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Fellows Find: H. P. Lovecraft letter sheds light on pivotal moment in his career

By James Machin

James Machin is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, working on a thesis on early weird fiction, circa 1880 to 1914. He is also the editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. His research at the Ransom Center was funded by a dissertation fellowship supported by the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.

 

One of the joys of archival research in the Ransom Center is wandering off-track to follow hunches or simply indulge one’s curiosity. The subject of my thesis is early weird fiction, and while the bulk of my time at the Center was spent investigating material from the 1890s relating to Arthur Machen, M. P. Shiel, and John Buchan, I couldn’t resist looking up H. P. Lovecraft in the old card catalogue. I found a single item listed on one index card: a letter from Lovecraft to J. C. Henneberger. The name was a familiar one: Henneberger was the publisher who established Weird Tales magazine in the 1920s, the pulp title that is remembered today for publishing several of H. P. Lovecraft’s most influential stories.

 

The letter was several pages of closely packed typescript sent from 598 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island—the house the family had moved to in 1904 after the death of Lovecraft’s grandfather—and dated February 2, 1924. The year was to be a significant one for Lovecraft: he was about to uproot himself from his home of 20 years to join his soon-to-be wife Sonia Haft Greene in Brooklyn. Lovecraft struggled to find work, the marriage failed, and some have identified this episode as being the point from which many of his subsequent troubles and frustrations ensued. A common lament is that it all could have been so different: soon after the letter was written, Henneberger offered Lovecraft the editorship of the Chicago-based Weird Tales. If Lovecraft had properly seized this opportunity with both hands, the story goes, he would have established himself as the man of letters he was born to be, and avoided languishing in obscurity and poverty for the rest of his life.

 

Lovecraft scholar and biographer S. T. Joshi has identified some reasons why Lovecraft made the decision that he did: Greene was already established in New York, Lovecraft knew that Weird Tales was already financially hamstrung by a debt of tens of thousands of dollars, and—perhaps most importantly—Lovecraft didn’t think there were enough writers producing weird fiction of a sufficiently high quality to populate the pages of the magazine. There is plenty in the letter of February 2 to further evidence Joshi’s account. It also reveals that Lovecraft’s concerns go considerably beyond his lack of confidence in the availability of suitable material, and beyond even his lack of faith in the tastes of the wider reading public. They even go beyond his negative opinion of the “whole atmosphere and temperament of the American fiction business.” For Lovecraft, the problem was contemporary culture itself:

We have millions who lack the intellectual independence, courage, and flexibility to get an artistic thrill out of a bizarre situation, and who enter sympathetically into a story only when it ignores the colour and vividness of actual human emotions and conventionally presents a simple plot based on artificial, ethically sugar-coated values and leading to a flat denouement which shall vindicate every current platitude and leave no mystery unexplained by the shallow comprehension of the most mediocre reader. That is the kind of public publishers confront, and only a fool or a rejection-venomed author could blame the publishers for a condition caused not by them but by the whole essence and historic tradition of our civilisation.

 

Lovecraft’s frustration with the bland timidity of the mainstream could hardly be expressed in more forthright, if perhaps histrionic, terms.

 

Elsewhere in the letter (which is over 5,000 words long—Lovecraft was one of the most prolific and prolix correspondents of his age), Lovecraft expands on his projected novels Azathoth and The House of the Worm, neither of which were ever to materialize. He ruminates at length about what makes good weird fiction, and is generous and enthusiastic in his recommendations of authors he considers would be an asset to Weird Tales. He also outlines what he regards as the only feasible plan by which Weird Tales could perhaps successfully operate: the engagement of a small pool of appropriately gifted ghost-writers that would enable an editor to accept submissions not of publishable quality but demonstrating the required spark of originality. It’s difficult not to speculate that had Lovecraft accepted the editorship, this pool of writers would have inevitably included members of that ‘Lovecraft Circle’ who are now considered some of the definitive genre writers of the period: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and Robert Bloch. Alas, it was never to be.

 

Or rather, perhaps not “alas”: Despite its shaky financial beginnings and ongoing precariousness, Weird Tales has survived on and off to this day. Who’s to say that Lovecraft’s determinedly purist and non-commercial editorial policy wouldn’t have sunk the title in double-quick time? Maybe his desk-duties would have hampered his creative productivity even further than his belief that a “real artist never works fast, and never turns out large quantities”:

He can’t contract to deliver so many words in such and such a time, but must work slowly, gradually, and by mood; utilising favourable states of mind and refraining from putting down the stuff his brain turns out when it is tired or disinclined to such work.

 

Counterfactual speculation is both difficult not to indulge in and largely unrewarding. Perhaps those of us who celebrate early twentieth-century pulp writing and its influence on ensuing popular culture should simply be grateful to Henneberger for starting Weird Tales in the first place, for championing Lovecraft’s work (Henneberger lobbied editor Edwin Baird to accept Lovercaft’s submissions), and for providing a platform for weird fiction despite commercial and critical indifference. If it wasn’t for Henneberger’s enthusiasm and efforts, perhaps many of Lovecraft’s stories would never have seen the light of day and long since rotted away in some forgotten drawer.

 

The question of the provenance of the letter still baffled me after my return to the UK. It was a single item in a folder of theatrical ephemera and seemed strikingly anomalous in that context. Rick Watson at the Center kindly investigated further and told me that the letter was likely part of the Albert Davis or Messmore Kendall collections, originally acquired by the University of Texas in 1956–1958, both consisting of performing arts materials. When I learned that the collection of Messmore Kendall (1872–195), a lawyer and theatre entrepreneur, included material collected by Harry Houdini, the mystery seemed to solve itself. At the time Lovecraft wrote the letter, Henneberger had engaged him to ghost-write a story for Houdini called “Imprisoned With the Pharoahs,” published later that year in Weird Tales. It seems a reasonable supposition that Henneberger passed the letter on to Houdini soon after receiving it to evidence Lovecraft’s suitability for the endeavour and the unrivalled perspicacity of his views on weird fiction. Thanks to the Ransom Center, we’re still able to enjoy that insight nearly a century later.

 

With grateful thanks to Bridget Gayle Ground, Rick Watson, and all the Ransom Center staff for their hospitality, time, and expertise.

 

Related content

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Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre: The Best of H.P. Lovecraft

 

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Comments

[…] This letter is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Lovecraft providing brief synopses of his novels, “Azathoth” and “The House of the Worm”, which were apparently never written or lost. I encourage everyone to go over to the site that explains the find and provides scans of the typewritten letter. It’s at: http://blog.hrc.utexas.edu/2015/01/27/fellows-find-h-p-lovecraft-letter/ […]

[…] James Machin (2015), “Fellows Find: H.P. Lovecraft letter sheds light on pivotal moment in his career”, Cultural Compass, the scholarly blog of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, 28th January […]

Friday Link Pack 03/20/15 | I make stories.
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[…] H. P. Lovecraft Letter Sheds Light On Pivotal Moment In His Career James Machin recently discovered this letter from Lovecraft to J. C. Henneberger. The letter, nearly 5000 words long, unveils some of Lovecraft’s thoughts before he moved to Brooklyn, and before he turned down the editorship of Weird Tales. Fascinating stuff. […]

[…] on How to Make a Living as an Author Rod Dreher: First You Change the Language… James Machin: H. P. Lovecraft’s pivotal moment Jami Gold: Write what you want to learn about Stephen Masty: Awareness of the Past Heightens […]

Mike
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“Lovecraft was one of the most prolific and prolix correspondents of his age.”

So true. I continue to be astounded at the correspondence between Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Not only is it voluminous, it’s sharp and refined. The age of Twitter looks pretty insipid by comparison.

Derek C. F. Pegritz
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For some time now, I’ve been working on an annotated version of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”–mainly exploring the various allusions to and archetypal elements drawn from Frazer’s The Golden Bough (one of Grandpa Theobald’s favourites)–but now that I’ve read his description of Azathoth…I think he *did* write it. It’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

If one considers all his other Dunsanian fantasies and prose poems–especially “Nyarlathotep” and, of course, “Azathoth”–as being “episodes” from Azathoth, with “Dream-Quest” being the final and longest story, then…that’s prettymuch Azathoth!

Thanks for bringing this to light! Now I have reason to finish my annotations and get this goddamned thing to print at last.

Leigh Blackmore
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A very exciting find which will add much to our understanding of Lovecraft!

Harold Billings
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Just to think that I worked within thirty or forty feet from this material for a number of years and have just now stumbled on this fascinating find by Machin — an excellent example of the Ransom Center making its holdings available to so many scholars of all sorts.

[…] which many of HPL’s stories were first published. A scan of the complete letter is available here. Each page may be displayed and enlarged for easier reading, and it’s definitely worth […]

cf
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I wonder, has anyone familiar with all of Lovecraft’s surviving letters (I’ve heard figures from 30,000 to 100,000 for how many there are) ever made an estimate of how much of his income he was spending on correspondence? The paper, typewriter ribbon or pens, envelopes and postage. I know he lived frugally in his last years, and had heard that lack of money may have played a role in his death.

[…] This newly discovered Lovecraft letter is quite the find. Even better, you don’t have to travel to some New England area university library to get a look at it. (I’ve noticed that people with a grossly batrachian aspect tend to trail me when I’m in that neck of the woods anyway.) That’s right, the whole thing has been scanned and posted online. […]

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