This coming Saturday’s video show: Lovecraft and racism

H.P. Lovecraft

Lately, more and more people seem to be bringing up Lovecraft’s racism.  Well, these things are cyclical, I suppose.

Was H.P. Lovecraft a racist?  It seems obvious that he was, and I’m not about to argue that point.

But so were a lot of other authors.  For example, did you know that Dr. Seuss was a racist?  Yep.  So was Jack London.  So was Rudyard Kipling.  And, it seems, even J.R.R. Tolkien.  And I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that the author of the Declaration of Independence was not only racist, he owned slaves.

And on and on and on.

We need to reach the point where we acknowledge that yes, Lovecraft was a racist and that it’s horrible… and move on.

Racism is a terrible, terrible thing, and I can’t understand why anyone would hold racist views.

At the same time, though, once we’ve acknowledged that Lovecraft was a racist, is it really necessary to bring up his racism every time his work is mentioned?  Some people seem to think so.

Some even seem to think that because of his racism, no one should read his stories.  But I highly doubt those same people are throwing away the Declaration of Independence, The Lord of the Rings, or The Call of the Wild.  Or Dr. Seuss books.

So Saturday’s show is about yes, as far as The Lovecraft eZine is concerned, let’s get this out in the open, let’s discuss it… and then let’s move on.

If you’d like to be on the show to talk about this, email me at lovecraftezine@gmail.com .  Or, you can simply watch the show LIVE, this coming Saturday night at midnight Eastern time (11pm Central, 9pm Pacific), at this link.

See you then!

*****

An addendum: I almost did not post about the HPL racism thing. But I feel that as someone running a major HPL website/magazine/video show, I have a responsibility to NOT duck the racism issue. So as much as I don’t like drama, this is the right thing to do.

However.

I knew that some people would be upset at me, no matter what. Some are upset that I’m bringing up race “again” (not that I have been talking about it, but it’s been brought up a lot lately elsewhere). Others are upset because they think I’m minimizing it by saying “it doesn’t have to be part of *every* conversation about HPL and his work”.

No matter what, some people will be pissed. But this needs to be discussed. And here’s the thing: The key is BALANCE.

Balance. On one end of the spectrum, some would like HPL’s racism never brought up again, or at least, rarely. On the other end, some seem to feel that it needs to be mentioned almost every time HPL or his work is discussed.

The answer is, like most things in life, somewhere in the middle. And THAT, more than anything else, is what I am saying.

My hope, my wish, is that people could discuss things like this without emotions getting out of hand.

Last of all, if you know me, you know that I am a person who advocates treating others with kindness above ALL else. I think more highly of someone who is kind, than I do of someone who has enormous talent yet treats people like shit. If you don’t know that, then you don’t know me.

21 responses to “This coming Saturday’s video show: Lovecraft and racism

  1. Actually, Tolkien wasn’t racist (and the article you linked to does more to prove it than anything else; especially the quotes from his letters discussed at the bottom of the page).

    That said, this is a very interesting discussion. I’m excited to listen in!

  2. Before Lovecraft died, he was working on his racism. He had come to see the error of his ways and his later works reflected his new appreciation for people he had previously despised.

    We find that, by the time he had penned “The Haunter of the Dark,” Lovecraft’s initial disdain for ethnic minorities in New England had given way to a more progressive attitude.

  3. Well, with this kind of thing I’d say it’s really a matter of context. Lovecraft was a racist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his works were meant to be even if that aspect of his personality affected him on a subconscious level. I personally don’t think “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” was consciously written as an allegory for his thoughts on interracial breeding. His opinions might have influenced him, but as far as I can tell his intent was simply to create a creepy horror story and he succeeded in that regard.

    Compare this to the likes of James Bond. I’ve gotten into a lot of discussions with people about this and one thing I’ve always been told is that Bond was supposed to be the “male fantasy”, i.e. the sexist elements of Connery’s films were done intentionally by filmmakers who knew full well they were being extremely sexist but did it anyway. Since the sexism was apparently intentional, that makes it a lot harder to accept James Bond as a product of its time.

    Of course, on the other hand even if Lovecraft was a bit of a racist he did marry a Jewish woman. Also, for a man who never even lived to see World War II his views on women were quite progressive. He voiced his objections to sexism in his letters (even if he wrote very few female characters into his stories) and he knew several female writers with whom he corresponded and even collaborated and ghost wrote for.

    Really, Lovecraft’s views are kind of a mixed bag and if you really must let them influence how you feel about his writing (which, unless it was consciously written with the intent to be extremely racist and not just a product of his subconscious, shouldn’t be the case) you kind of have to pick a side. What you’re looking at here is people who point to Lovecraft’s racism and say that he’s a horrible person. I look at his views on women and find myself think more “early feminist” and that is a quality to be admired about the man.

  4. It’s important for people to know that Lovecraft was aware of this flaw in his personality, and we have no evidence that he was ever overtly racist in his social life. Racism as an attitude infects many more people than those who inflict it on others.

  5. I think you have the right idea about how to handle it when people bring this up, e.g. in the blog post / article by Phenderson Djeli Clark that S. T. Joshi responded to last week (Joshi intentionally doesn’t cite Clark–sort of a jerk move–but he mentions enough of the article to make it clear who he means). The main thing is to acknowledge the truth of Lovecraft’s racism and make no excuses. The excuses are plainly what frustrates Clark, who nonetheless admires Lovecraft, but excuses and dismissals are mainly what Joshi gives in reply.

    The other widely-circulating piece by Daniel Jose Older (another obvious fan and mythos pastiche writer) makes possibly a more significant point that the perpetual minimization of this issue blinds many readers to what may well be a valid reading of significant scope, i.e. that Lovecraft generally viewed otherness with disgust and his racism is in part a symptom of a larger theme occurring throughout his stories.

    The blindness is real too. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people remark on the racism Joshi agrees to in “The Street,” “Arthur Jermyn,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” but it’s in way more stories than that. There’s “Herbert West–Reanimator” and the “gorilla-like” black man, “Cool Air” and the Spaniards of the “coarsest and crudest grade” (bearing in mind Lovecraft’s 1928 letter about southern and eastern Europeans, in which he exposes his equal opportunity racism toward non-Nordic whites), “The Silver Key” and its bit about Randolph Carter behaving according to his “race and station,” “The Call of Cthulhu” and its “mixed blood” “foreign mongrels” and so on and so on and so on. If you make an effort to notice instead of dismissing it, it’s there in just a *ton* of the stories.

    (Incidentally, this is why I’d be careful about things like the Declaration of Independence comparison–I don’t recall any hint of racism in it, and if you read Gollum or orcs or something as allegorical of racial degeneracy or miscegenation in real life, that’s such a stretch that a similarly allegorical reading of Lovecraft would encompass evvvvvveeeerrrrryyyyythinnngggg, because he’s _actually_writing_about_ racial degeneracy and miscegenation in his stories and then putting a big helping of fantasy otherness on top.)

    The world doesn’t end when we acknowledge Lovecraft’s racism though. He was much worse a racist than many of his contemporaries, but he was also probably a nerdy paper tiger rather than a genuine threat. He wrote deeply thoughtful, mysterious stories. People of all backgrounds have responded to them–P. D. Clark calls him a genius, and Daniel Jose Elder not only says we should still engage with Lovecraft but also writes mythos stories of his own. Honestly, we should thank them both for making this a hot topic again *without* dismissing Lovecraft, because it’s plain to see that many readers need models for how and why to continue when they hit a serious WTF in HPL. And we should also sympathize with readers who just can’t take it, for more or less the same reasons we wouldn’t push our daughters to watch sorority slasher flicks.

    • Beautifully written, sir. I couldn’t have expressed it better. AGREE. The only thing I’d add is that all the apologistic ploys “fans” use really irks me: for instance, when people prescribe “getting over” HPL’s racism, or state that racism really wasn’t a part of his writing, or that he was getting over it. Why can’t “fans” accept the fact that racism infused HPL’s writing to its core? Man up, people. I love HPL’s writing, but I don’t make excuses for him.

  6. Mike, kudos for taking on such a volatile topic! I dont know if I will be able to watch, but I hope you have a lively but courteous discussion. I think recognizing his racisim, and seeing the value of Lovecraft’s work regardless of it, is a step towards a society where racisim is just a bad memory.

  7. This all brings up the question “at what point do we separate the artist from his art”? Should we condemn the entirety of the past, all the great works of literature, their authors, the painters, and the musicians who were the product of less than admirable upbringings because it’s easier to draw the shades than forgive them their ignorance? Obviously a work created with the primary intent of promoting racism, hate, or ignorance should be studied in a special light, but i do not believe HPL’s works to be so tainted. It is more troubling and supremely hypocritical that some would choose to enact their own form of intolerant tyranny as remedy in the name of equality.

  8. Was Lovecraft a racist? It seems undeniable. But so what? If he had not been horrified by the idea of his own race polluted by the blood of others, he would never have written “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” If he had not been troubled by the thought of his own people and culture overrun in their decay by the lesser peoples they had once imported and exploited as cheap labor or as slaves, he would never have written “At the Mountains of Madness.” Maybe we should just admit that, sometimes, bad attitudes make good art.

  9. Looking at the development of Lovecraft’s attitudes, as revealed in his works, I think one might say that he started as a rather sheltered and provincial person who started to understand his drawbacks as he went through life. After all, he not only had the racism of “Polaris” and “Arthur Jermyn”, but the class-ism inherent to “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” and the background of “The Dunwich Horror”; he was, looking uncharitably at the first half of his career, a fairly general misanthrope. But then you get the mixed message of “Mountains of Madness” (slave uprising = bad, but also hideous starfish-headed thing from the stars = identifiably human) and the suggestion in “Shadow Out of TIme” that all humans were equally interesting to The Great Race, regardless of era, location, race or language. There’s a letter in which he begs someone not to publish a letter he’d written ten years earlier, dismissing it as (and I’ll wildly misquote here while maintaining the sense of it) the ravings of a monumentally pompous sap whose philosophy was founded in a complete ignorance of the actual way of the world beyond his own doorstep. Whatever -isms he harboured, he seemed to be capable of at least recognizing them in his later life, and one might have hope for more if he’d lived longer. Heck, even as early as 1920, he was presenting overt racism as at least faintly ridiculous, with “The Temple’s” narrator and his over-the-top ideas about how most of his crew was affected by the supernatural doom because they weren’t *sufficiently* German.

    But all that is making excuses, and can be dismissed. Like C. above, I am willing to ride over the racism (and let’s not forget the inherent sexism in having almost not female characters at all, and the strongest of them really not actually female at all) because the guy was devoted to the weird tale and wrote some darned good ones. We can, I think, separate the art from the artist; enjoy HPL without espousing racism, enjoy films with Charleton Heston or Jane Fonda without adopting their politics, or appreciate Salvador Dali’s art without wearing a diving suit to a cocktail party.

  10. Maybe I’m simplistic, but I see 2 things. (1) HPL was a product of his culture and time, and also (2) nobody’s perfect. (1)I’ve read some biographical stuff on him (not an expert) but it sounds like his prejudices were more ‘philosophical’ than personal. He would ascribe things to groups that he did not connect to the individuals he met. From what I understand, he was a decent person to the people he knew. He grew up in an era and a culture that was predominantly racist He reflects that culture. (2) Nobody’s perfect. Everybody has done/said stuff they wish they could take back. Do we want to be judged on the worst aspects of our natures, or the best? If we are honest, we all will admit that we all have our flaws. I would rather be judged on my good points while I work to fix my bad ones. This is a more enlightened time. I think if HPL were alive now, he might have different viewpoints on many issues, race being one of them. If we logic of using an artist’s worst characteristics to judge their artwork, we would have to reject Strauss and Wagner (antisemitic), Van Gogh (schizophrenic) HG Wells (Fabian Socialist), WIlde (accused Pederast) Twain (use of N-Word), Woody Allen (accused Pedophile), most prehistoric Central American Artwork (heart-cutter-outers), and we could go on and on. HPL and his Mythos have given me (and many many others) countless hours of fun and a respite from the pressures of our daily lives, and I am grateful to him for that.

  11. Obviously, your failure to exclude the heart-cutter-outers shows your bias against ritual vivisection. The point is not to judge someone solely on their least ‘appreciated’ qualities, but rather on the whole of the person. Judging someone for one act or trait means that we exclude people whom we would otherwise appreciate very much. Sometimes those who do often end up as the kind of people they denounce. Personally, I’m in the ‘lighten up’ side of this discussion.

  12. That Lovecraft was racist is quite evident. The question here is what do we, the modern readers, make of works from before the civil rights era. From 1962-1985(roughly)the United States underwent a cultural revolution that changed completely our notions of what was socially acceptable. This left many so-called ‘classic’ writers in sketchy social and academic territory because of there their views. Lovecraft derived his definition of horror partly from themes of corruption, impurity and miscegenation, both in human racial terms and in how he often described his monsters as a mishmash of biological traits(the Dunwich horror is a prime example). This seems to reflect deep seated anxieties and/or convictions of his own.In that sense, Lovecraft’s personal views are inseparable from his style.While this makes for interesting academic debate, the question is are Lovecraft’s stories when taken at face value, racist? I say no. Unlike actual racist literature, like say the Turner Diaries, Lovecraft’s primary motive is not to incite the reader to racial disgust or hatred, but to instill a horror of the unclean, make them squirm from the threat of corruption or contamination. His works say much more about America at the time than about Lovecraft himself. There was a time when readers in America found interracial breeding the stuff of horror stories. Lovecraft is not inciting us to racism, he’s holding up a mirror to the prejudices of his environment and times, and what we find there is more unsettling than and denizen of Yuggoth. You can learn a lot about a culture by what scares them, and no one had a finger on the pulse of what scared pre-civil rights America than H.P. Lovecraft. The concern about racism in his works is really a concern about”does reading it make me a racist? No more so than playing ‘Here Comes the Bride at your wedding makes you antisemitic. To paraphrase Christ, it is not what goes into a person that corrupts them, but what comes out of them. And what came out of Lovecraft was fine literature.

  13. I read Lovecraft. i admire his style and creativity. And yeah the racism smacks me in the face quite often (Rats in the Walls, anyone?). I think it’s a part of the discussion: “I didn’t enjoy this story as much as I could have because of this element” but should not be the entirety of the discussion.

  14. In my twenties I used to attend a fantasy book discussion group. In theory it was a Tolkien group, but in practice it was pretty far-ranging. Even Lovecraft came up for one of our monthly dissections. One the attendees at that meeting was Nick, a black man. In the course of it he began to read aloud a passage from “The Rats in the Walls,” a passage which included a mention of the narrator’s unfortunately-named cat. Nick came straight up to this waiting pothole–and jumped neatly over it. Anyone who had not read the story would not have known that he had left anything out. Those of us who had read the story recognized what he had done and why he had done it, and approved of his action and his reasons. I cannot speak for everyone, but I personally felt a little twinge of shame that such a moment had ever come up. But that was all there was to it. And forty years later this still seems to me the best way to deal with it.

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