Last week, S. T. Joshi, the famed Lovecraft scholar, published a blog post (August 7, 2016; he doesn’t separate entries with permalinks) in which he accused the editor of The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, book editor and reviewer Paula Guran, of vastly overstating Lovecraft’s racism in order to engage, essentially, in trendy social justice moralizing. Indeed, Joshi make a rather astonishing counterclaim, based on his 1999 book about racism in America:
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.
“Mild as baby shampoo”? Lovecraft was a man who complained of the “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 the same man who spoke of “stunted brachycephalic South-Italians & rat-faced half-Mongoloid Russian & Polish Jews, & all that cursed scum” (October 12, 1928 letter).
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!
Guran is here half right and half wrong. Lovecraft’s stories are filled with racism, literal and figurative. The literal racism is comparatively rare: “The Horror at Red Hook” being the worst example, but manifesting in other stories, like the description of a Black man in “Herbert West—Reanimator,” or his references to Polynesians in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” But his discomfort with the Other, especially racial and ethnic minorities, bled into his depiction of the Old Ones and gave them their power. The idea that the familiar civilization he knew from his WASP upbringing was under fire from strange, confusing foreigners grows, ultimately, into his conviction that nearly omnipotent but horrific forces of the wild and of chaos constantly threaten to destroy the fragile fiction of our civilization. Though Joshi intentionally chooses not to see this, it is rather clear in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, to take but one example. In that story a noble and civilized people (the Old Ones) colonize a new continent and get into wars with other races until they are brought low by a mongrel race of former slaves whose wild violence overtakes them. It takes very little effort to see in this a lightly veiled version of Lovecraft’s own explicitly stated views about Anglo-American culture being under assault from immigrants from other countries and African-Americans at home.
“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.
That paragraph is disingenuous on many levels. First is the lit-crit fallacy that the author’s explicit intent should be the governing interpretation of a story. Consider this: What if Lovecraft wasn’t aware that he was a racist because he considered his beliefs correct and normal? If this were so, then his letters would provide no insight into motivations he did not himself understand. Stories, ultimately, have meaning beyond the author’s conscious intention, and it is hardly illegitimate to offer criticism based on the text of the fiction rather than the author’s private explanation of it.
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.
For Joshi, Lovecraft’s fear of cosmic destruction is exclusively the product of his atheism, of a world unmoored from traditional morality and supernatural protection. And yet Lovecraft chose to depict atheism through the lens of horror, where the forces from outside constantly threaten to destroy the fragile “normal” Anglo-American civilization while non-white people cheer on the coming destruction and work to hasten its arrival. Lovecraft’s conscious motivation may have been cosmic, but the specific form this took was unconsciously shaped by his views on culture, nationalism, ethnicity, and race.
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.
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