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Herbert West - Racist [Dec. 11th, 2011|08:39 pm]
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur
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I think I mentioned previously that one of the eBooks I downloaded to my Kindle Fire is a complete works of H.P. Lovecraft. Today, on the train back from our weekend in Philly (Amtrak train #666, I kid you not!) I turned on the Fire and read the serial novella "Herbert West - Reanimator." It's one of the few Lovecraft stories I haven't reread a million times, probably because of the film, which I saw before ever reading the story, and which remains one of my favorite horror films.

"Herbert West - Reanimator" is definitely prime Lovecraft, from the deliciously overwrought descriptions like "a horde of silent toiling things which only insanity--or worse--could create" to, er, this passage:

The negro had been knocked out [in the boxing match], and a moment's examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life--but the world holds many ugly things.

Oy yoy yoy. We all know Lovecraft was flamboyantly racist--how many swarthy, foreign manservants speaking exotic, devilish languages appear in his oeuvre?--but sometimes you forget and you stumble across a passage like this one, and it's like a cold, bracing slap in the face. And this probably isn't even the worst of his racism! That might arguable be found in his story "The Rats in the Walls," in which the narrator's black cat is named "Nigger-Man." (Lovecraft certainly isn't the only classic horror author to be this blatantly and astonishingly racist, either. Check out Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold Bug" sometime and try to count how many times he uses the word "nigger" before your head explodes.)

It's tough loving the work of an author, or any creative artist, who comes across as an awful human being. This is why I've long advocated the practice of separating the artist from the art. One does not have to agree with, or even like, Mel Gibson to appreciate his work as an actor or director, for instance. In that same vein, I think Lovecraft is a brilliant author, though often more in his concepts than in his writing style, even if he would probably be seriously embarrassing dinner company.

Your mileage may vary, of course. For instance, I might feel totally different about Lovecraft or Poe if I'd spent a lifetime having the N-word thrown at me. For me, it was a bit of a shock when I read Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow and came across the line:

We had profited well by the latest treaties with France and England [and by] the exclusion of foreign-born Jews as a measure of self-preservation...

Yikes! Luckily, I'm a native-born Jew and maybe would have been allowed to stay!

Anyway, separating the artist from the art. Sometimes it's hard. Now I think Chambers is a dick and unworthy of anyone's attention! But ultimately, I know that's not true, at least not the latter part. Maintaining that separation is worth it. Lovecraft might have been a racist prick, but the genius of his stories lives on, and much more strongly than the ugliness in them does.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: livia_llewellyn
2011-12-12 03:09 am (UTC)
Earlier this year, I read "The Horror at Red Hook" for the first time in decades - I was stunned by how much of the story is nothing more than a rant by the Gary Stu-ish narrator against the "swarthy" degenerate races taking over his beloved Brooklyn. Lovecraft had some incredible ideas, but daaaaamn. It'll be a couple decades before I read that story again.
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[User Picture]From: nick_kaufmann
2011-12-12 03:11 am (UTC)
He would have loved my predominantly West Indian neighborhood in Crown Heights!
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[User Picture]From: livia_llewellyn
2011-12-12 03:22 am (UTC)
I live in a section of Jersey City that's mostly Asian and Indian. He wouldn't have made it five feet down the sidewalk without exploding in rage and fear!
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[User Picture]From: readingthedark
2011-12-12 03:11 am (UTC)
As you might well know, Lovecraft's cat, in real life, had the same horrid and offensive name. The genius versus the ugliness is an interesting comparison, especially since there's no way to take the good of the Old Gent without the bad. Even without the letters, the stories themselves show a decidedly racist bent. Ferocious vision. Virulent and horrific vitriol toward so much that was human, especially people who were different. Yet all communicated in the voice of a deranged and lonely outsider. A gravely conservative streak that shaped everything he believed in...yet he believed in far less than most conservatives, of his time or ours. Sometimes I think he's most precious because if we didn't have him, we wouldn't be able to invent him.
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[User Picture]From: nick_kaufmann
2011-12-12 03:14 am (UTC)
All very well said. And I didn't know that about his cat!
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[User Picture]From: vschanoes
2011-12-12 04:00 am (UTC)
the genius of his stories lives on, and much more strongly than the ugliness in them does.

That's a serious judgment call, though. I may think that the brilliant riff of "Brown Sugar" is more significant than the violently racist and misogynist lyrics...but it's not like I'm an objective judge, either, and I don't think I have the right to make that call for somebody else. Certainly the racism encoded in Lovecraft's work and the song is still alive and hurting people deeply. And if a man tried to tell me that the brilliant melody of, I don't know, "Under My Thumb" lived on much more strongly than the misogyny in it, I think I'd tell him to go to hell, only with more profanity.
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[User Picture]From: nick_kaufmann
2011-12-12 12:01 pm (UTC)
You're right, I don't mean to speak for everyone, and as I said in the post, your mileage may vary.

On a related note, I only recently learned what the actual lyrics to "Brown Sugar" are, and they're so much worse than I ever imagined! Yikes!
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[User Picture]From: rfrancis
2011-12-13 09:14 pm (UTC)
Holy crap, I only just went and read them because of this thread, and... wow, Mick, just wow.
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[User Picture]From: nick_kaufmann
2011-12-13 09:26 pm (UTC)
I know, right? Even worse, I learned what the lyrics are because of a karaoke night. Luckily, I wasn't the one singing, but I sure felt bad for the guy who was!
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[User Picture]From: dhole
2011-12-12 06:56 am (UTC)
The thing that gets me about the Chambers quote is the fact that later in that paragraph, you get, "after the colossal Congress of Religions, bigotry and intolerance were laid in their graves."
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[User Picture]From: nick_kaufmann
2011-12-12 12:01 pm (UTC)
Irony!
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[User Picture]From: pingback_bot
2011-12-13 12:31 am (UTC)

December 13, 2011 Links and Plugs

User charlesatan referenced to your post from December 13, 2011 Links and Plugs saying: [...] olas Kauffman on Herbert West - Racist [...]
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[User Picture]From: handful_ofdust
2011-12-13 01:10 am (UTC)
Yeah, it's hard. I could point out that it isn't Herbert West so much who's making these statements as A) the narrator, ie his equivalent of Dr Dan Cain and B) Lovecraft, but it doesn't really matter: Great title! And so horribly, horribly true.
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[User Picture]From: nick_kaufmann
2011-12-13 02:44 am (UTC)
I should write a stage play with this title!
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[User Picture]From: Jenn Brissett
2011-12-13 06:44 pm (UTC)
I just learned of this poem yesterday.
On the Creation of Niggers (1912) by H. P. Lovecraft
http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_the_Creation_of_Niggers

Sincerely, what was wrong with that guy?
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[User Picture]From: nick_kaufmann
2011-12-13 07:47 pm (UTC)
He was crazy racist, that's what!
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[User Picture]From: Harry Piper
2011-12-14 07:46 pm (UTC)
Actually, I think the description of the black guy in Herbert West is much worse than the name given to the cat. I can kinda see how someone might use the N-word in that historical context and honestly not think it a particularly evil word to use, loathsome as it may be, but Lovecraft is something else. In his stories you get this awful, obsessive kind of racism that makes it very clear how much he loathes other people.
Seriously, it's like you're reading a great story and suddenly-
"And then a Polish person walked into the room-"
-cue massive amounts of pretty vile stuff.
Although I usually recoil at the suggestion that an authors work needs to be purged to make a modern audience more comfortable with it, in Lovecraft's case I would find it difficult to voice an objection.
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[User Picture]From: nick_kaufmann
2011-12-14 08:41 pm (UTC)
I think purging his work would be doing everyone a disservice. The key, in my opinion, is not to excuse his racism or pretend it never happened, but to acknowledge that it was there and feel free to talk openly about it. Otherwise, it becomes a sticking point.
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