Today is H.P. Lovecraft’s birthday and thanks to the new series Lovecraft Country it seems he is all over the place. And, at least for the past five years, I haven’t been able to read an article about him that didn’t specifically mention his inherent racism or attack him for being so racist.
So here’s my thing – I’m not going to defend racism. Racism is inherently indefensible. Was he racist? Most definitely. Is racism bad? Absolutely. Can anyone ever defend racism? Of course not. Do black lives matter? Certainly. But writing Lovecraft off as racist without even detailing any of the nuance or framing that argument around conditionals cheapens your argument.
Some real quick backstory here – Lovecraft is immensely, undeniably influential and important to me. Before my local library let me down while searching for one of his books, I owned exactly zero books of my own. Now my collection is above 600. All thanks to me buying a three-book set of Lovecraft from Arkham House.
Here is the crux of my argument – there are plenty of people that are racist….until they’re not. I’ve come to realize lately that American public education woefully under-prepares us to really and truly understand history, but are you familiar with Henry David Thoreau? He’s only my literary crush. I’m sure you may have had to read Walden in high school and hated it. That’s okay. Did you know he is also a very important Civil Rights leader? He organized marches to end slavery. In fact, he was largely influential to MLK so we can probably deduce that Thoreau wasn’t, in fact, racist. But, my friend, that is where the ellipsis comes into play.
You see, if you’re not aware, there was a Great Irish Famine that took place in the mid-nineteenth century. As a result, countless Irish left to go elsewhere with many of them ending up here in the United States. Feel free to draw parallels here with what is currently going on with immigration and you’ll get an idea of what the world was like back then. Essentially, the Irish were told to “go home” and everyone was worried they were coming for our jobs and there was significant public resentment of them. Included in the rank-and-file of this wave toward getting the Irish to leave was Thoreau. Although he was a bit weird and his ideas and opinions weren’t always popular, homeboy was undeniably brilliant. He went to (and graduated from, in case you were worried he was a dropout) Harvard and even invented a new type of pencil. But he was mired in the same societal rhetoric and was vocal in wanting to send the Irish back to Ireland, regardless of what was (or, more precisely, what wasn’t) waiting for them back home.
So I’ve painted a picture now to show you he was racist. Outspoken about how America was for Americans and others should go home. Check and check. But then a curious thing happened. One day, he was off doing his weird stuff and he came across a man along a path and, since Thoreau was incredibly social (don’t believe his semi-fictional tale of isolationism) he struck up a conversation with this dude. It turns out this man was Irish and, during the course of this one conversation, Thoreau was given a chance to humanize “the enemy” and understand a different perspective. He walked away from that conversation a changed man and fought on the correct side of the racial argument for the remainder of his life and became a champion for racial equity and the abolishment of slavery. Pretty incredible, right?
Which brings me back to Lovecraft. There is so, so much to unpack there and I don’t want this to be a novel. But something you need to understand is, like Thoreau, Lovecraft was a product of his environment. But, more than that, he was not a fan of humanity in general. Sure, it’s easy to point out the fact that he had a black cat named “Nigger Man” and draw the conclusion that he was racist (which, again, he unarguably was) but then you look at the context that in the 30’s that was the fashion for white folk in New England to get a black cat and use that name. If you’ve ever read The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath you’ll realize that Lovecraft was never really well-adjusted. He never really felt quite right in the real world and retreated to his fantasy world where he felt like he truly belonged – the land of dreams. Again, negative and horrible racial stereotypes there, but a product of his environment and time.
My point in all this is that I don’t think Lovecraft ever truly had his perceptions or his ideas challenged in a way to make him think any differently. When I was in high school, for example, I knew plenty of people that would demonize people of color. In that context, it was easy to do as my high school was essentially all white. If you have racist parents or teachers or community leaders (of which we most certainly did) and you never get that opportunity to interact with anyone outside of your social comfort zone, why would you think any differently than the way a particular group of people is depicted in the media or in everyday conversations? Why question that any more than you question what you read in history books? If Lovecraft lived to be 80 and he marched in support of the Nazis killing “undesirables” and he continued publishing rhetoric that promoted negative stereotyping for the remainder of his life and never recanted then sure, he is beyond redemption. But he only lived to 46 and, other than a brief stint in New York (which he absolutely loathed and got sick as a result) he stayed in his insular community and never really had the chance to step outside of his racist social bubble and truly grow. I strongly believe that, instead of the racists that throw back the phrase “all lives matter” in response to BLM, Lovecraft would proclaim and scream “no lives matter!” because that’s what he essentially believed in a cosmic sense.
He was racist through and through, and that’s definitely not okay, and we need to remember that, but we also need to apply context. Not everybody in the 1930s was given an opportunity to experience the world outside of their own.