Deeper Cut: Spirits of Bigotry Past & Present: H. P. Lovecraft & J. K. Rowling

The main points of concern for the journalists seem to be the same as those of the bloggers; first and foremost they feel the need to express that Rowling is wrong and transphobic, but they also want to present their views on the debate of whether liking Harry Potter is still justifiable. The separating the art from the artist discussion is a crucial part of the majority of these articles. Several of the authors mention other controversial artists such as H.P. Lovecraft and analyse how these situations were handled.

Fleur Heiltjes, Alive but #Cancelled? The Public’s Response to the Controversial Author (2021) 31

In 1967, Roland Barthes published his essay “La Mort de l’Auteur” (“The Death of the Author”). This influential work of literary criticism examined the relationship between the author and their work; interest in a work often extends to interest in the author, and what we know about the author informs how we read a work. Many literary critics of H. P. Lovecraft have read elements from his own life in his fiction. Sometimes these readings are supported by primary evidence. Lovecraft himself noted in his letters that real-world personal experiences and places he had visited sometimes informed his fiction. For example:

[…] am now on the 22nd manuscript page of a long short story to be called “The Dunwich Horror”. The action takes place amongst the wild domed hills of the upper Miskatonic Valley, far northwest of Arkham, & is based on several old New England legends—one of which I heard only last month during my sojourn in Wilbraham.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 4 Aug 1928, Essential Solitude 1.151

While evidence from Lovecraft’s letters has led to deeper insight into his life, his writing process, and his fiction, their wider publication beginning with the Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft from Arkham House also led to wider awareness of his personal prejudices. While many readers would have already picked up touches of early 20th-century prejudices in Lovecraft’s fiction and poetry, Lovecraft’s growing reputation as a writer, this reputation always cared with it the unpleasant reality that Lovecraft was racist, an antisemite, homophobic, etc. As his fame spread and his works entered the public domain, that same public—which has grown ever more diverse—has re-evaluated both Lovecraft and his work.

Lovecraft’s prejudices have become part of his legend. For many, they have become his defining feature: a popular image that is easy to turn to caricature and resistant to nuance and complexity. H. P. Lovecraft has become the ghost of a bigoted past who continues to haunt the readers of today. Unfortunately, the present is haunted by its own bigoted spirits.

Prejudice has become almost as indelible a part of the legend of British writer J. K. Rowling over the last few years as Lovecraft—and this has drawn comparison between the two. However, there are many important differences between the two writers, both in their specific circumstances and how they are read and interpreted by today’s audiences. Comparing two bigoted authors is fundamentally different from comparing apples to oranges…because to torture a metaphor, we have to take into account not just the fruit, but the trees they grow from, the orchard, the terroir: the historical context in which a living author and a dead one lived and worked.

H. P. Lovecraft, Spirit of a Bigoted Past

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a pulp writer and amateur journalist. Born into a moderately affluent white family in Providence, Rhode Island, a series of deaths in the family greatly reduced its fortunes. Lacking strong financial acumen or prospects, and with limited education, Lovecraft lived much of his life in genteel poverty, largely unknown outside of a small but ardent circle of admirers of pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, where many of his stories have published. After his death, his friends and fans continued to promote and publish his work, to expand and elaborate on the shared universe known as the Cthulhu Mythos he had devised, and to study his life and letters. Lovecraft’s fame is largely posthumous: he died a relatively obscure pulp author and reaped few financial rewards from his work. Awareness of his racism began to grow in the public consciousness after the publication of his Selected Letters (1965-1976) and especially Lovecraft: A Biography (1975) by L. Sprague de Camp, which not only emphasized his prejudices but contained the first widespread publication of the poem “On the Creation of Niggers,” which along with his childhood pet, the black cat Nigger-man, has become part of his legend, and usually the first things cited as examples of his racism.

It is not unusual that a white man in the early 20th century United States of America might be anti-immigrant, racist, homophobic, and misogynist: this was the era of the second Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and the rise of the Nazi party. Women did not have the right to vote in the US until 18 August 1920, two days before Lovecraft’s thirtieth birthday. Lovecraft would never live to see the Holocaust, the Stonewall Riots, or the Civil Rights Movement. His prejudices reflect the period he lived in, and were widespread.

That is an explanation, not an excuse. Lovecraft may not have known better as a child or young adult, but as he entered his twenties he learned not everyone shared his bigotry. Relatively early in his writing career, Lovecraft received public pushback against his prejudices (“Not All Anglo-Saxons” (1911) by Herbert O’Hara Molineux, “Concerning the Conservative” (1915) by Charles D. Isaacson). After this censure, Lovecraft did not assay such public prejudice again, but kept his comments largely to himself and his close friends and family. While Lovecraft’s fiction shows the definite prejudices of his period, what we know of Lovecraft’s own prejudices comes almost exclusively from his thousands of letters and the memoirs of his friends and family, including his wife Sonia (The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) by Sonia H. Davis, Her Letters To Lovecraft: Sonia H. Greene). Through his letters, we see Lovecraft at his best and worst, in his travels (Deeper Cut: Lovecraft in Chinatown, Deeper Cut: Lovecraft in Harlem) and in those he met and interacted with (Deeper Cut: Elsa Gidlow & Les Mouches Fantastiques, Deeper Cut: William Stanley Braithwaite).

While Lovecraft’s views on race were not static throughout his life, and were strongly influenced by his travels and meeting different people, he never overcame the prejudices of his earlier life.

Lovecraft’s influence on contemporary genre fiction cannot be overstated. He was a friend and encouragement to Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, C. L. Moore, August Derleth, Donald A. Wollheim, James Blish, and many more; his fiction, down to the most obscure fragment, has been published and republished. The shared universe he created and encouraged has been enthusiastically embraced by fans, writers, artists, and game designers for decades, all the more so since his fiction has entered the public domain. Despite Lovecraft’s personal prejudices, his work has been embraced by and re-imagined by generations of women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ folk. Many works today specifically address the complex issues of Lovecraft’s personal prejudices (“The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin)—Lovecraft has become a public domain character as much as Cthulhu, the spirit of a bigoted past who continues to haunt the present.

J. K. Rowling, Spirit of a Bigoted Present

Joanne Rowling (1965- ) was born Yate, Gloucestershire, in the United Kingdom. Born into a fairly stolid middle-class background, she matriculated to university, graduated with a B.A. in French from the University of Exeter. Her first young adult novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) reached widespread acclaim on publication, would be followed by more books, a series of critical and commercially successful films, merchandise, licensing deals, etc. Millions of copies of her books sold, and Rowling herself became a multimillionaire. With newfound wealth came both adulation and expectations: Rowling came under the public spotlight, her social media presence the subject of constant attention and criticism.

In the late 2010s, Rowling’s opposition to gender transition and transgender individuals have come increasingly to public attention and received commensurate criticism. (“JK Rowling criticised over ‘transphobic’ tweet about menstruation”). While Rowling attempted to justify her views with a self-serving essay (“J. K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues”), she has neither apologized nor corrected her views. Instead, Rowling doubled down on her prejudices and has used her wealth and public position to continue to discriminate against transgender individuals and support anti-trans activists (GLAAD Accountability Project: J. K. Rowling).

Rowling’s social media presence and the huge footprint of the Harry Potter media empire have led to swift and tremendous public awareness of her anti-trans prejudices. Individual friends and public figures, including those involved with the Harry Potter films, have variously distanced themselves from her views (Every Harry Potter actor who’s spoken out against J.K. Rowling) or supported her despite her prejudices (Ralph Fiennes defends JK Rowling). Her wealth and, perhaps, her ego have largely sheltered her from consequences: despite substantial efforts to publicly educate her on the realities of the discrimination that transgender people face, Rowling has doubled down on her beliefs in the face of criticism and opposition—and there isn’t much anyone can do about it.

There is a timing aspect to the rapid death spiral of Rowling’s reputation: her initial displays of transphobia have come at a time of increased awareness and vocal support from transgender people in the face of a rising of toxic political rhetoric against transgender people, especially in the United Kingdom (The Growth of the Anti-Transgender Movement in the United Kingdom, The Roots of Anti-Trans Feminism in the U.K.), but also internationally. The backlash against and support for Rowling and her transphobia have a strong partisan bias, even if that puts Rowling into proximity with individuals she herself wouldn’t want to be associated with (Putin cites J.K. Rowling as proof of West’s ‘cancel culture’) and her prejudices have had real-world consequences (How J. K. Rowling helped kill a proposed American LGBTQ civil rights law).

That’s the explanation, not an excuse. The terminal online nature of media in the 2010s and 2020s has made Rowling’s tweets a feeding frenzy of takes, trolls, and political posturing for those eager to stake out their space in the culture wars, but when you cut through the clickbait ledes, the facts are pretty straightforward. LGBTQ+ people in the United Kingdom had been fighting for and winning equal rights throughout Rowling’s life (Timeline of LGBT history in the United Kingdom). This isn’t a case where Rowling was raised a bigot in a terminally transphobic society and is repeating popular prejudices. Rowling’s transphobia is a marginal, reactionary pushback against legal recognition and protections that have taken LGBTQ folks decades of organized effort to secure. Instead of supporting the rights of women or working to protect the transgender fans of the Harry Potter series who have quite literally enriched her, Rowling has become one of the gilded bogeymen of Twitter, using her wealth and privilege to promote her agenda (If J. K. Rowling’s Women’s Shelter Turns Away Trans Women, Then It Isn’t Helping Women).

Comparison

When taken into comparison like that, the differences between Lovecraft and Rowling may seem a bit stark—but context is important. Lovecraft doesn’t get a pass just because his bigotry was commonplace while Rowling’s is marginal—but the fact that they had such different life experiences and reactions when confronted on their prejudice is in large part due to the 80-odd years between Lovecraft’s death and Rowling first hitting “like” on a transphobe’s tweet. We can only imagine what Lovecraft might have been like had he had Twitter, but we cannot know. As it is, lacking a broad public forum or the desire to push his prejudices in such a way, Lovecraft’s prejudices were kept mostly private until his death. The spotlight never shown on Lovecraft in that way during his life, except for the very briefest of moments; by the time fans could seriously react to his bigotry, Lovecraft was dead.

Rowling has the benefit of many things that never came to Lovecraft during his life—a university education, fame & fortune during her lifetime—but not a filter. Fame comes at its own cost, both in terms of loss of privacy and dealing with toxic fandom, but twenty-plus years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit shelves, any sympathy for the online hate Rowling deals with has to be balanced against the fact that she’s had decades to manage and shape her media presence. When Rowling responded to allegations in 2020, she made a clear statement that she was not playing the victim:

I haven’t written this essay in the hope that anybody will get out a violin for me, not even a teeny-weeny one. I’m extraordinarily fortunate; I’m a survivor, certainly not a victim. I’ve only mentioned my past because, like every other human being on this planet, I have a complex backstory, which shapes my fears, my interests and my opinions. I never forget that inner complexity when I’m creating a fictional character and I certainly never forget it when it comes to trans people.

All I’m asking – all I want – is for similar empathy, similar understanding, to be extended to the many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.

J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues

Rowling went on to oppose Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform bill; apparently she supports every trans person’s right to live in any way that feels authentic and comfortable them as long as it doesn’t involve the right for trans women to call themselves women. Which is a step further than Lovecraft went. While it may be damning with faint praise to say Lovecraft never joined the KKK or participated in a lynching, the only physical act of discrimination Lovecraft’s ever performed was riding on a segregated bus. Then again, Lovecraft had no money. We have no idea what he would have done, if had the means to do it. Discrimination is a matter of means and opportunity as much as motivation.

Which is why comparison between H. P. Lovecraft and J. K. Rowling sort of falls apart. Both were and are prejudiced, respectively. Their exact prejudices are different (transgender identities was not understood in the same way during Lovecraft’s lifetime, see Deeper Cut: The Hormonal Lovecraft), as were the forms their discrimination took, and the arc of their reputation. It was shaped by the context of their lives and careers; if Lovecraft had been successful, perhaps he would have faced more backlash during his lifetime, if Rowling had died in poverty and Harry Potter kept alive by an ardent circle of fans, her tweets only published decades later, we wouldn’t be hearing about her transphobia until then. For want a nail, the main thing that Rowling and Lovecraft have in common, if you ignore all their circumstances, is that they were both bigoted.

So why compare Lovecraft & Rowling? Why not Rowling & Ernest Hemingway? In truth, Rowling has been compared to many other bigoted authors—and as with Lovecraft, the comparisons tend to be pretty superficial. When you get down to the level of what exactly people believed and how they expressed their discrimination, the divide between historical racism and contemporary racism, between letters in amateur journals which get seen by tens of people months later versus tweets that are seen by thousands of people in seconds—it gets difficult to make meaningful comparisons.

J. K. Rowling is no H. P. Lovecraft, and vice versa. Nor do we read them quite the same.

How We Read Bigoted Authors

Barthe’s “death of the author” is metaphorical as much as it is literal: while it might be polite to wait until the author is dead and can no longer comment on their work, in a broader perspective the point of “death of the author” is that the reader can engage with the text without knowing anything about the author, or without reference to the author’s comments and other writings outside of the text. For writers that might still have a pulse and some brain activity, it might be better to think of it in terms of “ignoring the author”—not with the intention of trying to enjoy an author with disagreeable views, but as a technique of literary criticism.

What readers generally can’t ignore is what they themselves bring to the text. Readers today don’t need to know anything about H. P. Lovecraft to figure out he was influenced by early 20th century views of race in stories like “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family.” However, readers today will also generally have very different interpretations of the concentration camps in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” than someone reading the story in the 1920s and 30s, and are more likely to draw comparisons with the Nazis and the Holocaust than with the enemy alien camps of World War I which Lovecraft was familiar with (“The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys).

This is part of the reason Lovecraft’s reputation as a racist is so pronounced: if someone had a black cat named after a racial slur for Black people today, as Lovecraft did as a child, it would be so far beyond the pale of what is acceptable today that there would be accurately labeled as a terrible bigot. At the time when Lovecraft owned the cat, that wasn’t an uncommon name for a black pet. It is still an example of Lovecraft’s racism, but in context it is more accurately seen as part of a wider cultural trend in a society that is much more openly racist than today’s, not Lovecraft being uniquely racist. Which is generally why historical context is important when looking at dead authors and their fiction: looking at the past solely through the lens of contemporary experience often leads to misunderstanding and misrepresentation (presentism).

Given how prevalent racism, antisemitism, homophobia, sexism, etc. were in the past, it should come as no surprise that there were a lot of bigoted authors. With the combination of social progress and increases in scientific knowledge, it’s not surprising that there are a lot of authors who end up on the wrong side of history—and many of them, like Lovecraft, were fairly conservative or reactionary even with respect to the politics and social views of their own time. Even then, humans tend to be rather complex: for example, Lovecraft was a bigot in terms of race, but he was progressive in other areas such as opposition to censorship, support for women writers, and New Deal-style socialism.

Not that you would really know that from reading his stories. Those are aspects of Lovecraft’s personality and life that never found expression in his fiction. Readers who approach Lovecraft’s fiction with a “death of the author” perspective would be totally ignorant of anything except what is in the stories themselves. Which is why “death of the author” is a tool in the literary criticism toolbox, but not the only technique or approach that can or should be used to evaluate a work or body of work.

In practice, most readers bring something of their understanding of an author to the work when they read it. After the revelation of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s child sexual abuse, for instance, it can be very difficult not to look at her fiction through the lens of this knowledge (“Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” (1997) by Marion Zimmer Bradley). Readers aware of Lovecraft’s racism will tend to read his stories with an eye toward finding expressions of his racism in those stories—and they will find it, although their understanding may be imperfect without a broader understanding of the historical context of Lovecraft’s life and how and when and why he wrote the story.

Before the internet, it might have been said that posterity would probably not be kind to J. K. Rowling…but things are faster now, and Rowling is a bigger target. It took decades after he was dead for Lovecraft to become big enough to attract serious scholarship and opprobrium for his racism Fans, literary critics, and scholars were already combing over Rowling’s every word before she liked her first tweet. Unlike Lovecraft, Rowling is alive as the vultures pick her literary bones and the scholars root through her tweets like diviners making note of lesions on a bird’s liver. Rowling has a voice to push back against her critics in a way that Lovecraft can’t. She also has a possibility of redemption that Lovecraft will never have.

Cancel Culture

Minus some required reading for school or work, nobody has to read H. P. Lovecraft or J. K. Rowling. Their literary status is due to popularity, but there’s no compulsion behind it in the sense of the Nazis handing out copies of Mein Kampf. If you don’t want to read about Cthulhu or Harry Potter…why not change the channel, return the library book, block the tweets? Read or watch or listen to something else. Don’t give then your precious attention or your dollars.

For all the hyperbole that pundits, politicians, and celebrities have given to “cancel culture” and the terrible consequences that folks can suffer if held to account for being racist or sexist or anything else, the fundamental idea behind it is essentially laissez faire: you the consumer get to decide what to buy, what to read, etc. While social media can drum up semi-organized boycotts, share information about the intended subject of ostracism, or rally signatures for specific projects, for most people it’s a decision as simple, straightforward, and personal as putting an aluminum can in the recycling bin instead of the trash. The individual effort involved is generally minimal. It is only the net effect of thousands of potential customers en masse exercising their right to not buy what someone else is selling that has real impact on the bottom line.

In this way, cancel culture combines two effective techniques: social ostracism and economic impact. The massed body of the public cannot issue fines or enforce social mores, but they can refuse to buy Rowling’s books or ignore her until she either goes away or decides to act right. The latter is, perhaps, what a lot of people hope for: that an author who has said something stupid, bigoted, and offensive will realize the error of their ways, learn better, apologize, grow as a person, and make amends. Many fans want the moral values of the creator to match their content; there is a collective guilt that can be experienced in continuing to enjoy and support an author with bigoted views.

After all, the dollars, euros, and pounds spent on Harry Potter books, films, games, and merchandise are ultimately ending up in J. K. Rowling’s pocket…which she will then dip into to continue to support anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, or fun shelters that discriminate against trans women, or a shiny new smartphone to tweet with. Most readers don’t like to be complicit in supporting those authors who actively support their oppressors. When they are made aware of it, anyway.

The major problem of cancel culture is that the economic impact often has minimal visible effect, at least not for individuals as wealthy as J. K. Rowling is. She has already made her money, she’s already won. If nobody spent a penny on any Harry Potteriana for the rest of her life and she was stuck self-publishing verbose crime thrillers, she’s probably still set for life. Rowling’s wealth insulates her from pretty much any sort of collective economic action. If readers hope Rowling will one day shift her views and come to accept that trans women are women, it probably won’t be because there’s an economic impetus driving the decision.

H. P. Lovecraft cannot be canceled.

If nobody buys Lovecraft’s books, the text of them is still free on the internet. Lovecraft, for the most part, is in the public domain. Like it or not, he belongs to all of us now, and there is no way to stop people from using Lovecraft’s texts and his Mythos in pretty much any way they see fit. If the economic carrot-and-stick of cancel culture doesn’t work on Rowling because she’s too rich to care, it doesn’t work on Lovecraft because he’s broke and dead. No matter what nasty names Lovecraft is called on the internet, his moldering bones in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, R.I. won’t rotate even a quarter-turn. No amount of urine on his grave can change his mind.

At least none of the money is going to benefit the prejudices Lovecraft had while he was alive.

The Two-Headed Ghost

Lovecraft cannot be canceled, but his legend continues—and his position in the literary firmament continues to be evaluated, debated, argued, as when his image was removed from the World Fantasy Award in 2015. Which is as it should be. While many readers identify strongly with works of fiction, the characters inside, and values they espouse—while many readers may idolize the creators of their favorite book, comic, game, or film—at the end of the day, H. P. Lovecraft and J. K. Rowling are just people. Very flawed, very complex human beings, not secular saints, and deserving of praise and sanction in response to their actions the same as anybody else.

Bigotry is a two-headed ghost. Janus-like, it stares into both the past and the future. Readers cannot escape the reality of historical racism, they can only choose how they themselves will approach the material and authors. If you as a reader cannot see past H. P. Lovecraft as anything but a bigot, cannot stand to read him, don’t want to hear about historical context or anything else that smacks of an excuse for racism, homophobia, antisemitism, etc.

Then don’t read him. Nobody can force you to. That’s your right. If you ever change your mind, Lovecraft will still be there. The dead cannot be hurt, only forgotten and misremembered.

Readers can also choose not to endorse and support bigots in the present. Unlike Lovecraft, J. K. Rowling can still change, can still look to the future—and she can already see, in the scholarly articles, the heartfelt fan letters, the opportunistic political punditry—what her legacy is shaping up to be. People may or may not read Harry Potter in a hundred years, but the question Rowling faces is how she herself will be remembered.

As long as an author breathes, they have a chance to change, to grow, to redeem themselves, at least a little. Lovecraft didn’t live long enough to do that; perhaps most don’t. The tide of history is relentless, and no one can see perfectly either where it came from or where it is going…nor force anyone else to change their minds. In the final analysis, all readers are faced with Barthes’ choice: how do they choose to approach the authors and their work? Because it is up to the readers to decide who they read, and how and why they read them. Whether to ignore their faults, or to accept them.


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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

3 thoughts on “Deeper Cut: Spirits of Bigotry Past & Present: H. P. Lovecraft & J. K. Rowling

  1. This was very interesting and enlightening to read! I think you made some very good and insightful points, like how neither Lovecraft nor Rowling can really be cancelled, for very different reasons.
    If I may offer you advise on a minor point (I know the terminology can be quite complicated here), ‘transgenderism’ and ‘transwomen’ are terms generally not preferred by trans people and activists. For the former, ‘transgender identities’ or possibly ‘transness’ might be substituted, and the latter is simply written as two words (‘trans’ being an adjective).

    Liked by 1 person

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