Old World Footprints (1928) by Cassie Symmes & Portrait of Ambrose Bierce (1929) by Adolphe de Castro

The fact that H. P. Lovecraft worked as a ghostwriter and reviser of other’s writing is common knowledge. Most of the work that receives attention is the weird fiction which he wrote for clients, to appear under their names in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Wonder Stories, but Lovecraft’s revision services were much broader, covering everything from poetry (such as his work for David Van Bush and Josephine Evalyn Crane Blossom) to travelogues, such as European Glimpses (1988) by Sonia H. Greene.

Two of these works, Old World Footprints (1928) by Cassie Symmes and Portrait of Ambrose Bierce (1929) by Adolphe de Castro, are both connected with Lovecraft and his long-time friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr. By the late 1920s Long had set out to be a professional writer, and had published several short stories in Weird Tales, including “The Were-Snake” (1925), a book of poems, A Man from Genoa and Other Poems (1926). That book was underwritten by his aunt, Cassie Symmes, and printed by W. Paul Cook. Symmes was so impressed with the production that she hired Cook to produce a travelogue of her 1924-1927 trips to Europe, asking her nephew to provide the preface. Lovecraft was asked to correct the proofs.

Lovecraft did a little more than that. For many decades, Old World Footprints remained one of the rarest works of Lovecraftiana, but a 2021 reprint from Bold Venture Press has finally made it available to the average fan. Dave Goudsward tracks the history of Lovecraft’s involvement, including where and how Lovecraft touched up Symmes’ prose, to the extant that he basically ghost-wrote Long’s preface.

I concocted a euphemistic hash for young Long to sign—a preface to a tame travel-book by his aunt that bored him so badly he couldn’t think of anything to say! He didn’t want to turn down the request for a preface—so got me to cook up some amiable ambiguities for him.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 19 Dec 1929, quoted in Old World Footprints (2021) 54

As the text of the travelogue itself is very short, the book is expanded with a biographical essay on Cassie Symmes, with focus on her involvement with all things Lovecraftian—she was, for instance, the person who gave Frank Belknap Long, Jr. a small statuette of the Hindu god Ganesa, which in turn inspired the figure of Chaugnar Faugn in Long’s novelette The Horror from the Hills (Weird Tales Jan—Feb-Mar 1931). The book also contains a collection of quotes from Lovecraft’s letters about Symmes and the book, making it a single point of reference for those who don’t own or wish to dig through multiple volumes of letters. Even for those not interested in the travelogue might yet find some interest in the light it sheds on Lovecraft & Long’s friendship.

I was asked to provide the foreword to this book, and one of the key points I made in that bears repeating here: even if you though you’d read everything Lovecraft had to offer, you almost certainly haven’t read this.

Long’s involvement with Portrait of Ambrose Bierce would be more substantial, while Lovecraft’s would be slighter. In 1927, Adolphe Danziger de Castro received some nationwide attention when an article he wrote supposedly giving some insight to how his one-time friend Ambrose Bierce had died was picked up by the Associated Press. De Castro sought to parlay this fifteen minutes of fame into an opportunity to revise and reprint some of his fiction, which was badly out of date, and he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft to do this. Lovecraft was willing to consider the revision work…and then de Castro made a further suggestion:

Now, to something else. you probably have seen the flash of publicity I have received lately with regard to Bierce. I have written the first part of a book, BIERCE AND I. It is the part relating to the west. I lost over two thousand letters of B. in the San Francisco fire. but the letters, 14 in all, he wrote me since 1900 I have and with these I am going to build the second part. Bob Davis assures me that he will get me a publisher at once. This means that I would be able to realize some money from the work. In this work, however, no revision as you suggest for the story is possible, for the reason that it my “I” that enters in the work and my style, with the exception of some expression here and there, is fairly well known. As these are purely reminiscences, even the aesthetic arrangement could not be changed. As the matter of the story is virtually settled—and it would please me if I could get it next week – what idea can you suggest about BIERCE AND I?
—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 8 Dec 1927, Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others 346

Lovecraft did revise some of de Castro’s fiction, and did so for “The Last Test” (Weird Tales Nov 1928), “The Electric Executioner” (Weird Tales Aug 1930), and a third revision. It appears during 1928 Lovecraft had recommended that Long might also help de Castro in some way, but de Castro was fixed on Lovecraft as a potential reviser or collaborator:

However, since I wrote you I added about fifty thousand words to the Bierce book, original matter written by Bierce and bearing on certain reminiscences I note.

The title of the book will not be BIERCE AND I but simply AMBROSE BIERCE. As I appear in the book a great deal as the teller of the story I deemed the former title over-descriptive.

What pains me, I frankly confess, is that there are probably many literary blemishes of which a book of this sort ought to be absolutely free. But I have written more than 115,000 words and have grown very tired. It is equally obvious that I cannot have the work done—as correctors might prove correctioners—spoiling the personal tone for an assumed form. It is not every one, my friend, who has your sure touch and is so sympathetic to the subject under discussion.

Albert & Charles Boni have the matter under consideration (this is in confidence, of course) but there are a number of publishers quite desirous of bringing out the book
—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 25 Feb 1928, Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others 351

It was at this point that Frank Belknap Long re-enters the picture:

Old Danziger-de Castro is now in touch with Belknap, & that little imp has just revised his memoirs of Bierce absolutely free of charge, in return for the privilege of prefixing a signed preface! Belknap thinks it will bear him onward toward fame to be thus visibly connected with a work likely to become a standard source-authority for future Bierce biographers. […] It seems that de Castro has written a great deal of more or less solid material, besides serving the government in several important capacities—consular & otherwise. Belknap says he is 62 years old, stout, & genial.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 16 Mar 1928, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei 206

Ambrose Bierce in 1928 was much more famous than he is today, and the mystery of his disappearance—and the pop-culture trends that were already circulating regarding it; in 1932 Charles Fort’s book Wild Talents would propose the theory that someone was collecting Ambroses, which would enter the modern lore of conspiracy theory, pseudoscience, and UFO abductions. While today Mythos fans might recognize Bierce as the author of “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886) and “Haïta the Shepherd” (1891), which Robert W. Chambers drew on for The King in Yellow (1895), in the 1920s Bierce occupied a position closer to that which Lovecraft himself would later occupy, recognized as a master of the weird tale with stories like “The Damned Thing” (1893) as a thematic precursor to Lovecraft’s own “The Unnameable” and “The Color Out of Space.”

So Long’s desire to attach his name to a piece of Bierce scholarship is a little more understandable in that context than it might be today. However, once de Castro got the preface and revised manuscript back, he wrote to Lovecraft again:

Now to something else…Belknap Long wrote a nice bit of preface to my Bierce book; but I’ll be this, that and t’other, if I like the book as I wrote it; although Belknap thinks it very good. There is something missing in it, something I could do if I were away from harassing conditions and disturbing elements. It has been read by three publishers and rejected on a certain expressed criticism and the adulti stulti seem not to comprehend that I know better than they what is the trouble. The book is written by the person who for more than twenty-five years was in closest touch with Ambrose Bierce with little confidences that no other human being knew or heard. Naturally it is written in the first person singular—how else could it have the personal touch? However, this makes it “reminiscent” rather than biographical, and they want a pure unadulterated biography—although not quite true, as one publisher expressed it; and this publisher actually offered a big advance royalty—what do you think of that? No wonder I am bewildered and don’t know how, where, and to whom to turn. nor have I put any great criticism of Bierce’s works in my book, but I have left out oceans of matter of most interesting personal character—not wishing to make the book too long.
—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 1 Apr 1928, Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others

In his letters to de Castro, Lovecraft is unfailingly polite. In his letters to others, he is much more direct about the whole matter:

As for the memoirs themselves—alas! They are again set back to the raw material stage. Belknap did not take any job away from his old grandpa—he refused to consider it till old ‘Dolph stated positively that he could not have the work done by anybody on any cash basis whatsoever. But behold & lament! Though the job is done, yet it isn’t—for since the revision no less than three publishers have rejected the MS. on the ground that the style is still too crude, & the material still too ill-proportioned! I thought that Belknap must have made a rather light job of it when he said that he did that whole long book MS. in only two days—& lo! That is just about what did happen! Now old ‘Dolph is looking for a regular recasting in the slow, extensive, & painfully conscientious manner of Grandpa Nekrophilos—indeed, a suggestion from the third & latest rejecting publisher has led him to consider a radical change of plan, & an abandonment of the memoir style for a regular biographical treatise in the third person. This, of course, means a radical text-upheaval which really amounts to collaboration rather than revision. But—eheu!—though his ideas are bigger, his purse most infelicitously isn’t; so that he plaintively announces himself as ‘bewildered, & at a loss how, where, & to whom to turn’. He hems & haws & alludes delicately to the ‘almost certain’ profits of the biography if it can be properly formulated & launched—placing the likely receipts most alluringly at about $50,000.00. [Fancy!] What he is leading up to is undoubtedly a proposition for me to do the work on a speculative basis—i.e., for a certain percentage of the possible royalties—but right here is where Grandpa pauses for sombre reflection! As a piece of work—rightly done—it would be a staggering all-summer asphyxiation cutting off alike my immediately remunerative revision, & any possible original fiction I might wish to write. In exchange for this sacrifice I would have a double gamble, with two exceedingly doubtful spots—(a) whether any publisher would take the damn thing after all, & (b) whether, being published, it would really drag in enough to make a collaborator’s percentage anything more than a joke. Yes—the old gentleman will be very deliberate! Moreover—I don’t know how big a percentage a collaborator really ought to ask. And yet, at that, there’s certainly great stuff in the book; real source material that no future Bierce student (if such the coming years may hold) can afford to overlook. Belknap went wild over it—eating up every word so avidly that he didn’t see any mistakes at all until he started to go over it a second time with critical pencil in hand—& I shall be glad to get a chance to read the MS. myself. Old ‘Dolph still talks of making a stage-coach trip to Providence—& I shall certainly receive him with civility if he does. But in my opinion he’d better stick to Belknap—who is right on he ground for personal consultation, & who is willing to toil for fame alone—as his collaborator, telling him just how extensive he wants the changes, & giving him plenty of time to make a really thorough job. In recompense he ought to include the Child’s name on the title-page—”Ambrose Bierce: By Adolphe de Castro & Frank Belknap Long, Jun.” Just how much fame it would bring Belknap remains to be seen. The book is no mere controversial item—it’s a long string of general Bierce reminiscences—& now that a triple rejection has chastened him, Old ‘Dolph would probably be willing to cut down the [“Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter”] episode till it occupied a less disproportionate space in his whole oeuvre.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 5 Apr 1928, LWP 209-210

There was a bit of back and forth, and Lovecraft & Long actually met with de Castro at the latter’s apartment in New York City. However, Lovecraft was less than hopeful about the outcome:

I’m afraid the old duffer can’t or won’t pay a decent advance price, hence I doubt if I take the revision job after all; though I shall read the book fully & prepare a helpful synopsis & list of suggestions. My own interest impels me to do this—& I  have promised him such a list by next Thursday.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29 Apr 1928, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.635

The next few months were trying; de Castro continued to pester Lovecraft to work on the book, and Lovecraft refused to do so for less than $150 up front—a sizable fee for a very sizable job, and less than de Castro had been paid for the stories Lovecraft had revised for him had sold for. Nevertheless, it seems like Lovecraft did send his promised list of suggestions, and Long did apparently do a light revision of the text, and eventually de Castro managed to sell it:

Old Adolphe de Castro has turned up again, & is pestering Belknap & me with dubious revision propositions. He says the Century Co. has just accepted his Bierce book, which is surely interesting if true. He claims to have just returned from a European trip.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 2/9/16 Nov 1928, Essential Solitude 1.167

Portrait of Ambrose Bierce (1929, Century Co.) was published in attractive hardcover, complete with photographic plates, a fold-out facsimile of Bierce’s “The Town Crier” articles of 1969, and a brief prologue by Frank Belknap Long (who signed himself, in James Branch Cabell’s fashion, as simply “Belknap Long.”) The extent of Long’s revision of the manuscript isn’t clear, a comparison of the table of contents for Bierce and I that de Castro had mailed to Lovecraft (LAGO 350) and the final table of contents of Portrait of Ambrose Bierce shows many of the chapters are nearly identical, so there was no major re-shuffling of the contents. Still, it appears de Castro might have taken some advice from Lovecraft:

Old De Castro’s book has been attacked quite violently by some reviewers—& not unjustly, since it is truly a slovenly & egotistical concoction which doesn’t give Bierce half his due. I have glanced through the printed copy, I see that the author took all of my advice regarding deletions, though giving me no credit therefor. Belknap’s preface opens with a misprint—Beaudlaire.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Apr 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 173

Aside from this, Lovecraft never claimed to have any part in the final text of Portrait of Ambrose Bierce, and in truth it’s difficult to see any part of the book he might have had a hand in. The tone throughout is from de Castro’s point of view, and one would be hard-pressed to find a word distinctive of Lovecraft’s vocabulary or philosophy, unless it be in Long’s own preface. Certainly, the book does not deal even cursorily with Bierce’s weird fiction; Lovecraft’s friend Samuel Loveman’s 21 Letters of Ambrose Bierce (1922) is cited in the bibliography, but under the wrong title. Certainly if Lovecraft did have any direct hand in the book, he would have striven to correct that error. When Long finally saw the finished product, he was nonplussed:

First we stopped at Kirk’s, where the Child took a look at De Castro’s Bierce book with his preface in it. The result was something of a shock; for there were many grave misprints, & old De Castro had interpolated a whole section of a personal letter which Belknap wrote him in praise of the volume. Sonny intends, however, to buy the book eventually. It was a cheap trick of old De Castro’s not to give us both free copies!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 28-29 Apr 1929, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.761

Portrait of Ambrose Bierce was not the end of Lovecraft’s personal and professional relationship with de Castro, although it seems to have been the end of de Castro’s professional relationship with Long. The poor reception of the book seems to have negated any hoped-for recognition association with it might bring, and the book itself is of relatively limited value to Bierce scholars, since so much of the facts are filtered through de Castro’s own self-importance and determination to give himself what he felt was due credit—often at the expense of Bierce, and in the bibliography at the expense of Bierce’s friend the poet George Sterling, who had committed suicide in 1926. That was in exceptionally poor taste.

If it’s a failure as a work of biography, as an artifact, Portrait of Ambrose Bierce is interesting as another thread in the web of connections between two masters of the weird tale—aside from his association with de Castro (The Monk & the Hangman’s Daughter, Portrait of Ambrose Bierce), and Samuel Loveman (21 Letters of Ambrose Bierce), Lovecraft was also connected to Bierce through Clark Ashton Smith, whose mentor was George Sterling (and Sterling had actually commented on Lovecraft’s story “Dagon”). There are some more obscure connections, if you dig for them, in certain anecdotes in Lovecraft’s letters. Robert E. Howard ended up reading Portrait of Ambrose Bierce, and brought it up in is letters to Lovecraft (A Means to Freedom 1.453, 2.539).

Perhaps belatedly, the affair also cemented Lovecraft’s professional standing with regard to de Castro:

Just heard from old De Castro—he thinks his Bierce book would have been better received if I had revised it! Well—if he’d been willing to pay, I’d have been willing to work!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 5 Jun 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 176

Lovecraft never would revise any full-length book for de Castro, although he did do a revision or two—cash up front.

What these two books show is that there was a lot more to Lovecraft’s career as a revisionist than just his weird fiction—and that when it came to revision, as opposed to fiction written for his own aesthetics, Lovecraft could be somewhat mercenary. Although he was always willing to help out a friend, Lovecraft couldn’t afford to take big revision jobs without the promise of pay—an attitude which would, eventually, see him get out of the revision business altogether.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

One thought on “Old World Footprints (1928) by Cassie Symmes & Portrait of Ambrose Bierce (1929) by Adolphe de Castro

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