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RevolutionSF Watercooler : HP Lovecraft and Racism
© RevolutionSF
May 07, 2012

Gary Mitchel: So, about Ye Olde Howard P. Lovecraft being a racist. I know that at least two, if not more, people here are as tired of that old saw as I am, and probably have some good counter-points that I can bring up, so I'm asking for those points here.

Dave Farnell: It's not exactly an old saw. He was a great big racist, even over and above what was normal for his era.

What counter points can you bring up when you've read some of the really vile shit he wrote in his letters? You can, as some have, make excuses, such as that he was playing the shock jock and really expressing far stronger views than he really felt, which I think is somewhat true, but that doesn't absolve him of being a racist. You can say racism was the norm at the time, which is true, but he was as strident in his racism as a KKK member, and on top of that he was a highly intelligent and educated person, well read in the scientific literature which was quickly toppling pseudo-scientific claims that supported racism one after another.

It is disturbing that a guy who was open-minded in so many ways, able to be persuaded to take very different positions on so many subjects over his lifetime, was so inflexible and closed-minded about race.

You could point out that he married a Jew. So perhaps he wasn't as ideologically rigid as he liked to think he was, and like most racists he only had to get to know somebody to at least slightly modify his views. We know he was a really nice guy to everyone he knew personally. But I have beloved family members who are racists like that.

My recommendation is to concede the point and take it as a lesson that even the most brilliant people -- indeed often the most brilliant people -- are complete idiots in one way. But so what? Does it weaken his stories? Well, yes. Some of them. Some of them are just awful, and not in a good way, and sometimes it's because of the really over the top racism. But on the whole, the stories stand on their own regardless of the author's blind spot. The idea that an author's fiction should not be read solely because the author had some disagreeable personality traits is, I think, hogwash.

If those traits affect the stories badly, then OK, but if the stories are good, then they are good, and details about the author's life are pretty unimportant by comparison. Yes, he was a terrible racist. He was also an ichthyaphobe. For better or worse, both of these things affected his writing. If you enjoy the writing, then good. No need to feel guilty about it, or try to argue that the writer was a better person than he really was. He was a flawed human being, and his writing would probably have been worse if he hadn't had those flaws.

Fred Stanton: I believe L. Sprague de Camp's biography of Lovecraft says something about HPL's racism fading in his last years as he read of events in Germany at the start of the Nazi regime. Seeing his kind of racism enshrined as national policy prompted him to re-evaluate his own attitudes -- though I don't remember if de Camp stated that explicitly, or if it was my impression of what I was reading.

Shane Ivey: I agree with Dave. Don't bother trying to minimize it or apologize for it. I mean, in one of his lesser-known stories the big shocking horrifying reveal at the end was that a sexy woman turned out to be (all in italics, of course) A NEGRESS! Fuck that guy.

On the other hand, man, do I love the stories where he pulled his head out of his racist ass and concentrated on squid-monster metaphors for existential dread.

The real issue is whether a reader finds his work worthy despite the worst parts of his personality. Plenty of writers and artists who have created great works have been appalling assholes. Lovecraft's brand of assholery hits us especially hard because it has been so perniciously destructive and is still so insidiously widespread.

Deanna Toxopeus: I am not a Lovecraft scholar, but I am a historian and I have issue with applying standards of today against historical figures. I do not condone the behavior, but when you think of the greater context in which they group up pretty much EVERYONE was racist, sexist, and homophobic, You would have to be extraordinarily enlightened not to be. And brave. And perhaps crazy, because you would be ostracized too.

As late as the 1960s Canadian white women who married outside their race could be institutionalized by their families as crazy, because sane white women didn't do that. So we can be all smug in our privileged world with actual civil rights and point fingers, but we didn't live in HPL's world. We have only an academic idea of how people were indoctrinated with what we now consider intolerance. We didn't live it, and we have no understanding of how hard it would be to break out of that mindset.

And if someone argues that racists change their minds all the time now: Yes, but they are living in a society where their ideas are seen as out of step. They are in the minority. It is a much easier transition than the other way.

Jason Myers: Incredibly well-said, Deanna. Armchair "historical analysis" and "literary criticism" is sometimes more an act of myth-making than truth-seeking. On one side you have the white-washers, and on the other side the "tsk-tsk"ers. Underlying the "tsk-tsk"ing is the unstated (even subconscious) belief, "Well, if I lived in the pre-war South, of course I wouldn't have held slaves, or even just felt comfortable with the status quo, or been an Uncle Tom. I would have been a conductor on the underground railroad. Choo-choo!"

"If I lived when H.P. Lovecraft did, of course I wouldn't have written racist letters to my friends." To me, that a level of ignorance far exceeding the ignorance of the historical figures we look down on for being so ignorant.

Your first line of defense is, is the discussion about H.P. Lovecraft the man, or H.P. Lovecraft the writer? John F. Kennedy was a class A womanizing cheating lying douchebag. But was he a good president? You run the risk of white-washing if you don't acknowledge realities, which is I think what people do with Kennedy, because they want to think of those as the "Camelot" days. Ironically, if you've actually read the Arthur & Lancelot stories, Camelot is pretty appropriate.

I've read a healthy portion of Sax Rohmer, and Robert E. Howard, and an even healthier portion of H.P. Lovecraft, and I've found way more to be uncomfortable about in Rohmer's and Howard's race references than I have Lovecraft.

I evidently missed the story with the twist She's a negress! ending. What percentage of Lovecraft's literary output deals with race, though? I don't know. Either it's a tiny percentage, or Lovecraft's vast backlog of racist short stories is left out of most of the Lovecraft collections.

You can make the argument that, given Lovecraft's known racism, all his stories about horrid alien menaces are metaphors for Lovecraft's fear of non-whites, which might have some merit, in a college freshman English class way.

But this is why I can't stand politicized literary criticism, because it's about myth-making. If your primary concern when you read something is to figure out how it fits into a Freudian or Marxist or feminist framework, then you're tripping over your own pre-conceptions.

Does the text of Lovecraft's stories contain racism, and is it of the type and/or frequency that would make me hesitate to recommend it to friends, or hand a Lovecraft anthology to teenagers without also including a civics lesson? If so, that's damn important stuff to talk about.

Beyond that, you're just wagging your finger at a dead guy.

Deanna Toxopeus: This argument could be made for any alien invasion story. Alien Nation is the story of any immigrant group in America. Enemy Mine could have been about a Japanese and American on an island circa WWII. Or a Spanish conquistador and Mayan lost in the jungle. Or a French and Brit in a lifeboat in the Atlantic. That's what good sci-fi is: a place to look at issues without the baggage. But HPL may not have known that.

Laura Eldred: I am a fan of Lovecraft, but probably not as well read as some on this list. I pretty regularly teach "The Rats in the Walls" though, which has some definitely racist elements, such as the narrator's cat (named "Niggerman," which was also apparently the name of Lovecraft's childhood cat).

I have some familiarity with Lovecraft's biography, and it seems clear that he did view the white race as superior. I am wary of both the "He was a rabid racist! Everyone (quick!) reject him!" and the "Everyone was racist back then, so what does it matter?" camps.

He had some racist sentiments, as did many in his time, so we need to see him in his historical context, but if we suggest that everyone is solely the product of their context, this seems to imply that no one can rise above it. If that were true, we would still have slavery, anti-miscegenation laws, no vote for women: in short, change would be impossible. So let's consider him as, in some ways, a product of his times, but let's also call a (racist) spade a spade.

Sometimes Lovecraft's art (perhaps despite himself?) rose above his own inclinations. Take "The Rats in the Walls." On the surface, the story is pretty racist. The narrator is horrified and driven mad by the discovery that his ancestors have been raising and eating humans for snacks. He discovers their bones, some showing marks of parallel evolution (apparently evolved as quadrupeds for some time).

There are a couple realizations that seem central to the story's horror: that ancestry seems to equal fate, as Delapore ends up eating people despite no conscious desire to do so, and the realization that the "flabby funguous beasts" in the grotto that were eaten are human, or something akin to it, some kind of devolved, sheeplike humans, but humans nonetheless¦ So, the inescapable nature of one's lineage and the horror of people similar to you but not the same is central to the story.

Most readers of the story emerge with the feeling that to justify cannibalism based on differences in class or any such thing is monstrous. To believe that one human is for some reason (like social class) less valued than another is one step toward cannibalism.

Thus, assuming that the story doesn't support cannibalism, then readers end up feeling that to justify oppressing (or very seriously oppressing by eating) another human because they're different in some vague way is inherently wrong.

Delapore's side comments about his offensively-named cat and about his relative who shamed the family by going "among the negroes" and becoming a "voodoo priest" then seem more resonant. It is hard not to see Delapore's racism as similar to his class prejudices: some people just are not up to his standard. And if readers are encouraged to critique Delapore's feeling that Norrys is below him, we are also encouraged to see Delapore's racism similarly.

I am not saying Lovecraft intended to critique racism in this story, but I am saying that the story itself critiques racism: perhaps despite Lovecraft's intentions.

So, sometimes art can transcend its creator's apparent goals and limitations.

And, sometimes, it doesn't.

Jason Myers: Stressing the importance of context does not necessarily imply the non-existence of human variation, conscience, intellect, outliers, visionaries, individual moral compasses, or the existentialist ideas of human beings being defined by the choices they make.

Our attitudes, values and mores, like Lovecraft's, are to a large degree, a product of our context, and unless we're extremely mindful of that, we take the risk that the judgements we make about the failings of those dead people are intellectual and moral self-gratification. Instead of understanding the texture of our history and literature in all its complexity, we're using them as a scribbling board for our own prejudices and mythologies and unexamined assumptions.

Context is so important. To realize that, as much we might try, for almost all of us, there will be many times when our children or grandchildren or nieces or nephews will look at us with the same flustered mortification I do when my grandfather calls Brazil nuts "nigger toes". That there will be turns of phrase or attitudes we take for granted that our progeny will consider, at best, passe. And that their progeny will do the very same thing to them, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads.

The "tsk-tsk"ing is one of my pet peeves, so I realize it's easy for me to lose perspective on it, but I feel like as a culture (hell, as a species) we have a myopic sense of history, art, and literature because we spend too much time moralizing about it and not enough stepping beyond our limited context to understanding it in its limited context. Without context, we have so little, because 100 years from now, how many people would understand why Laura cleverly and self-consciously chose to use the phrase "call a spade a spade" in the context of this discussion?

Laura Eldred: I don't think Jason and I actually disagree, but let me clarify what I'm saying and not saying. Was Lovecraft's time period generally incredibly racist? Yes.

Does that mean it would have been harder for him to demonstrate racial tolerance? Yes.

Does historical context significantly impact your mores and beliefs? Yes.

If any of us were born in that time, would we be more likely to be racist? Yes.

However: Were there some Americans in the period disturbed by the racism in the culture' Yes.

Were some Americans of varied races acting against that racism? Yes.

So: Did Lovecraft have a choice in his racism? YES.

His choice is not equivalent to ours. As has been pointed out, to be racially tolerant in the period might have been a minority position. It would have been harder for him. BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE. Let's all hope that sometimes it is possible to make the right call even against the pull of historical context and peer pressure, that sometimes people in the middle of the Bible Belt realize gays deserve rights, that people in Iran stand up against honor killings, that people in Nazi Germany occasionally hid Jews from those who would send them to concentration camps.

Lovecraft still made a moral choice, a choice that could have gone the other way, even if his upbringing and culture made that choice more determined than it would have been in a later period.

You can see that choice reflected in some of his writings.

Does that mean we toss him out? We'd also have to toss out Jane Eyre for its pro-Empire stance, all of Kipling (including Jungle Book), and most literature for something offensive. And our 20th and 21st century lit might be tossed out in the future for something else.

Literature isn't just for teaching us how to be PC. It's also for illuminating the human condition, for learning about ourselves and for learning from past mistakes too, for aspiring to be better and do better in the future.

Let's learn what Lovecraft has to teach us. Many of his stories show an unparalleled mastery of the form, and genuine and rare invocation of nameless dreads. It's great stuff. I love it.

But let's not pretend that whenever we say one group is more human or more worthwhile than another that we're not making a moral choice. When we make that choice, it counts. For Lovecraft or for us.

Mark Finn: To clarify one point regarding Lovecraft (and to a lesser extent, Howard). You mention it would have been more difficult, but not impossible, for HPL to make a moral choice. But you're forgetting that there needed to be examples in HPL's life that served as a counterpoint to offset his views. He would have needed to see blacks treated as equals, or at least as humans.

But in his world of upper class Providence, blacks were the help. In New York, they were the poor. To the idle rich, "poor" is just as bad, because it's alien to them. Lovecraft came from money, and he intentionally built these intellectual walls around himself that only reflected back his own thoughts and ideas. Had he lived longer, the events around World War II would have tempered some of his bile-spewing.

But we're talking about a moral choice. Back in the 20s and 30s, it was certainly a moral problem, but it was a conscientious choice. It was the road not taken. You side with the blacks (or the immigrants, the Jews, the Irish, or any other undesirables) and you're pushing against the fabric of society. You find this attitude present in a lot of REH's decisions, but never HPL. He just wasn't wired that way.

That's what their years-long debate was over: barbarism vs. civilization. Things that come out of Conan's mouth regarding civilization are a direct result of that ongoing debate the two men were having.

You really can't fault anyone from that time period for not wanting to be shunned and ostrasized. For HPL to have grown up any different, one or more of his aunts would have needed to say to him in his childhood, "Howard, we don't have servants because we don't want to trade on their dire straits. It's wrong the way they've been treated, and we won't be a party to it."

Lovecraft would have grown up parroting that company line, and he would have openly looked for instances that supported it. Instead, it was the other way around.

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