Edmund Wilson: H.P. Lovecraft's Best and Worst Critic

Friday, November 30, 2007

In 1945, legendary American literary critic Edmund Wilson took H.P. Lovecraft to task. In an article he called "Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous," he issued what likely continues to be the strongest professional criticism of Lovecraft's work. Certainly, it was the harshest criticism levelled against Lovecraft at the time, who was only beginning to creep into spheres of fantasy, horror, and science fiction thanks to the publication of his works by Arkham House. The blistering article, which some say was actually inspired by Derleth's presentation of Lovecraft in the early years of Arkham House, is widely recognized today as a deleterious drag on Lovecraft's initial literary reputation. Moreover, Wilson's worst jibes against HPL as a "hack" and a writer whose only true horror was "bad taste and bad art," are considered to be simply wrong. S.T. Joshi, Robert M. Price, and a myriad of other professional scholars who have sprung up around Lovecraft since the late '70s have answered the question of whether or not Lovecraft deserves study on a scholarly level with a resounding yes. And that reply immediately defeats the most misguided claims of Wilson, which are also the worst sticking points for Lovecraftians and the origin of their hostile view of Wilson.

However, is the cursory appearance of Wilson as a butcher of an earlier serious treatment of Lovecraft correct? As with most issues in scholarship, not quite. Wilson has two important other features only touched on by most Lovecraft examiners calm enough to evaluate the 1945 piece by Wilson with a semi-objective lens. Often obscured in the fray of Wilson's place in Lovecraftian history as HPL's worst critic are the good observations he had of Lovecraft. Even less recognized are the slightly prophetic features of Wilson's 1945 analysis: his descriptions of a growing Lovecraftian "cult;" not only an adept description of the Lovecraft Circle at the time, but an indicator of the Cthulhu Mythos known today.

Edmund Wilson continues to be regarded as one of America's greatest critics not just because of his wit and style, but because of thorough treatment of his cases. Even in his strikingly negative examination of HPL, one can find some good. For instance, Wilson called Lovecraft's own scholarly piece, Supernatural Horror in Literature, "a really able piece of work." Coming from a professional critic, this is not only an effective assessment of Lovecraft's amateur catalogue and analysis of horror tales, but likely would have tickled H.P. himself (if it were somehow unaccompanied by the scorching review of his fiction, of course). Wilson also helped bolster the great horror of "The Colour Out of Space," a story that continues to be highly regarded and raised as a candidate for HPL's very best--if such a thing really can be identified. The critic rightly noted the meteor's hideous similarities to radiation poisoning, stating the story "more or less predicts the effects of the atomic bomb." Even if explicit praise was absent, this tale must have struck a positive, personal note with Wilson, when one knows a little about the man. Wilson himself became a fierce liberal critic of U.S. Cold War policies after 1945, including the arms race. With this in mind, it's reasonable to assume "The Colour Out of Space" resonated with Wilson on some level--even if it took several years of world events after 1945 to inspire new interpretations of Lovecraft's tale.

The list of positive evaluations by Wilson on Lovecraft is a short one. Nevertheless, it is there, not unlike other observations on the Lovecraft community that proved correct. In "Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous," Wilson opened by describing the Lovecraft Circle of the 1940s. He said, "Lovecraft, since his death in 1937, has rapidly been becoming a cult. He had already his circle of disciples who collaborated with him and imitated him, and the Arkham House (in Sauk Center, Wisconsin), which has published Marginalia and The Lurker at the Threshold, is named from the imaginary New England town that makes the scene of many of his stories." This is, in all fairness, is not a terrible evaluation of Arkham House nor the Lovecraftian community in 1945.

It's even been said Wilson's feathers were ruffled so powerfully against Lovecraft by the author's early presentation by Arkham House and friends. Derleth's view of the Cthulhu Mythos as a struggle between good and evil alien forces may well have stood out at the time, appearing overly amateurish to Wilson. Strangely, Wilson fails to recognize virtually any trace of Lovecraft's defining cosmicism--a feature unexamined in depth, until Joshi's analyses decades later. In any case, Wilson's perception of Lovecraftians as imitators and pushers via specialized suppliers like Arkham House was correct, though not with the negative connotations intended by the critic. Here, Wilson inadvertently identified two key features which would only spur the growth of the Lovecraft "cult" we call the Mythos today: imitation and circulation. For better or worse, both Arkham House and pastiche were an excellent way to circulate Lovecraft's name and new interpretations of his breed of horror in an age before the internet. The Lovecraft "cult" only solidified as a result, and ultimately overgrew its own boundaries to the point where it took on the modernized sense of "cult." And it can only take someone worthwhile, particularly in the literary sphere, to attract cultish devotion and interest. All in all, these features mark Wilson's observations as more prescient than he ever could have realized at the time.

Wilson was a first for Lovecraft, even if he was no longer around to read the critical, maddening dismissal of his life's work. For every author, the first bad review must take its place with the first acceptance, the first serious study, the first book, and the first battalion of admirers. Lovecraft was no exception, and seems to have sailed on the reputation of such accomplishments more than most other authors. Thus, though Wilson's misguided attack may have done more damage to HPL at the time, it also reflected the complexity of the writer it sought to tear down. Edmund Wilson's subtle praise and observations--especially examined in hindsight--as well as his blatant attacks help cement his place as Lovecraft's best and worst critic.

-Grim Blogger

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