The ‘N’ Word Through The Ages: The ‘Madness’ Of HP Lovecraft

By Guest Contributor Phenderson Djeli Clark, cross-posted from Media Diversified UK

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a N*gger.

– H.P. Lovecraft, On the Creation of N*ggers (1912)

Author H.P. Lovecraft

I had come to believe that by now the racism of H.P. Lovecraft, the celebrated author of horror and fantasy, was a settled matter — like declaring Wrath of Khan the best film in the Star Trek franchise. Arguing against such a thing should be absurd. I certainly thought so after the matter was thrust into the spotlight in December 2011, when author Nnedi Okorafor won the esteemed World Fantasy Award — whose statuette is none other than H.P. Lovecraft’s disembodied head. Okorafor had been unaware of the depths of Lovecraft’s “issues,” until a friend sent her his 1912 poem,On the Creation of N*ggers, where blacks are fashioned by the gods as “a beast … in semi-human figure.”

This was no one-off, some “misspeak” by the author. Lovecraft’s racial biases ran deep and strong, as evidenced by his stories–from exotic locales with tropic natives lacerating themselves before mad gods in acts of “negro fetishism” (Call of Cthulhu), to descriptions of a black man as “gorilla-like” and one of the world’s “many ugly things” (Herbert West — Re-animator). This was no abstract part of Lovecraft’s creative process, where he was trying to imbue his work with some hint of realism. Rather, these were expressions of his foremost thoughts, a key part of his personal beliefs, most notably his virulent xenophobia towards an increasingly diverse American society emerging outside of his Anglo-Saxon New England.

Yet many of Lovecraft’s modern-day fans seem unable, or perhaps unwilling, to deal with this ugly side of his life. A few years back I was on a forum where someone was discussing Lovecraft’s storyThe Rats in the Walls, where one of the characters is a cat called “Nigger Man.” It so happens that Lovecraft owned a “beloved” feline by the same name. Feeling the need to explain after dropping the N-bomb, the post made it clear that quite likely Lovecraft was just using some politically incorrect colloquialism “of his times,” and probably did not mean to demean anyone’s race. While acknowledging that Lovecraft had some “disturbing notions on race,” the post went on to state this was likely an unfortunate result of the author’s isolated upbringing.

Seriously? That’s the argument we’re going with now? H.P. Lovecraft was just channeling his inner Mark Twain? He was isolated? His “notions” of race were “disturbing?” He really wasn’t trying to demean anyone? I guess this is what we mean by accidental racist.

It’s always perplexing to watch the gymnastics of mental obfuscation that occur as fans of Lovecraft attempt to rationalize his racism. Yes. His racism. Not his “disturbing notions.” Not his “peculiar thoughts.” Not his “racialisms.” His unabashed, full frontal, in-your-face racism. Lovecraft was a racist. Period. No qualifiers necessary. Sure he was other things as well–among them a great writer with an amazing imagination. But he was a racist too. And he was very good at it.

In his 1919 short The Street, the United States is represented as being colonized by “good, valiant men of our [Anglo-Saxon] blood who had come from the Blessed Isles across the sea” until ominous newcomers arrive, “swarthy, sinister faces with furtive eyes and odd features, whose owners spoke unfamiliar words ….”They brought with them alien thoughts, and had come to “tear down the laws and virtues that our fathers had exalted; to stamp out the soul of the old America – the soul that was bequeathed through a thousand and a half years of Anglo-Saxon freedom, justice and moderation.” These swarthy men living in “rotting edifices” were “the brains of a hideous revolution” and “at their word of command many millions of brainless, besotted beasts would stretch forth their noisome talons from the slums of a thousand cities, burning, slaying, and destroying till the land of our fathers should be no more.” Eventually, the sinister hordes are destroyed when their squalid homes (referred to as an infested “nest” filled with “stench”) collapse, burying and killing all their kind in a genocidal apocalypse.

A similar story of foreign contagion, The Horror of Red Hook, goes full tilt into the race-baiting, with such wonderful descriptive characters as “an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth.” Charming. One only needs look at Lovecraft’s personal letters to catch the influences for these fantastic tales of race-war and extermination. In them he recounts a 1920s trip to New York, where he is repulsed by being jostled in the subway by “sneering, greasy mulattos” and terrified at the sight of “hideous negroes that resemble gigantic chimpanzees.” Similar to his stories, he goes on to rail against what he sees as the real-life “mongrelization” of America’s finest cities:

The New York Mongoloid problem is beyond calm mention. The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! … How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become — with marks and reminders of the locust — plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. … There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare … In New England we have our own local curses … in the form of simian Portuguese, unspeakable Southern Italians, and jabbering French-Canadians. Broadly speaking, our curse is Latin just as yours is Semitic-Mongoloid, the Mississippian’s African, the Pittsburgher’s Slavonic, the Arizonian’s Mexican, and the Californian’s Chino-Japanese.*

– Letter from Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, August 21, 1926.

Disturbing notions indeed. During a visit to Chinatown in 1922, Lovecraft declared it a “filthy dump” filled with sub-human ‘swine … a bastard mess of stewing Mongrel flesh without intellect, repellent to the eye, nose and imagination.” He goes on to wish for a “kindly gust of cyanogen [cyanide]” that might “asphyxiate the whole gigantic abortion, end the misery and clean out the place.”

America’s black inhabitants presented Lovecraft with a most peculiar problem — a group too numerous to erase with a genocidal whiff of poison gas, and too entrenched to send packing. He ruminated on this on more than one occasion:

Now the trickiest catch in the negro problem is the fact that it is really twofold. The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists — eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist. But, it is also a fact that there would be a very grave and very legitimate problem even if the negro were the white man’s equal. For the simple fact is, that two widely dissimilar races, whether equal or not, cannot peaceably coexist in the same territory until they are either uniformly mongrelised or cast in folkways of permanent and traditional personal aloofness. … Just how the black and his tan penumbra can ultimately be adjusted to the American fabric, yet remains to be seen. … Millions of them would be perfectly content with servile status if good physical treatment and amusement could be assured them, and they may yet form a well-managed agricultural peasantry. The real problem is the quadroon and octoroon—and still lighter shades. Theirs is a sorry tragedy, but they will have to find a special place. What we can do is to discourage the increase of their numbers by placing the highest possible penalties on miscegenation, and arousing as much public sentiment as possible against lax customs and attitudes—especially in the inland South—at present favouring the melancholy and disgusting phenomenon. All told, I think the modern American is pretty well on his guard, at last, against racial and cultural mongrelism. There will be much deterioration, but the Nordic has a fighting chance of coming out on top in the end.

– Letter from Lovecraft to James F. Morton, January 1931.

We could do this all day. Lovecraft wrote in copious amounts, and seemed to have no filters. His words. No need to take them out of context. No need to puzzle out their subtle meanings. He could be quite blunt and forcefully direct. Still, label Lovecraft a racist and some in the geek-o-sphere waver, erupting into spasms of denial and a plethora of excuses.

“Keep in mind, he was just a man of his time,” goes the most familiar argument, ignoring that victims of racism were also men and women of those times. Privileging the perpetrator by trying to reason away his/her actions doesn’t mean one whit to those on the receiving end, then or now. Further, we’re well aware that white thinking of his era was backward and retrograde. So quit with the white-splaining already. Early 20th Century America was no doubt a time where white supremacy reigned supreme. But let’s be clear. Lovecraft was no average Joe who happened to go see Birth of a Nation or spoke in quaint terms about the “Negro’s propensity for music.” He went above and beyond the more normalized requirements of whiteness, veering into the hateful and obscene. Most whites of his day likely held poor views of ethnic and racial minorities; however, most did not speak (quite repeatedly) in such vile and at times frightening exterminationist language.

Or there’s the, “well we have to separate his personal life from his works” defense. Yes, because as writers we slip out of our skins, wipe our brains blank and pluck ideas from some non-personal non-reality based ether. In reality, understanding Lovecraft’s personal bigotry sheds profound insight into his writings. His racist fanaticism, eugenic pseudoscience and xenophobia lay behind the many horrors and unknown encroaching fears in his works, all lurking on the edge of human existence and threatening utter destruction.

Lovecraft with his wife Sofia.

Apologists look for any sliver of hope in Lovecraft’s life that might point away from his rampant biases, such as the fact that he married a Jewish woman. Yes, and Strom Thurmond, segregationist and believer in black inferiority, fathered a child with a black woman. Lovecraft’s random act does little more than prove that racism is illogical, contradictory and filled with psychosexual complexities of Freudian proportions. Besides, one of the reasons cited for the eventual divorce from his Jewish wife, according to her letters, was his virulent anti-Semitism. She claimed he enthusiastically devoured Mein Kampf in one sitting, and that she often had to remind him that she herself was Jewish whenever he launched into one of his diatribes.

The more desperate defenders, grasping at the fine straws, point out that Lovecraft disavowed Nazi doctrines and were he to have lived to see the Holocaust, he most certainly wouldn’t have agreed. Of course, what’s left out is that Lovecraft’s initial thoughts on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were much more complicated, veering between a displeasure with tactics but admiration of their goals:

[Hitler’s] vision is of course romantic & immature, & colored with a fact ignoring emotionalism … There surely is an actual Hitler peril–yet that cannot blind us to the honest rightness of the man’s basic urge … I repeat that there is a great & pressing need behind every one of the major planks of Hitlerism–racial-cultural continuity, conservative cultural ideals, & an escape from the absurdities of Versailles. The crazy thing is not what Adolf wants, but the way he sees it & starts out to get it. I know he’s a clown, but by God, I like the boy!

— Letter from Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, November 1936.

There’s no evidence Lovecraft ever declared himself a Nazi. Nor was he a member of any of the Nazi parties that sprang up in 1930s America. In fact, his moderate Hitler praise appears to have dropped off abruptly in the last year of his life (1937), after a German acquaintance (recently returned from the country) told him of seeing Jews beaten in the streets. Still, if one’s measuring stick of racism is where one draws the line in praising Adolf Hitler, something is seriously wrong with your argument. Besides, as Lovecraft’s personal letters remind us, his very hate-filled and raging anti-Semitism predated the Nazis:

The mass of contemporary Jews are hopeless as far as America is concerned. They are the product of alien blood, & inherit alien ideals, impulses, & emotions which forever preclude the possibility of wholesale assimilation… On our side there is a shuddering physical repugnance to most Semitic types … so that wherever the Wandering Jew wanders, he will have to content himself with his own society till he disappears or is killed off in some sudden outburst of mad physical loathing on our part. I’ve easily felt able to slaughter a score or two when jammed in a N.Y. subway train.

– Letter from Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, January 1926.

When properly riled, Lovecraft could let his white supremacy freak flag fly with reckless abandon:

Of course they can’t let niggers use the beach at a Southern resort – can you imagine sensitive persons bathing near a pack of greasy chimpanzees? The only thing that makes life endurable where blacks abound is the Jim Crow principle, & I wish they’’d apply it in N.Y. both to niggers & to the more Asiatic type of puffy, rat-faced Jew. Either stow ‘em out of sight or kill ‘em off – anything so that a white man may walk along the streets without shuddering nausea.
– Letter from Lovecraft to A.E.P. Gamwell, February 1925

Given all of that, it seems an introspective look at Lovecraft and his place within geekdom (in all its forms) is more than warranted.

Certainly there’s a way to appreciate his imaginative contributions while confronting his virulent and hateful beliefs. But for some Lovecraft fans, it would be more preferable to go swimming with the Deep Ones than mar a single hair upon the author’s hallowed head.

In 2012 sculptor Bryan Moore (whose film credits include Nightmare on Elm Street and Jumanji) launched the The H.P. Lovecraft Bronze Bust Project on kickstarter, dedicated to “the preservation and celebration of the famous author’s literary legacy.” As Moore noted, Lovecraft’s “cosmic imagination has influenced every region of pop culture including video games, comic books, music and film,” and he urged contributors to give “the Dark Prince of Providence the bronze monument he so rightfully deserves.”

Yes. He really said “Dark Prince of Providence.”

Yet that same year, when a group tried to launch what was described as “a book inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, but critical of his politics and racism,” Moore was having none of it.

“Why on earth this group wants to demonize Lovecraft for his “racism” is beyond me,” Moore lamented at the Facebook H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society “Screw that. I wouldn’t give these people a penny.”

Moore continued to hold forth, declaring,

“I’m all for projects that celebrate HP Lovecraft in all forms, but I draw the line when I see the PC hypersensitive cult of victimhood of today thrust upon him unfairly. We cannot put our moralistic standards of today on a man who was from another time. If he was burning crosses in a Klan uniform, fine. But, he wasn’t. He was echoing sentiments quite common for the day whether we agree with it or not by today’s social mores. I don’t like anything that trashes HPL for it’s own socio-political agenda.”

Moore echoes much of the (mostly white) fan-base of H.P. Lovecraft. Celebrating him is fine. But any form of criticism when it comes to race is silenced, erased or met with bitter rebuttals. In a way, it mirrors the whiteness that pervades much of science fiction and fantasy fandom. If non-white, non-male bodies are often excluded or unwelcome in such spaces, their concerns warrant even less empathy. For Moore, the real problem isn’t Lovecraft’s views but rather his modern day critics, with their politically correct (read as non-white, women, and marginalized groups) who ruin things for white male fans like himself. What’s more, he asserts there might even be value to Lovecraft’s racism:

“I could care less about his personal views as they don’t change his great fiction in the least,” Moore states, “but they shape who the man was and I don’t see any tragedy if he didn’t recant those personal views based on the hysterical PC rantings of today.”

I’m not really against the Lovecraft bust. This is America. My predominantly African-American and Latino middle school was named for a Confederate commander. And the guy who wrote that Declaration of Independence and came up with such great ideas like the separation of church and state, was not only a slave owner and believer in black biological inferiority, but once fantastically wrote that “the Oranootan [orangutan]” was sexually drawn to black women “over those of his own species.” Not sure what that made him. I have stood in the shadow of long dead and celebrated racists and endured it my whole life. It is what it is. Conflicting. Vexing. Dubois. Double-consciousness. All that.

Neither do I have to devalue Lovecraft’s literary and imaginative genius, in order to name him a racist. He is without a doubt one of the “greats,” a giant whose influence cuts across varied genres of speculative fiction. It has been source material for everyone from Joss Whedon to Mike Mignola. Being a PoC and into geekdom, you are bound to have some rather disgusting white racist grandpas; don’t really have a choice. Figure that goes for everyone else.

But I ain’t sugar-coating who and what he was. And I don’t take kindly when someone tries “splaining” to me why I’m “misunderstanding” his work. Lovecraft spoke loud and clear. If you can’t hear him, you’re just not listening. Or perhaps you really don’t care. Not all of us however are afforded that privilege.

Moore managed to surpass his goal of $30,000 for the Lovecraft bust in little over two days. Impressive. Obviously a lot of Lovecraft fans out there. A national treasure this guy. The bronze sculpture now has a permanent home at the famed Providence Athenaeum Library. At the face of the base is a small plaque that reads: “I am Providence,” with the author’s own signature beneath. If I had put the bust together however I might have tagged it with something slightly different:

H.P. Lovecraft
Beloved Racist & Anti-Semite
Also wrote stories.

Read more by Phenderson Djeli Clark or find him on twitter @pdjeliclark

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  • Celestea Deanes

    sightless eyes, how fitting

  • X Dex Dat

    If you take literature as being the product of an author with aspirations towards society at large (which could not be the case if you´re main aesthetic preocupation are the stories in themselves) then it is conditioned that you scrutinize who the author ¨was¨. This will guaranteedly not lead to greater understanding of the stories the author wrote. But, one will have an awareness of the range of expressions an author uses according to their relation to their setting as an object of communication within culture.

    It does nothing to accuse a dead man on the suspicions of some property inhabiting his private world; however, if the suspicions of that private world are manifest in an external culture common to a group of individuals then they are fair game for analysis and judgement. This is how we figure out ways to move foward as a human specie; by way of reason and tolerance. There would be no necessity for progress unless it would be so that we could identify less beneficial human dispositions and think of ways to replace them with something better. This is why writers don´t get ¨passes¨ for their private behavior; they are model citizens who are put up to public scrutiny in order that they may create an idea of what is best and keep it in readers´ minds.

    • mike4ty4

      “It does nothing to accuse a dead man on the suspicions of some property
      inhabiting his private world; however, if the suspicions of that private
      world are manifest in an external culture common to a group of
      individuals then they are fair game for analysis and judgement. This is
      how we figure out ways to move foward as a human specie; by way of
      reason and tolerance.”

      Isn’t this what the article does, though? Racism was and is most definitely “manifest in the external culture”.

  • Quentin Lewis

    A really great piece. I particularly liked your parsing (and criticism) of the list of reasons that people have for explaining Lovecraft’s racism away, a list that gets used (unfortunately) in many other defenses of the racist sacred cows of popular culture. So thanks for breaking that down.
    I’ve been a fan of his since I was a teenager, and have had work hard to reconcile my affection for his work with the very intense racism inherent in much of it. I like your conclusion as well–try to hold onto both his greatness and his racism simultaneously, and not let the former excuse the latter