My Forebears in the 18th Century

My maternal grandfather—born in 1833—and his generation seemed much closer to me than the generation of my parents, uncles, and aunts, born around the ’60’s; while my forebears in the 18th century (periwigged Devonshire squires and rural Anglican vicars on my father’s side, and New-England planters on my mother’s side) seemed closest of all. That sense of immediate personal kinship with the 18th century—its costume, architecture, literary style, thought, etc.—has never left me or even diminished. It’s that which sends me rambling around the country looking for Vieux Carré’s and Charlestons and Natchezes and Salems and Annapolises and Quebecs!


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend and fellow writer E. Hoffmann Price, Lovecraft describes the affinity, the “sense of immediate personal kinship,” he feels for his maternal grandfather’s generation and for his ancestors in the eighteenth century.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To E. Hoffmann Price.” 15 Feb. 1933. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner, vol. 4, Arkham House, 1976, pp. 149-54.

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Marblehead’s Hoary Magick

I came to Marblehead in the twilight, and gazed long upon its hoary magick. I threaded the tortuous, precipitous streets, some of which an horse can scarce climb, and in which two wagons cannot pass. I talked with old men and revell’d in old scenes, and climb’d pantingly over the crusted cliffs of snow to the windswept height where cold winds blew over desolate roofs and evil birds hovered over a bleak, deserted, frozen tarn. And atop all was the peak; Old Burying Hill, where the dark headstones clawed up thro’ the virgin snow like the decay’d fingernails of some gigantick corpse.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, Lovecraft describes his discovery of Marblehead, Massachusetts, an ancient seaport so well preserved that it seems to defy the passage of time.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Rheinhart Kleiner.” 11 Jan. 1923. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 112-4.

A Dream-Thing of Faint Grey

I spent the five-hour journey reading Dunsany and peering at way-stations. New-London is a dingy little burg—a Victorian relic. New-Haven seems alert and metropolitan from the station angle. Ditto for Bridgeport. Shortly before three p.m., the train reached the lofty and colossal Harlem River viaduct (Only by chance did I secure the unique panorama—because the train was a Washington, D.C. express. Ordinary N.Y. trains go by a tamer route and into the Grand Central Station), and  saw for the first time the Cyclopean outlines of New-York. It was a mystical sight in the gold sun of late afternoon; a dream-thing of faint grey, outlined against a sky of faint grey smoke. City and sky were so alike that one could hardly be sure that there was a city—that the fancied towers and pinnacles were not the merest illusions. It was ten miles away, approximately—that is, the skyscraper region was. Actually, the train had crossed to Long Island, there to move south till a tunnel should take it under the East River and the streets of Manhattan to the Pennsylvania Station.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe, Lovecraft describes his first impressions of New York, a city that he would grow to despise.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Maurice W. Moe.” 18 May 1922. H. P. Lovecraft: Letters from New York. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2005, pp. 1-16.

The Sight of Marblehead

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.

The Scottish Rite

Washington itself—mostly the older Georgetown section—claimed considerable of my attention. Of the newer buildings I think I was most impressed by the imposing temple of the Scottish Rite Masons at 16th and S. Sts. I saw this first at night; and something about the Cyclopean windowless façade, with its guardian Sphinxes and cryptical twin braziers burning beside the great bronze door, gave me an ineffably poignant sense of brooding, transmitted mystery—of terrible secrets and obscure arcana of an elder earth, handed down in nocturnal incantations amongst the ancient and privileged group whose meeting-place the temple is. I could understand the sensation of awe, sometimes amounting to fear and aversion, with which the masonic fraternity was generally regarded by outsiders in naiver ages than the present.


DESCRIPTION: In a letter to Zealia Bishop, Lovecraft describes his impressions of the Masonic Hall in Georgetown.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Zealia Bishop.” 28 July 1928. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 241-3.

The Blight of Modernity

To the southern New-Englander entering Vermont for the first time there is a sense of mystic revivification. On the towns of the lower coast the blight of mutation and modernity has descended. Weird metamorphoses and excrescences, architectural and topographical, mark a menacing tyranny of mechanism and viceroyalty of engineering which are fast hurrying the present scene out of all linkage with its historic antecedents and setting it adrift anchorless and all but traditionless in alien oceans. Swart foreign forms, heirs to moods and impulses antipodal to those which moulded our heritage, surge in endless streams along smoke-clouded and lamp-dazzled streets; moving to strange measures and inculcating strange customs. All through the nearer countryside the stigmata of change are spreading. Reservoirs, billboards, and concrete roads, power lines, garages, and flamboyant inns, squalid immigrant nests and grimy mill villages; these things and things like them have brought ugliness, tawdriness, and commonplaceness to the urban penumbra. Only in the remoter backwoods can one find the pristine and ancestral beauty which was southern New-England’s, or the unmixed signs of that continuous native life whose deep roots make it the one authentic outgrowth of the landscape. There are traces enough to allure and tantalise, but not enough to satisfy. With our keenest pleasure and satisfaction is mixed a certain melancholy; for it is upon the ghost of something beloved and departed, rather than upon the thing itself, that we gaze. Our own country and history seem subtly dissolving away from us, and we clutch frantically at the straws and symbols through which our imaginations may momentarily recall and recapture a past which is really our own.


DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Vermont—A First Impression,” Lovecraft describes the ways in which industrialization and immigration have reshaped the state of Vermont.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Vermont—A First Impression.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 4, Hippocampus Press, 2005, pp. 13-5.

 

An Antiquarian Miracle

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.

Home Again

At Break-Neck Hill Road we diverg’d to the eastward and travers’d the winding roads thro’ the exquisite sylvan stretches of Quinsnicket, or Lincoln-Woods, my favourite haunt on fine summer afternoons. It seem’d appropriate to return to my native scenes thro’ this lovely and typical part of them—and this avenue of approach set off very ably the occasional glimpses of the distant spires and domes of OLD PROVIDENCE which hilltop moments afforded. PROVIDENCE—my native land! No sensation at any stage of my travels equall’d that with which I was animated as we drew near the scene of my birth and lifelong memories. Pawtucket was a dingy interlude. Then the line of East Avenue and Hope Street—and the PROVIDENCE urban boundary at the end of Blackstone Boulevard, known to me for thirty years and more, and the scene of my choicest bicycle rides of boyhood! Again my three-corner’d hat was rais’d from the powder’d locks of my periwig. HOME! After that but a little space to Barnes Street, then a turn under shady trees, a square or two westward to where the road touches the brink of the antient hill and vanishes into the golden sunset sky betwixt old houses—and then Number Ten! My own hearthstone at last—and all the remember’d books and furniture of my youth! It was the eighteenth of May, and I had been abroad since the fourth of April! A marvellous, pleasing, and vary’d trip in all its parts, yet providing no sight more agreeable than Old Providence, or any moment so delightful as that of my return to my cherish’d doorstep.


DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Travels in the Provinces of America,” Lovecraft describes his sensations when, after a long trip abroad, he returned home to his beloved Providence.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Travels in the Provinces of America.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 4, Hippocampus Press, 2005, pp. 32-61.

I Never Heard of Innsmouth

I never heard of Innsmouth till the day before I saw it for the first and—so far—last time. I was celebrating my coming of age by a tour of New England—sightseeing, antiquarian, and genealogical—and had planned to go directly from ancient Newburyport to Arkham, whence my mother’s family was derived. I had no car, but was travelling by train, trolley, and motor-coach, always seeking the cheapest possible route. In Newburyport they told me that the steam train was the thing to take to Arkham; and it was only at the station ticket-office, when I demurred at the high fare, that I learned about Innsmouth. The stout, shrewd-faced agent, whose speech shewed him to be no local man, seemed sympathetic toward my efforts at economy, and made a suggestion that none of my other informants had offered.


DESCRIPTION: In this passage from the short story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1931), Robert Olmstead describes his ill-fated tour of New England.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 268-335.

A Typical Puritan Abode

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.