Posts Tagged ‘Lovecraft’s Monsters’

hp-lovecraft-and-sonia-greeneThis particular topic is neither here nor there. I only bring it up because I happen to have just enjoyed a stellar performance by the impeccable David Crawford of his one-man show, Lovecraft’s Monsters, last night. I knew Lovecraft’s undeniable racism would be addressed, and rightfully so. And it was. But later in the piece, Crawford worked in something that most conversations about Lovecraft’s racism skip over.

I’m not going to get into the many ridiculous apologies/justifications for Lovecraft’s bigotry, and I’m not going to get into the arguments for replacing Lovecraft’s image on the World Fantasy Award statue. You’ve either read it all before, or if you haven’t, you can use Google as well as I can. Suffice to say, I’ve seen more talk about his racism in the last few years than I ever have before, and while on one hand that’s a good thing (because the unsavory beliefs of our most beloved icons should not go ignored, nor can they be defended). But on the other hand, that’s usually where the conversation ends in regards to that aspects of Lovecraft’s character. “Yeah, I read Lovecraft; he’s great. Too bad he was a racist.”

To that, I would add, “…and too bad he died so young, because he seemed to have been on his way to being a better person.” Because, he was.

H.P. Lovecraft was a tragic individual who spent most of his life isolated and impoverished before dying of intestinal cancer and malnutrition in 1937 at the relatively young age of forty-six. Anyone who’s done a little reading into Lovecraft’s biography and letters, as Scott Kemore points out in this piece from September of last year, would conclude that while he was a racist in his younger days, he had mellowed on the subject as he got older. You know, kind of like we all do. We all believe things passionately, strongly in our teens and twenties, maybe the wrong things, but as we age, we learn, we experience, and we change. Lovecraft was no different.

Kenmore says:

Any thorough reading of his personal correspondence (mine includes the 2,000-page Arkham House Selected Letters series) makes clear that Lovecraft’s bigotry was in full, gleeful bloom in his late teens and early 20s, but that it gradually shriveled away as he got older—as, crucially, his opinions in other areas also began to change. If Lovecraft was not exactly anti-racist by the end of his life, he was a least bored with it as a subject. ( when his correspondents try to bait him into a discussion of race, he comes across like an old dog who has tired of chasing that particular ball.)

In his final years, Lovecraft realized that many of the notions he’d found charmingly “antiquarian” in his younger days were flatly asinine. This shift is perhaps best encapsulated in a letter he wrote—just a year before he died—to Jennie K. Plaiser. A salient passage reads: “…I realised what an ass I had been. The liberals at whom I used to laugh were the ones who were right—for they were living in the present while I had been living in the past.” Lovecraft had gone from being an unintentional parody of a British Tory to a (man) who was interested in policies that would benefit everybody, not just “aristocratic” whites.

Kenmore concludes this point with:

Was Lovecraft very bigoted at some points in his life? Absolutely, yes. But it’s inaccurate to give the impression that Lovecraft held the same views throughout all of his 46 years. The truth is more complex and interesting than that.

Had he not died so young, who knows how his thinking on the matter would have continued to change, but I’d be willing to bet that he was heading in a more progressive direction. And considering his general alienation, considering his issues, considering pretty much everything about him, that he’d progressed at all by aged forty-six was a minor miracle, and one I think he should be commended for. No, I don’t think we need to go around foisting him up as an anti-bigotry hero (because there’s no argument from me that he was ever anything but, overall), but the very least we can do for someone who lived largely so miserably and yet who gave us so much in terms of his writing is to not guillotine the conversation at “too bad he was a racist.” I would hope, after I’m dead and gone and unable to grow and change, let alone defend myself, people would not be latching onto some crackpot thing I’d gotten into my head when I was twenty and defined me that way, forever and eternal, no matter how I’d grown otherwise before I kicked it.

And some folks will, I’m sure, say I’m defending his racism, sweeping it under the rug, etc. I feel pretty secure, knowing myself well enough, that that is not what I’m doing. And, in fact, to say that would be ignoring the facts as we know them. On the contrary, I think his racism should be addressed, but as it is, so should the evolution of it.

So, why do I think we should give Lovecraft a break? Is it only because he’s done so much for the genre and genre writing, as a lot of people seem to think? Actually, it’s not even a little bit that. I don’t think any amount of prestige or talent gives anyone a pass in terms of their abhorrent views. You believe something disgusting, you’re going to get raked over the coals no matter who you are and what you’ve done. But, that said, I also believe in credit where credit is due.

Lovecraft didn’t die in 1937 the bigot he was in 1912. And here’s the thing: Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t this the kind of transformation, no matter how slow (and in this case, incomplete due to death), for which we’d like to give credit? Or is the whole point of racial dialog to simply nail the racists? True, some people will never change their beliefs. Some people were born and raised in the Klan, grew up to be Klansmen, and they’ll be buried in their cowardly robes. Lovecraft, though…a little knowledge of his life shows his circumstances and resulting disposition were fairly unique, and frankly, to be pitied. And more importantly, he was moving in the right direction when he died. He was moving toward a potential state of non-bigotry, willing to admit where he had been wrong, which is more than many of us can do, over the course of many more years than he’d had, and for much less. I feel like that’s worth keeping in mind…

…and it was something I’d been thinking of when I went to see Crawford’s performance last night, and yes, it was gratifying to see that Crawford had, indeed, addressed it. Throughout the piece, Crawford goes through Lovecraft’s various stages of life, and within each he addresses Lovecraft’s bigotry in regards to the “Irish, the Italians, and the Slavs.” But as Lovecraft is older, and clearly wasting a way, painfully, he says (and I’m paraphrasing, as I didn’t think I’d need to memorize it): “My best friend is Jewish (Samuel Loveman). I married a Jew (Sonia Greene). I’ve experienced these people and I know them. They are good people.” Crawford went exactly where these conversations should go. If you’re racist and you die still a racist, the conversation ends at, “He was racist.” If you’re racist and you demonstrated signs of more progressive thinking when you died, that’s where that conversation ends, not a few steps back at, “He was racist.” So, kudos to David Crawford, because while it may not have been particularly PC, it was intellectually honest.

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