More on Henry James & H. P. Lovecraft
James J. O'Meara
The Princess & the Maggot
Although apparently written back in 2008, long before I began writing about James and Lovecraft, I only recently stumbled across this quote from pioneer Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi, which might be said to encapsulate my concern in this series of articles:
The history of Lovecraft’s reputation—his initial rejection by Edmund Wilson and others as a pulp hack; the championing of his work by Derleth, Fritz Leiber, and George T. Wetzel; the revolution in scholarship as a result of the work of such critics as Dirk W. Mosig and Donald R. Burleson; and his final acceptance as a canonical author with the publication of his work in Penguins Classics and the Library of America—would make for an interesting chapter in the evolution of literary taste. Lovecraft remains unique in being simultaneously a figure commanding respect among highbrow critics and a significant figure in popular culture, the source of films, role-playing games, and other media adoptions.
Having just read Maxwell Geismar’s admittedly idiosyncratic Henry James and the Jacobites, a futile and almost obsessive attempt from the early ’60s to “cry stinking fish” and deflate the effete James “fad” in the name of an alternative American tradition of manly Marxists like Twain, Wolfe, and London, it struck me that, allowing for Joshi’s justifiable boosterism, there was at least one other author, an America author, an author of (for at least part of) the same 20th century, that could tell the same story: Henry James.
While James certainly never thought of himself as a pulp or other genre writer, his reputation had many more ups and downs over his lifetime than his secure place in the literary Pantheon today would lead you to expect (for example, publishers thought a Collected Edition was called for, but it was a legendary dud). And after his death, he was as forgotten as Lovecraft always was, dismissed as both a hack (his melodramatic plots) and as possessing an unreadable verbose and precious style.
Then, a new generation of critics, led by the partisans of the so-called “New Criticism” discovered James for their own purposes, elevated him into “The Master,” and even cobbled together an aesthetic for the novel from his self-serving Prefaces he added to that collected edition. James was part of the Penguin Modern Classics from the beginning, along with the Library of America. One might even compare the mammoth editing and biographical work of Leon Edel to Joshi himself.
As for popular media, James has long become a staple of the Merchant-Ivory film or Masterpiece Theatre TV genres, and my copy of “The Turn of the Screw” has an appendix listing three pages of various adaptations, including operas—although I must grant Joshi that no role-playing games have appeared.
With this parallel in mind, I’d like to explore some additional similarities of their lives and careers as reflected in their writings—admittedly, in a rather chiastic fashion—by taking a look at an early Lovecraft tale, and an early James novel, as James reflects on it years later.
My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze, and annihilate me.—“He,” 1925
Although permanently associated with New England (his gravestone reads “I am Providence”) Lovecraft’s life, and work, took a weird turn in 30s, when for reasons still unclear he married one Sonia Greene, a Russian Jewish immigrant, and moved to Brooklyn, New York. She promptly lost her job and left for the Midwest to find work, leaving Lovecraft to shift for himself, unemployed and unemployable, until his return to Providence in 1926.
Surrounded by alien beings—”I’ll be shot if three out of every four persons—nay, full nine out of every ten—weren’t flabby, pungent, grinning, chattering niggers! Help!”—Lovecraft consoled himself with visits to a handful of simpatico friends, such as Samuel Loveman, and long, sometimes all-night walks among such districts as preserved enough Federal architecture to spur his historical interests. “He” was the result of one such walk, that started in Brooklyn and ended, next morning, in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
During his increasingly desperate stay, he composed a whole series of stories reflecting his traumatic life in New York—recently collected, with photos of the actual locales, as From the Pest Zone. These stories, such as “The Horror at Red Hook” and the one we are looking at, “He,” were something new for Lovecraft; more, shall we say, “Lovecraftian.” As Michel Houellebeq says in his invaluable monograph H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life:
New York had marked him definitively. His hatred for the “stinking, amorphous hybridity” of this modern Babel, for the “giant strangers, ill-born and deformed, who gabble and shout vulgarly, destitute of dreams, within its confines” did not cease, during the course of 1925, to exasperate him to the point of delirium. Once might even say that one of the fundamental figures of his work—the idea of a titanic and grandiose city, in the fundaments of which swarm repugnant creatures of nightmare—was inspired directly by his experience of New York.
New York helped him. He, who was so polite, so courteous, had discovered hate. Returning to Providence he composed magnificent stories, vibrant like incantations, precise as dissections.
Indeed, it was soon after his return to Providence that he produced . . . “The Call of Cthulhu.”
Here we reach the first of our chiastic parallels: Lovecraft left New England for New York; James left New York for (Old) England.
Of course, there are more than few important differences. James, for one, was already an established author, although in the early period we’ll be looking at he had had a string of “bombs” and would eventually face utter defeat and even public humiliation (booed from the stage on opening night) when he attempted a new career in drama.
James was fleeing what he judged to be a colonial culture too “thin” to really produce art (see his infamous essay on Hawthorne, where he lists all the things America lacks). Lovecraft would have demurred, but as a dogmatic “materialist,” he by no means agreed with his Puritan ancestors’ theology; he merely respected them for sternly believing in something. In any event, the “New” England Lovecraft loved was definitely rooted in the 17th century England he took as his literary and intellectual model. As we shall see, when James returned to New York many years later, he found it as loathsome as Lovecraft did.
Moreover, Geismar emphasizes that James’ idea of “England” was largely imaginary, as literature-inspired as the hermetic Lovecraft’s ideas of everywhere outside Providence, and so he was just as likely to find the reality, at least at first, to be alien. And he had the artistic skill to be able to imagine what London, or any great metropolis, would be like to someone who lacked the “entrée” James had through his money, fame, and family connections—everything Lovecraft lacked.
In short, Lovecraft idolized the “England” of New England, while James left New York, and America, precisely to immerse himself in a similarly unreal Albion of the mind.
While Joshi has covered more than adequately the background of nearly hysterical street wandering out of which “He” emerged, we have in the case of James his own account, in the “Preface” included in the doomed New York Edition, of the circumstances in which The Princess Casamassima came to be.
The simplest account of the origin of The Princess Casamassima is, I think, that this fiction proceeded quite directly, during the first year of a long residence in London, from the habit and the interest of walking the streets. I walked a great deal—for exercise, for amusement, for acquisition, and above all I always walked home at the evening’s end, when the evening had been spent elsewhere, as happened more often than not; and as to do this was to receive many impressions, so the impressions worked and sought an issue, so the book after a time was born. It is a fact that, as I look back, the attentive exploration of London, the assault directly made by the great city upon an imagination quick to react, fully explains a large part of it. There is a minor element that refers itself to another source, of which I shall presently speak; but the prime idea was unmistakeably the ripe round fruit of perambulation. One walked of course with one’s eyes greatly open, and I hasten to declare that such a practice, carried on for a long time and over a considerable space, positively provokes, all round, a mystic solicitation, the urgent appeal, on the part of everything, to be interpreted and, so far as may be, reproduced. “Subjects” and situations, character and history, the tragedy and comedy of life, are things of which the common air, in such conditions, seems pungently to taste; and to a mind curious, before the human scene, of meanings and revelations the great grey Babylon easily becomes, on its face, a garden bristling with an immense illustrative flora. Possible stories, presentable figures, rise from the thick jungle as the observer moves, fluttering up like startled game, and before he knows it indeed he has fairly to guard himself against the brush of importunate wings. He goes on as with his head in a cloud of humming presences—especially during the younger, the initiatory time, the fresh, the sharply-apprehensive months or years, more or less numerous. We use our material up, we use up even the thick tribute of the London streets—if perception and attention but sufficiently light our steps. But I think of them as lasting, for myself, quite sufficiently long; I think of them as even still—dreadfully changed for the worse in respect to any romantic idea as I find them—breaking out on occasion into eloquence, throwing out deep notes from their vast vague murmur.
There was a moment at any rate when they offered me no image more vivid than that of some individual sensitive nature or fine mind, some small obscure intelligent creature whose education should have been almost wholly derived from them, capable of profiting by all the civilisation, all the accumulations to which they testify, yet condemned to see these things only from outside—in mere quickened consideration, mere wistfulness and envy and despair. It seemed to me I had only to imagine such a spirit intent enough and troubled enough, and to place it in presence of the comings and goings, the great gregarious company, of the more fortunate than himself—all on the scale on which London could show them—to get possession of an interesting theme. I arrived so at the history of little Hyacinth Robinson—he sprang up for me out of the London pavement. To find his possible adventure interesting I had only to conceive his watching the same public show, the same innumerable appearances, I had watched myself, and of his watching very much as I had watched; save indeed for one little difference. This difference would be that so far as all the swarming facts should speak of freedom and ease, knowledge and power, money, opportunity and satiety, he should be able to revolve round them but at the most respectful of distances and with every door of approach shut in his face. For one’s self, all conveniently, there had been doors that opened—opened into light and warmth and cheer, into good and charming relations; and if the place as a whole lay heavy on one’s consciousness there was yet always for relief this implication of one’s own lucky share of the freedom and ease, lucky acquaintance with the number of lurking springs at light pressure of which particular vistas would begin to recede, great lighted, furnished, peopled galleries, sending forth gusts of agreeable sound. . . .
Truly, of course, there are London mysteries (dense categories of dark arcana) for every spectator, and it ‘s in a degree an exclusion and a state of weakness to be without experience of the meaner conditions, the lower manners and types, the general sordid struggle, the weight of the burden of labour, the ignorance, the misery and the vice. With such matters as those my tormented young man would have had contact—they would have formed, fundamentally, from the first, his natural and immediate London. But the reward of a romantic curiosity would be the question of what the total assault, that of the world of his work-a-day life and the world of his divination and his envy together, would have made of him, and what in especial he would have made of them. As tormented, I say, I thought of him, and that would be the point—if one could only see him feel enough to be interesting without his feeling so much as not to be natural.
I’ve taken the liberty of italicizing the particularly “Lovecraftian” wording. James seems to have verily conjured up in his powerful imagination the near destitute, near starving, near friendless (though technically “married” and with many correspondents) Lovecraft. What James makes of Hyacinth, what he imagines Hyacinth would make of himself in such a position, is an anarchist; his imagination, though powerful, was, as Geismar insists, too snobbish to let him imagine someone like Lovecraft who could have picked himself up, returned to Providence, and used his experience to make himself a writer; a writer, perhaps, like Henry James.
The other notable thing about “He” is the famous “racism.” Lovecraft loathes the buildings and streets, but also, perhaps more so, the people in them. You could say he loathes the mongrel New Yorkers first and last; in that same opening passage:
[T]he throngs of people that seethed through the flume-like streets were squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eyes, shrewd strangers without dreams and without kinship to the scenes about them, who could never mean aught to a blue-eyed man of the old folk, with the love of fair green lanes and white New England village steeples in his heart.
And in the climactic, terrifying vision of the Babylon of the future from “He”:
I saw the heavens verminous with strange flying things, and beneath them a hellish black city of giant stone terraces with impious pyramids flung savagely to the moon, and devil-lights burning from unnumbered windows. And swarming loathsomely on aërial galleries I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, the clatter of obscene crotala, and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges rose and fell undulantly like the waves of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen.
Lovecraft loathed New York’s “multicultural tapestry” (and any New Yorker of today will recognize those pounding drums, from subway platforms to parks to “Occupy Wall Street”). “Whenever we found ourselves in the racially mixed crowds which characterize New York, Howard would become livid with rage,” Greene later wrote. “He seemed almost to lose his mind.”
When you see my new tale “The Horror at Red Hook,” you will see what I make of this idea in connexion with the gangs of young loafers and herds of evil-looking foreigners that one sees everywhere.
New York is dead, and the brilliancy which so impresses one from the outside is the phosphorescence of a maggoty corpse.
James’s London, though the center of a world-wide empire, was still sufficiently White to afford no such horrors; it was still at least if one had, like James, entrée to the right circles. “The Great Good Place” is perhaps the reductio ad absurdum of James’s idea of Paradise as a well-appointed London club.
But James, near the end of his career, returned to New York, and found that “all had changed, changed utterly,” as Yeats might have said. In the relevant chapters of The American Scene James records his incomprehension and horror, again in very recognizably Lovecraftian terms which I have italicized:
One’s supreme relation, as one had always put it, was one’s relation to one’s country—a conception made up so largely of one’s countrymen and one’s countrywomen. Thus it was as if, all the while, with such a fond tradition of what these products predominantly were, the idea of the country itself underwent something of that profane overhauling through which it appears to suffer the indignity of change. Is not our instinct in this matter, in general, essentially the safe one—that of keeping the idea simple and strong and continuous, so that it shall be perfectly sound? To touch it overmuch, to pull it about, is to put it in peril of weakening; yet on this free assault upon it, this readjustment of it in their monstrous, presumptuous interest, the aliens, in New York, seemed perpetually to insist. The combination there of their quantity and their quality—that loud primary stage of alienism which New York most offers to sight—operates, for the native, as their note of settled possession, something they have nobody to thank for; so that unsettled possession is what we, on our side, seem reduced to—the implication of which, in its turn, is that, to recover confidence and regain lost ground, we, not they, must make the surrender and accept the orientation. . . .
The carful, again and again, is a foreign carful; a row of faces, up and down, testifying, without exception, to alienism unmistakable, alienism undisguised and unashamed. You do here, in a manner perhaps, discriminate; the launched condition, as I have called it, is more developed in some types than in others; but I remember observing how, in the Broadway and the Bowery conveyances in especial, they tended, almost alike, to make the observer gasp with the sense of isolation. It was not for this that the observer on whose behalf I more particularly write had sought to take up again the sweet sense of the natal air.
And of course, the most alien are the Jews, who call to mind nothing so much as the fish-spawn of Lovecraft’s Innsmouth:
The sense of this quality was already strong in my drive, with a companion, through the long, warm June twilight, from a comparatively conventional neighbourhood; it was the sense, after all, of a great swarming, a swarming that had begun to thicken, infinitely, as soon as we had crossed to the East side and long before we had got to Rutgers Street. There is no swarming like that of Israel when once Israel has got a start, and the scene here bristled, at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds. That it has burst all bounds in New York, almost any combination of figures or of objects taken at hazard sufficiently proclaims; but I remember how the rising waters, on this summer night, rose, to the imagination, even above the housetops and seemed to sound their murmur to the pale distant stars. It was as if we had been thus, in the crowded, hustled roadway, where multiplication, multiplication of everything, was the dominant note, at the bottom of some vast sallow aquarium in which innumerable fish, of over-developed proboscis, were to bump together, for ever, amid heaped spoils of the sea. . . .
There are small strange animals, known to natural history, snakes or worms, I believe, who, when cut into pieces, wriggle away contentedly and live in the snippet as completely as in the whole. So the denizens of the New York Ghetto, heaped as thick as the splinters on the table of a glass-blower, had each, like the fine glass particle, his or her individual share of the whole hard glitter of Israel. This diffused intensity, as I have called it, causes any array of Jews to resemble (if I may be allowed another image) some long nocturnal street where every window in every house shows a maintained light. The advanced age of so many of the figures, the ubiquity of the children, carried out in fact this analogy; they were all there for race, and not, as it were, for reason: that excess of lurid meaning, in some of the old men’s and old women’s faces in particular, would have been absurd, in the conditions, as a really directed attention—it could only be the gathered past of Israel mechanically pushing through. The way, at the same time, this chapter of history did, all that evening, seem to push, was a matter that made the “ethnic” apparition again sit like a skeleton at the feast. It was fairly as if I could see the spectre grin while the talk of the hour gave me, across the board, facts and figures, chapter and verse, for the extent of the Hebrew conquest of New York. . . .
Phantasmagoric for me, accordingly, in a high degree, are the interesting hours I here glance at content to remain—setting in this respect, I recognize, an excellent example to all the rest of the New York phantasmagoria. Let me speak of the remainder only as phantasmagoric too, so that I may both the more kindly recall it and the sooner have done with it.
The very “scientific” nature of the change, what others might laud with the cliché of “the march of progress” paradoxically emphasizes the ancient Babylonian aspect, rather like Lang’s Metropolis recalls Moloch—scientific progress as a genocidal trap:
I remember the evolved fire-proof staircase, a thing of scientific surfaces, impenetrable to the microbe, and above all plated, against side friction, with white marble of a goodly grain. The white marble was surely the New Jerusalem note, and we followed that note, up and down the district, the rest of the evening, through more happy changes than I may take time to count. What struck me in the flaring streets (over and beyond the everywhere insistent, defiant, unhumorous, exotic face) was the blaze of the shops addressed to the New Jerusalem wants and the splendour with which these were taken for granted; the only thing indeed a little ambiguous was just this look of the trap too brilliantly, too candidly baited for the wary side of Israel itself. It is not for Israel, in general, that Israel so artfully shines—yet its being moved to do so, at last, in that luxurious style, might be precisely the grand side of the city of redemption. Who can ever tell, moreover, in any conditions and in presence of any apparent anomaly, what the genius of Israel may, or may not, really be “up to”?
The New Jerusalem is the New Babylon enslaving the former masters.
So finally, James came to the realization that his New York, revisited after years abroad, had changed as much, become as alienated a maggot-ridden corpse, as Lovecraft’s New York of the near and distant Future; returning now to the beginning of Lovecraft’s story, do we not hear the Jamesian voice?
So instead of the poems I had hoped for, there came only a shuddering blankness and ineffable loneliness; and I saw at last a fearful truth which no one had ever dared to breathe before—the unwhisperable secret of secrets—the fact that this city of stone and stridor is not a sentient perpetuation of Old New York as London is of Old London and Paris of Old Paris, but that it is in fact quite dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things which have nothing to do with it as it was in life. Upon making this discovery I ceased to sleep comfortably; though something of resigned tranquility came back as I gradually formed the habit of keeping off the streets by day and venturing abroad only at night, when darkness calls forth what little of the past still hovers wraith-like about, and old white doorways remember the stalwart forms that once passed through them. With this mode of relief I even wrote a few poems, and still refrained from going home to my people lest I seem to crawl back ignobly in defeat.—“He”
One measure of how the cultural climate has changed—and not to Lovecraft’s advantage—is that such passages as the ones in James could be published not by some squalid pulp magazine, but by Harper in 1904, and republished by Scribner in 1944, and today in the Library of America, and reprinted and excerpted in critical works ever since—without any real outrage or even notice (even from Auden, in his introduction to the 1944 reprint) except from the aforementioned Geismar, who sneers at James’s unmanly whining about his elite group being shoved aside, rather than joining the New Americans on the right side of History. (Before attacking the effete James “cult” in the ’60s, Geismar had been instrumental in returning Jack London to critical favor, in the process needing to provide a similar though more forgiving Freudian interpretation of his “racism”—see Rebels and Ancestors: The American Novel 1890-1915.)
“Lovecraft’s racism,” by contrast, is a research theme in itself, constantly condemned or exculpated; Joshi’s short note to “He” in the collection cited finds room to warn that it is “disturbingly racist,” and dealing with an earlier story he denigrates Lovecraft’s obvious distinction between earlier English and Dutch immigrants, what might be called the Founding Race, and the later “wretched refuse” as a “sophism” that allows him to recast the latter as “maggots.”
James’ New York experience produced, of course, stories of his own, one of which, “The Jolly Corner,” is not only perhaps his last good work, but also one of his “ghost stories,” frequently anthologized alongside Lovecraft. In this tale, the narrator does not so bluntly “gasp” at the swarming aliens; in good WASP fashion, he has retreated to his ancestral townhouse, where he directs his loathing inward. By this time, his loathing of what New York had become had extended to a loathing of what—he—might have become if New York had claimed him.
But that will be the subject of another essay.
1. S. T. Joshi, “Introduction” to H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008).
2. Published in England as Henry James and His Cult (London: Chatto and Windus, 1964).
3. H. P. Lovecraft, Lord of Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters, ed. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2000), p. 179.
4. H. P. Lovecraft, From The Pest Zone: Stories From New York edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2003).
5. Michel Houellebeq, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (New York: McSweeney’s, 2005), p. 32.
6. Houellebeq, p. 37.
7. Henry James, The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces with an introduction by R. P. Blackmur (New York: Scribner’s, 1934), pp. 59–61, 61–62.
9. Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos (New York: Ballantine Books, 1972), p. 45.
10. Lovecraft, Lord of Visible World, p. 176.
11. Lovecraft, Lord of Visible World, p. 198.
12. Henry James, The American Scene (London, Chapman & Hall, 1907), pp. 85–86, 125.
13. Henry James, The American Scene, pp. 131–32.
14. Henry James, The American Scene, p.135.
15. Maxwell Geismar, Rebels and Ancestors: The American Novel 1890–1915 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953).
16. H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, p. 332.
17. S. T. Joshi, A Dreamer and a Visionary: H. P. Lovecraft in his Time (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2001) p. 224.
Galaxy Quest: From Cargo Cult to Cosplay
Quotations From Chairman Rabble Kenneth Roberts: A Patriotic Curmudgeon
Mihai Eminescu: Romania’s Morning Star
Murder Maps: Agatha Christie’s Insular Imperialism
The de la Poer Madness: Before and After Lovecraft’s “Rats in the Walls”
Requiem for a Jigger
Culture, History, & Metapolitics in Poland: An Interview with Jaroslaw Ostrogniew, Part 2
The Worst Week Yet: March 21-27, 2021