Was HPL really a racist?

  1. Mors Profundis

    Mors Profundis Active Member

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2006
    Messages:
    38
    Lovecraft did name a cat Nigger-man, but it was a black cat, and he was fond of it, in fact it was a pretty good kitty.
    He also tended to make the minions and disiples of the GOO non-white, as did many other writers who were active at this time(Sax Rohmer did a lot to foster the Yellow Peril myth).
    But HPL was never really vicious about it, and at the time he wrote, this was a common attitude.
    Using non-whites, and especially the more obscure ethnic types added to the mystery for the audience he was reaching.
    Today, this would be unacceptable, and if HPL was writing now, doubtless he'd have been more PC.
    He also cast rural whites as minions and disciples in many stories.
    The Whateleys,et al, were old Yankee stock, and easily could have been touched with the tar brush(as they said it back then), had it been desired.
    No, we are guilty of what Diana Gabaldon calls presentism, applying our attitudes to people who lived in the past.
    HPL as no more racist than the times he lived in, when tacit racism was the norm.
    I enjoy the tales, I avoid the tomes, I mark the Elder Sign and I don't sweat the small stuff- I don't use ethnic perjoritives, either, because I'm a man of my times.
    As HPL was a man of his.
     
    Apr 5, 2006
    #1
  2. steve12553

    steve12553 The Enigma of Steel

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2006
    Messages:
    1,292
    Location:
    Moved my books to the deep south. I have a loft/li
    I've seen other versions of this thread here and on other forums. Depending on how you define Racism, people in earlier cultures were all basically racist or they were all ignorant and it requires our modern understanding of equality to be a racist. It would be very hard to prove to an intelligent person in today's world the one race is superior or inferior to another. I'm not sure you can really define a race. I firmly believe what we refer to as race is more acurately defined as a culture. 100 years ago things were different. There was less scientific understanding (anthopologically along with biologically) Most people follow the attitudes of their cultures.
     
    Apr 6, 2006
    #2
  3. Mors Profundis

    Mors Profundis Active Member

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2006
    Messages:
    38
    A good reply to this might be yes, but we'll forgive him.
    This time.
     
    Apr 6, 2006
    #3
  4. GOLLUM

    GOLLUM Moderator Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 21, 2005
    Messages:
    9,034
    Location:
    Australia
    Having read Lovecratft's work and performed my own research into his background I believe HPL was a product of his time and therefore am always hesistant to label someone like him as a racist looking back through a modern prism. By modern standrads he could be labeled as racist but I don't view it that way.
     
    Apr 6, 2006
    #4
  5. Nesacat

    Nesacat The Cat

    Joined:
    Apr 5, 2006
    Messages:
    3,337
    Location:
    Curiosity was framed. Ignorance killed the cat.
    Having grown up in the far east and having been educated between India and England and after many years of reading all of Lovecraft I can get my hands on I'd have to say he was very much a man of his times. The idea of him possibly being racist comes from judging the stories based on our times and who can say about cats.
     
    Apr 6, 2006
    #5
  6. Mors Profundis

    Mors Profundis Active Member

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2006
    Messages:
    38
    HPL liked cats.
    No one can apply the standards of one time and place to another-it doesn't work.
    We can all agree that fungi and things with tentacles(look up the Colossal Squid!) are not good, at least when they start pulling out people's brains and sending them off to interstellar destinations, or trying to wipe out all life on earth.
    Can't we?
     
    Apr 6, 2006
    #6
  7. Nesacat

    Nesacat The Cat

    Joined:
    Apr 5, 2006
    Messages:
    3,337
    Location:
    Curiosity was framed. Ignorance killed the cat.
    Yes, he did like cats very much. The first story of his I ever read was The Cats of Ulthar and it made me go hunt up the rest of them. It was very much like discovering a treasure trove.
    I'd agree that getting limbs yanked off is not awfully desirable but you must admit that there is something darkly seductive about a god who slumbers in a titanic city under the ocean and comes to people in dreams. I'd like to see R'lyeh with it's walls set at angles that are not quite right.
     
    Apr 7, 2006
    #7
  8. Mors Profundis

    Mors Profundis Active Member

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2006
    Messages:
    38
    There's a saying,"See R'lyeh and die-if you're lucky."
     
    Apr 9, 2006
    #8
  9. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner He's a very naughty boy! Staff Member

    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2002
    Messages:
    20,419
    Location:
    Highlands
    "Nigger" was a common word for black - really dark wool used to be sold as "nigger-black". There was also an Agatha Christie book originally titled "Ten Little Niggers". I'm not sure about the history of the word, but somehow I'm given the impression that nigger was simply a word used for black, was applied in a cultural way to other cultures, and because of that, grew out of favour.

    As for judging HPL as a racist - well, we'd really need to see him aggressively promote ideas to really deserve that title.

    As another point - to elevate ourselves to a position of moral authority and judgement over different cultures, is to be honest part of the root of "racism" itself. It diesn't matter whether we are making judgements over time or space - it is the same attitude of self-superiority repeated.

    2c.
     
    Apr 9, 2006
    #9
  10. Randolph

    Randolph Active Member

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2007
    Messages:
    40
    Unfortunately, Lovecraft was a racist, plain and simple. Even a casaul perusal of his work shows this (skim through "The Horror at Red Hook" or "Call of Cthulhu" for instance.) The idea that he was just "a product of his times" is also false. True, racism was much more common then than it is today, but Lovecraft goes way beyond what was the norm of the time (which was based more on ignorance and stereotypes) by classing immigrants, African-Americans, and people of mixed-race as basically subhuman. Read through a lot of his correspondence and essays and you'll find that this is true. I don't say this to try to make old Ech Pi look bad - he's my favorite author - I just want to dispell any misconception that he was not something which he very plainly was. The important thing is that he wrote well enough that his work shines through this flaw.
     
    Jan 5, 2007
    #10
  11. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

    Joined:
    May 9, 2006
    Messages:
    13,883
    Hi, Randolph, and welcome to the Chronicles!

    I'd qualify your post somewhat... I'd say that he was a product of his times and his environment (a very conservative, Old Yankee background) in this, as in other ways... the problem is that, unlike most of those other ways, this is one in which he showed very little (though not no) change, despite constant challenges from his correspondents, friends, and the changing views of the sciences. He did modify it somewhat with some ethnic types, but when it came to the indigenous people of Australia, or blacks ... he continued to see them as subhuman all his life. (Though he moved slightly more toward a sort of paternalism in his final years with blacks -- see the letter he wrote on one of his trips through the South ... I'll try to find the exact reference later; still, that's not much of an improvement.....)

    This is probably the one area in which he can truly be censured; not for holding those views in the beginning, but for simply not challenging them with the scientific evidence, as he did so many others. I find it interesting, though, that one hears more censuring of Lovecraft for his racism than one does of Eliot or Pound, who were at least as virulent in their beliefs.

    Also, as someone who did a lot of typesetting (and, therefore, reading) of reprints of articles on the subject for various books examining this part of American culture -- there really was an intense and pervasive amount of such views, even among the scientific community, that didn't really begin to fade until well into the 1950s. It was challenged more and more, but quite a few highly respected figures held to these beliefs nonetheless, long after the point when it would seem ridiculous to us. This by no means excuses HPL, but it really is the case that he wasn't that much out of step with even some of the best and brightest of his time; though, as stated, such views were being seriously challenged from the turn of the century on.

    Still, when all's said and done... yes, he was a racist; it's just that his work is so very good that it outshines that shadow on his reputation....
     
    Jan 5, 2007
    #11
  12. that old guy

    that old guy Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    Jan 3, 2007
    Messages:
    169
    He was actually more than racist, since he considered inferior everyone he didn't consider "Nordic." He wrote several letters expressing contempt for the French, the Irish and I believe the Italians.

    Then again, his wife was Jewish, so go figure.
     
    Jan 10, 2007
    #12
  13. Mors Profundis

    Mors Profundis Active Member

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2006
    Messages:
    38
    Seems he was, and I was wrong.
    His wife, Sonia, was a Russian Jew, and she often had to remind him of it during his anti-Semite rants.
    Could be why they split up?
    He was no worse than most of his contemporaries(nigger, as a word for black, was a sladerous ethnic slur so common it was used to describe dark articles, as was 'dinge', as in dingy, meaning dark or discolored, and the word may well come from 'negar' a variation of negro, Spanish for black, and a root of the white trash 'nigra'.
    As an aside, black people often referred to whites as "The Buckra", in those days.
    Shub-niggurath?
    Sure, nig prefixes many words with the connotation of dark, but two gees?
    I still say he was no worse than most, and being dead, he's unlikely to change.
     
    Jan 12, 2007
    #13
  14. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

    Joined:
    May 9, 2006
    Messages:
    13,883
    On the subject of why Sonia and HPL separated... no, that (if one is to believe any of the accounts from either of them or of friends) had nothing to do with it, though in later years she did complain about some of those statements. After all, after they were separated, Sonia kept inviting him to stay when he would be in the New York area at a time when she was, and also had him do revision work on a travelogue she'd written, as well as sending him copious letters and postcards on her trip to Europe (and buying him a copy of Dr. Johnson's beer stein). But each of them was rather set in their ways, and then the financial difficulties that caused Sonia to have to move to the midwest for employment, which HPL could not contemplate without complete revulsion, added to his own increasing psychological problems because of nearly two years' worth of fruitless job searching in New York.... Altogether, a pile of different things landed on them from very early on, and just proved too much. Whether they would have made it or not otherwise... who knows? But some who knew them thought it was possible; and that there was genuine affection there I see no reason to doubt.
     
    Jan 12, 2007
    #14
  15. Simon Kind

    Simon Kind Member

    Joined:
    Jan 14, 2007
    Messages:
    11
    I'm glad that I came across this is the story that I'm writing involves the underlying racial fear behind HPL mythos.

    It's pretty obvious that HPL was racist which, as other posts have made clear, was pretty par for the course then, jesus even eugenics was regarded as legit. However, I'm always wary of using that as an excuse, no matter the time or place, good people always rises above ignorance.

    For myself I don't get offended reading HPL, it's like getting into a conversation with an old batty next door neighbour. I find it quite bemusing and besides without the racist elements then old HPL stories wouldn't have half the dark power that it does.
     
    Feb 6, 2007
    #15
  16. justhinking

    justhinking New Member

    Joined:
    Mar 16, 2007
    Messages:
    4
    So how come everyone's so sure we're less racist in general? I think these days we're just more politcally correct (ie afraid to be honest about our views), let's us keep our biases unchallenged so long as we don't present them directly. Personally I'm against the whole political correctness thing - it's the attitudes behind words that are offensive, not the words themselves surely? There's also the fact that even without being racist many people have simply shifted the emphasis to culture and belief in their own innate cultural superiority.

    To get back to the issues at hand though I think that really HPL was writing in a different time but also writing to acheive certain effects - to many people in the culture he was writing for places like the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the pacific islands were all somewhat exotic, mysterious, dark, foreboding places (it's the alien and unfamiliar which inspires terror, surely something HPL makes something of a point of). Equally use of rural folk hiding dark and terrible secrets presents the familiar and non-threatening as alien so it's a literary device as well. I don't think that HPL dwells heavily on racial or cultural issues, rather he uses cultural biases already inherent in the culture and time he was writing in to achieve certain elements of tone and foreshadowing in his works.
     
    Mar 17, 2007
    #16
  17. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

    Joined:
    May 9, 2006
    Messages:
    13,883
    Nice post there, and there's certainly some truth to it. However, if you go and read Lovecraft essays, his poetry, his letters ... he was often quite viciously racist. "Vitriol" doesn't even begin to cover it, in many cases (see, for instance, some of his letters in the recent Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner, or his letters to Frank Belknap Long about New York's lower East Side, just from a visit, before he lived there -- let alone those he wrote to his aunts when he was living in New York -- at one point even his aunt Lillian took him to task for his extreme views, and that is really surprising! And this really does tie in very strongly with his fiction, as well... "The Shadow over Innsmouth" is a story based entirely on the idea of miscegenation, and its effects toward "devolution" -- the horror lies in the protagonist's not only accepting this part of his heritage, but finally glorying in it.

    And any look through his poetry you'll find numerous racist slurs, slanders, and bigoted ethnic remarks, from "Ye Ballade of Patrick von Flynn" to "To General Villa", to the now-infamous "On the Creation of Niggers". It's an unfortunate fact, but a fact. And this is one aspect of his thought where Lovecraft showed very little, if any change, as he went through life, despite the fact that already there was a turn in the tide among the scientific community on this -- it hadn't reached its height, by any means, but the sorts of views he espoused were indeed becoming eroded by scientific evidence rather quickly; and in nearly every other area of his life, he made adjustments for new information that challenged his views -- but not this. This was blind prejudice, nothing more.

    However, that said... yes, he was writing for another time, and from a different perspective. And he did use these feelings to create some powerful fiction that doesn't have to be read as racist, necessarily (though it's darned near impossible to avoid that with such things as the "Six Shots in the Moonlight" chapter of Herbert West -- Reanimator, or "The Horror at Red Hook", for instance). And, while it's no excuse or defense -- as an historical figure, none is really needed at this point, however regrettable the views were -- he was hardly alone among the literati in having such views. T. S. Eliot expressed views every bit as pungent as HPL; so did Ezra Pound. Yet one doesn't see that much criticism of them for those views. I think that's because Lovecraft still has a lot of "fans" rather than the sorts of readers who would normally read and publicly discuss Eliot or Pound. It's the price of a certain sort of fame.

    I've no problem admitting Lovecraft's fault here -- he was a big enough man otherwise, and a good enough artist, that it by no means overshadows his work. And, overall (there were apparently some actions he took in school where outspoken anti-Semitism was concerned) he was the soul of generosity and kindness when he dealt with people even when they may have belonged to ethnic groups he disliked. It was his expression of those views on paper that has kept them alive today, not his actions otherwise. As you say, our time tends to be hypersensitive to this because of our peculiar historical associations with such (World War II, the various genocides undertaken since then, which have so quicly become public because of the speedy access of information, whereas in other ages it might have taken years, decades, or even centuries for the facts to come out). And I'll agree that I am extremely dubious that racism (or, better, ethnophobia) has done much more than gone underground, considering how easily it erupts periodically when a society is undergoing stress. I don't think we're anywhere near as civilized as we like to think. In some ways, I think we're considerably less civilized (albeit more technologically advanced, and having more scientific knowledge) than some earlier periods in history... at least, where the literate are concerned.

    But, as I said, I don't think we need duck the issue where Lovecraft is concerned. If we can get past our own prejudices on this front, I think we'll find there's much more to be gained by reading him as he was, taking the blemished and the fair, and simply seeing him as he was, not as either a saint or a devil, but a very intelligent and complex man who refuses to fit into any easy mold....
     
    Mar 17, 2007
    #17
  18. gigantes

    gigantes Interested.

    Joined:
    Mar 10, 2007
    Messages:
    202
    wow... interesting thread, and a most compelling summary, JD.

    i've mainly just enjoyed his stories and not studied him much as an overall human being, but i definitely think there is merit in evaluating him by the standards of his time instead of dragging him into the harsh and judgemental light of our own times.
     
    Mar 17, 2007
    #18
  19. justhinking

    justhinking New Member

    Joined:
    Mar 16, 2007
    Messages:
    4
    Excellently put, this part in particular I liked, and a very thorough and interesting post. You also encouraged me to read some poems of HPL's that I hadn't previously read. It's obvious that Lovecraft did make some highly racist comments and clearly held ideas based on 18th-19th century pseudoscience and was a unrestrained anglophile. On the other hand I'd say that some of his resistance to changing these ideas were thoroughly engrained and added to by a seemingly anti-modernist approach to the world. From the way in which I read his works it seems to me more an artistic device in his stories rather than a particular attempt to introduce racial overtones (though of course it's an interesting question as to how much it shadows and affects his choices in this regard, the ideas of eugenics clearly hold interest for him and he explores them).

    As you noted miscegenation is often at least a minor or background theme (and in the case you mentioned a rather larger part is given) but I'd also say that he seems to look at it more from the point of effective horror writing than from a persuasive or polemnical one. He seems to me to be more trying to evoke a certain terror and foreboding with themes of mental and physical degradation and corruption that extends and worsens over generations and in which humankind is shaped and twisted to better serve or amuse dark forces (which incidentally helps give scale and proper scope to his more alien and ageless horrors) than trying to espouse racist views. It is in that sense probably a bit telling as to his views that he manifested those fears in that particular way but as you note they was hardly an unusual views (even or perhaps particularly amongst the more literate section of society). Of course that's just my opinion but it's the impression that I at least get from reading his work - all in all I think that his work isn't particularly racist, despite certain over tones and approaches to the issues and regardless of exactly what views Lovecraft himself held (something that's ultimately impossible to truly know anyway).

    As to the way some people judge Lovecraft and others - well in a way it's kind of ironic that culturally we openly tend to have an attitude of false superiority over people of other cultures and times for having openly attitudes of false superiority over other people (and their cultures). And in the end let's face it you don't have to agree with a person's attitudes to greatly enjoy their writing.

    PS All of that said it is kind of sad that his work is featured amongst many white supremacist sites (amusing in light of his views on degenerate white trash), I suppose that we can at least take comfort that it might make them into more literate racists at least - there's always hope, no?
     
    Mar 17, 2007
    #19
  20. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

    Joined:
    May 9, 2006
    Messages:
    13,883
    Yes, that's a point that I don't often see raised, but Lovecraft did have a strong belief in eugenics -- and that was very common in his day, even among the well-educated, a lot of the scientific community, etc. That one could make for some interesting articles on his work and thought.

    Well, Lovecraft openly espoused certain forms of racist ideas in his letters -- he frequently said that both blacks and Australian aborigines were biologically inferior. While with some of the other ethnic groups he shifted his arguments more toward keeping cultures separate rather than basing them on biological grounds (though with his more intimate correspondents he continued to argue on the biological grounds as well), when it came to those two groups he always saw them as midway between homo sapiens and the ape. That, unfortunately, he stated quite bluntly and baldly on various occasions. The only mitigating factor was that he didn't wish them to be treated with any cruelty; but he was adamant about "the colour line", having been not only influenced early on by his family's (and the upper-crust society of Providence's) views, but also by a book he read when very young, called The Color Line: A Brief in Behalf of the Unborn, by William Benjamin Smith; Lovecraft even wrote a poem, "De Triumpho Naturae", dedicated to Smith, at a young age.

    Now, if we can step back from our own emotional aversion to the sorts of views espoused here, I find this aspect of Lovecraft's thought very interesting because it is the one area where he never allowed the scientific evidence to influence him to any notable degree; and I think the reasons for that are many and complex. But also I find it fascinating that it wasn't a simple-minded racism that he brought to his creative work, either. Racist it was but -- as you point out -- it was not in general polemical or preachy. It was simply a part of the fabric of the whole but, because it was seldom brought into sharp focus as racism rather than horror, it is easy for a lot of people to be totally unaware of it.

    The other aspect of this is something that ties in with another part of his views, and what informs a great deal of the horror of his tales: that we really aren't as much a separate species as we like to believe, that we can all-too-easily slip backward on the evolutionary scale (his views on temperance are tied into this, by the way, as he saw drink not merely as socially undesirable and disruptive, but as something that would genuinely degrade the individual and their offspring genetically, pushing them back down that ladder; cf. his "More Chain Lightning" and other essays on the subject); and, if he saw certain groups of human beings as being closer to that plane already, then miscegenation would encourage such a devolution. He was always aware how much of our genetic heritage we carry around with us, and how easy it is for the "more highly evolved" traits -- the more intellectual, civilized, etc. -- to slip and for us to behave barbarically and brutally. That's the theme of "The Rats in the Walls", really -- the genetic past reaching out to claim De la Poer (and, as he is a synecdochical figure, by extension, the rest of humanity) and drag him back down to that primal, bestial level -- hence the use of the various dialects in that one paragraph of speech, to show his incredibly rapid descent from a highly-cultured modern man to the pithecanthropoid -- inside, if not out. The horror of it is increased, of coure, because he chose to use the first-person narration here, so we make that descent with De la Poer -- urged on by the ghostly rats (which we are left to wonder whether they are "real" spiritual phenomena -- after all, the cats react to them but, interestingly, the other humans do not... is this because they are not yet on their downward trend, or ...? -- or whether they are symbols of his own creation, taken from the inherited memories or from his fascination with the legends of the army of rats that devastated the countryside after the destruction of all the ancient family save his own ancestor, and exist only in his mind, because of the intimate connection of that ancient rodent army and his family's past).

    So with "The Shadow over Innsmouth" -- the miscegenation here is also a way of descending that evolutionary ladder -- as Zadok Allen had said, we all came out of the sea, and it only takes a little change to go back again, to the primal forms of life, and lose what makes us genuinely human. (A theme which was shared by quite a few horror writers following Darwin -- notably Arthur Machen with his "Novel of the Black Seal", "Novel of the White Powder", "The Great God Pan", and "The White People" -- the beast is always there, and only needs the door opened a little to sweep away everything that has come since.

    So this was a part of Lovecraft's racism, I think -- after long study and considerable thought: that keeping the various ethnoi apart, reducing the mixing of the "races"; helped insure the stability of both the culture (or cultures, as he did later feel that there was genuine worth in several cultures -- just that they should each be kept separate lest they degrade each other and become a mongrel culture) and the "race". It's still a question as to whether there's any substance to the argument about cultures, but biologically I'd say it's been proven to be unsound.

    Nonetheless, as you say, it wasn't a simple sort of racism; it wasn't just "white supremacy"... though it began that way, I'd say -- he was an ardent Aryan in his earlier years, and never entirely lost that; but it was much more complex in that it was also concerned with preserving the human against the beast in all our backgrounds. (See "Facts in the Case of the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family", where it is hinted, for instance, that this primeval city of "white apes" are actually the progenitors of all white races ... and that, again, we can slip back down that slope so easily.)

    I'd say that's a common fault with human society -- we always think we are more sophisticated, more adult, more educated, etc. than our ancestors -- "We're living in the enlightened 19th centry, man; no one believes in such things anymore!", etc. -- when frankly the change are more apparent than real. They're much more surface than we like to think. Our essential emotional makeup hasn't changed much during the whole of human history, nor is likely to, really, at least if we take that to mean at base. And that is, in part, because we've only been human for a rather short time, really; the evolutionary changes that would allow any major alterations in our basic emotional structure -- barring one of those period "evolutionary leaps", which were quite possibly brought on by extreme environmental factors threatening extinction (which make one wonder -- is global warming going to be the threshold for the next such leap? Or some other event?) -- such changes take a lot longer than the entirety of recorded human history. The rest is veneer; put us under enough stress, and that veneer gets stripped away, I'm afraid. This may be a good thing, as it may enable us as a species to survive; but it also threatens our existence at times, and certainly isn't often connected to the things that we hold to be most "uniquely human".

    This is something I wasn't at all aware of. Interesting. Yes, he'd be appalled, as he had no use for such; as said, he didn't wish any cruelty toward other races -- he merely wanted there to be a strict boundary and would prefer that each be kept within its own country really, save for a very moderate amount of interaction -- a thoroughly impossible ideal, even if it were a good one -- which it isn't; it's the interactions that prevent stagnation and foster new views and new ideas, new possibilities. He thought some violence might be necessary to initiate the separation, but -- save in his most emotionally distraught moments, when he was at his wits' end in trying to survive -- he never spoke of wanting anything of the sort.

    As for it making more literate racists ... that's debatable. I grew up in a town where such was pervasive, and I'm afraid that, if HPL resisted the scientific evidence to question his views, they are a thousandfold more adamantine-skulled. But I suppose one can always hope....:eek:
     
    Mar 17, 2007
    #20
Loading...

Share This Page