‘Strangers without dreams and without kinship to the scenes about them’: Nativism in the Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft
Hello! My name is Michael Goodrum, and I am currently on study leave, doing some research on horror comics and the Cold War. Connected to this, and to my module Isolation to Domination: The History of the USA, 1914-1945, is the work of H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most famous and influential of American horror writers. As we approach Hallowe’en, I thought you might be interested to know a little more about this dark little corner of research. In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming…
H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) is a problematic presence in the American literary canon. Largely unrecognised in his life, Lovecraft’s stories were dismissed shortly after his death in The New Yorker by prominent critic, Edmund Wilson, as “hack-work” that “do not make good adult reading.” Despite these early setbacks, Lovecraft’s work has subsequently come to occupy an elevated position in the pantheon of modern American fiction and been championed by writers such as Stephen King and, in 2005, he was commemorated by a Library of America edition of his work. The motto of that series, ‘to celebrate the words that shaped America’, is particularly relevant to Lovecraft as his fiction repeatedly drew on an idealized notion of the American past as it reacted violently to his perspective on the present. The ‘strangers’ mentioned in the title were in the act of challenging the idealized image cherished by Lovecraft: they were immigrants to New York, whom Lovecraft saw as not only incapable of being American, but even of being fully human. It is this that renders them, and their formerly idyllic American surroundings, monstrous.
Nativism, or anti-immigration sentiment, had been on the rise in the US for some time. The Ku Klux Klan, brought into and then drummed out of existence under Reconstruction (1865-1877), had been reanimated by the success of The Birth of a Nation (1915). D. W. Griffith’s film was the first to be screened at the White House, and was a favourite of President Wilson (a Southerner himself). The Birth of a Nation’s skewed interpretation of American history, which celebrated the Klan, was supported by historians of the Dunning School, which held significant intellectual sway for the first three decades of the twentieth century. These men argued that African Americans routinely abused their political power under Reconstruction, and as such they attempted to justify a return to white supremacist rule. The Klan promoted similar ideas through capitalizing on new advertising techniques and technologies, facilitating a rapid rise in membership; in a demonstration of their power, the Klan staged a grand march through Washington in 1925. Their popularity resonated with the eugenicist rhetoric then enjoying sufficient prominence to prompt the formation of the American Eugenics Society in 1921. The most prominent example of nativist sentiment is the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, immigration legislation that placed severe limits on entry into the US. Such was its commitment to a nation state based on homogeneity of race and language that Adolf Hitler approvingly cited the Johnson-Reed Act as an inspiration for his own policies.
Lovecraft’s fiction emerged in dialogue with this atmosphere. Lovecraft moved to New York with his wife in 1924, and witnessed immigrants at first hand. In his stories of New York, Lovecraft gave free rein to his racial resentment, fuelled by his own inability to secure employment or find financial success as a writer. Lovecraft’s letters from this period are even clearer on his passionate disgust for the immigrants of New York. In discussing the city, Lovecraft describes a white character who decides to move among the “polyglot abyss of New York’s underworld” as “a freak beyond sensible explanation” (‘The Horror At Red Hook’). The population of Red Hook, a neighbourhood in Brooklyn where Lovecraft lived, is described as “a hopeless tangle and enigma” of races and languages, haunted by illegally smuggled “nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island,” the immigration inspection station in Upper New York Bay that was in operation from 1892 to 1954. Such attitudes form the backdrop to other stories, like ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1928), which speaks of ‘voodoo orgies’ in Haiti, ‘ominous mutterings’ in Africa, and ‘bothersome tribes’ in the Philippines. Lovecraft subsequently connects these racialized Others to a threat posed to the domestic US, describing how ‘hysterical Levantines’ had mobbed the police in New York and “a dark cult totally unknown to them, and infinitely more diabolic than even the blackest of the African voodoo circles” populated by an “indescribable horde of human abnormality” had been in operation in the swamps south of New Orleans. More prosaically, racist notions are evident in that the agent of the eminent Professor George Gammell Angell’s demise is a “nautical-looking negro” emerging from one of the “queer dark courts” on the roadside (‘The Call of Cthulhu’). Lovecraft was also aware of eugenicist ideas, and applied them to white Americans as well as people of colour, noting the “physical stigmata of degeneracy and inbreeding… so common in many New England backwaters” [‘The Dunwich Horror’]). Another clear example of this is ‘Shadow Over Innsmouth’, with its narrative of man devolving back into the ocean. In many of Lovecraft’s stories, the threat of degeneracy and from people of colour is only kept in check by agents of order derived from the patrician white elite, often connected to a university or other such powerful institution.
Lovecraft’s obsessive exploration of miscegenation, racial threat, and racial degeneration engages with widely held views of the 1920s. Metaphors of the melting pot were reframed and the US was now positioned as unable to ‘digest the scum’. No longer were ‘your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” welcome in the ‘land of the free’ (‘The New Colossus’, engraved on the Statue of Liberty in 1903). Earlier waves of largely white northern European immigration had been replaced by Jews and Catholics from central and southern Europe. A significant portion of American society viewed these immigrants as visually different, both in appearance and lifestyle, and as such inassimilable. Fears around Eastern European immigration can also be seen to have contributed to the popularity of the 1927 Broadway production of Dracula, starring the Hungarian immigrant, Bela Lugosi, as the fascinating yet threatening Count. Lugosi reprised this role in the film version of 1931 that proved so successful it sparked a wave of horror films (Dracula again served as a locus of American fears around a racialised Other in Blade Trinity  when, unlike real weapons of mass destruction, he was found in Iraq). Though success was largely down to Lugosi’s compelling performance, his accent limited the screen work he was able to acquire, further evidence of an anti-immigrant bias in contemporary American culture. As immigrants became more visible and audible, and amid a postwar ‘Red Scare’ directed at anything straying from a WASP ideal, stricter criteria as to who and what qualified as ‘American’ were applied and popularized through new mass media and techniques – and indeed through pulp magazines such as Weird Tales that published much of Lovecraft’s work.
The use of racist imagery was not new in American Gothic fiction; it has a history that can certainly be traced back at least to Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), but also, as Nick Groom argues, to the founding of the nation, to slavery and subjection. If we return to the idea of the Library of America as focusing on ‘the words that shaped America’, though, we see how the celebration of Lovecraft, and his continuing influence on modern horror, has contributed to the narration of a particular version of American identity; an identity characterized by tensions that still exist today in rhetoric around travel bans and tighter control of who is able to inhabit the US, both as a geographical and ideological space, and indeed the rights of American citizens in non-contiguous, unassimilated territories such as Puerto Rico. That the problematic ideas found in Lovecraft are so widespread as to largely avoid comment, the Library of America edition of his work includes both ‘He’ and ‘The Horror at Red Hook’: both are heavily characterized by nativist resentment with a clear idea of what is and is not American, what is and is not monstrous.
Lovecraft’s stories set up an American space threatened by forces from outside; even when that threat is not obviously racialised, its traces remain. In this, it corresponds with the nativist and isolationist currents that defined American policy in the interwar period. Such sentiments are clear when Lovecraft alleges that New York:
Is not a sentient perpetuation of Old New York as London is of Old London and Paris of Old Paris, but that it is in fact quite dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things which have nothing to do with it as it was in life (‘He’).
This passage shows Lovecraft’s interpretation of the effects of immigration on New York, in contrast to what he perceives to be the ‘purer’ Old World cities of London and Paris. Perhaps because both were the metropole of a global empire, and thus embedded in clear racialized hierarchies and relationships of power, Lovecraft found any ethnic or religious diversity less threatening to the idea of the nation and a homogenous national culture. Rather than a positive force attesting to the dynamism of American society, culture, and economic strength, to its ability to attract people from all over the world, Lovecraft saw immigration an existential threat. It was the greatest horror of all, because it was real.