Written by Alex Taylor
As all fans of H.P. Lovecraft know, liking and enjoying his work is often paradoxical. Reading and discussing his stories is an exercise in both enthusiasm and restraint—praise and deprecation. Being a Lovecraft fan is at once an exciting entryway into a mysterious mythos and an indefensible position. While the indescribable entities of the Cthulhu mythos and the nightmare dreamscapes of Lovecraft’s horror-stricken New England settings fill us with wonder, the personal views of the man behind the pen are reason to shudder in disgust. There is nothing that can excuse Lovecraft’s virulent and dangerous racism—and this raises a difficult question: is it okay to enjoy Lovecraft’s writing despite his racist views?
As a fan of Lovecraft and the horror genre as a whole, I have to answer the question with a half-hearted, unenthusiastic maybe.
What does it mean to enjoy art in the first place? Does appreciation of a narrative necessarily imply endorsement? I think many people would agree that it’s possible to love a painting at first sight, before ever knowing who held the brush. Imagine if it was possible to view all art this way, held at a distance, just far enough that the name underneath the work was blurry and impossible to read. Perhaps it would ease the burden of liking art made by monsters. Perhaps, without any knowledge of the artist’s life, important contextual details about the time period or artist’s experiences would be lost, condemning the story to misinterpretation and misunderstanding.
I’m certainly not the first person to write about dealing with art made by horrible people—other writers, like Claire Dederer have discussed the topic at length (you can read her article on Woody Allen here). Still, it is a struggle worth repeating, as we can never remove the ugly stains from our favorite authors, no matter how hard we try.
Separating an artist from the art they create is a necessary, impossible thing to do. Above all else, I think we have to approach art with a kind of understanding, not to be confused with forgiveness or sympathy. In Lovecraft’s case, understanding his racism makes the burden of enjoying his works a little easier to bear. At the very least, understanding is a means of avoiding surprise. When you see a line in a Lovecraft story belittling immigrants or rejecting otherness, understanding at least allows you to think, “I know Lovecraft was a racist. I don’t have to agree with this line or this message just because I enjoy the story.” Just as you can reject a line while simultaneously choosing to enjoy the piece, you can reject an artist while simultaneously enjoying their art.
In Lovecraft’s case, this is an important step in negotiating the line between enjoyment and endorsement. Just because you enjoy an artist’s work does not mean you have to endorse everything they believed. Liking art isn’t always an implicit proclamation of agreement. Art is entertainment. Art is human. You can’t always explain why you like something, why a story scares you or inspires you or makes you laugh. And that’s okay.
Lovecraft also has the advantage of being dead.
With modern authors, it can be more difficult to separate enjoyment from endorsement. After Junot Díaz was accused of sexual misconduct, many of my friends swore off his books. There are other cases, too, where an author’s views or lifestyle make it difficult to read their work. When buying someone’s books enables them to maintain their lifestyle, the line between enjoyment and endorsement becomes a lot less clear. Thankfully in Lovecraft’s case, most of his work is available for free online, so you don’t have to spend a cent to read it. Not that the money would help him now, anyway.
An English professor once told me that an author is often the least reliable source when speaking about their own work. One student offered an interpretation of a short story given by the author himself, and my professor looked at the student, smiled, and said, “No.”
Once a writer puts down the pen, he argued, they no longer have any reign over the story. It goes out to the world to become its own entity. This intriguing idea struck me as one method that might make appreciating a horrible artist’s work a little easier. Interpretation of literature is, perhaps, the most complained about aspect of English. “But that’s not what the writer really meant” is a phrase I’ve heard in English classes from middle school to my senior year of college. The thing is, that phrase implies its own interpretation—how can anyone possibly know what exactly the writer was thinking at the time it was being written? As an amateur writer, I don’t think even I can confidently say what I was thinking when creating a story. Writing is a contract between author and reader. Once an author puts something into a reader’s hands, it’s no longer theirs to control.
Interpretation is a feel-good, violent act. It allows us to rip a story out of the hands of an author and say, “This is ours now. You no longer have any say over it.” It is a means of refusing to surrender a good piece of art to the will of a flawed artist. It is the literary equivalent of seizing the means of production—after all, how can an author survive without the mental labor of the reader?
Interpretation is a feel-good violent act.
Still, coming to terms with Lovecraft’s racism is a big, fat, disgusting pill to swallow. One that is often disgusting enough to keep Lovecraft out of the American literary canon.
Another professor I had in a class on American horror told us that in an anthology of American literature over a thousand pages long, there was not a single mention of H.P. Lovecraft. It’s hard to say whether keeping Lovecraft out of American literature is the right thing to do. It is impossible to say that Lovecraft didn’t inspire and influence almost all the horror that came after him. Rejecting him from the American literary canon is, unfortunately, an instance of hypocrisy. We have a tendency to valorize unworthy people, and many other authors with their own extensive lists of horrible attitudes or beliefs are still represented in the American literary canon. Ernest Hemingway was abusive; Ezra Pound was anti-Semitic; Norman Mailer was homophobic. For many other authors, we have accepted that reading, enjoying, and discussing their work is okay despite their often-revolting personal views—and it seems strange to me that the man who singlehandedly influenced all the horror writing that came after him gets the short end of the stick.
Lovecraft’s racism makes his case a difficult one. In other cases, though, the importance of separating the art from an artist is clearer. When Oscar Wilde was put on trial for his sexuality, he was arrested partly due to “evidence” from his 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray that, in the minds of the prosecutors, proved he had committed “indecent acts.” In this case, it is an easy mistake to spot—a homophobic court’s literary interpretation should not constitute reliable testimony. Fiction is, after all, a lie. If it were true, it wouldn’t be fiction at all. Oscar Wilde himself wrote that, “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.”
So why is it so much clearer in this instance that we shouldn’t hold an author’s art against him as the ultimate explanation of his personal views?
Well, for one, Oscar Wilde was not a raving racist. Lovecraft was also a prolific letter writer—and, on more than one occasion, he showed his bitter racism and hatred in the contents of those letters. The causation of the condemnation is also flipped in these two scenarios. In Oscar Wilde’s case, the work condemned the man; in Lovecraft’s, the man condemned the work.
Still, the example raises some interesting questions about the messy tie between art and the artist. I think the more important question is whether an author’s personal life should have an impact on the merit of their work. Certainly, it wouldn’t make sense to read fiction like a blind application, keeping the author’s name and personal life totally out of view. And in some cases, like Lovecraft’s short story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” it is impossible to miss the racist ideology he invokes. With sentences decrying sections of the New York population as “a hopeless tangle and enigma [with] Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another,” going on to say that it is “a babel of sound and filth,” it is not surprising that this story is one of the most hated that Lovecraft ever wrote (for more discussion of Lovecraft’s racism and “The Horror at Red Hook,” check out this article by Wes House). And if a work harbors obvious racist sentiment, its merit is and should be diminished, for the same reason that—despite the technical artistic abilities of the artists—no one argues that anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda holds any merit in the realm of visual art.
If you go looking for monsters in Lovecraft’s work, you’ll have no trouble finding them. Just look out for the biggest monster of all—
But what about stories where the author’s personal life is more easily avoided, where the intersection between the author’s beliefs and the story they told is blurred?
Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space,” for instance, is notably devoid of racism. This makes the story much easier to judge as a work of literary merit. Not that “not being racist” is a particularly hard bar to reach or deserves praise—it only serves as a baseline for stories to be admitted into discussions of artistic merit. A story like “The Colour out of Space” is easier to enjoy than “The Horror at Red Hook.” Finding these diamonds in the rough can be difficult in the writings of a twisted person—even Lovecraft’s more famous stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” have some questionable sentiments. Despite its fame, “The Call of Cthulhu” describes its cults as a “horde of human abnormality,” “hybrid spawn,” and later goes so far as to say that most of these “men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type” are made up of “seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mullatoes.” It’s unquestionably horrible. So what do we say of this kind of author whose work has outgrown his own reach?
Through interpretation and understanding, it’s possible—though difficult—to appreciate and enjoy Lovecraft’s work, despite his personal views. That being said, there are many ways to deal with an artist’s horrible qualities—all of them are legitimate. If separating the artist completely from the art works for you, more power to you—and if you’re more comfortable ignoring the work of an artist whose beliefs are threatening to you, that is equally legitimate.
I’m not arguing that every person has to enjoy every author’s work, regardless of their personal beliefs; I’m only trying to figure out some ways we can separate the monsters from the monstrous. Perhaps it is a selfish desire—to keep Lovecraft’s mythos close to my chest while simultaneously keeping the author at arm’s length—and maybe the task is impossible after all. I think it’s a problem that must be treated on a person-by-person basis. The dilemma for me was in trying to reconcile the work that amazed and inspired me, the dark New England landscapes and twisted eldritch beings, with an author whose views I detest. If you go looking for monsters in Lovecraft’s work, you’ll have no trouble finding them. Just look out for the biggest monster of all—the one hiding behind the pen.