H. P. Lovecraft in 1919

Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence is set in the year 1919, and as of the end of “act 2” (issue #8) has culminated with Robert Black meeting H. P. Lovecraft. Along the way, Black has traveled throughout New England, and Moore and Burrows have paid special attention to the historical details of his journey through “Lovecraft Country”—not just the settings and costumes, but the historical events of the period, many of which Lovecraft referred to in his letters. To gain a better idea of the context for Providence—and possibly to see where Moore and Burrows will take us on the final act—we need a better idea of what H. P. Lovecraft’s life was like in 1919.

H. P. Lovecraft, June 1919
H. P. Lovecraft, June 1919

H. P. Lovecraft lived with his mother, Susan “Susie” Phillips Lovecraft, at 598 Angell Street in Providence, Rhode Island. (IAP 300) A nervous breakdown had prevented Lovecraft from completing high school or going to college, and the death of his father, grandfather, and uncle had devastated the family’s finances, forced as Lovecraft and his mother were to live off of a diminishing inheritance. Lovecraft himself failed to find remunerative employment, aside from occasional revision work, and his efforts to enlist in the military during World War I were stymied by his mother and family physician.

Lovecraft instead found solace in amateur journalism, which at that time was a highly-regimented affair with multiple national organizations with regular conventions, elected officers, official organs, recruitment efforts and dues. In the short time since his introduction to amateur journalism, Lovecraft had become a giant in the field. Although he held no office in the 1919-1920 term, he still was deeply involved in the amateur organizations as a writer and editor in 1919, furnishing essays, poetry, and short stories for the Tryout, Pine Cones, United Amateur, United Co-operative, the Vagrant (which published “Dagon,” written in 1917), Bonnet, and Lovecraft’s own amateur journal the Conservative. From his many contributions, he won the Story (“The White Ship“), Essay (“Americanism”), and Editorial (“The Pseudo-United”) laureateships for the year (IAP 284), though he was growing increasingly tired of the attendant criticism and politics. (LRK 161, 163, 165; SL1.86)

Susie Lovecraft did not care much for her son’s amateur activities, and the tenuous state of the family finances wore on her mentally. On 18 January 1919, an ailing Susie went to stay with her older sister, Lillian Clark (IAP 301, LRK 154, SL 1.78) who was staying at 135 Benefit Street, in the house which would inspire Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House.” (LRK 160n2) Susie’s condition did not improve, and Lovecraft was upset by his mother’s ill-health:

[…] you above all others can imagine the effect of maternal illness & absence. I cannot eat, nor can I stay up long at a time. Pen-writing or typewriting nearly drives me insane. But my nervous system seems to find its vent in feverish & incessant scribbling with a pencil. I have written a great deal, though perhaps the results shew the effects of my condition. […] She writes optimistic letters each day, & I try to make my replies equally optimistic; though I do not find it possible to “cheer up”, eat, & go out, as she encourages me to do. (LRK 154, SL1.78)

It was in this mood in February he wrote the poem “Despair.” (LRK 155-156, SL1.79-80) Lovecraft’s mother suffered a breakdown, being hospitalized in Butler Hospital on 13 March 1919—the same sanitarium where Lovecraft’s father had been hospitalized in 1893, and where he had died in 1898. (IAP 301, LRK 157-158, SL1.80-81) Lovecraft would visit his mother on the hospital grounds, and they would write letters to one another, though he would not visit her in the hospital itself. In honor of her birthday, he wrote her a paean: “Oct. 17, 1919.”

Free of official duties among amateur organizations, Lovecraft in 1919 began to experiment with different approaches to fiction. Early in the year he completed a collaboration with fellow amateur Winifred Virginia Jackson, “The Crawling Chaos” (IAP 1.258-259, 371). On 27 April 1919 the article “How Our State Police Have Spurred Their Way to Fame” was published in the New York Tribune; this story would inspire Lovecraft to write “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (IAP 260-1, LAG 83) which was published in the amateur journal Pine Cones in October of that year, as mentioned in Providence #8. (IAP 260, 263)

The 18th amendment to the Constitution was ratified on 16 January 1919, to go into effect one year later. In the interim, Congress passed the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, which went into affect on 30 June 1919—the results of which were part of the background events to Providence #3. Lovecraft’s friend and correspondent Alfred Galpin, anxious to have a taste of alcohol before Prohibition went into effect, bought and consumed a bottle of whiskey and another of port wine. Lovecraft’s comedic response was the story “Old Bugs,” satirizing Galpin’s decision. (IAP 295) The satirically comedic story “Sweet Ermengarde” might also have been composed around this time.

Also in 1919, Lovecraft was introduced to several new and influential sources of thought. His friend, the Jewish homosexual poet Samuel Loveman introduced him to the work of Ambrose Bierce (IAP 262, SL 2.222), and in September 1919 Lovecraft was gifted with a copy of Lord Dunsany’s A Dreamer’s Tales by the amateur Alice M. Hamlet, and which he read in anticipation of Dunsany’s lecture at Copley Plaza in Boston. (IAP 335-336, SL1.91, 203)

In the interim, Lovecraft commented on the Boston police strike which began on 8 Sep 1919, which Robert Black encountered in Providence #7:

The Boston police mutiny of last year is what prompted that attempt—the magnitude and significance of such an act appalled me. Last fall it was grimly impressive to see Boston without bluecoats, and to watch the musket-beating State Guardsman patrolling the streets as though military occupation were in force. They went in pairs, determined-looking and khaki-clad, as if symbols of the strife that lies ahead in civilisation’s struggle with the monster of unrest and bolshevism. (IAP 341)

The unrest in the old New England metropolis prompted Lovecraft to write “The Street“—a nativist, anti-Communist fable many consider his worst story. Another experiment in slightly more cosmic but no less racist vein was “The Transition of Juan Romero,” whose manuscript is dated 16 Sep 1919. (IAP 264) Lovecraft was at this point firmly anti-immigrant and a believer in racial inequality and white supremacy, writing to Rheinhart Kleiner:

We cannot judge a man sociologically by his own individual qualities; we have the future to think of. Two persons of different races, though equal mentally & physically, may have a vitally different sociological value, because one will certainly produce an incalculably better type of descendants than the other. We must see that the best retain social & political supremacy, in order that our best traditions may be preserved. Therefore, to me, racial prejudice is not irrational or unexplainable; nor in any way unjustifiable. It has awkward phases, but its benefits immeasurably outweigh its disadvantages. (LRK 155)

Lovecraft was also a staunch conservative in politics at this period in his life, quite critical of the League of Nations, and postulating on future conflicts arising from the disposition of territories after World War I. (LAG 55-57)

Lovecraft attended Lord Dunsany’s lecture in Boston on 19 October 1919, with Alice M. Hamlet, her aunt, and “young Lee”:

Arriving early at the Copley-Plaza, we obtained front seats; so that during the address I sat directly opposite the speaker, not ten feet from him. Dunsany entered late, accompanied and introduced by Prof. George Baker of Harvard. He is of Galpinian build—6 ft. 2 in. in height, and very slender. His face is fair and pleasing, though marred by a slight moustache. In manner he is boyish and a trifle awkward; and his smile is winning and infectious. his hair is light brain. His voice is mellow and cultivated, and very clearly British. he pronounces were as wair, etc. Dunsany first touched upon his ideals and methods; then hitched a chair up to his reading table, seated himself, crossed his long legs, and commenced reading his short play, The Queen’s Enemies. […] Later Dunsany read selections from other works of his, including a mastery burlesque on his own style—Why the Milkman Shudders when he Sees the Dawn. As he read this, he could not repress his own smiles and incipient chuckles! The audience was large, select, and appreciative; and after the lecture Dunsany was encircled by autograph-seekers. Egged on by her aunt, Miss Hamlet almost mustered up courage enough to ask for an autograph, but weakened at the last moment. […] For my own part, I did not seek a signature; for I detest fawning upon the great. Ti sine if those with whom he shook hands, Dunsany remarked that he had a severe headache. I could sympathise; for although I had stood the day of unusual exertion remarkably well, my poor cranium was pounding and reeling most lamentably—the pain having begun about half way through the lecture. Still, I was able to keep up and navigate my course through the maze of now disarranged chairs in the vast ballroom where the address was delivered. We saw Dunsany enter his cab and drive off; then repaired to the nearest white post for my South Stationward car. (LRK 171-172, SL1.91-92)

This was the event chronicled in the latter part of Providence #8.

Lovecraft was so moved by his exposure to Dunsany that he wrote a poem about him, “To Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany” which was published in the Tryout of November 1919. The last months of 1919 saw Lovecraft write more, influenced by his new idol to try out a more “Dunsanian” style. The first product of this was “The White Ship” written Oct 1919, and published in the United Amateur Nov 1919 (IAP 338, 340), the second was “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” which was written 3 Dec 1919 (IAP 341), the same day Lovecraft obtained a copy of Dunsany’s Unhappy Far-Off Things; earlier in the year he had also read Dunsany’s Plays of Gods and Men and Dunsany the Dramatist. (LRK 169, 173-174)

In early December, Lovecraft had the dream that became “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (IAP 355); a version of it was recounted in a letter dated 11 Dec 1919, with the comment:

In due time, I intend to weave this picture into a story, as I wove another dream-picture into The Doom that Came to Sarnath I wonder, though, if I have a right to claim authorship of things I dream? I hate to take credit, when I did not really think out the picture with my own conscious wits. (LAG 66, SL1.97)

“The Statement of Randolph Carter” introduced Lovecraft’s character Randolph Carter—who stood in for Lovecraft himself in the dream that the story was derived from; in Providence, Carter would be replaced by Randall Carver, whom Robert Black meets for the first time at the end of Providence #7, and with whom he spends the length of Providence #8.

At the beginning of 1920, Lovecraft began to keep a commonplace book, whose 222 entries contain connections to much of his fictional output; some were later dated to late 1919, but this date is doubtful. (IAP 359, 378) Much of what we know of Lovecraft for this year comes from his amateur publications and his few surviving letters—only a handful have survived from this period—but it was a quietly formative year in his life. The discovery of Lord Dunsany gave shape to his experiments in fiction, and he began to find his own voice and preferred style, while the hospitalization of his mother gave him an unexpected freedom, living alone for the first time. The next few years would see the death of his mother, his entrance into professional publication at Weird Tales, his move to New York City and brief marriage, and the formation of the Mythos that would be his literary legacy.

Works Cited

IAP        I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 vols.), Hippocampus Press.
LAG      Letters to Alfred Galpin, Hippocampus Press.
LRK      Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner, Hippocampus Press.
SL          Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (5. vols), Arkham House.