Reflections upon the various sorts of unusual verse prevalent in this age, leads me to mention a new bard whose work I have not yet perused, but whose poetry was reviewed by Mr. William Stanley Braithwaite in a recent number of the BOSTON TRANSCRIPT.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Kleicomolo, Apr 1917, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 99
In 1917, William Stanley Braithwaite was 39 years old and had been writing for the Boston Transcript for twelve years; that year he he would publish his fourth annual Anthology of Magazine Verse. Born from mixed-race parents, legal segregation in the United States of America decreed him a “Negro,” and throughout his life Braithwaite would experience discrimination because of his race—but he would also receive praise for his work as a poet, critic, editor, and publisher.
By 1917, H. P. Lovecraft was 27 years old and had finally emerged from his period of seclusion following the tumultuous period that had seen him lose his father, his family home, and fail to graduate highschool or go to college. The catalyst for Lovecraft’s re-emergence was amateur journalism, where he could find expression for his writing, poetry, criticism, and just plain interaction with other human beings, at first through letters and then increasingly in person.
It isn’t clear when Lovecraft first became aware of Braithwaite; the earliest reference in Lovecraft’s letters was in 1916 relating to Braithwaite’s The Poetry Review of America (LRK 43),which folded within a year. Braithwaite seems unlikely to have heard of Lovecraft before 1921-1922, in relation to certain poems that Braithwaite by Winifred Virginia Jackson that he wished to publish from Lovecraft’s amateur journal The Conservative. Lovecraft and Braithwaite are never known to have met in person, but by odd coincidence and due to common acquaintances with Lovecraft’s circle, including Clark Ashton Smith, George Sterling, and Winifred Virginia Jackson, Lovecraft and Braithwaite would briefly exchange letters.
William Stanley Braithwaite would be Lovecraft’s only known African-American correspondent.
Race can be impossible to judge in print; unless it is specifically mentioned, the individual prejudices of the reader have little to focus on. Such appears to be the case with H. P. Lovecraft. For however many years he was aware of Braithwaite as a poetry critic at the Boston Transcript or from other publications, he seems to have assumed that Braithwaite was white. Then in 1918, Lovecraft opened the newspaper and learned that William Stanley Braithwaite had won the Springarn medal—an annual award for African-Americans. Lovecraft’s response was perhaps his single most virulent outburst of racism ever put to paper.
Speaking of poetical reviewers—I have not yet recovered from the shock the newspaper gave me last night! At the First Baptist Church in this city, on Friday evening, there occurred the annual ceremony of the award of the “Spingarn Medal”, which is given to the member of the negro race who achieves the most notable success in ‘any field of elevated or honourable human endeavour’ during the year. At these impressive exercises, Gov. Beeckman of Rhode Island gracefully awarded the badge of African supremacy to the Boston poet, critic, & literary editor—William Stanley Braithwaite!!!!!!!!!!!! Think of it—chew upon it—let it sink into your astonished & outraged consciousness—the great Transcript dictator, the little czar of the Poetry Review, is a nigger—a low-born, mongrel, semi-ape!—Ye gods—I gasp—I can say no more! Aid me, ye benign elves & daemons of anticlimax! So this—this—is the fellow who hath held the destinies of nascent Miltons in his sooty hand; this is the sage who hath set the seal of his approval on vers libre & amylowellism—a miserable mulatto! To think of the years I have taken this nigger seriously, reading his critical dicta as though he were a Bostonian & a white man! I could kick myself! William’s picture is printed in the Bulletin beside the news item, & from the likeness given I can deduce no visible sign of his black blood. A heavy moustache droops down over what may be thick negroid lips. But after all—I suppose he has only a slight taint of the beast. No nigger blacker than a quadroon would be likely to attain the intellectual level he has undoubtedly reached. I am not minimising what the fellow knows, but I think it monstrous bad taste for the Transcript to foist a black upon its literary readers!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 May 1918, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 112
When August Derleth & Donald Wandrei were compiling the first volume of the Selected Letters, they left this one out. That being said, for all the bald racism in this paragraph, there is reason to think that at least some of Lovecraft’s outrage is hyperbole—the reference to vers libre (free verse, poetry that doesn’t follow conventional rules of rhyme or meter) and “amylowellism” (Amy Lowell was a noted proponent of free verse) reflects Lovecraft’s poetic prejudices rather than his racial prejudices.
The racism on Lovecraft’s part was frank, and frankly enduring. While there are few mentions of Braithwaite in Lovecraft’s correspondence, he felt the need to address him to others casually as “the nigger Bill Braithwaite” (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.37), “that eminent brunet critick William Stanley Braithwaite” (LFF 1.315), and “nigger Braithwaite” (Letters to Maurice W. Moe & Others 220). It is no comfort to recall that such racist sentiment was shared by others—H. L. Mencken in a 1919 letter to George sterling refers to “The Braithwaite coon” (From Baltimore to Bohemia 55)—and the only “good” thing that can be said about Lovecraft is that he saved such epithets for his closest family and friends on the rare occasion Braithwaite came up in correspondence.
Then there’s the issue of the kitten…
I am glad also of the descriptive Braithwaite—leaflet—William Stanley is certainly at the head of American criticks of poetry, as indeed I realised before from the Transcript reviews. When a tiny coal-black kitten came to visit me in 1918 I called him “William Stanley Braithwaite” and used to let him chew even important papers and feather dusters with the natural destructiveness of a literary reviewer. But this William Stanley deserted me after 1919—he must have found my “poems” unpalatable. I wish I knew what became of him!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Winifred Virginia Jackson, 7 Oct 1921, LRKO 334
There is no reason to doubt that the kitten was real, and that Lovecraft named him “William Stanley Braithwaite.” Lovecraft mentions the cat in a letters to his aunt (LFF 1.37, 376). It is also a matter of record that Lovecraft had a habit of naming black cats after racial pejoratives for black people, beginning with his pet cat, who would later gain a kind of literary immortality in Lovecraft’s story “The Rats in the Walls” (written 1923, published Weird Tales March 1924). A line in a letter from Lovecraft to Edwin Baird reads “I can assure you that Nigger-Man is (or was, alas!) a glorious and purring reality!” (Selected Letters 1.298). However, the tendency is shown to use the similar epithets when referring to any black cat:
When I speak to little Sam I call him all sorts of things—”Little Black Devil”, “Old Nigger Man”, “Spawn of the Shadows”, “Little Piece of the Night”, “Old Black Panther”, “Little Onyx Sphinx”, “Child of Bast”, & so on, & so on ….. Not excluding the succinct & universal “kittie”!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 10 Aug 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 200-201
Turning to the other end of the chromatic scheme—there are 4 little niggers at the boarding-house across the garden from old 66—brothers or half-brothers of the late & unforgettable Sam Perkins.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane Rimel, 10 Mar 1935, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 260
Jason Colavito has pointed out in W. Scott Poole on Lovecraft’s Relationship to Poe and His Racist Cat that as terrible as this seems to contemporary readers, Lovecraft was far from alone in this kind of casual usage of the “N-word” and related terms, even with regard to the names of pets. The N-word was understood as pejorative, it was also in very common colloquial use. The only thing exceptional in this case is that Lovecraft naming a black cat “William Stanley Braithwaite” is making the N-word implicit instead of explicit.
There is also the issue of Lovecraft and Braithwaite’s common interest in Winifred Virginia Jackson. It’s not exactly clear when Braithwaite and Jackson became acquainted. In Winifred Virginia Jackson—Lovecraft’s Lost Romance (1976) by Wetzel & Everts asserted that Jackson was a romantic interest of both men, and that she actually pursued an affair with Braithwaite (who had married in 1903; he and his wife had seven children). While it is clear that Jackson was friends and partners with both men in some sense—she and Lovecraft shared editorial duties and leadership roles in amateur journalism from 1917-1921 or so, and she and Braithwaite were business partners from 1921-1927 at the B. J. Brimmer Company—there is no evidence for a sexual or romantic relationship with either of the two men, nor does Wetzel & Everts present anything except vague anecdotes to support the idea.
What Lovecraft and Braithwaite did share was an appreciation for Jackson as a poet, and both men wrote critical appraisals that lauded her poetry—Lovecraft in amateur journals, and Braithwaite in wider form through his anthologies. Lovecraft called attention to Braithwaite’s praise for her:
The United takes pride in the distinguished recognition just accorded its premier poetess, Winifred Virginia Jackson; recognition of a degree hitherto gained by no other amateur journalist. Four poems of Miss Jackson’s, “Fallen Fences”, “Miss Doane”, “The Farewell”, and “Cross-Currents”, have been selected by the eminent critic and editor, William Stanley Braithwaite, for publication in his 1921 “Anthology of Massachusetts Poets”, whilst another notable group has won the supreme distinction of inclusion in Mr. Braithwaite’s authoritative general “Anthology of Magazine Verse” for 1921, to be published in November. We may appreciate the honour thus reflected upon the United when we consider the exclusive standards and classical reputation of the Braithwaite anthologies, as published by Small, Maynard & Co. of Boston. These anthologies, says the New York Times, are “signs of the times and milestones upon the way”. According to the Atlantic Monthly, they “Show the vigorous state of American poetry”. Of Mr. Braithwaite the late William Dean Howells said: “Mr. Braithwaite is a critic very much to our mind, and is the most intelligent historian of contemporary poetry we can think of.” The United indeed has reason to congratulate its poeticla luminar, and indirectly itself, as the first and continued field of Miss Jackson’s efforts.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “New Notes,” United Amateur 21, No. 1 (Sep 1921)
in Collected Essays 1.299, cf. 303, 306, 307
Lovecraft had been intending to publish a new issue of his amateur journal The Conservative containing several poems by Jackson, but the issue was delayed and never eventually published, so that Braithwaite’s anthology ended up referring to a “ghost” issue (LMM 106). Yet by 1922 Lovecraft and Jackson had drifted apart, and Jackson and Braithwaite were focused on their new business, the B. J. Brimmer Company, which aside from publishing Braithwaite’s annuals also published material related to the Harlem Renaissance.
After 1922, references to Braithwaite are scarce in Lovecraft’s writing; usually only when someone noted that one or another of his poet friends had been mentioned in the annual Anthology of Magazine Verse, e.g.:
Your genius is far from unappreciated—indeed, Long tells me you are mentioned in the new Braithwaite anthology, (which I have not seen) an honour not by any means to be despised.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 11 Jun 1923, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 52
Smith had related this comment to his mentor George Sterling, who had previously expressed exasperation with and poor opinion of Braithwaite (Shadows of the Unattained 233, those interested should also compare From Baltimore to Bohemia 54-55 and especially “George Sterling’s Letters to William Stanley Braithwaite: the Poet Versus the Editor.” American Book Collector XXIV, Nov-Dec 1973). Which probably explains Smith’s rather lackluster response; Lovecraft in turn added:
As to Braithwaite—I guess he is as intelligent as the average anthologist, though all such characters have such streaks of poor judgment that their selections are occasionally rather unaccountable—both as to omission & inclusion.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 30 Jul 1923, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 56
It is one of the oddities of Lovecraft that for all of his racial prejudice, and his early lambasting of Braithwaite for publishing free verse, he really did seem to respect Braithwaite both for his position in American letters, and as a literary editor and a critic. Which is what appears to have brought Lovecraft and Braithwaite into correspondence, however briefly.
All that remains is a single letter dated 7 February 1930, held at the John Hay Library. It is obviously a reply—whether Lovecraft had initially written to Braithwaite or vice versa is not known; nor is there any indication that the correspondence continued beyond this brief exchange. If Lovecraft initiated the correspondence, he would need only have written to the Boston Transcript, but if it was Braithwaite who started it, he would have needed to get Lovecraft’s address somewhere—from whom, we do not know. It begins formally: “Dear Mr. Braithwaite:—”
I am glad that you found merit in Mr. Long’s poem, & wish his work could be better known—for the encouragement of recognition would undoubtedly have the effect of stimulating him to more & more poignant utterance. There are provokingly few poets—just as there are provikingly few prose writers—who fully express that sense of the cosmic & the marvellous which is so potent a reality to many kinds of sensitive people. You would not find Weird Tales a very rich harvesting-ground for poetical material; although it does frequently contain excellent verses by Clark Ashton Smith, whom you have occasionally mentioned in the anthology. If Mr. Smith could only curb a frequent tendency toward extravagance, I think his work would be of even greater importance than it is. He is now entering the prose field to some extent—with exotic phantasies & tales.
The opening paragraph refers to Lovecraft’s friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr. and Weird Tales; Long’s poem “The Horror on Dagoth Wold” had been published in the February 1930 issue of Weird Tales, which would have been on the newsstands in mid-January. Editor Farnsworth Wright had been in the habit of publishing weird verse, and perhaps that attracted Braithwaite’s attention for his annual Anthology of Magazine Verse—although as fate would have it, 1930 would be the last year the series would be published.
The second paragraph speaks to their mutual acquaintance:
It pleases me highly to learn of the continued progress of Miss Jackson, whose work gave such an instant impression of authentic genius a decade ago. I have seen & appreciated later verses of hers here & there, & am interested by the prospect of a novel from her pen. I shall be on the lookout both for this & for the short stories. It seemed certain to me from the first that her work had that sureness of insight & expression which marks genuine art, & the more authoritative confirmation of that judgment is very gratifying.
The in-between-the-lines on this paragraph is that Lovecraft has not been in continued contact with Winifred Virginia Jackson, which might be as expected from the lack of references to her in Lovecraft’s later letters; and, conversely, that Braithwaite has remained in contact with her, even after the bankruptcy of B. J. Brimmer Co. in 1927. When Lovecraft knew Jackson, prose was her weak spot—hence why Lovecraft did the revision on “The Crawling Chaos” and “The Green Meadow”; one has to wonder if she had intended to include these among the “short stories” mentioned. It is not clear if Jackson ever wrote a novel, although she did keep two scrapbooks full of news-clippings and notes for a projected novel.
Another early judgment of mine, which I hope later developments may confirm, relates not to an actual poet, but to a hierophant of poets—in other words, to a manual or text-book on the subject of poetic appreciation, which I think will be more effective than anything hitherto published in arousing ordinary minds to the beauty of poetry, explaining as much as can be explained of the poet’s appeal, & inculcating standards by which the genuine can be distinguished from the spurious. This book—”Doorways to Poetry”—is by Maurice Winter Moe, a teach of English in the West Division High School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; & a reading of it in manuscript has aroused my enthusiasm to almost inordinate bounds. It is so perfectly & incisively analytical, yet so appreciatively sympathetic & so free from pedagogical sterility. There is a chance of its acceptance by the Macmillan Co, & in the event of its publication I confidently expect qualified critics to sustain my own instant & unofficial verdict. There is no doubt but that you will receive a copy up its issuance.
The last paragraph concerns a project by Lovecraft’s friend Maurice W. Moe, Doorways to Poetry, which Lovecraft had assisted on but which never saw publication (Letters to Maurice W. Moe & Others 16-20). It is very typical of Lovecraft to promote the work and abilities of his friends, rather than his own. Then the letter ends:
Again expressing my appreciation—
yr oblg’d & obt servt
H. P. Lovecraft
The “again” is the only real hint that this is part of a longer correspondence; it suggests that Lovecraft had written to Braithwaite at least once previously. Perhaps he did; if so, or if Braithwaite ever answered we don’t know.
The tone of the letter is obviously formal, and equally obviously lacks any reference to Braithwaite’s race, or any trace of racism. That too is very typical of Lovecraft; whatever prejudices he held, he was usually at pains to avoid giving offense to any individual in print, especially in later life. A researcher who read this letter without any knowledge of Lovecraft’s previous literary encounters with Braithwaite would probably not find anything exceptional about this very brief, mundane exchange between a pulp writer and a noted journalist and editor.
It would be very interesting to know more of Braithwaite’s own end of things: none of his published letters that I have seen mention Lovecraft, or shed much light on this letter or his relationship with Winifred Virginia Jackson. It would have been interesting if they had hit on some common thread of interest—they were both admirers of the weird fiction of Algernon Blackwood, for example (The William Stanley Braithwaite Reader 301, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”)—but that is in the realm of might-have-been. Perhaps in the future, research into Braithwaite’s letters and papers might lend more insight into their relationship—or perhaps not. It was, after all, only one letter in a life that was filled with letters, for Braithwaite.
What is interesting about H. P. Lovecraft’s relationship with William Stanley Braithwaite is simply how, with all of his prejudices, he could and would deal with a literary African-American. In private, Lovecraft let his prejudices show to his closest family and friends, more circumspect in conversation with other correspondents; in public, including his amateur journalism editorials, he was neutral. In his correspondence with Braithwaite, Lovecraft is unfailing polite. This shift in register is familiar in Lovecraft’s writing; a reflection of the stratified society he found himself in, where Braithwaite was a second-class citizen by dint of his race, but which social decorum required Lovecraft to address with a formal politeness. While we can see something of this shift in registers with a few other correspondents, it is only with Braithwaite that we can really see the full range of this unspoken code—because William Stanley Braithwaite is his only known African-American correspondent.