H.P. Lovecraft & Racism
Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game was my gateway drug to the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. His works shaped my view of horror and led me to write adventures and monographs for Chaosium. I am rather pleased that one of my creations is now included among the Great Old Ones. I even co-authored a paper on Lovecraft with physicist Paul Halpern. While Lovecraft is well known for the horrors of his Cthulhu Mythos, he is becoming well known for another sort of horror, namely racism.
When I was a kid, I was rather blind to the prejudices expressed in Lovecraft’s writings—I was much more focused on the strange vistas, sanity blasting beings, and the warping of space and time. As I grew older, I became aware of the casual prejudices expressed towards minorities and his special horror of “mongrel races.” However, I was unsure of whether he was truly a racist or trapped just expressing a common world view of his (and our) time. Which, to be honest, can be regarded as racist. Since I rather like Lovecraft’s writings, I was a bit disturbed as revelations about his racism began to pile up.
For the past forty years the World Fantasy Convention has given World Fantasy awards that take the form of a bust of Lovecraft. Nnedi Okorafor won a WFA in 2011 and was rather disturbed to find that Lovecraft had written a racist poem. While not as surprising as the revelation that Dr. Seuss drew racist cartoons, such evidence of blatant racism certainly altered my view of Lovecraft as a person.
As should be expected, there have been efforts to defend Lovecraft. One of the most notable defenders is S.T. Joshi, one of the leading authorities on the author. The defense of Lovecraft follows a fairly stock approach used to address the issue of whether or not artists’ personal qualities or actions should be relevant to the merit of their art. I turn now to considering some of these stock arguments.
One stock defense is the “product of the times” defense: although Lovecraft was racist, nearly everyone was racist in that time period. This defense does have some merit in that it is reasonable to consider the social and moral setting in which an artist lived. After all, artists have no special immunity to social influences. To use an analogy, consider the stock feminist arguments regarding the harmful influence of the patriarchal culture, sexist imagery, sexist language and unrealistic body images on young women. The argument is often made that young woman are shaped by these forces and develop low self-esteem, become more likely to have eating disorders, and develop unrealistic images of how they should look and behave. If these cultural influences can have such a devastating impact on young women, it is certainly easy enough to imagine the damaging impact of a culture awash in racism upon the young Lovecraft. Just as a young woman inundated by photoshopped images of supermodels can develop a distorted view of reality, a young person exposed to racism can develop a distorted view of reality. And, just as one would not hold the young woman responsible for her distorted self-image, one should not hold the young racist accountable for his distorted other-image.
It can be countered that the analogy does not hold. While young women can be mentally shaped by the patriarchal influences of the culture and are not morally accountable for this, people are fully responsible for accepting racism even in a culture that is flooded with racism, such as the United States in the 1900s. As such, Lovecraft is fully to blame for his racist views and his condemnation is justified. The challenge is, of course, to work out how some cultural factors can shape people in ways that excuse them and other shaping leaves people morally accountable.
Another reply is that this stock argument is a version of the appeal to common practice fallacy—a fallacy that occurs when a practice is defended on the grounds that it is commonly done. Obviously, the mere fact that a practice is common does not justify that practice. So, although racism was common in Lovecraft’s day, this does not serve as a defense of his views.
A second stock defense is that the artist has other traits that offset the negative qualities in question. In the case of Lovecraft, the defense is that he was intelligent, generous and produced works of considerable influence and merit. This defense does have some appeal—after all, everyone has negative traits and a person should be assessed by the totality of her being, not her worst quality taken in isolation.
While this is a reasonable reply, it only works to the degree that a person’s good qualities offset the negative qualities. After all, there are many awful people who are kind to their own pets or loved some other people. As such, a consideration of this defense would require weighing the evil of Lovecraft with the good. One factor well worth considering is that although Lovecraft wrote racist things and thought racist thoughts, there is the question of whether his racism led him to actually harm anyone. While it might be claimed that racism itself is crime enough, it does seem to matter whether or not he actually acted on this racism to the detriment of others. This, of course, ties into the broader philosophical issue of the moral importance of thoughts versus the moral importance of actions.
Another concern with this defense is that even if a person’s positive traits outweigh the negative, this does not erase the negative traits. So even if Lovecraft was a smart and generous racist, he was still a racist. Which is certainly grounds for condemnation.
A third, and especially intriguing stock defense against one moral flaw is to argue that the flaw is subsumed in a far greater flaw. In the case of Lovecraft, it could be argued that his specific racism is subsumed into his general misanthropic view of humanity. While there is some debate about the extent of his (alleged) misanthropy, this does have some appeal. After all, if Lovecraft disliked humans in general, his racism against specific ethnic groups would be part of that overall view and not racism in the usual sense. Many of Lovecraft’s stories (such as in “the Picture in the House”, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, ‘the Rats in the Walls”, and “the Dunwich Horror”) feature the degeneracy and villainy of those of European stock. The descriptions of the degenerated whites are every bit as condemning and harsh as his descriptions of people of other ethnicities. As such, Lovecraft cannot be accused of being a racist—unless his racism is cast as being against all humans.
One counter to this is to point out that being awful in general is not a defense of being awful in a particular way. Another counter is that while Lovecraft did include degenerate white people, he also wrote in very positive ways about some white characters—something he did not do for any other ethnicities. This, it could be argued, does support the claim that Lovecraft was racist.
A final stock defense is to argue that the merits of artists’ works are independent of the personal qualities of the artists. What matters, it can be argued, is the quality of the work itself. One way to argue for this is to use an analogy from my own past.
Years ago, when I was a young cross country runner, there was a very good runner at another college. This fellow regularly placed in and even won races—he was, without a doubt, one of the best runners in the conference. However, he was almost universally despised—so much so that people joked that the only reason no one beat him up was because they could not catch him. Despite his being hated, his fellow runners had to acknowledge the fact that he was a good runner and merited all the victories. The same would seem to apply in the case of an artist like Lovecraft: his works should be assessed on their own merits and not on his personality traits.
Another way to make the argument is to point out the fact that an artist having positive qualities does not make the art better. A person might be a moral saint, but this does not mean that her guitar playing skill will be exceptional. A person might be kind to animals and devoted to the wellbeing of others, but this will not enhance his poetry. So, if the positive traits of an artist do not improve a work, it should follow that negative traits do not make the work worse.
This then leads to the concern that an artist’s personality qualities might corrupt a work. To go back to the running analogy, if the despised runner was despised because he cheated at the races, then the personality traits that made him the object of dislike would be relevant to assessing the merit of his performances. Likewise, if the racism of a racist author infects his works, then this could be regarded as reducing their merit. This leads to the issue of whether or not such racism actually detracts from the merit of a work, which is a lengthy issue for another time.
My own view of Lovecraft is that his racism made him a worse person. However, the fact that he was a racist does not impact the merit of his works—except to the degree that the racist elements in the stories damage their artistic merit (which is an issue well worth considering). As such, Lovecraft should be condemned for his racism, but given due praise for the value of his work and his contribution to modern horror.