. One must assume Lovecraft never considered anyone else as a potential reader.” So now Guran reveals the enviable ability to read the mind of a dead man!
“Some people may like the idea of a mongrel America like the late Roman Empire,” he said in an October 12, 1928 letter, “but I for one prefer to die in the same America that I was born in.” Such a belief is, in essence, no different from the anti-immigrant sentiment of the Trumpeters demanding a border wall to keep “them” out. It goes back, too, to the anti-immigrant sentiments of the nineteenth century.
Yet here is where Guran is less correct. While it is true that Lovecraft’s own racism informed his fiction and indeed would distress white, male readers, Lovecraft was under no illusion that WASP culture was ultimately “correct.” It was one of many cultures, and in his fiction cultures of all kinds are nothing more than a beautiful lie imposed over the horror of reality, an illusion we keep to remain sane. This is a subtler view, and a more interesting one. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that the fictional world Lovecraft created was not the same as his own beliefs, and in some respects the lessons we can draw from his stories emerge despite Lovecraft’s own racist views.
Joshi, though, will have none of it, condemning all this talk of racism as coming from French writer Michel Houellebecq and English author China Miéville, whom he derides as ignorant for merely reading Lovecraft’s stories rather than accepting at face value what Lovecraft’s letters say about them:
And not one actual Lovecraft scholar—Donald R. Burleson, David E. Schultz, Steven J. Mariconda, Robert H. Waugh, and a dozen others one could name—has interpreted racism as central to Lovecraft’s work. But we are now asked to believe that a Frenchman who has done no original research on Lovecraft and an Englishman in similar circumstances are suddenly endowed with the transcendent insight that allows them to deliver a magisterial condemnation of Lovecraft on this subject.
Joshi, being unusually literal, refuses to see racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, or xenophobia in anything except explicit racial slurs. For a literary critic, he seems defiantly immune to metaphor and symbolism:
The bottom line is this: Racism is not at the root of Lovecraft’s life, work, and thought, and those who attempt to maintain such a thing do so in defiance of the mountains of contrary evidence found in his stories, essays, poems, and letters, and in the accounts of nearly all who actually knew and met him.