The Foreign Colossus

But one ought to be warned in advance that all life in New York is purely artificial and affected—values are forced and arbitrary, mental fashions are capricious, pathological, or commercial rather than authentic, and literary activity and conversation are motivated by a shallow pose, a sophistical concealment of ignorance, and a morbidly charlatanic egotism and cheap assertiveness far removed from the solid aesthetic intensity which ought to underlie a life of art and letters. New York has, by force of sheer wealth and glitter and advertising, captured the reputation of a literary capital, but it is not a true one in the sense that Boston once was. The “aesthetes” of New York are less interested in art and beauty than in themselves; and their smart badinage and discussion savour much more of psychological exhibitionism and social gesture than of actual artistic insight, vision, and devotion. It is a case of inferior people trying to be conspicuous somehow, and choosing art as a form of ballyhoo more convenient and inexpensive than business or evangelism or sword-swallowing. Of the genuine flow of life, or the sincere recording of life and dreams which is literature, I can discern scarcely a trace. Whatever of value is produced there is merely the outcropping of things elsewhere nourished—except of course in the case of those few real native New Yorkers who survive in sadness from the dead and lovely old city that was; the gracious, glamorous elder New York of dignity and poise, which lies stark and horrible and ghoul-gnawed today beneath the foul claws of the mongrel and misshapen foreign colossus that gibbers and howls vulgarly and dreamlessly on its site.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Donald Wandrei, Lovecraft describes New York as a dead city, incapable of authentic artistic expression.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Donald Wandrei.” 10 Feb. 1927. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 197-201.

Intolerable Restraint

A great part of religion is merely a childish and diluted pseudo-gratification of this perpetual gnawing toward the ultimate illimitable void. Superadded to this simple curiosity is the galling sense of intolerable restraint which all sensitive people (except self-blinded earth-gazers like little Augie DerlEth) feel as they survey their natural limitations in time and space as scaled against the freedoms and expansions and comprehensions and adventurous expectancies which the mind can formulate as abstract conceptions. Only a perfect clod can fail to discern these irritant feelings in the greater part of mankind—feelings so potent and imperious that, if denied symbolic outlets in aesthetics or religious fakery, they produce actual hallucinations of the supernatural, and drive half-responsible minds to the concoction of the most absurd hoaxes and the perpetuation of the most absurd specific myth-types.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft argues that many people, when contemplating the inflexibility of natural law, feel a sense of “intolerable restraint,” which often finds expression in either religious or artistic symbolism.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Frank Belknap Long.” Feb. 1931. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 257-60.

A Frank and Conscious Unintelligibility

The ultimate position of Dunsany in literature depends largely on the future course of literature itself. Our age is one of curious transition and divergence, with an increasing separation of art from the past and from all common life as well. Modern science has, in the end, proved an enemy to art and pleasure; for by revealing to us the whole sordid and prosaic basis of our thoughts, motives, and acts, it has stripped the world of glamour, wonder, and all those illusions of heroism, nobility, and sacrifice which used to sound so impressive when romantically treated. Indeed, it is not too much to say that psychological discovery, and chemical, physical, and physiological research have largely destroyed the element of emotion among informed and sophisticated people by resolving it into its component parts—intellectual idea and animal impulse. The so-called “soul” with all its hectic and mawkish attributes of sentimentality, veneration, earntestness, devotion, and the like, has perished on analysis. Nietzsche brought a transvaluation of values, but Remy de Gourmont has brought a wholesale destruction of all values. We know now what a futile, aimless, and disconnected welter of mirages and hypocrisies life is; and from the first shock of that knowledge has sprung the bizarre, tasteless, defiant, and chaotic literature of that terrible newer generation which so shocks our grandmothers—the aesthetic generation fo T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Ben Hecht, Aldous Huxley, James Branch Cabell, and all the rest. These writers, knowing that life has no real pattern, either rave, or mock, or join in the cosmic chaos by exploiting a frank and conscious unintelligibility and confusion of values. To them it savours of the vulgar to adopt a pattern—for today only servants, churchgoers, and tired business men read things which mean anything or acknowledge any values.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Lord Dunsany and His Work,” Lovecraft speculates that scientific discovery and psychological research altered the way in which intellectuals viewed life and thus engendered Modernism, which rejects traditional art forms.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Lord Dunsany and His Work.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 56-62.


Meagre Literary Contents

I had turned to a neighbouring shelf and was examining its meagre literary contents—an eighteenth-century Bible, a Pilgrim’s Progress of like period, illustrated with grotesque woodcuts and printed by the almanack-maker Isaiah Thomas, the rotting bulk of Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, and a few other books of evidently equal age—when my attention was aroused by the unmistakable sound of walking in the room overhead.

DESCRIPTION: In this passage from the short story “The Picture in the House” (1920), the narrator describes the books he discovers when, during a storm, he takes refuge in a seemingly abandoned house.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Picture in the House.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 34-42.

Relief from the Burden of Life

There is much relief from the burden of life to be derived from many sources. To the man of high animal spirits, there is the mere pleasure of being alive; the Joi de vivre, as our Gallick friends term it. To the credulous there is religion and its paradisal dreams. To the moralist, there is a certain satisfaction in right conduct. To the scientist there is the joy in pursuing truth which nearly counteracts the depressing revelations of truth. To the person of cultivated taste, there are the fine arts. To the man of humour, there is the sardonic delight of spying out pretensions and incongruities of life. To the poet there is the ability and privilege to fashion a little Arcadia in his fancy, wherein he may withdraw from the sordid reality of mankind at large. In short, the world abounds with simple delusions which we may call “happiness”, if we be but able to entertain them.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to the Kleicomolo, Lovecraft claims that, though happiness is a delusion, people can still enjoy the pleasures that life has to offer.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Rheinhart Kleiner, Ira A. Cole, and Maurice W. Moe.” Oct. 1916. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 25-9.

There’s Something Those Fellows Catch

I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.

DESCRIPTION: In this passage from the short story “Pickman’s Model” (1926), Thurber describes the appeal of weird or macabre art.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Pickman’s Model.” The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 2001, pp. 78-89.

Manifestly Inartistic

Now this is manifestly inartistic. To write to order, to drag one figure through a series of artificial episodes, involves the violation of all that spontaneity and singleness of impression which should characterise short story work. It reduces the unhappy author from art to the commonplace level of mechanical and unimaginative hack-work. Nevertheless, when one needs the money one is not scrupulous—so I have accepted the job!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft describes the writing of his story “Herbert West—Reanimator” as hackwork.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Frank Belknap Long.” 8 Oct. 1921. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 157-9.

To Delight the Fancy

Modern bards, in their endeavour to display with seriousness and minute verisimilitude the inward operations of the human mind and emotions, have come to look down upon the simple description of ideal beauty, or the straightforward presentation of pleasing images for no other purpose than to delight the fancy. Such themes they deem trivial and artificial, and altogether unworthy of an art whose design they take to be the analysis and reproduction of Nature in all her moods and aspects.

But in this belief, the writer cannot but hold that our contemporaries are misjudging the true province and functions of poesy. It was no starched classicist, but the exceedingly unconventional Edgar Allan Poe, who roundly denounced the melancholy metaphysicians and maintained that true poetry has for its first object “pleasure, not truth”, and “indefinite pleasure instead of definite pleasure”. Mr. Poe, in another essay, defined poetry as “the rhythmical creation of beauty”, intimating that its concern for the dull or ugly aspects of life is slight indeed. That the American bard and critic was fundamentally just in his deductions, seems well proved by a comparative survey of those poems of all ages which have lived, and those which have fallen into deserved obscurity.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “The Despised Pastoral,” Lovecraft claims that the true function of poetry is to “delight the fancy,” a truth, he claims, that most contemporary poets have overlooked.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Despised Pastoral.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 22-3.

Defending Poetry

Lack of appreciation of verse can be attributed to nothing save defective aesthetic perception. Poetry, with its delicate blend of imagination and melody, fulfils a natural and definite artistic function, and could not be replaced by any other species of expression. To cavil at the grammatical licence of the bard is to display much ignorance of the art in question; for the latitude allowed to versifiers is by no means considerable, and is governed by rules as rigid as those which govern prose composition.

 DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Poesy,” Lovecraft defends poetry from its critics, claiming that it cannot be replaced by any other mode of expression.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Poesy.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, p. 21.

The Machine-Culture

But nothing good can be said of that cancerous machine-culture itself. It is not a true civilisation, and has nothing in it to satisfy a mature and fully developed human mind. It is attuned to the mentality and imagination of the galley-slave and the moron, and crushes relentlessly with disapproval, ridicule, and economic annihilation, any sign of actually independent thought and civilised feeling which chances to rise above its sodden level. It is a treadmill, squirrel-trap culture—drugged and frenzied with the hasheesh of industrial servitude and material luxury. It is wholly a material body-culture, and its symbol is the tiled bathroom and steam radiator rather than the Doric portico and the temple of philosophy. Its denizens do not live or know how to live.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Woodburn Harris, Lovecraft claims that industrialization and consumerism have contributed to a “machine culture,” which is devoid of either aesthetic or artistic merit.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Woodburn Harris.” 1 Mar. 1929. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 2, Arkham House, 1968, pp. 287-314.