Review: H. P. Lovecraft: Letters to Alfred Galpin H. P. Lovecraft: Letters To Rheinhart Kleiner The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith

A Hellnotes Book Review

By William P. Simmons

Contemporary critical re-evaluation of H. P. Lovecraft's importance as a thinker, writer, stylist, and mentor has in due course led to a greater scholarly and critical interest in not only his own personal life but also those of his contemporaries, friends, and correspondants, of which he had many. This later subject can prove particularly rewarding, as several valuable letters survive which illustrate various aspects of Lovecraft's early and developing philosophical bents, prejudices, interests, and, of most importance to us, his ever changing theories and appreciation of weird fiction. Such personal documents help us to see Lovecraft as a whole man, a complete entity capable of making mistakes and blunders alongside triumphs and moments of greatness. What's more, such volumes make possible not only a greater understanding of Lovecraft's time but also an admirable ring of various intriguing intellectuals, writers, and fans who themselves are worth varying levels of study - a point proved especially in Letters to Alfred Galpin.

Already a known and knowledgeable man of letters and philosophy when Lovecraft ran across him, Galpin convinced the Gent from providence to write: "He is intellectually exactly like me save in degree. In degree, he is immensely my superior - he is what I should like to be but have not brains enough to be." Great (if perhaps overestimated) praise indeed! While only 27 letters from Lovecraft to Galpin exist, they provide a lens in which to better appreciate these men's times, mannerisms, temperaments, society, and, of course, the prevailing social/political problems of the day, which in the case of Lovecraft is significant as a compass suggesting certain inferences as to his aesthetic view of weird fiction. In addition to presenting these fascinating 'looks over the shoulders' and into the hearts of Lovecraft and Galpin (fascinating, that is, for the Lovecraft devotee or scholar, not, I warn, necessarily the general reader or fan), the editors also provide a round-robin correspondence which included Maurice W. Moe, letters directed to Frank Belknap Long, and, as an appendix, a generous selection of Galpin's unpublished writings. Continuing Hippocampus's admirable goal of publishing books of high literary quality/historic interest that can also be used as scholarly tools, this volume is extensively researched, commendably arranged, including a nicely informative introduction, detailed notes, commentary, and annotations.

The letters themselves expose a complicated, affectionate, at times bothersome relationship between two men of genius, sensitivity, and no little stubbornness. Covering nearly twenty years, these letters suggest as only correspondence can the minds and motives of men who when not writing fiction, were unconsciously writing the legends of their own lives. If we see friendship and a strengthening of Lovecraft's participation in life - an evolution of his critical powers - with Galpin to bounce ideas back and fourth off of, we also see evidence of two minds growing eventually apart, perhaps outgrowing even the men each thought himself to be. Of additional interest in the letters are shared intellectual ideas regarding materialism, religion, and skepticism. In addition, we see both men shared a dislike of modern poetry, preferring the structure and themes of an earlier era. This shared disdain of the imagists often served as the glue which bound both men together.

If the letters expose Lovecraft the father, the guide, they also show us Lovecraft the follower and child of Galpin. Galpin, like George Sterling and Samuel Loveman, appears to have had any real interest in the weird as a genre, per say. Although the letters show him polite and supportive of Lovecraft's earlier weird efforts, one notices a quite but evident reserve as well in his comments. No, the true bond between these men appears to have been amateur journalism, which occupies more space in this volume than discussions of fiction. When literature or the macabre is discussed, the results are evocative, to say the least. Of interest are Lovecraft's deliriously written accounts of his dreams and fancies, particularly those which resulted in stories, such as "The Statement of Randolph Carter." Political beliefs occupy a large space as well, and in the course of these discussions we see views of literature, the seeds of ideas he would later develop onto art, emerging, growing. On a more personal note, the letters reveal a Lovecraft slowly emerging from isolation into the world of everyday men, making trips to Boston, enjoying the fruits of friendship.

Friendship, both its advantages and provocations, is a theme continued in H. P. Lovecraft: Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner. Like the above, this volume includes annotations, notes, and commentary by the editors, and prints the entire surviving letters between both men. In doing so, they even further trace the evolution of Lovecraft as he encountered philosophies, social stances, ideas, and arguments towards writing and society different from his own. Dealing with such controversial, debatable subjects as race, ethnicity, and prejudice, Kleiner's prompts reveal Lovecraft's heritage, living environment, distates, pleasures, and childhood. Besides the letters, the most substantial offerings, the editors have included an exhaustive appendix including the gentleman's poems to one another, and stirring essays. Kleiner, two years younger than Lovecraft, remains an enigma despite many surviving writings in the amateur press, pieces on Lovecraft, and recognition for being the founding member of "the Kalem Club," which some erroneously believe was started by Lovecraft. Interestingly enough, it was Kleiner who wrote the first critical piece on Lovecraft: "A Note on Howard Philip Lovecraft's Verse." Besides displaying Lovecraft's development and personality, this volumes contents depict in Kleiner a witty, genial, capable intellect. "The Kleicomolo," a round-robin correspondence between Maurice W. Moe, Ira A. Cole, Lovecraft and Kleiner rounds out the volume. At last, perhaps the most notable thing about these letters is the ways in which they document Lovecraft's emerging philosophy of cosmic horror, which would direct his later fiction, and which, eventually, would lead to a drifting apart of both men.

Finally, turning from Lovecraft to close friend and contemporary Clark Ashtom Smith, we have perhaps the best of these three works, The Shadow of the Unattained. The center of a growing literary crowd in California in 1911, George Sterling, a poet, was instrumental to the cultivation and development of Clark Ashton Smith, noted if somewhat unfairly under-appreciated author, artist, poet, and translator, who, along with Robert E. Howard, Agust Dereleth, and Frank Belknap Long, came closest to capturing the cosmic awe and celestial terror of Lovecraft's work; in fact, Smith's work owns more of authenticity, I would hazard to say, in both conception, idea, and emotional result than that of the other three authors, whose pieces in Lovecraft's thematic or stylistic vain were often more pastiche or well meaning homage than truly original, groundbreaking works of art. If several of Lovecraft's author-friends sought to use and expand upon the Cthulthu mythos (coined by Derelth), Smith found his way to the decadently fantastical via his own aesthetic principles and imaginings. Helping Smith, Sterling, in much the same way that Rheinhart Kleiner and Alfred Galpin helped shape Lovecraft, and Ambrose Beirce had helped him, became a mentor, taskmaster, and promoter of Smith's early work. Smith wrote Stelring from Auburn, and embarked upon a period of friendship and apprenticeship that would last for over a decade.

In the letters between these two authors (which are accompanied by an Introduction, Glossary of Names, Bibliogrpahy, and Index) we see Sterling shaping Smith's already exisiting devotion to 'pure poetry.' Work "free of social or political propaganda, whose raison d'efre lies in its creation of crystalline beauty as evoked by the glory and the tragedy of the universe through skillful use of symbol, image, and metaphore." Not for these two the cultural fads or political exposes so popular even today, a tedious dependence on social realism and timeliness, dictated by polite society and the blatting lambs of the day. Rather, Sterling and Smith, like Lovecraft in his fiction, sought truths greater than the finite affairs of men. The cosmos, the stars, and beyond - these were their provinces.

The similarities between the relationship between Sterling and Smith, and, earlier, Sterling and Beirce, are fascinating in themselves. Not only do we have two men of letters similarly attuned philosophically and artistically, but also in the subsequent growth of student and teacher, do we see parallels. Just as Beirce shaped Sterling, so did Sterling criticize and provoke Smith into his best, going so far as to market his work - if somewhat unsuccessfully - also mirroring the older man's relationship with Beirce. True to our perverse, sadly comic interest in conflict, often preferring crises to harmony (in the lives of others, that is), of equal interest is the growing ire between Smith and Sterling who, like the relationship between Lovecraft and kleiner, argue about "comicism" and the so-called morbidity of Smith's later work.

Special note must be made of a comprehensive introduction, a thoughtful meditation on Smith's work, his and Sterling's friendship, and points of interest concerning the work itself which are reinforced by the letters and additional material, including the mystery of Smith's ill health from 1913-1921, his inability to make enough money for piece of mind, the furor surrounding the publication of his first book: The Star Treader and Other Poems (1903), and the disappointment of the little known follow up Odes and Sonnets (1918). The most tantalizing aspect of his volume is the spirit so very prevalent in Smith as writer and man, a sentiment apparent in his reaction to Sterling's commendation of his empathy of the fantastic themes prevalent in the story "The Abominations of Yondo," where Smith replies: "I . . . refuse to submit to the arid, earth-bound spirit of the time; and I think there is sure to be a romantic revival sooner or later - a revolt against mechanization and over-socialization, etc . . . neither the ethics or the aesthetics of the ant-hill have any attraction for me."