January 04, 2010

Natives in H.P. Lovecraft

H. P. LovecraftHoward Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890–March 15, 1937) was an American author of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, known then simply as weird fiction.

Lovecraft's major inspiration and invention was cosmic horror, the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally alien. Those who genuinely reason, like his protagonists, gamble with sanity. Lovecraft has developed a cult following for his Cthulhu Mythos, a series of loosely interconnected fiction featuring a pantheon of human-nullifying entities, as well as the Necronomicon, a fictional grimoire of magical rites and forbidden lore. His works were deeply pessimistic and cynical, challenging the values of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Christian humanism.

Non-human influences on humanity

The beings of Lovecraft's mythos often have human (or mostly human) servants; Cthulhu, for instance, is worshiped under various names by cults amongst both the Eskimos of Greenland and voodoo circles of Louisiana, and in many other parts of the world.

Civilization under threat

Lovecraft frequently dealt with the idea of civilization struggling against more barbaric, primitive elements. In some stories this struggle is at an individual level; many of his protagonists are cultured, highly-educated men who are gradually corrupted by some obscure and feared influence.

Race, ethnicity, and class

Lovecraft lived at a time when the eugenics movement, anti-Catholicism, nativism, and strict racial segregation and miscegenation laws were all widespread in the United States and the Protestant countries of Europe, and his writings reflect that social and intellectual environment. A common dramatic device in Lovecraft's work is to associate virtue, intellect, civilization, and rationality with upper class White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. These are often posed in contrast to the corrupt, intellectually inferior, uncivilized and irrational attributes which he associated with both the lower classes in general and those of non-Anglo Saxon ethnicity, especially those who have dark skin. He held English culture to be the comparative pinnacle of civilization, with the descendants of the English in America as something of a second-class offshoot, and everyone else below.

S. T. Joshi notes, "There is no denying the reality of Lovecraft's racism, nor can it merely be passed off as 'typical of his time', for it appears that Lovecraft expressed his views more pronouncedly (although usually not for publication) than many others of his era. It is also foolish to deny that racism enters into his fiction." In his book H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, Michel Houellebecq argues that "racial hatred" provided the emotional force and inspiration for much of Lovecraft's greatest works.
But author Amy Sturgis seems to have a positive view of Lovecraft's Native-themed work:

Native America & Speculative Fiction:  Interview with Amy H. SturgisOne of my favorite authors of speculative fiction, H.P. Lovecraft, actually draws quite a bit on Native American mythology and settings. His short story “The Mound” (published posthumously in 1940) takes place at a real burial mound in Binger, Oklahoma, and a handful of his other stories draw on the richness of the Native American legends. His works are surprisingly well-researched for the amount of information that was available in the early twentieth century.Comment:  I haven't read any of Lovecraft's work, so I don't know how to reconcile the views here. He considered brown-skinned people inferior and portrayed Eskimos worshiping the imaginary demon Cthulhu, but his Native-themed works were "surprisingly well-researched"? It does not compute.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.


dmarks said...

"..."portrayed Eskimos worshiping the imaginary demon Cthulhu"

This Cthulhu bit did not stand out for me as racist, really. But elsewhere he referred to a proto-Eskimo race called the Inuto (squat and yellow), clearly describing them in sub-human terms).

I've read these stories extensively, and love "The Mound", but I sure can't find anything of extensively-researched Native elements in them at all.

Here is "The Mound". In terms of grand scale, it is the ultimate "Indian Burial Ground" tale.

AHS said...

Just to clarify: I certainly don't deny Lovecraft's obvious bigotry - in fact, the chapter in The Intersection of Fantasy and Native America dedicated to Lovecraft is entitled "The Racist and La Raza." However, despite his truly unfortunate assumptions about race and ethnicity, Lovecraft proved willing to research the settings and histories of the regions he described, thus adding a verisimilitude to his work that writings by many of his predecessors and contemporaries lacked. (Basing "The Mound" on a real site in Binger is an example of this.) More importantly, he was less likely to conflate different Native nations and their backgrounds/beliefs than many other non-Native writers of his era (and for that matter, some non-Native writers today). In the context of literary and especially genre history, I think these aspects of Lovecraft's work definitely are worth pointing out. Thanks for your post!

Rob said...

Even if Lovecraft described the Eskimo people and environment accurately, I'd say giving them a phony demon-worship religion is bad. It suggests they had no real religion of their own.

Thanks for the clarification, Amy H. Sturgis!

ahtzib said...

Commenting on the stories without reading any of them? Most of them, especially the ones that relate to the topic, are not that long, and all are available through Wikimedia.

Anyway, Native Americans barely exist in Lovecraft's stories, and when they do, they are a savage and usually extinct element of the past. This is particularly striking in Lovecraft's letters, in which he repeatedly describes the fascination he has with the idea of Romans or other old world types arriving in America, setting up cities, and tangling with the locals. If it was in North America, and wasn't European/Middle Eastern or alien, it wasn't of much interest to Lovecraft.

Having the "Esquimaux" of Greenland worship Cthulhu is a mixed thing. On the one hand, the idea here is that all people, especially the sensitive, are receptive to Cthulhu's dreams, and that there has been a world-wide cult for thousands of years, presumably spanning numerous cultures. However, since all the members we actually see in the story are non-White, it's safe to call it racist. He is more specifically anti-Inuit in Polaris. In another tale, "He," early post-contact Native Americans in Manhattan are victimized by an evil Dutch settler/necromancer who has survived to the present (1920s). He stole their land by putting poison in some rum he gave them, and in the present their spirit (which is a mix of being typical ghosts and a more pseudopodical horror) take their revenge. He also does the "Aliens as Sky People of Native Legends" bit in Whisperer in Darkness, but it is not a major part of the story.

This leads us to "The Mound." Remember that this story was a ghostwriting job, for Zelia Bishop. She asked for a story based on a ghost of an Native woman appearing on the mound near Binger. He decided to write a grand story, in the style of Bulwer-Lytton's "The Coming Race" of a non-Indian underground civilization of decadent superscience, a population that had gone through its machine stage and now just finds more perverted ways to amuse itself (gladiatorial games, re-animating people and using their bits as objects in cruel punishments and as equipment, etc.). The only real Native aspect is that one of the victims of these people was Native American, and rather than being a ghost, her headless body is used as a scarecrow or sentinel to keep people away from the mound (which is an entrance to their world). This isn't anything from Native American lore, it's The Moundbuilder Myth made into cosmic science fiction.

Lastly, Lovecraft owned human remains that were presumably Native American. A young friend of his in Maryland mentioned in letter correspondence (Lovecraft was a letter-writing fiend, in many ways one of the world's first bloggers) that they went from time to time to dig up what he believed or knew to be Native bones. Lovecraft, I believe half-jockingly, suggested he would appreciate some. He soon got a package in the mail with a fragmentary human skull, which he nicknamed "Chief Thunder-Under-The-Ground." The back and forth of these events are detailed in the book Lovecraft at Last compiled and written by Willis Connover, who sent Lovecraft the skull.

Rob said...

Yes, I posted a very limited comment on works I hadn't read, ahtzib. But it would be more correct to say I was commenting on the claims I posted, not on the stories themselves.