The second half of my outing, though, was the real climax—since this was nothing more or less than a trip to ancient Nantucket, which I had never seen before, though it lies only 90 miles (6 hrs. by coach & boat) from my own doorstep.
The folder I sent has probably given you some idea of the place. And what a place! Nowhere else—Charleston, Quebec, Salem, or Newport—has the past survived so perfectly. The old town is exactly as it was a century ago—cobblestoned streets with colonial houses, windmill, hitching-posts, horse-blocks, & silver doorplates, picturesque lanes & wharves—everything pertaining to the bygone days of whaling prosperity. The island was settled in 1660, & formed part of New York till 1692, since then it has belonged to Massachusetts. Whaling made it great, & the decline of that industry caused its decline. Summer vacationists have preserved & restored it. I explored all the old streets, museums, windmill, &c. minutely, & saw Saturn & his ring through the glass of the Maria Mitchell observatory. A bus trip around the island took me to the quaint former fishing village of Siasconset. In covering the suburbs of the town I used a hired bicycle—the first time I’d ridden a wheel in 20 years. It quite rejuvenated me! I had a 3d floor room during my week’s stay—with a fine view of town, harbour, & sea.
DESCRIPTION: In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, a fellow writer and poet who was one of his closest friends, Lovecraft describes his recent trip to the island of Nantucket, one of many places along the Eastern Seaboard he visited in search of Colonial relics.
CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 8 Sept. 1934. Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 565-7.
Falling into a conversation with the chrysostomic gentleman of leisure above-mention’d, we learned much of local history; including the fact that the houses in Milligan Court were originally put up in the late 1700’s by the Methodist Church, for the poorer but respectable families of the parish. Continuing his expositions, our amiable Mentor led us to a seemingly undistinguished door within the court, and through the dim hallway beyond to a back door. Whither he was taking us, we knew not; but upon emerging from the back door we paus’d in delighted amazement. There, excluded from the world on every side by sheer walls and house facades, was a second hidden court or alley, with vegetation growing here and there, and on the south side a row of simple Colonial doorways and small-pan’d windows!! It was beyond words—it is still beyond words, and that is why I cannot do it justice here! Buried deep in the entrails of nondescript commercial blocks, this little lost world of a century and a quarter ago sleeps unheeding of the throng. Here stretch worn pavements which silver-buckled shoes have trod—here, hidden in cryptical recesses which no street, lane, or passageway connects with the Manhattan of today!
DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark, Lovecraft describes how he and his wife discovered a hidden court one evening while exploring the historic district of Greenwich Village.
CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Lillian D. Clark.” 20 Aug. 1924. H. P. Lovecraft: Letters from New York. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2005, pp. 59-62.
My Greenwich peregrinations included Abingdon Square, Grove St., Grove Court, Barrow & Commerce Sts., the Minettas, Milligan & Patchin Places, Gay St., Sheridan Square, & Charlton St., & embraced many marvellous glimpses of the old times. Once I saw a colonial doorway lighted up, the traceries of transom & side-lights standing out softly against the mellow yellow gleams inside. From Greenwich my route led south along Hudson St. to old New York, (across Lispenard’s Meadows & the filled-in swamp) & I noted the colonial square at the intersection of Canal. Later crossing to Greenwich St., I descended into the most ancient district; noting the Planters’ Hotel, Tom’s Chop House, & the like, & emerging on Broadway to salute St Paul’s & plunge down Ann St. into the heart of Golden Hill—Irving’s boyhood neighbourhood, & the seat of much disturbance during the late disastrous revolt against His Majesty’s government. I passed under the Brooklyn Bridge to Vandewater St., & noted with horror the replacement of a fine colonial row by a damnable new garage, (other excellent colonials have vanished in Greenwich, at Barrow & Hudson Sts.) & doubled back through New Chambers & Pearl, noting beside the former a colonial smithy which had always appealed to me. Proceeding along Pearl toward the Battery, I viewed all the ancient houses & waterfront panoramas as I passed them—remarking incidentally that the old Harpers publishing house has been newly razed. At Hanover-Square, seat of the best British gentry before the Revolution, I lifted my hat in honour of King George the Third; then passing on by the Queen’s Head Tavern—Fraunces’, that is—to those regions of Battery Park where one or two colonial mansions yet linger. It was now five o’ the morning, & I had so fully thrown off melancholy by my free & antique voyage, that I felt exactly in the humour for writing. The clouds were dissolving, & another day was done. Should I drag it away in New-York, & lose the keenness of my mood, or keep on in my dash for liberty—gaining fresh strength as I kicked aside the irritating fetters of the usual?
DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark, Lovecraft describes his late-night walk through Greenwich Village, a journey that inspired him to write the short story “He” the following day.
CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Lillian D. Clark.” 13 Aug. 1925. H. P. Lovecraft: Letters from New York. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2005, pp. 169-72.
So if at last a callous age must tear
These jewels from the old town’s quiet dress,
I think the harbour streets will always wear
A puzzled look of wistful emptiness.
And strangers, staring spaciously along
An ordered green that ponderous pylons frame,
Will always stop to wonder what is wrong,
And miss some vital thing they cannot name.
DESCRIPTION: In his poem “The East India Brick Row,” Lovecraft laments the city of Providence’s decision to demolish a row of ancient warehouses along the waterfront.
CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The East India Brick Row.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, pp. 308-9.
Sometimes I stumble accidentally on rare combinations of slope, curved street-line, roofs & gables & chimneys, & accessory details of verdure & background, which in the magic of late afternoon assume a mystic majesty & exotic significance beyond the power of words to describe. Absolutely nothing else in life now has the power to move me so much; for in these momentary vistas there seem to open before me bewildering avenues to all the wonders & lovelinesses I have ever sought, & to all those gardens of eld whose memory trembles just beyond the rim of conscious recollection, yet close enough to lend to life all the significance it possesses. All that I live for is to recapture some fragment of this hidden & just unreachable beauty …
DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Donald Wandrei, Lovecraft describes the meaning of his life as an attempt to capture beauty.
CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Donald Wandrei.” 21 Apr. 1927. Mysteries of Time and Spirit: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2002, pp. 84-93.
God! Shall I ever forget my first stupefying glimpse of MARBLEHEAD’S huddled and archaick roofs under the snow in the delirious sunset glory of four p.m., Dec. 17, 1922!!! I did not know until an hour before that I should ever behold such a place as Marblehead, and I did not know until that moment itself the full extent of the wonder I was to behold. I account that instant—about 4:05 to 4:10 p.m., Dec. 17, 1922—the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during my nearly forty years of existence. In a flash all the past of New England—all the past of Old England—all the past of Anglo-Saxondom and the Western World—swept over me and identified me with the stupendous totality of all things in such a way as it never did before and never will again. That was the high tide of my life.
DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend James F. Morton, Lovecraft describes the sense of ecstasy he felt when seeing the perfectly preserved city of Marblehead for the first time.
CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To James F. Morton.” 12 Mar. 1930. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 3, Arkham House, 1971, pp. 123-9.
But the climate, O Sage, is only the beginning of the miracle from an antiquarian point of view. Indeed—there is nothing about the place so wholly important and distinctive as the astoundingly eighteenth century atmosphere—for in all verity I can say that Charleston is the best-preserv’d colonial city of any size, without exception, that I have ever encounter’d. Virtually, everything is just as it was in the reign of George the Third—indeed, ’tis easier to count the houses which are not colonial, than to attempt to count those which are.
DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe, Lovecraft describes, with joy, his impressions of Charleston, South Carolina, and its colonial architecture.
CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Maurice W. Moe.” 4 May 1930. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 247-9.
I never can be tied to raw, new things,
For I first saw the light in an old town,
Where from my window huddled roofs sloped down
To a quaint harbour rich with visionings.
Streets with carved doorways where the sunset beams
Flooded old fanlights and small window-panes,
And Georgian steeples topped with gilded vanes—
These were the sights that shaped my childhood dreams.
Such treasures, left from times of cautious leaven,
Cannot but loose the hold of flimsier wraiths
That flit with shifting ways and muddled faiths
Across the changeless walls of earth and heaven.
They cut the moment’s thongs and leave me free
To stand alone before eternity.
DESCRIPTION: In his poem “Background,” Lovecraft celebrates Providence’s colonial architecture, which had captivated him since childhood.
CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Background.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, p. 92.
Entering, I found myself in a low, dark passage whose massive beams almost touched my head; and passing on, I travers’d two immense rooms on the ground floor—sombre, barren, panell’d apartments with colossal fireplaces in the vast central chimney, and with occasional pieces of the plain, heavy furniture and primitive farm and domestick utensils of the ancient yeomanry. In these wide, low-pitch’d rooms a spectral menace broods—for to my imagination the seventeenth century is as full of macabre mystery, repression, and ghoulish adumbrations as the eighteenth century is full of taste, gayety, grace, and beauty. This was a typical Puritan abode; where admist the bare, ugly necessities of life, and without learning, beauty, culture, freedom, or ornament, terrible stern-fac’d folk in conical hats or poke-bonnets dwelt two hundred and fifty and more years ago …
DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friends Frank Belknap Long and Alfred Galpin, Lovecraft describes his visit to the Rebekah Nurse House in Massachusetts.
CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Frank Belknap Long and Alfred Galpin.” 1 May 1923. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 218-25.
On the 14th I visited Gen. Washington’s country-seat of Mt. Vernon, on the river below Alexandria, and left not a corner of house or grounds unexamin’d. It were trite to speak in detail of this well-known scene, but I may mention that the house was built in 1743 by Lawrence Washington, half-brother to the General, and that the latter inherited it in 1752, upon the death of Lawrence and his daughter. It was call’d Hunting Creek Estate till its builder renam’d it in honour of Admiral Vernon, the inventor of “grog”, under whom he had serv’d against Spain. The house is low and spacious, most of the rooms being rather smaller than one wou’d expect in an edifice of such pretensions. The grounds, sloping down from a high bluff to the river with many a wooded ravine and willow-lin’d path, display the finest taste in selection. Stables and other outbuildings comport with the mansion house in style and beauty; the whole forming as sightly a plantation as any gentleman in Virginia cou’d reasonably demand. The elegance of the lower rooms, in point of architectural ornament, is carry’d almost to excess; but the upper rooms are singularly austere. I beheld the bed upon which the General dy’d, together with innumerable other objects connected with him. In walking thro’ the grounds I came upon his tomb, and stood but a few feet from the body (in its sarcophagus beyond the grating) which even now must bear some resemblance to the living gentleman, so perfectly was it embalm’d. In the 1830’s, when it was transferr’d from its original resting-place on the river bluff to this mausoleum, a person who gaz’d upon the features declar’d them but little impaired by the more than three decades of internment. I descended to the river, view’d all the buildings, and in general familiaris’d myself with the whole estate. I cannot praise it too highly, or hope too strongly that it may always be preserv’d with unremitting diligence as a specimen of good architecture and ideal type of southern gentleman’s seat.
DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Observations on Several Parts of America,” Lovecraft describes his trip to Mount Vernon, one of many historic sites he visited during the summer of 1928.
CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Observations on Several Parts of America.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 4, Hippocampus Press, 2005, pp. 16-30.