On “A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson” and “Sweet Ermengarde” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

Please forgive this brief divergence from standard format but our chronology has brought us to the point where Lovecraft decided to try his hand at satirical parody. Most collections tend to gloss over these stories as they aren’t particularly Lovecraftian, but I would argue they both deserve attention, if only for what they suggest about HPL’s creative process and self-perception at the time.

“A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson”

Like all ogres, Lovecraft was a bit of an onion: His outermost layer was that of a somewhat old fashioned New England gentleman whose commitment to old timey values made him a poor fit for a world that was steadily growing less and less decorous. His second layer was that of a terrified and embittered man who resorted to resentful bigotry when his elevated self-perception broke upon the rocky shore of the 1920s New York job market.

Those of us with an interest in Lovecraft as a creator generally try to introduce a third layer to his personality in an effort to redeem him and thus justify spending hours swimming around in the contents of his deranged Aryan skull. One of the more common redemptive layers is to point out that while Lovecraft may have been a failure, a prude, a bigot, and a pompous reactionary of the absolute lowest order, he was at least imbued with enough self-awareness to occasionally recognise his own absurdity. “A Reminiscence” is one of the stories that supposedly speaks to HPL’s penchant for self-mockery in that it involves a man out of time, in this case a two hundred year-old man recalling his experiences as part of the literary scene that surrounded Samuel Johnson in the mid-1700s.

I don’t know about you, but when I read the words “self-parody” I generally imagine something quite gentle and affectionate: Not so much a recognition of the need to change but an acceptance that other people are not only well within their rights to assign you certain characteristics, but also to make fun of you for the possession of said characteristics. For example, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump both have a real gift for self-parody but embracing one’s image as a clownish buffoon is quite different to accepting that clownish buffoons probably shouldn’t get to make important decisions that will affect millions of lives.

I would argue that “A Reminiscence” is not so much an exercise in self-parody as it is an exercise in self-obliteration as HPL’s self-insert spends the entire story getting bodied by Johnson in the most brutal terms imaginable only to respond to Johnson’s venomous contempt with round after round of obsequious toadying:

On my asking him what he thought of my favourable Notice of his Dictionary in The Londoner, my periodical Paper, he said: “Sir, I possess no Recollection of having perus’d your Paper, and have not a great Interest in the Opinions of the less thoughtful Part of Mankind.” Being more than a little piqued at the Incivility of one whose Celebrity made me solicitous of his Approbation, I ventur’d to retaliate in kind, and told him, I was surpris’d that a Man of Sense shou’d judge the Thoughtfulness of one whose Productions he admitted never having read. “Why, Sir,” reply’d Johnson, “I do not require to become familiar with a Man’s Writings in order to estimate the Superficiality of his Attainments, when he plainly shews it by his Eagerness to mention his own Productions in the first Question he puts to me.” Having thus become Friends, we convers’d on many Matters.

This level of brutality goes on for paragraph after paragraph as the character shares a series of anecdotes in which he tries to insult some poet or author only for Johnson to casually wander past and deliver a line that somehow manages to brutalise the target of the original insult and absolutely destroys the teller of the story at the same time. While there’s not much of a story here, it is undoubtedly funny and I think it speaks to the same uncharitable self-loathing that pops up in both “The Alchemist” and “The Tomb”. This is not Lovecraft making fun of his foibles, this is Lovecraft choosing to identify with a pompous anachronistic failure.

“Sweet Ermengarde Or, the Heart of a Country Girl”

As someone who has spent quite a long time reviewing films, I am always amused by which films travel and which do not. For example, despite their claims to complexity and sophistication, art house films tend to travel quite well because their commitment to expressing their own voices and values tends to result in films that carry around their own symbolic universes in so far as they teach audiences how to interpret them as they go along. Comedies, on the other hand, tend not to travel all that well because they tend to rely upon a host of assumptions and values that exist almost entirely outside of the context of the film. To put it in somewhat cruder terms, it’s hard to find humour in a comic stereotype when said stereotype simply does not exist in your home culture.

“Sweet Ermengarde” was written pseudonymously as a parody of a certain kind of romantic melodrama in which evil rich people connive to kidnap beautiful young women requiring the intervention of muscular young heroes who thwart the evil-doer and restore order to a romantic universe in which the conventionally attractive shall cleave solely to the conventionally attractive.

It is telling that while the Wikipedia entry for this story suggests that it might have been intended as a satire on the works of Fred Jackson, Jackson himself has become so thoroughly obscure as to no longer merit a Wikipedia page of his own. They say that the past is another country, nowhere is this more evident than when reading satirical takes on ancient forms of popular culture. Going by the general vibe, I’m guessing that Jackson dealt in the kind of stories where top hatted men twirl their moustaches and tie young women to train tracks but beyond that most of the satirical venom is completely lost on me.

The story works by systematically inverting a series of tropes. For example, the story begins with an evil squire acquiring the mortgage on a farm in order to forcibly marry the farmer’s beautiful daughter. This carries on for a while until the squire realises that he can simply foreclose on the farm, pocket the cash, and marry a glamorous burlesque performer instead. Cast aside and with her family poised to be thrown out on the street, the beautiful farmer’s daughter turns to the local stud only for him to disappear without a trace. Forced to act in order to save herself and her family, the daughter agrees to marry a different wealthy man but decides, on reflection, that she’d rather murder him, pocket his fortune, and exact vengeance upon the squire who started all this trouble in the first place.

I get the impression that scholars perceive “Ermengarde” as superior to “Reminiscence” but I must admit that it did absolutely nothing for me. I guess it’s a well-executed parody of then-contemporary melodrama that shows Lovecraft’s ability to adopt different styles and subject matters but beyond that I struggled.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s