Pretty much every Lovecraft story finds its horror in the idea that an outsider intrudes on our society. Nearly every story is xenophobic. “At the Mountains of Madness” is a perfect example- while our protagonists are hunted by a shoggoth, the real horror of the story is simply discovering the Great Old Ones once ruled this world, and that man is not master of his domain.
Growing up near Providence, I’ve been reading Lovecraft since I was 10. From the very beginning, I was struck by his racism. I find the excuses for his prejudices almost as equally deplorable as their catalysts. I still love reading Lovecraft, but my sense of morality squirms uncomfortably every time he writes something I mentally feel the need to condemn… and I would have found it hard to believe (but am now convinced otherwise) that scholars of Lovecraft would feel different.
I’ve tried. How I’ve tried.
Yes—but it’s one thing to be xenophobic about godlike beings that are completely alien in appearance and indecipherable in motivation, and another to feel a similarly deep revulsion toward members of your own species.
While I am ashamed to say, I haven’t really read Lovecraft (I know, I know, I have no real good reason) I guess I have a “meh” approach to this.
I’ve said before you have to separate the art from the artist in all things, as just about everyone has a flaw that you will disagree with. Even if he was a horrible racist, his works obviously has been influential and important to literature and the genre in general (if it wasn’t we wouldn’t be talking about him.) Art doesn’t mean it excludes concepts that are wrong and distasteful. I think one can enjoy someone’s work while not condoning certain elements of it. I mean the mere mention of eugenics isn’t wrong. One can write a story where a character or entity in the story is a supporter and/or perpetrator of eugenics or genocide or what ever and not be a supporter of it. In Lovecraft’s case it appears he actually held these beliefs, which is unfortunate.
Still - if his work is still important for other reasons, we shouldn’t shun it. Enjoy it for what it is, warts and all. Taking the bad with the good is part of life.
Usually when people bring Lovecraft’s racism I don’t find it an interesting discussion. The man was a terrible, terrible racist - even racist by his own day’s standards. I’m not sure what to do with that, though. For a contemporary author it would change how I felt about reading their work, but for a dead author with public domain works, there isn’t much I can do about it. And I don’t need anyone to tell me he was racist either, It’s impossible to actually read Lovecraft and not notice the flagrant racism baked in.
This article is more interesting in that it tries to tie Lovecraft’s xenophobia in as a foundational piece of his work. I’m sure it was very important to him, but the foundational horror of Lovecraft isn’t xenophobia, it’s our insignificance. Lovecraft’s characters encounter the Total Perspective Machine - that’s why they go insane.
I don’t agree about horror of the At the Mountains of Madness. In fact, it contains the least xenophobic thing Lovecraft ever wrote:
What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!
By calling the great old ones men, he eliminates xenophobia and replaces it with the idea that even star-spawned monsters are nothing. The spawn of Cthulhu and the Mi-Go are the same - merely people. And Kadath reveals that even our gods are nothing.
Lovecraft was sure that if we could see how meaningless we really were we’d lose our minds. The monsters are just metaphors for that. I think Lovecraft would have been able to write what he wrote without the racism (were he not racist) and it wouldn’t have hurt the underpinnings at all.
Lovecraft - the geek laid bare
How? The racism is part of his art. It’s not like Orson Scott Card where all the offensive things he said about some group of people he didn’t like were outside of the influential literature he created. That’s what makes appreciating Lovecraft more complicated.
Sure, I totally agree. We shouldn’t stop reading problematic texts, but I think it’s striking that the fans of this man’s work just utterly refuse to acknowledge the problems. The racism/anti-Semitism (“BUT HE MARRIED A JEW”… yes, and?) issue is treated as beneath discussion. There’s also this tendency among them to let Joshi decide what can or can’t be discussed, a sort of “Well, if Joshi says it’s okay…”
Just what I’ve observed. I must admit I’ve not delved too deeply into his oeuvre, because I dipped a toe in and it wasn’t my cup of tea.
eta: If Dad’s friends are reading this, no personal offense intended, please don’t shun me at the birthday party.
I heard a great interview with Wynton Marsalis. He expressed an appreciation for a composer who was racist (can’t remember who at the moment). The interviewer asked him about this, Wynton said, and a paraphrase, I take everybody at their best so I get can the best from them. Basically, that he was interested in their ideas more than their flaws.
I thought this was a powerful way for an artist to look at the world. The Greeks had slaves. Do we throw out Aristotle and Plato? Nah, we read anyway them and we abhor slavery.
Lovecraft couldn’t write a line of dialog to save his life. But that lingering sense of the weird – the way his stories snap back to you as you drive through a small coastal town and catch a local giving you a weird sidelong glance? The way his stories open, Borges-like into larger and larger abysses – that’s stuff worth stealing. That’s why I read Lovecraft.
I guess I see, “He was a product of his times” as acknowledging the problem (it’s not exactly accurate, I think I was pretty racist even for his time). They know he’s racist. I just wonder, if we all agree that Lovecraft was racist and that many of his stories have blatantly racist aspects to them… what then? What do we do beyond nodding in agreement?
I think this article tried to do something more but basically missed what I think is the entire point of Lovecraft. It’s just Nickle projecting his ideas onto the work. And I’ll admit that I’m also projecting my ideas on to the work when I say the primary theme is insignificance (i.e., I can’t say who is really “missing the point”) but if we are just projecting our own ideas of horror onto the work then that shows that xenophobia isn’t so central or necessary.
When Nickle criticizes Campbell’s “The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants” for giving no real motivation for its protagonist aside from the quoted paragraph, I find it bizarre that he doesn’t think that paragraph is sufficient. Nickle is in the one feeling a void left by the lack of xenophobia, I’m not.
So, you’ve already said that your father and his friends know Lovecraft is a racist, they’ve acknowledged it but not assigned any great importance to it. What importance should we assign? By that I mean, what should we do?
Since I admitted ignorance on this, I concede I could be wrong. I guess I will either have to finally read some of his works, or get pointed to some excerpts.
I am going off of the fact that despite the racist content, the stories continue to be revered and inspire for reasons other than the racist content. I’ve never heard or seen anyone praise that aspect of his work. Certainly people read Mein Kampf still for historical reasons, with out agreeing with or even liking the author.
And again, one could have racist characters and content in their works and not hold those beliefs. The fact the author does hold these views as you said complicates things, but most people can read those things, acknowledge they are bullshit, and move on.
We should change the likeness on the World Fantasy Award to someone else. Like Octavia Butler.
I do continue to read and appreciate Lovecraft, I just don’t think it’s possible to separate his work from his racism.
It’s not always a comfortable relationship, but then again who reads Lovecraft for “comfort?”
“I’d make the case that Lovecraft’s fiction–and Lovecraftian horror–depends on the xenophobia that was endemic to Lovecraft’s work to the point that without it, many his stories lose their unique and uniquely profound effect. “The Horror in Red Hook” is a direct channelling of Lovecraft’s loathing of newcomers to New York City; the real horror of “The Call of Cthulhu” is not the octopus-headed demigod that emerges out of his underwater city to kill all the people, but the people themselves–all either eugenically unfit denizens of the bayou or “primitive” island cultures whose religious practises amount to a kind of proactive nihilism. The manifestation of Nyarlathotep in the eponymous story is that of a black man bearing trinkets, who seduces the good white folk of America into authoring their own demise.”
The problem is that this attempt to make the case that Lovecraft’s fictions “depend on the xenophobia” for their “unique and uniquely profound effect” is not very convincing. “The Horror in Red Hook” is not considered an important Lovecraft story by anybody - its barely read or anthologized today. Next, he makes the claim that the “true horror” of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is the bayou natives rather than Cthulhu - while it might be true that Lovecraft evinces more personal disgust in his descriptions of the bayou denizens than Cthulhu (there’s plenty of disgust and horror in both instances), this would nevertheless in no way advance his specific claim that The Call of Cthulhu DEPENDS on the racist depictions for it’s unique effect. This is a subjective and highly questionable claim - it amounts to the claim that if Lovecraft had written COC exactly the way he did, only minus the racist undertones in the descriptions, the story would have none of its present impact. Does anybody actually believe this? It would be EXACTLY the same story with exactly the same impact, only minus the unfortunate incidental racism which for generations of readers has actually been detrimental to effect of the story. The effect of Cthulhu, like most of Lovecraft’s fiction, derives from the rich pseudo-historical mythology, the cosmic philosophy, the intriguing idea in that story of an interconnected global Jungian Unconsciousness - the racism was always just an eye-rolling embarrassment that readers had to endure because they dug the other stuff. He finishes his “case” with Nyarlathotep, again a short prose poem which, like Red Hook, isn’t particularly important in Lovecraft’s corpus. And that’s the sum of his argument that all Lovecraft’s fiction derives its effect from racism - only making reference to three stories, two of which are barely anthologized today, and the case for Call of Cthulhu not convincingly argued at all.
Forgive me if I am wrong but wasn’t racism and eugenics considered the modern scientific way of thought and even the equivalent to PC in that time period even for people of the non-religious persuasion? Other than in cultural and literary analysis what is the urgency exposing the racism in an artifact written by what is currently a very old pine box full of worm poop?
Are we better for confronting racism at what ever level we do individually and as a society, hell yes. Are we also better for knowing about antibiotics, microprocessors, and space travel? Sure that too because we aren’t all old-timey any more.
It’s a fair cop!
(That said, I think it’s fair to say that Octavia Butler was a less influential writer than Lovecraft. I’d be happier with the suggestion that he be replaced by Poe or Robert W. Chambers. Of course they may have been terrible racists too, I don’t really know)
Because it is actually an interesting question to ask if say, the Southrons or Woses in Tolkien are racist stereotypes of non-European people, but there isn’t much to say about what Lovecraft felt about non-Europeans (and even Southern and Eastern Europeans) because he tells us directly that he doesn’t like them.
A misanthrope may hate men and women, the young and the old, the black and the white. But a misanthrope does not hate them for being male or female, young or old, or black or white; that’s what a bigot does. A misanthrope, rather, hates people for their universally human qualities and failings.
“You have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!”
–Anna Howard Shaw, leader of the American Suffrage movement
Now I am going to describe that class of voters. In the southern part of that State there are Mexicans, who speak the Spanish language. They put their wheat in circles on the ground with the heads out, and drive a mule around to thrash it. The vast population of Colorado is made up of that class of people. I was sent out to speak in a voting precinct having 200 voters; 150 of those voters were Mexican greasers, 40 of them foreign-born citizens, and just 10 of them were born in this country; and I was supposed to be competent to convert those men to let me have as much right in this Government as they had, when, unfortunately, the great majority of them could not understand a word that I said. Fifty or sixty Mexican greasers stood against the wall with their hats down over their faces. The Germans put seats in a lager-beer saloon, and would not attend unless I made a speech there; so I had a small audience.
–Susan B. Anthony
…it gets better…
I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.
The thing is, all these people are remembered for the good things they did.
I agree that Lovecraft is, at times, horribly racist. I look at that part as a shocking reminder that it was apparently just fine and dandy to be like that, in the public eye, during his time. I can condemn the man’s racism, but still recommend that people read it.
Perhaps… but give her (readers) time.
Also, I suppose I’d just like to see a progressive African-American feminist in the spot. I think representation like that would be very meaningful.