Lovecraft and English America

Howe Abbott-Hiss at Occidental Observer writes about the crises of today in the context of the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. It’s an interesting piece, given that Lovecraft wrote most of his fiction about the central issue of our time.

Lovecraft’s writings have been increasingly popular over the generations since his death in 1946. During his lifetime he never saw much financial success through his writings, and remained obscure except to the readers of cheap pulp magazines, though today his name and works and widely known. However the downside of that familiarity is that the usual Politically Correct Pharisees now scramble to denounce his work as — what else — racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and so on. He’s probably denounced as a misogynist as well. I gather it makes his detractors feel virtuous and important to excoriate HPL for not joining the lemming herd in their ‘social justice’ pretensions.

I won’t revisit the points made by Abbott-Hiss; he is more able than I at analyzing Lovecraft’s symbolism. But some of the points made have to do with Lovecraft and his ethnic identity. The author of the piece says that Lovecraft didn’t identify strongly as an American (though, having read much of his correspondence and other output, I think he did have an American identity to some degree). Lovecraft seems, judging by his correspondence and his fiction, to have identified mainly as Anglo-Saxon, though he also used the generic term ‘Teutonic’ a lot. It’s interesting that we seldom hear that term employed these days as an ethnic identifier. Maybe it was associated with Germany during WWII and was then considered an undesirable term. Lovecraft occasionally used the term ‘Saxon’ as well. Abbott-Hiss notes Lovecraft’s admiration for all things British, and his insistence on using British-English spelling and grammar, and there are hints that he thinks this is a little fanatical.

Maybe it’s a little-known thing in our day, but it used to be, up until World War II at the latest, that many of the moneyed English-descended Americans spoke with what is now sometimes called a ‘Transatlantic’ accent, which was often indistinguishable, if spoken well, from British ‘Received Pronunciation’. When I speak of that English accent I mean the former ‘upper class’ English accent, which is all but extinct these days — thanks to the levellers and the broadcast media which made an effort to place newsreaders with ”working class” accents or regional accents before the microphones. Now they’ve got newsreaders who speak some kind of pidgin or other patois.

If you watch old movies at all, specifically those from no later than the 1940s, you will have heard many American-born actors speaking with that old quasi-English ‘Transatlantic’ accent. Some people think it was an affectation, but it was the way many East Coast WASPs spoke. Actors who were from New England, and from more genteel families spoke that way habitually. Examples: Edna May Oliver and Bette Davis, just two examples that come readily to mind.

As to Lovecraft insisting on the British spellings and grammar, up until recently Southrons have done that. If you find an old spelling textbook from a Southern classroom, you will see British spellings. There are still Southrons who prefer and who use British-English. It is not always an affectation but simply a carryover from early days. Southrons have generally been traditionally-minded, while Noah Webster and his dictionary chose to change some English spellings and grammar rules so as to set this country apart from our Mother Country.

Incidentally I was not able to find a link verifying the Southrons’ preference for British spelling. The links seem to have disappeared. Why? But trust me, it is true, though probably is on the wane like all traditions.

My point is just that Lovecraft was not such a crank or an exception in his use of British English and spelling; he was not alone in this.

And those ‘silver spoon’ WASP Americans often sent their children to school in Europe and especially to England for their higher education. Up until the World Wars of the 20th century there was a lot of intermarriage between the English and American upper classes. America does not officially have aristocracy (except for the Hollywood and political ”royalty”, the Kennedys et al) but many American heiresses married impoverished British or European aristocrats.

The wars seemed to change all of Western society and to further homogenize our society. Of course the wealthy did not go away but the ‘old money’ aristocracy, including many old-stock Anglo-Saxons, kept a lower profile and were not in the limelight as much as in the pre-War world.

The upper-class WASPs or English-Americans did make an attempt to preserve their particular way of life, but is that bad? To abandon it for the dubious benefits of assimilating to ‘just American’ identity hardly helped us to maintain any kind of culture. Now we’re condemned for ‘having no culture.’

Lovecraft was a little eccentric, but he probably would not have been the distinctive writer that he became had he been more conventional and conformed to the increasingly deracinated society around him.