Today I’d like to talk a bit about S. T. Joshi’s continued freak out over H. P. Lovecraft and racism. I know I shouldn’t keep talking about it, but I just can’t look away. I’ve never seen a literary critic implode so dramatically.
You will recall that Joshi’s dander rose up when Daniel Older suggested that the World Fantasy Award not take the shape of H. P. Lovecraft because Lovecraft was a racist who is not representative of current fantasy authors. He wrote a lengthy screed accusing Older of improperly going beyond his station by questioning his betters, prompting criticism from several quarters.
In a pair of blog posts published last week (September 16 and 18, 2014—he still does not have permalinks to individual entries) Joshi revisits his apoplectic rage that anyone should be troubled by H. P. Lovecraft’s racism, all while claiming that he has no interest in continuing to discuss the point. In the first post he singles out Salon.com book reviewer Laura Miller, who he says is unqualified to speak about Lovecraft and racism due to her lowly status as a journalist:
It is an unfortunate fact that journalists like Laura Miller—and that is all she is; to think of her as a literary or cultural critic would be equivalent to thinking of Edgar Rice Burroughs as an anthropologist—generally lack the education and training to have anything like a comprehensive grasp of the history of prose expression from the Greeks to the present.
This is, of course, in opposition to S. T. Joshi, a man who by his own autobiographical admission became a self-described literary critic at the age of 17 (when he clearly had a comprehensive grasp of the history of prose expression!) and later dropped out of a Ph.D. program in philosophy without receiving a degree to become a book editor.
I’m not sure what’s more insulting, the idea that journalists are disqualified from being cultural critics or that Joshi demands greater education and training from his critics than from himself. As someone who has somehow not found the secret door to the cultural critic club, I have nevertheless managed to write literary criticism (Knowing Fear, 2008; A Hideous Bit of Morbidity, 2009; my chapter in 21st Century Gothic, 2010—with a forward from S. T. Joshi!) without either a Ph.D. or formal training the history of prose expression.
But the real verbal fireworks came in the second post, when Joshi attacked Older anew for some ill-considered remarks Older made in The Guardian, where he falsely asserted that Lovecraft “enthusiastically advocated genocide,” which is simply not the case. However, Older almost certainly got the idea from Lovecraft’s letters, where Lovecraft hyperbolically said of “niggers” and the “puffy, rat-faced Jew”: “Either stow ’em out of sight or kill ’em off – anything so that a white man may walk along the streets without shuddering nausea” (February 1925 letter). He was, by his own admission, an enthusiastic supporter of “the Jim Crow principle.” But in answer Joshi does not bring up Lovecraft’s most hateful words; instead he quotes some of Lovecraft’s less inflammatory comments calling for segregation and then insults Older’s intelligence, demanding that Older thank heaven that “stupidity isn’t a capital offense,” and questioning facetiously whether Older understands a “three syllable word” or the concept of “suffrage.”
Joshi, though, is not done stooping to unbecoming insults. He is also enraged that Older fails to appreciate Lovecraft as a prose stylist, in which company Older joins Edmund Wilson—a far more accomplished literary critic than Joshi—and many others. Even Lovecraft’s admirers usually admit that many of his early works are overwritten. But Joshi can’t let a single point go, so he stoops to a false comparison in an attempt to humiliate Older. He attacks Older’s admittedly clunky prose by contrasting it dishonestly with that of Lovecraft.
Here is the excerpt he gives from Older’s Salsa Nocturna, from the story "Tenderfoot," a tale published in the Innsmouth Free Press:
When the regular fully dead Council agents want to get in touch with headquarters, they just use that special afterlife telepathy shit and it’s done. My half-and-half ass has to use the phone. I receive all their irritating updates and directives perfectly clearly—comes through like a radio blasting inside my head, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t work the other way. They rigged up a phone line and answering machine somewhere in that vast, misty warehouse they've taken over in Sunset Park. I call the number, leave my message and wait for the reply to blare through my skull.
Masterful literature it is not; Older’s prose style might be compared with Chuck Palahniuk, and it is obviously meant to invoke a masculine and streetwise urban patois. I hate it, but it’s the author’s choice. Joshi intentionally pretends not to understand the lines he quotes—which obviously enough refer to a semi-dead narrator (it’s a horror story, after all) with an incomplete psychic connection to the Council of the Dead.
Bravo! Hear, hear! I’m shedding tears of aesthetic rapture…well, at least tears of some sort. But certain things do puzzle me. I cannot imagine what a “half-and-half ass” could possibly be—perhaps an ass somehow made of cream? And the exquisitely radical failure to harmonise subject and verb (“irritating updates and directives…comes”) must mean that Older defies the stale and old-fashioned rules of grammar—which, after all, were instituted by all those dead white males!
Joshi ought to know better; a first person narrator speaks in his or her dialect, and the failure of grammar he points to is undercut by the em-dash, which signals a break in the grammatical construction, not its continuation. Therefore, comparing this admittedly clunky prose to Lovecraft’s erudite opening to “The Call of Cthulhu” is an improper comparison; the better choice would be to compare it to Lovecraft’s own wretched dialect writing, like the aesthetic rapture of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”:
It took Obed to git the truth aout o’ them heathen. I dun’t know haow he done it, but he begun by tradin’ fer the gold-like things they wore. Ast ’em whar they come from, an’ ef they cud git more, an’ finally wormed the story aout o’ the old chief—Walakea, they called him. Nobody but Obed ud ever a believed the old yeller devil, but the Cap’n cud read folks like they was books. Heh, heh! Nobody never believes me naow when I tell ’em, an’ I dun’t s’pose you will, young feller—though come to look at ye, ye hev kind o’ got them sharp-readin’ eyes like Obed had.
Oh, right: It’s full of racist crap about Pacific Islanders, in a story about the horror of miscegenation.
Joshi concludes that Older is not able to cast judgment on Lovecraft because Older’s own prose does not compare to that of Lovecraft. So, to take him at his word, by what right does Joshi cast judgment on either man’s prose, either to praise Lovecraft or condemn Older? His own fiction is, in a word, serviceable. I say this as the highly (if facetiously) praised author of a story about zombie pigs in the Baconology anthology. Here’s some of Joshi’s own work, from the novel The Removal Company, which he published under the name J. K. Maxwell, larded as it is with clichés, and an em-dash that lets him violate the grammatical rule whereby a prepositional phrase must include a preposition:
Imagine Joe Scintilla a college boy! — Johns Hopkins U., no less. I was just a bit too young for the initial draft registration of May 1917, and by the time I did register a few months later I was already neck deep in books. I browsed into everything—English, history, philosophy, science—specializing in nothing. But when I finished, I had no desire to be a cog in someone else’s machine: I had to strike out on my own.
But Joshi doesn’t care to follow his own diktats; he is instead a polemicist offering a closing argument on the greatness of Lovecraft to an imaginary jury he perceives to be adjudicating between Daniel Older and the silent Lovecraft. And like a literary lawyer, he’s happy to use innuendo, insults, and incomplete arguments to push an emotional case by making the argument about the character of the plaintiff—Daniel Older—rather than actions of the defendant. Older’s prose is irrelevant to his claim, just as Laura Miller’s two decades of journalism have no impact on her ability to form a judgment on Lovecraft.
Let’s conclude with a few of Lovecraft’s own thoughts, taken from his October 12, 1928 letter to August Derleth, collected by none other than S. T. Joshi in Essential Solitude vol. 1 (2010):
In the matter of politics—I don’t go much with the younger crowd. I’m more interested in keeping the present 300-year-old culture-germ in America unharmed, than in trying out any experiments in “social justice”. [Al] Smith, to my mind, is a direct exponent of the newer-immigration element—the decadent & unassimilable hordes from Southern Europe & the East whose presence in large numbers is a direct & profound menace to the continued growth of the Nordic-American nation we know. Some people may like the idea of a mongrel America like the late Roman Empire, but I for one prefer to die in the same America that I was born in. Therefore, I’m against any candidate who talks of letting down the bars to stunted brachycephalic South-Italians & rat-faced half-Mongoloid Russian & Polish Jews, & all that cursed scum! You in the Middle West can’t conceive of the extent of the menace. You ought to see a typical Eastern city crowd—swart, aberrant physiognomies, & gestures & jabbering born of alien instincts.
Compare Lovecraft’s anti-Italian rant with that of Thomas Sinclair 35 years earlier, which similarly called for a Nordic-Teutonic white retrenchment against Italians by celebrating the alleged ancient voyage of Henry Sinclair of Orkney in place of Columbus, a myth that remains with us today.
Four of my great-grandparents were among the “stunted brachycephalic South-Italians” who gave Lovecraft such horror. The other four, three Poles and a German might not have quite classified as “cursed scum,” though only by dint of not being “Jews.” Well, the German probably passed muster except for his unfortunate Habsburg Empire tendency toward intercultural marriage. But Joshi is right on this point: The prose paints Lovecraft’s hatred in more beautiful blossoms of putrescent extravagance than ever Older did write.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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