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The Conservative

The Complete Issues 1915-1925

By H. P. Lovecraft (Ed.)

Review: Gwendolyn Taunton

 

H. P. Lovecraft, The ConservativeH. P. Lovecraft was virtually an unknown author during his lifetime. Today he is one of the most respected authors in the horror genre and regarded as a prominent figure in American literature. His most famous fictional character, Cthulhu, has been immortalised in occult myth thanks to Lovecraft’s phenomenal literary skills. Curiously it is precisely because his writing was so creative and imaginative that very little of Lovecraft’s own personality is actually projected into his creations. With the majority of books it is easy to see the writer’s own thoughts bubbling to the surface – but with Lovecraft’s fiction this is not the case. He concentrated on building a complete mythological world of complex interrelationships between different realities and elaborate eldritch horrors that are vestigial remnants drawn from mankind’s primordial fear of the unknown. It is precisely because it is so creative that very little of Lovecraft’s own personality is perceptible when reading it. This is the real value of Lovecraft’s early publication, The Conservative. It is not the content of the articles which is impressive, but rather the unique opportunity the book presents for understanding the cryptic and complex character of H. P. Lovecraft himself.

The Conservative is, like its editor Lovecraft, an intricate puzzle waiting to be solved. It is a hybrid of literary criticism and cultural commentaries on the society with which Lovecraft was contemporaneous. The book itself is an anthology of issues of The Conservative, which Lovecraft edited and he also wrote a substantial amount of the content. The book also features material which was submitted to The Conservative by other authors, but for the purposes of this review the majority of content examined is purely that which has been penned by Lovecraft himself.

The first major topic discussed within The Conservative is literary criticism and writing technique. Particular attention is paid to poetry, and it is here that Lovecraft demonstrates his impressive literary knowledge. However, judging from some of the content, it seems that during his day Lovecraft’s opinions on writing were not as valued as they are now. It appears that some of Lovecraft’s critical reviews ruffled the feathers of his contemporary authors – much like modern Facebook spats were talentless hacks try to perform character assassination on their rivals with naught but a finely-honed arsenal of ad hominems. The problem of obscure and narcissistic authors was apparently a problem even before the internet began. Somewhere, beyond time, Nyarlathotep is laughing at them. One instance of a personal attack on Lovecraft by another author is recorded below;

It appears that the CONSERVATIVE’S review of Charles D. Isaacson’s recent paper was not accepted in the honestly critical spirit intended, and that Mr. Isaacson is preparing to wreak summary verbal vengeance upon the crude barbarian who cannot appreciate the loathsome Walt Whitman, cannot lose his self-respect as a white man, and cannot endorse a treasonable propaganda designed to deliver these United States as easy victims to the first hostile power who cares to conquer them.[1]

Another major topic included in The Conservative are Lovecraft’s cultural and political observations. For readers of Lovecraft’s fiction some aspects of these ideas may be a little jarring. The ideas Lovecraft is voicing in The Conservative are very far from the current mindset and equidistant from Liberal Democracy (in terms of Euclidian geometry of course). As the title of the book illustrates, Lovecraft was a ‘conservative’. Lovecraft was very much the Traditional English gentleman with a natural predisposition towards aristocracy and monarchy. In terms of ethnicity and culture he is unabashedly pro-Teutonic and pro-Anglo-Saxon, both of which Lovecraft perceives as the dominant western cultural forces. Lovecraft declares that that the “Teuton is the summit of evolution” [2] and that the “Englishmen and Germans are blood brothers, descended from the same stern Woden-worshipping ancestors, blessed with the same rugged virtues, and fired with the same noble ambitions.”[3] Speaking further on the Anglo-Saxons, Lovecraft also states the following;

The war has stripped many shams and delusions from the social and political life of the world; and paramount amongst these is the pernicious fallacy, fostered by and for the unthinking immigrant rabble, that America’s path must lie apart from that of the Mother Empire. The strongest tie in the domain of mankind, and the only potential source of social unity, is that mystic essence compounded of race, language, and culture; a heritage descended from the remote past.[4]

Lovecraft believed that America was part of the British Empire and that the mistake with American culture was to divorce itself from its British roots. This was the cause of its great cultural decline which is now even more imminent in our own age. Apparently the love he felt for England did not extend to her sister Ireland however, for Lovecraft also writes a stinging appraisal of Irish immigrants to America.

Leaving their own countries in dissatisfaction, they assume the cloak of American citizenship; organise any finance conspiracies with American money; and finally, with an audacity almost ironical, call upon the United States for help when overtaken by justice! Half the detestable violence of the Irish “Fenians” and “Sinn Fein” ruffians was hatched in America by those who dare drivel about such a thing as “neutrality”![5]

Lovecraft was also a strong supporter of aristocracy, especially the British. He draws a clear distinction between the aristocracy of Europe and the English aristocracy which he believes is inherently more meritocratic and noble because all titles have to be earned. On the topic of aristocracy, Lovecraft says the following:

In Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy, every son of a noble is a noble. The titled class is very large, as a rule very worthless, and possess numerous privileges subversive to the rights of so-called inferior men. In Great Britain only the head of the family is the titled noble. His sons are commoners in the eyes of the law and remain such until the eldest succeeds to his father’s place, or until any one (or all of them) secures a peerage in his own right through some contribution to the advancement of the country deemed worthy of notice by the Crown. [6]

It is quite clear that Lovecraft did not base his ideas of aristocracy on mere wealth either, for he considers the natural ally of the true aristocratic spirit to be the honest peasant, who like the aristocracy, unites against the eternally money-grubbing bourgeoisie.

It has been more than once remarked, that there is an intangible bond of kinship betwixt the highest and the humblest elements of the community. Whilst the bourgeois complacently busy themselves with their commonplace, respectable, and unimaginative careers of money-grabbing, the artist and the aristocrat join forces with the ploughman and the peasant in an involuntary mental wave of reaction against the monotony of materialism.[7]

The most troublesome aspect of Lovecraft’s political views for modern readers to understand will be the prohibition of the average man’s one true love. Alcohol. Lovecraft was a proud supporter of the prohibition movement. He says that Robert Lansing, Prime Minister of the United States, had restored the “disgusting presence of liquor at American state dinners”[8] and that “the abolition of wine from tables of state was the first toward giving the American people a high governmental example of decency.” [9] Furthermore Lovecraft says that “he who strives against the Hydra-monster Rum, strives most to conserve his fellow-men.”[10] In light of this, Lovecraft also considers his publication The Conservative to be;

[…] an enthusiastic champion of total abstinence and prohibition; of moderation, healthy militarianism as contrasted with dangerous an unpatriotic peace-preaching; […] of constitutional or representative government, as opposed to the pernicious and contemptible false schemes of anarchy and socialism.

This brings us to another two unexpected ideas which Lovecraft supports – war and a strong dislike of anything ‘socialist’. For many readers of his fictional works today, these attitudes will prove jarring. However, in the interest of providing an accurate view of Lovecraft ‘as he actually was’, it isn’t appropriate to sweep them under the carpet or just gloss over them. This is surely likely to annoy some horror fans – the Necronomicon is one thing, but praising war and disparaging democracy is something that that terrifies the average man far more than tentacles and the Crawling Chaos. Lovecraft, the mild mannered, quiet and reclusive horror author was, in his own words, strongly opposed to both democracy and socialism. Another two things which apparently irked Lovecraft were Bolsheviks and anarchists. Though not written by Lovecraft himself, there is a whole poem by John Russell called ‘Socialism’ which is far from flattering. The closing lines are enough to explain the nature of the poem:

I’m sure this is not the plan
To benefit the working man.
As for myself, I frankly say:
Just give me work and decent pay,
And dreamers will in vain insist
That I become a socialist.[11]

Anarchism and Bolshevism are also not looked upon favourably by Lovecraft who states that:

Whilst long-winded politicians reach universal peace, long haired anarchists are preaching a social upheaval which means nothing less than a reversion to savagery or medieval barbarism. Even in this traditionally orderly nation the number of Bolsheviki, open and veiled, is considerable enough to require remedial measures.[12]

There is a lot more written on the problem of Bolshevism and it seems Lovecraft found the ideology quite distant from his preferred model of Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic aristocracy. One other surprising preference of Lovecraft’s which may be unexpected, is that Lovecraft, albeit being a somewhat aloof and reclusive author, was not a pacifist and seems to have believed in the necessity of war. It is also clear from the statement below that he did not believe in the notions of ‘idealists’ who proselytised the masses with socialism and democracy. For example, in the ‘The Crime of the Century’ Lovecraft says that;

The present European war, occurring as it does in an age of hysterical sentimentality and unsound political doctrines, has called forth from the sympathizers of each set of belligerents an unexampled torrent of indiscriminate denunciation.

The effeminate idealist, half awaked from his roseate vision of universal brotherhood, shrieks at the mutual slaughter of his fellow-men, or singles out individual acts of cruelty or treachery as the objects of his well-meaning rage; while the erratic socialist, saturated with false notions of equality and democracy, raves unendingly against cruel systems of government which sacrifice a peaceful peasantry to the greed and ambition of their warlike masters.[13]

This may arise from an essentially pessimistic view of human nature however, for Lovecraft also declares that universal peace simply is not possible in his opinion – thereby implying that many people are naturally horrid and war is justified to stand up to such people, rather than meekly accepting their lot and justifying their cowardice with a guilty silence. Interpreted in this manner, Lovecraft’s attitude to war is that of a virile and heroic type rather than being war-monger for the sake of war itself. This is expressed below;

After the degrading debauch of craven pacifism through which our sodden and feminised public has lately floundered, a slight sense of shame seems to be appearing, and the outcries of-peace-at-any-price maniacs are less violent then they were a few months ago […] Why any sane human being can believe in the possibility of universal peace is more than the CONSERVATIVE can fathom. The essential pugnacity and treachery of mankind is only too evident; and that very nation, even though pledged, would actually abolish means of warfare is absolutely unthinkable.[14]

Whilst the political views of Lovecraft are possibly unfathomable for many modern readers, the familiar Lovecraft we all know occasionally bubbles to the surface in pages of The Conservative. For example, in ‘Time and Space’ his writing becomes more discernible as the classic ‘Lovecraftian’ style.

Of the various conceptions brought before the human mind by the advance of Science, what can be compared in strangeness and magnitude with that of eternity and infinity, as presented by modern astronomy? Nothing disturbs out settled egoism and self-importance more than the realisation of man’s utter insignificance which comes with knowledge of his position in time and space.[15]

The real value of this book is not its articles on poetry nor its literary criticisms. Likewise, the value of the book is not to be found in Lovecraft’s excursions into cultural and political theory. The real merit of The Conservative is to be found in the glimpses into the personality of H. P. Lovecraft himself. The opportunity to know Lovecraft as an individual does not manifest in his fictional works. The Conservative offers us the means to know Lovecraft the man and not just Lovecraft the horror writer. For some readers it may be difficult to juxtapose this side of Lovecraft with their Cthulhu plush toys and Necronomicon spoofs – but nonetheless The Conservative is exactly in line with its name – Lovecraft himself was, even for the era in which he lived, deeply conservative.

 

[1] Lovecraft, H. P., The Conservative: The Complete Issues 1915-1925 (UK: Arktos Media Ltd, 2013), 57
[2] Ibid., 24
[3] Ibid., 25
[4] Ibid., 146-147
[5] Ibid., 95
[6] Ibid., 89
[7] Ibid., 107
[8] Ibid., 60
[9] Ibid., 60
[10] Ibid., 38
[11] Ibid., 68
[12] Ibid., 176
[13] Ibid., 23
[14] Ibid., 58
[15] Ibid., 142

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