Our dear friend S. T. Joshi has taken the time to debase himself again on his blog (Sept. 1 entry) by asserting that he is more important than novelist Daniel José Older and therefore more entitled to an opinion on whether the World Fantasy Award should continue to bear the likeness of H. P. Lovecraft, whom Older correctly accused of virulent racism. That issue, discussed last week, has decayed into a more general complaint that Lovecraft’s racism should not be emphasized above his atheism. Joshi continues to be outraged by the assumption that we should judge Lovecraft for his racism, arguing anew that historical figures cannot be judged by contemporary standards.
The overriding philosophical error made by those who jump on Lovecraft for his racism is the stolid expectation that all historical figures should conform to our own perfect moral, social, intellectual, and cultural stances—and if they don’t, they must be furiously denounced as aberrant. But one begins to wonder…might we ourselves be subject, in a hundred years, to just such criticism? Difficult as it may be to comprehend, the disturbing thought lingers.
Here, I think, Joshi errs because of his devotion to Lovecraft—whom he calls his “mentor.” The question isn’t whether to judge Lovecraft for his racism (though we can do that as easily as we might judge Poe for his alcoholism, or Conan Doyle for his belief in fairies) but whether an honor should take the shape of a man whose life and work stand in opposition to mainstream contemporary values. In other words, do we celebrate the man rather than his work, and does doing so imply an endorsement of the man in all his facets?
Let us, for example, note how wildly inappropriate it might be to name a speech therapy award after the first president of the Anthropological Society of London (later the Royal Anthropological Institute), James Hunt (1833-1869). Hunt was a colleague of Richard Burton, a distinguished speech therapist who treated Lewis Carroll, and a virulent racist whose views were outrageous even by Victorian standards. Would his speech therapy work make him worthy of praise such that we could justify ignoring his racist views?
In 1865, Hunt published his most famous paper, “On the Negro’s Place in Nature,” in which he defended slavery and the idea that Black people were a separate species, closer to the apes than to Europeans.
Young Negro children are nearly as intelligent as European children; but the older they grow, the less intelligent they become. […] There is no doubt that the Negro brain bears a great resemblance to a European female or child’s brain, and thus approaches the ape far more than the European, while the Negress approaches the ape still nearer. […] Not only has the Negro race never civilized itself, but it has never accepted any other civilization. […] The many assumed cases of civilized Negroes are generally not those of pure Negro blood. […] It is simply the European blood in their veins which renders them fit for places of power, and they often use this power more cruelly than either of the pure blooded races.
Could we set aside these beliefs to honor him for his work in speech therapy? It would be impossible to do so. Therefore, I find it difficult to see why it is illegitimate to complain, however mildly, about H. P. Lovecraft, a man who made claims virtually indistinguishable from those of Hunt, in the very letters that Joshi famously claimed were equally or even more important to the legacy of Lovecraft than his fiction:
The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists — eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist. But, it is also a fact that there would be a very grave and very legitimate problem even if the negro were the white man’s equal. For the simple fact is, that two widely dissimilar races, whether equal or not, cannot peaceably coexist in the same territory until they are either uniformly mongrelised or cast in folkways of permanent and traditional personal aloofness. … All told, I think the modern American is pretty well on his guard, at last, against racial and cultural mongrelism. There will be much deterioration, but the Nordic has a fighting chance of coming out on top in the end. (letter of January 1931)
Joshi would have us dismiss Lovecraft’s views as the unfortunate product of the 1920s milieu in which he lived and wrote. But consider this: In 1865, when Hunt delivered his paper on the inferiority of the Negro, his own society booed and hissed, outraged at the racist views that even Hunt himself acknowledged were increasingly unfashionable. Richard Burton wrote to Hunt to express his shock at such ill treatment, and comforted Hunt that the capital-T Truth about the Negro “turning stupid” at puberty would far outlive the catcalls and hisses, for, he said, the Negro at any time might relapse into “semi-gorilla” state and prove this Truth for all time. Burton went down in history as an imperialist and a scientific racist despite his literary output, including the most famous English translation of the Arabian Nights. (Consider, for example, the difference between his celebration as the hero of Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld novel in 1971 and his demotion to the villain of the piece in the 2010 Syfy Channel miniseries.)
Colonial and imperial politics would ensure that racist beliefs remained current and under semi-official (and often official) sanction, but by the 1920s, when Lovecraft wrote, Franz Boas was one of the leading lights opposing scientific racism, particularly in terms of the arguments for white supremacy. In 1925, while Lovecraft was living in New York City, Boas and his colleagues published a series of essays in The Nation arguing for the view that humans were of one race, that racism was not “instinctive” but the product of white (“Nordic”) colonial-imperial culture, and therefore humans were not the products of race but of culture:
The behavior of an individual is therefore not determined by his racial affiliation, but by the character of his ancestry and his cultural environment. We may judge of the mental characteristics of families and individuals, but not of races.
In those same essays, the Jewish-American immigrant writer Konrad Bercovici wrote of the choices made by Nordic supremacists and how their own choices fed into a false sense of superiority, citing of the experiences of my own ancestors, who came from Italy and the Austrian section of what is today Poland:
The American Nordics speak of assimilation. But what they mean by assimilation is other than what they want us to believe. The Nordic maniac considers a people civilized in the measure in which it has imitated his external way of life. Imitation of Anglo-Saxon life, masqueradery instead of cultural contributions, is what they want of all the peoples. They clamor that we bury our past, deny our present, and kill our future; and, bending our necks, promise henceforth to attempt to be as good as they are, that we may in a few thousand years reach their level of culture and accomplishment.
These seven essays, now collected in an eBook as the Savage Minds Occasional Papers No.12, were written in protest of America’s harsh immigration laws and the way blatant race prejudice was dressed up in the language of objective science to hide the hatred beneath the surface. The Newbury-winning history Hendrik Willem Van Loon summed up the hypocrisy well:
But let them be honest and let them explain that they are grinding their own little axes and that they are not engaged in furthering a scientific solution to the world’s manifold difficulties. […] I repeat, let them have the courage of their convictions and join the KKK. That excellent organization, with all its mummery, is entirely open and aboveboard. “We want all the business we can get,” so it proclaims, “and we don’t want to hustle in competition with Niggers and Jews and Catholics.” That, at least, is plain English.
None of this is to say that Lovecraft’s racism wasn’t shared by many in the America of the 1920s and 1930s—the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, nativist protests, and KKK marches make that plain—but that H. P. Lovecraft was on the wrong side of history even in his own time, not just by our own standards. The tools were available for Lovecraft to make better choices, and he did not do so. He cannot be absolved through claims of his ignorance or his absorption of the prevailing cultural milieu.
“We are not perfect; and our schoolmasterly lecturing of dead people only reveals our own smugness and historical ignorance,” S. T. Joshi wrote yesterday. But Joshi seems to prefer that we not recognize that the 1920s and 1930s were not uniformly benighted by racism, that there were those who promoted more enlightened views, and that Lovecraft chose racism in the face of the arguments he would have been exposed to in the New York press and elsewhere. Lovecraft claimed that his views were based in scientific European biology, and yet Boas (German by birth) and his colleagues offered lessons from anthropology and history in direct opposition to Lovecraft’s stated reasons for holding racist views. There was a debate within anthropology in those days, to be sure, and Lovecraft chose the wrong side. It is not anti-historical to note this.
To conclude, briefly, with one final point: Joshi sees complaints about Lovecraft’s racism not as a principled view on racial opinion but as a political line of attack on Lovecraft himself by any means due to dislike of the author rather than disapproval of his views:
There is also the significant question as to whether racism should be regarded as so much more significant a moral, intellectual, and personal flaw than many other stances one could name. In my opinion, religious fanaticism can easily be shown to be a far more serious problem, both historically and currently, than racism, and many of the world’s most intractable problems today can be directly attributed to it. But Lovecraft’s detractors cannot attack him on the issue, since he was, as an atheist who condemned religious intolerance, on the “right” side of it; so they have to seize some other issue, and racism is conveniently presented to them on a silver platter.
Notice the construction: Lovecraft’s detractors are the problem, simply scheming for some reason to knock him off his perch.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.