On Portraying a White Supremacist

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In a letter to Natalie Wooley in 1934 talking about violence in the southern United States that claimed the lives of thousands of black Americans during his life, HP Lovecraft defended “extra-legal measures such as lynching and intimidation” because “anything is better than the mongrelisation which would mean the hopeless deterioration of a great nation.”

The topic of Lovecraft’s racism is an evergreen one that many of his ardent fans wish would go away. Since his ascent into the public limelight, it returns again and again, often being met with cries of “Stop beating this dead horse,” “He was a man of his times,” and “Pick on someone who can defend himself.” If one is being generous, then most of these folks are just tired of a topic they’ve seen debated again and again with little obvious impact beyond raised tempers. However, as someone who has spent time in Lovecraft fandom since donning his flesh-mask, I can attest that there are a disturbing number who take his racial views as a feature and not a bug. For a much more in-depth look, I heartily recommend Ezra Claverie’s article which can be found here (pdf), the source of many of the quotes provided.

In light of recent events in Charleston and debates arising about the role of white supremacy in the United States, I feel compelled to address a question I often get: How can I justify portraying a notorious and odious racist?

I first want to start on his racial views which were and are as reprehensible as they are indefensible. Not that people haven’t tried. The standard line is that he lived in a different time and it’s unfair to judge anyone who grew up in the past by the standards of today. I think that it’s absolutely important to not get so caught up in one’s own sense of contemporary virtue to think that had you lived in different times and in different circumstances, you would have made all the correct moral choices – that you would have freed your slaves, have given women the vote, have refused to renounce your faith under pain of death. However, even by the standards of his day, Lovecraft was severe.

In a 1922 letter to Maurice Moe, he called New York’s Chinatown, “a bastard mess of stewing mongrel flesh without intellect […] would to heaven a kindly gust of cyanogen could asphyxiate the whole gigantic abortion.” In a 1933 letter to J Shea, he wrote, “The Indian people represent such an abyss of degeneracy that extirpation & fumigation would seem to be about the only way to make Hindoostan fit for decent people to inhabit.”

Now these can be seen as just angry rhetoric like when Ann Coulter said “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”  but they speak to the mind of a man who was stewed in white supremacy and was willing to countenance (even rhetorically) unspeakable murder and terrorism, acts that the Nazis themselves went to severe pains to disguise as they carried them out.

These views, while perhaps mellowing with age, never truly went away. ST Joshi in An Epicure In the Terrible sums it up beautifully:

“It is not the mere fact that he expressed obnoxious opinions about blacks, Jews, and just about every other “non-Aryan” race; it is the fact that in this one area of his thought Lovecraft failed to exercise that flexibility of mind that made him come to grips with Einstein and Planck, Eliot and Joyce, FDR and Norman Thomas. In all aspects of his philosophy except this one, Lovecraft was constantly expanding, clarifying, and revising his views to suit the facts of the world; in race alone his attitude remained monolithic.”

So now we come back to the main question. How can I, a white man who profits from and exploits the legacy of an unrepentant white supremacist justify it?

My standard answer is that I find Lovecraft a fascinating figure full of incongruities and inconsistencies. He was a brilliant autodidact who never finished high school or went to college. A seeming recluse who was a charming, eloquent, and above all, prodigious correspondent. A man who said of Jews, “There is only one thing we can do as an immediate expedient to save ourselves; Keep them out of our national and racial life,” and in that same year would marry a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant. The legacy of his stories and his letters (especially his letters) have had a remarkable impact on the world of art and literature and it’s not hard to see why there is such a cult of personality around him. As a friend once said, he’s the ur-nerd, an archetype for all lonely teens.

When I started to play Lovecraft, I made a few rules for myself. I never want to apologize or make excuses for his views. I don’t think it would be honest to say in character, “I’ve seen the light! Multiculturalism is the greatest! How foolish I was!” From time to time I’ve come close but I never fully go over the line. It’s part of why I enjoy having his Evil Twin PH to tackle some of these issues as I did here and here. It’s a cheat that lets me address these issues but not betray the character, such as it is.

The other saving grace is humour. My show is a comedy and as such, I’m able to poke fun both at Lovecraft’s views and also use him to poke modern sensibilities. As Rachel and I just talked about on our most recent podcast, comedy is not just a distraction from drama but can be used to highlight it and throw serious subjects into stark relief and I think some of what I do on Ask Lovecraft reflects it.

There’s also the fact that white supremacy didn’t die with Lovecraft but lives on to this day as evidenced by the tragedy we’ve seen in Charleston. It suffuses our culture and ourselves in subtle, insidious ways and while we’ve come a long way, there is still further to go. Growing up a white missionary kid in Nigeria and then moving to Tennessee, I’ve seen how racist sentiment and bigotry can grow in someone and it’s by God’s grace, good parenting, and some remarkable teachers that I managed to learn how to question those feelings and assumptions.

Finally however, the real answer is that I can only portray Lovecraft, warts and all, by being brutally honest about his problems and being willing to engage with it without throwing up defensive walls or complaining that the evergreen topic needs to die already.  As new people discover Lovecraft, eventually his white supremacy is going to show itself, either in his stories directly or through other means. As long as I take money for playing Lovecraft or accept invitations to conventions or festivals, I think it is my moral duty to stare unflinchingly at the unpleasantness and be willing to answer this question as many times as it takes.

I hope I get to answer it for a long time.

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11 Responses to On Portraying a White Supremacist

  1. Bobby Derie says:

    Huzzah, Leeman, for taking such an approach. Lovecraft’s prejudices should not be denied or ignored, any more than they should be celebrated. His understanding of race ties in to many other aspects of his thought – on evolution, on politics, his understanding of history, sex and miscegenation, his placement of self – even his relationship with Robert E. Howard. To ignore or downplay that aspect of the man is to present simply a caricature. So good for you.

  2. Sean Holland says:

    You seem to have the right approach for the situation.

    In re: the person of his times argument, you have obviously read his correspondence and such. Did any of his friends challenge his racist views or was it allowed to go unchallenged? I suspect that his over views evolved because people her respected challenged them an, sadly, that did not happen with race.

  3. Chrisfs says:

    Glad you addressed this issue and the way you addressed it. I have enjoyed your series (and even got a few questions answered), and appreciated the character as sort of a ‘rip Van Winkle’ curmudgeon. Having learned about Lovecraft initially from the D&D Deities and Demigods (also my primary source, as a teen, for Indian and Chinese traditional religions, don’t judge!) I was unaware of the extent of his racism until I mentioned ‘this neat youtube series ‘ to a friend , who pointed that out to me. I think you handled a quite harsh aspect of his persona in a way that doesn’t downplay it but doesn’t make it impossible to watch and enjoy the humor of the series as well. If I felt I had to be complicit in his extremely racist views in order to enjoy the series, I would not be able to watch it. I am very happy that the definitive response of PH to racism is PBBBBT https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TSoxFgCKlY

  4. Taranaich says:

    I think one important facet when it comes to Lovecraft and other authors who died 70 years ago is that, simply, racism is an absolutely horrible thing to think about. It might sound ridiculous considering this is a *horror* writer we’re talking about, but the thing about cosmic horror is that it isn’t something that happens every day all around the world (or at least, it isn’t in the papers and news all the time). Racism and racial violence is so mundane and commonplace that there’s practically no escape from it: it keeps happening, and happening, and sometimes it seems like it’ll never stop.

    Now, I’m absolutely in favour of talking about difficult subjects, particularly in the arts – but I know that I rarely talked about my favourite authors’ views simply because some of those views were too upsetting to even think about. It took me a while to come to terms with them, and I did it at my own pace. I don’t know if that’s the same for everyone – other people are perfectly comfortable talking about race and racism, obviously – but I think there must be at least some people who don’t want to discuss the racism because, well, they don’t want to discuss the racism.

    I suppose it’s about time, place and context. A thoughtful, intelligent discussion on how society, culture, and even science of the time informed Lovecraft’s views is the ideal, but it far too often descends into shouting matches between trolls.

    I appreciate your nuanced view on a difficult subject.

    • Leeman says:

      I think where that desire to not discuss Lovecraft’s racism becomes problematic is in open discussions or forums where any mention of the Dreaded Topic is invariably leaped upon by shouts of derision which I don’t find useful.

      • JDC says:

        I think that some of that dismissal come from the simplistic statements concerning his racism in the forums. Most of the comments bring nothing new to the discussion and most seem written by people who barely scratch the surface before screaming fire in the theater.

        I grow weary because of the lack of thought, research, or reflection can be found in many of these threads.

        This is an issue that can never go away. HPL can never grow as a human being, expand his awareness, or become anything other than what he was… because he is dead. I cannot justify HPL because there is no justification. I don’t accept that he was a man of his times because we choose who we want to be.

        He created amazing work that inspired countless artists and writers. We have stories and film that we may not have had otherwise. For that, I am grateful. For the rest, I hold in the lowest regard.

  5. Nick Hilligoss says:

    Thank you for a well considered article on an uncomfortable topic. I’ve known a few people with massive contradictions in their character, and been able to appreciate some aspects while being very much out of sympathy with others.

  6. Nicely put. I think my thoughts on it would be that, while Lovecraft was repellantly racist even by the standards of many of his contemporaries, and those views about humanity being menaced by a dark, sinister “other” basically form the genesis of most of his themes… A lot of his work is still fun to read and acknowledging how problematic that is is a good “teachable moment for grown ups” as it were.

    As for you…, lots of actors make a lot more money playing Hitler or other Nazis in movies, and nobody thinks they’re terrible for doing it (I hope).

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