On “The Street” 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.

If you live… on racism street… here are the simple-minded reactionary caricatures that you might meet…

“The Street” (full text) was written in late 1919 and was first published in the December 1920 issue of the Wolverine amateur magazine. S.T. Joshi considers it the weakest story that Lovecraft ever put to paper and while I haven’t yet read enough of Lovecraft’s more obscure works, it is by some considerable margin the weakest short story written by this point in his career. Even compared to such juvenilia as “The Alchemist” or “The Tomb”, “The Street” comes across as dull, mawkish and simple-minded even without mentioning the childish politics and the overt racism.

The first problem with “The Street” is that – much like “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family” – the story’s emotional payload is dated and parochial to the point of seeming risible to modern eyes. In the case of Jermyn, that payload came from Lovecraft’s personal racism and fear of inherited disease. If you’re neither a racist nor fearful that you’re going to suddenly go mad like your parents, then the story falls completely flat.

In the case of “The Street”, the payload comes from Lovecraft’s sentimental attachment to the history of New England and his fear that this history was about to be overwhelmed by a combination of immigration and Bolshevism. If you don’t happen to give a shit about New England not looking the way it did in the 1700s, or if you’re unconcerned by the changes that are likely to be caused by immigration and a widespread adoption of left-wing politics, then this story also falls completely flat. But let me backtrack a bit and tell you what the story is about.

“The Street” is an extended parable about American history. The Street in question is a means of visualising the first American colonies. Lovecraft approves of these colonies and believes that they had a spirit and a moral character that was truly admirable. According to Lovecraft, this spirit allowed the Street to grow but the purity of this spirit meant that The Street did not change even in the face of social upheaval:

“Once most of the young men went away, and some never came back. That was when they furled the Old Flag and put up a new Banner of Stripes and Stars. But though men talked of great changes, The Street felt them not; for its folk were still the same, speaking of the old familiar things in the old familiar accents. And the trees still sheltered singing birds, and at evening the moon and stars looked down upon dewy blossoms in the walled rose-gardens.”

Unfortunately, the success of the Street and its prodigious growth meant that it eventually began to take in people who were different to the original settlers; people with course accents and unappealing faces. The more the Street grew, the more it struggled to retain its original character and so the old houses started to fall into disrepair and the beautiful forests were chopped down to put up new cheap homes for all the immigrants. This continued growth brought in immigrants who were even more alien and whose alien ways caused greater social upheaval which, in turn, resulted in even greater changes.

This is what I was talking about when I referred to the story as having “childish politics” as Lovecraft seems to have been working under the impression that New England would have remained frozen in the 1700s were it not for immigration. In other words, Lovecraft seemed to believe that growth, modernity, and industrialisation were all imposed upon America from below by the poor and the marginalised rather than from above at the behest of capital.

This is a version of history where the poor and the dispossessed impose their squalor on wealthy people like people performing kink in public and forcing innocent bystanders into the role of voyeur. If only European immigrants had been content to live in small-holdings rather than demanding to live in flea-infested tenement buildings!  If only Black people had been content to work as blacksmiths and dress like puritans rather than coming over on boats, locking themselves in chains, and insisting upon harvesting cotton in the hot Southern sun! What selfish people! Why couldn’t they have left those poor White settlers alone!

As bad as Lovecraft’s grasp of history may seem up to this point, it actually manages to get worse as he then starts to run together economic migrants, socialist academics, and anarchist terrorists:

“Swarthy and sinister were most of the strangers, yet among them one might find a few faces like those who fashioned The Street and moulded its spirit. Like and yet unlike, for there was in the eyes of all a weird, unhealthy glitter as of greed, ambition, vindictiveness, or misguided zeal. Unrest and treason were abroad amongst an evil few who plotted to strike the Western Land its death-blow, that they might mount to power over its ruins; even as assassins had mounted in that unhappy, frozen land from whence most of them had come.”

The death-blow in question is a reference to the Russian revolution, which Lovecraft evidently believed was about to be replicated in America. Apparently, this fear was genuine and was inspired by the Boston police force going on strike in September 1919 as well as a series of letter-bombing campaigns waged by anarchists on both sides of the Atlantic around that time.

One of the interesting things about “The Street” is the way that it telescopes history to create the illusion of cause and effect. So we have a historical narrative in which nice white people come over from England and found a utopia. Then a load of non-English people come over and things start to get worse. Then a load of non-white people come over and there’s a revolution that results in the death of everyone. So we have a historical narrative in which four things happen: One good, two not so good, and one absolutely terrible. If this narrative is true then it makes absolute sense to claim that the second and third events are to blame for the fourth. But this impression of cause and effect is nothing but an illusion created by cherry-picking which events you decide to mention. If you choose to omit every social force other than immigration then obviously it’s going to make it look as though immigration causes everything.

 “The rumour now spread widely that these houses contained the leaders of a vast band of terrorists, who on a designated day were to launch an orgy of slaughter for the extermination of America and of all the fine old traditions which The Street had loved. Handbills and papers fluttered about filthy gutters; handbills and papers printed in many tongues and in many characters, yet all bearing messages of crime and rebellion. In these writings the people were urged to tear down the laws and virtues that our fathers had exalted; to stamp out the soul of the old America—the soul that was bequeathed through a thousand and a half years of Anglo-Saxon freedom, justice, and moderation.”

This is nothing more than a self-indulgent fantasy of racial persecution. It is simple-minded reactionary tosh and it wouldn’t surprise me if Lovecraft wrote the entire thing with his trousers around his ankles but rather than going on a rant, I am going to be blunt: This story poses a problem for me in that it doesn’t fit into the psychological framework I have built around Lovecraft in order to contextualise his racism.

The thing about Lovecraft is that while the racism never completely goes away, the fact that he chose to work within a particular non-realist genre means that his racism is either limited to parenthetical remarks or cloaked behind metaphorical genre conceits. Had he been a crime novelist, his work would have been just one long screed but the fact that he wrote horror and/or Weird fiction means that there’s a buffer between the readers and what it is that Lovecraft actually thought. The fact that a lot of the Lovecraft’s racism takes place in the margins of his stories is what allowed generations of Lovecraft fans to explain the racism away by saying that Lovecraft was a man of his times and that those times were deeply racist.

The problem with that framework is that it simply isn’t true… Sure, Lovecraft was a racist living in racist times but while most Americans of that period were racist, they were not quite as obsessively racist as Lovecraft. For example, they did not fantasise about standing on a wall and helping to defend Aryan civilisation against Eskimo hordes, they did not fill their pants in terror at the thought of being remotely descended from a gorilla, and they certainly didn’t write stories about how Irish people moving to America in the 19th Century was going to result in universal genocide. Lovecraft was not just a racist by the standards of early 20th Century America; he was a mad obsessively racist bastard by the standards of a society that was still struggling to come to grips with the idea that Black people were not a kind of farm animal.

As a broadly progressive person writing about Lovecraft in the 21st Century, I cannot contextualise the racism by referring to the racism of 1920s America and so I contextualise it by pointing out that while Lovecraft’s childhood lead him to believe that he was some sort of aristocrat, every single thing that happened to him after that pointed to the fact that he was a barely-functioning basket-case who would always find it a struggle to keep himself out of either the gutter or the mad-house. I contextualise Lovecraft’s racism by viewing it as a kind of psychological defence mechanism: When faced with a choice between surrendering the aristocratic self-perception of childhood in favour of the manifest truths of adulthood, Lovecraft retreated into a set of delusions that make contemporary White supremacists look like intersectional post-colonial queer theorists. I contextualise the racism by viewing it as a cry for help, a groan of cognitive dissonance designed to protect Lovecraft from complete ego death. I can cope with swivel-eyed paranoia as it feels like a cry for help. What I cannot cope with is the kind of simple-minded nostalgic sentimentality that flows through stories like “The Street”. This story isn’t just ugly… it’s fucking stupid and it’s very difficult to square that kind of idiocy with my vision of Lovecraft as a man desperately hanging on to the last few remnants of his tattered self-esteem. It’s very difficult to square that kind of idiocy with the idea of Lovecraft being a man who produced stories that anyone might want to read. In fact, were I not already familiar with Lovecraft’s later work, I would probably be ending this series right here and now. This is just… shit.

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