The Political Transition of Howard Philips Lovecraft

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Eric M. Smith's recent blog post quoting H.P. Lovecraft on American politics gets right to the heart of a subject many readers probably wonder about in the back of their minds this fall. Where did Lovecraft really stand politically? Anyone who has read S.T. Joshi's excellent biography of the writer, H.P. Lovecraft: A Life (or his recently revised mega-biography, I am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft) has some idea of the strange political transition of Lovecraft from arch-conservative to pseudo-socialist. But do most of us really grasp just how dramatic HPL's shifting views and party allegiances really were?

Observe Lovecraft the conservative, who directly embedded his deeply reactionary and rather racist views into his early fiction. Perhaps the best example of this is not a quote lifted from his letters, but his story published in 1920, "The Street." This short tale recounts the history and living spirit of a nameless street in an early American town (presumably Providence), which is bursting with supernaturally patriotic (and conservative) energy. From the proud days of the founders and the early American Republic, signs of trouble appear on the Street in the 19th century in the form of immigrants, which Lovecraft presents as a corrosive and alien force. This "poison" comes to its fruition in HPL's own day, when immigrant families bring the seeds of anarchistic and Marxist radicalism to the Street. The tale ends when the Street's nostalgic consciousness seemingly comes alive and thwarts a radical revolution about to burst out onto the scene.

This is Lovecraft the conservative at his most obvious. The Street, like the United States, like civilization in general, begins as a heroic and proud place that falls into dereliction through the introduction of "lesser" primitive elements. This story was written in the same period when Lovecraft made his political views obvious in letters to correspondents. From 1914 to the late 1920s, he routinely praised the might of Britannia in World War I (and advocated for a US entry into the war on the side of the Allies well before it actually came), only half-jokingly boasted of his support for monarchism and fascism, and occasionally rained scorn on Marxism and other radical ideas becoming popular among certain segments of American society. Like most upper class families of the day in Rhode Island, Lovecraft was presumably a solid Republican. The party held tight control over the small state in every major election of H.P. Lovecraft's era until 1928.

However, like many other intellectual Americans, the onset of the Great Depression impacted Lovecraft's politics immensely. By the mid 1930s, HPL was highly supportive of Roosevelt and considered himself a New Deal Democrat. Moreover, Lovecraft exhibited rather feisty dismissal of the party he formerly aligned himself with, as shown in the letter 1936 letter to C.L. Moore the blogger linked above selected:

As for the Republicans—how can one regard seriously a frightened, greedy, nostalgic huddle of tradesmen and lucky idlers who shut their eyes to history and science, steel their emotions against decent human sympathy, cling to sordid and provincial ideals exalting sheer acquisitiveness and condoning artificial hardship for the non-materially-shrewd, dwell smugly and sentimentally in a distorted dream-cosmos of outmoded phrases and principles and attitudes based on the bygone agricultural-handicraft world, and revel in (consciously or unconsciously) mendacious assumptions (such as the notion that real liberty is synonymous with the single detail of unrestricted economic license or that a rational planning of resource-distribution would contravene some vague and mystical ‘American heritage’…) utterly contrary to fact and without the slightest foundation in human experience? Intellectually, the Republican idea deserves the tolerance and respect one gives to the dead.
This is a remarkable transition for Lovecraft, especially considering his lifelong antiquarianism and gentlemanly manner. Of course, given the tragic shortening of HPL's life in 1937, there's no way of knowing how his relatively new political liberalism would have played out. For the mere sake of H.P. Lovecraft fanatics, though, we can reasonably speculate. For one thing, Lovecraft's shift to the left appears to have been motivated by economics more than anything else. He maintained highly traditional views on race, civilization, and authority. Although a firm materialist, it's difficult to imagine Lovecraft accepting with open arms the vast pluralistic social changes that occurred in society in religion, race, and genders in the 1960s.

So, how might Lovecraft's politics have evolved if he had enjoyed a prolonged lifespan? Like many American intellectuals who flirted with various strains of Marxism, Lovecraft likely would have dropped it like a hot potato as the Cold War descended and a wider knowledge of Stalin's atrocities were known. H.P. Lovecraft never really eased in his distaste for Soviet communism anyway. At the same time, it's hard to imagine Lovecraft readily joining in with the McCarthyist witch hunts for Reds among us, since he was a very intelligent man. If he maintained his support for Keynesian economics and certain government programs, he may well have remained a lesser Democrat through the '60s, and surely would have supported Kennedy's plan for space exploration. Thus, a longer lived H.P. Lovecraft probably would have rode the same winds many Americans of the same time did--a tenuous balance between Republican and Democratic Congresses and Presidents, influenced most by Cold War fears and domestic troubles.

What actually did happen to HPL's political views ought to be looked at as intensely interesting in of itself. Though the shifting preferences of Lovecraft for one party or another shouldn't be taken seriously in one's own ideological considerations. It's bad enough when activists try to take in extra votes by displaying endorsements from living celebrities. It's worse yet if they try to do the same with dead ones. Any Lovecraft fan should rightly cringe at the thought of the political blogosphere displaying images of Lovecraft alongside current candidates.

-Grim Blogger

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