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Old 06-20-2012   #1
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Lovecraft, Racism, & The "Man of His Time" Defense

New blog post on Lovecraft & racism up at my website, Laughing at the Abyss.
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Old 06-20-2012   #2
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Re: Lovecraft, Racism, & The "Man of His Time" Defense

I would never try to justify HPL's racism and I've never heard anyone claim that he wasn't a racist, but I think focusing on said racism doesn't do your blog justice. There have always been remarkably talented and influential writers who, on some level, were despicable. Lovecraft was far too influential to focus on his weaknesses. I admit, his writing can hardly be mentioned without the subject of race coming into it, but I think his strengths are more worth writing about. CHG

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Old 06-20-2012   #3
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Re: Lovecraft, Racism, & The "Man of His Time" Defense

Many people have a problem with Lovecraft, to the degree of arguing his writing should be avoided, and/or that the World Fantasy Award statue should not bear his likeness.

Others argue the writing itself and the author's influence are all that should be considered.

I can't see how it's unreasonable for Nicole to explore the balance between these two contrary points of view. Simply arguing that Lovecraft's racism shouldn't be addressed doesn't stop the matter from being an issue many people want to debate.


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Old 06-20-2012   #4
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Re: Lovecraft, Racism, & The "Man of His Time" Defense

Given his inability to function socially and the precocious capacities he demonstrated in childhood (often with a singular focus on one subject at a time), it looks like a good argument could be made for Lovecraft being pretty far along the autistic scale. Couple that with a hellish upbringing (what with the being made to wear dresses and the old ladies as only friends and all), and you've got a good recipe for a flawed human being.

And he was certainly that. Racist, yup, and terrified of everyone who didn't match his concepts of civilized man. Terrified of lots of things in fact (stuff in space, stuff in the ocean, stuff in blood). Christ, I pity the guy for it. For a long time his fears kept him paralyzed, isolated, and broke. He's practically a posterboy for what happens if we don't get out beyond our limitations.

But he eventually did get out. He fell in love with traveling, and his writing demonstrates growth as a person afterward. He married outside of his race obviously. Not good enough! you say? I disagree. His behavior patterns and social lens were given to him at a young age and those don't change easily or quickly, but he was still motivated to actually (in all his damaged sexuality) love someone he'd been brought up to believe was beneath him. I mean, how many stories were about the unsuspected commonality between the "civilized man" and the so-called savages? Innsmouth and Rats in the Walls for two. Maybe he was working on his flaws through fiction, even if he didn't know it.

And, yeah, he did get better with age. That's kinda what's supposed to happen. We get saddled with a bunch of psychic garbage in childhood from parents, followed by society dumping its crap into our heads, and then we spend our lives sorting through it and trying to claim the good bits as we climb up out. Lovecraft did it as best he could, and if he wasn't everything we wish he was, take some time to consider that his trajectory was pointing up when he died fairly young.

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Old 06-20-2012   #5
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Re: Lovecraft, Racism, & The "Man of His Time" Defense

This is somewhat off topic, but it supports the idea that Lovecraft was not immovably set in his views. When I read his essays "Liquor and its Friends" (1915) and "More Chain Lightning" (1915) and then read his essay "A Remarkable Document" (1917), I was happy to see that his views on prohibition had softened somewhat.

My personal response to his racism is that yes, it is very obviously repellent, and I dislike him as a person for holding those views, but I can still also, at the same time, like him as a person for some of his other qualities and some of his other views. For me, the question of liking him, or not, as a person is not an either/or question.
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Old 06-20-2012   #6
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Re: Lovecraft, Racism, & The "Man of His Time" Defense

I really don't mind Lovecraft's racism, couldn't care less and don't understand how it can be an issue at all, other than giving a dimension to his writing (his description of the people from Red Hook is like reading something from the Shadow over Innsmouth)

We're not talking about some KKK grand dragon whose life work was all about race, here.

That, and the fact that I don't think he was that vehement about many of his beliefs. He married a jewish woman, after all, and his personal views shifted more towards liberalism by the end of his life.

I'm pretty sure all of our favorite contemporary writers have some despicable aspects to them that we'll probably find out when their biographies are put on paper. William Burroughs shot his wife during a drunken game, for Christ's sake, and I don't see many people focusing on that as they do on Lovecraft's views on race. And I don't know about you guys, but irresponsible murder, for me, has more weight than antiquated views on race...

I hardly believe we're all saints in here, either ;)

Anyway, people die...
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I am simply an accident. Why take it all so seriously?
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Old 06-21-2012   #7
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Re: Lovecraft, Racism, & The "Man of His Time" Defense

Lovecraft's racism obviously doesn't mean that his work should be ignored, but equally it can't be considered irrelevant it's thematically very strong in 'The Call of Cthulhu' and 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth', forming a major part of the overall statement. Racism was as important for Lovecraft as socialism was for Hammett or Steinbeck. And as 'The Silver Key' shows clearly, Lovecraft was not passively echoing the views of his peer group: he saw himself as fairly isolated on political issues among the New York circle of writers he otherwise considered his peers. He obviously considered the story a dignified defence of the views befitting "his race and station", but it comes across as highly sulky. Apart from 'The Horror at Red Hook', 'Herbert West Reanimator' and 'Medusa's Coil', which are pathetically bad, his stories are not compromised as literary works by his racism (in my view) but they are coloured by it, and that needs to be understood. As China Mieville has said, regarding Lovecraft's racism as "of its time" is "an unacceptable condescension to history".
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Old 06-21-2012   #8
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Re: Lovecraft, Racism, & The "Man of His Time" Defense

Couple of further thoughts as Karnos says, it's not as if Lovecraft had engaged in violent acts, racially motivated or otherwise. His racism was expressed in polemical letters, articles, poems and stories, but not in notable deeds. But Sonia Greene noted that he told her he would only like to meet members of her family if there were "a majority of Aryans" in the room that she didn't kick him into touch on the spot reflects the depth of her feeling for him. Lovecraft's racism wasn't just a personal quirk irrelevant to his work: it forms part of his work, part of its thematic weight and message. What strikes me as odd is when people claim Lovecraft was a serious thinker whose ideas are of profound importance, but also insist that his racism was a kind of personal quirk (on a par with his dislike of seafood). It seems to me more reasonable to say that his worldview and ideas about society were seriously flawed, and that his brilliance as a writer of weird fiction should not encourage us to overrate his non-fiction. S.T. Joshi comments acutely that Lovecraft's racism should be assessed as an "intellectual sin" rather than a personal one.
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Old 06-21-2012   #9
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Re: Lovecraft, Racism, & The "Man of His Time" Defense

S. T. Joshi wrote in The Weird Tale something to the effect that out of all the authors' worldviews discussed in that book Lovecraft's was the only worldview of interest independently of status as a fiction writer. I have not read a huge amount of Lovecraft's nonfiction, but judging from what I have read, his worldview certainly doesn't make him a great philosopher on par with say, Schopenhauer, but elements of it seem very interesting. I don't think his nonfiction should be ignored because of the racism in it, either.
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Old 06-22-2012   #10
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Re: Lovecraft, Racism, & The "Man of His Time" Defense

Of course Lovecraft's non-fiction shouldn't be ignored in principle but we shouldn't be surprised when it proves limited. If a writer can't speak with dignity and responsibility of his own social environment, don't trust him when he tries to tell you about the universe. Lovecraft's core argument is that the conservative tenets of religious culture the social order is God's will and our society's traditions are sacred are false, but in order to preserve order and meaning we need to behave as if they were true. I don't find that particularly helpful in negotiating the challenges of modernity.
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