Deeper Cut: Elsa Gidlow & Les Mouches Fantastiques

I had to admit that although I might appear boyish, there was nothing masculine about me. I never had wanted to be male, only to be free to do things men could do. Now I know there have been not a few women who dared the male masquerade to achieve the freedom they were denied, many succeeding lifelong, but they must have been more convincing. Yet I would not be defeated. I devised a bat and cast my net into nearer waters to bring to me what I might not yet go in search of.

Elsa Gidlow, ELSA: I COME WITH MY SONGS (1986), 68

Elsie Alice Gidlow was born in England in 1898, one of what would be seven children that her mother bore before 40. The family emigrated to Canada in 1904 and settled in Montreal. She was forced to leave school at 14 to help care for her siblings, and by 15 the intelligent and literature-minded Elsie had entered the workforce. In her autobiography, she would label this chapter of her life “The Outsider.” She sought independence, from her family, from her dreary day job doing shipping advices, from the church that demanded she give her life over to marriage and babies—and freedom to write poetry and to find love. Gidlow already knew she was a lesbian as a teenager, she just didn’t have anyone to explore those feelings with.

A couple years later, Elsie A. Gidlow became involved with amateur journalism:

In the late autumn of 1917, a letter appeared in the people’s column of The Montreal Daily Star. It inquired if any organization of writers and artists existed in the city which a person might join. There was no reply, but a little more than a week later a second letter appeared responding to the first. It stated that a group of writers was being formede and suggested that the inquirer and any others interested should “communicate with the undersigned” at the address given.

Both letters were written by this lonely young woman groping toward her kind, the first under a pseudonym. Over the course of a week, I received nearly a dozen replies from individuals of both sexes asking for information about the proposed group. I invited them all to a meeting at my parents’ on an evening when Father would be away, telling Mother what I was doing.

Elsa Gidlow, ELSA: I COME WITH MY SONGS (1986), 68

Given that Gidlow’s autobiography was published about 70 years after the events in question, she may be forgiven for forgetting a few of the finer details. The letters in question actually appeared in 1916, and by 1917 she was already Second Vice-President of the United Amateur Press Association of America:

The amateur journalism movement had begun in the 19th century; individuals who wished to write and print formed clubs and groups to publish their own small magazines, not for sale but simply to share among themselves, for love of the written word. It was largely focused in the United States, but was international in scope, and relatively egalitarian with men and women both often occupying the highest positions in both local clubs and national-level organizations. Two such organization existed in 1916: the National Amateur Press Association was the largest, oldest, and most heterogenous in membership, while the United Amateur Press Association was smaller, younger, and more dedicated to artistic and intellectual literary work.

Unfortunately, in 1912 a contested election split the United Amateur Press Association into two separate organizations. According to “The Literary Decadence of E.G.” (American Amateur Jul 1920, quoted in The Fossils #329, 5), Gidlow joined amateur journalism c.1914 or 1915, and the group she joined was centered around Seattle, while the other was centered around the East Coast; among the foremost members of the East Coast faction at the time was H. P. Lovecraft, who had joined this faction in April 1914. For ease of reference the Seattle/Gidlow organization will be referred to as the United Amateur Press Association of America (UAPAA), and East Coast/Lovecraft faction the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA). For the 1915-1916 term Lovecraft was elected First Vice-President of the UAPA; he was elected President of the UAPA in 1917. His counterpart in the UAPAA would be none other than Elsie Alice Gidlow.

For all that they helmed rival factions of the United, Lovecraft and Gidlow were opposites rather than rivals: the two Uniteds had developed into similar but different groups, and many amateur journalists were members of multiple organizations. Both were very intelligent, with limited formal education but compensated for that by being autodidacts and voracious readers, with large vocabularies and strong skills in poetry and prose. Of the two, Lovecraft was either the more efficient administrator or the luckier in having good help and funding: his faction of the United produced the official organ of the group, The United Amateur, reliably during his tenure. Gidlow lacked an Official Editor during her term, and the UAPAA lacked an OE during 1918 as well, which makes “official” activities of the UAPAA difficult to trace during this period.

What Gidlow did produce was Les Mouches Fantastiques.

Inspired by a group in New York who published their own newspapers and magazines and were known as the Amateur Press Association, I spoke to Roswell about doing the same. “We are not exactly amateurs,” he said, “I’m paid for my work on The Star and am considered a pro. You have been paid for your stuff in the Bookman and other rags. Why not? We could bring out a mimeographed paper for the fun of it.” […] We formed a group, myself named president, and planned a publication. Roswell and I were the co-editors. Someone knew of a mimeograph machine we must use that produced somewhat smudgy looking, glaring purple type.

My recollection is that much of the matter was also purple. We were by intention iconoclastic, mocking hypocrisies and smugness. Our first few issues were named Coal from Hades. Later, at Roswell’s instigation, we changed the name to Les Mouches Fantastiques (The Fantastic Flies). About half the material was written by Roswell and me. Besides our poetry, he contributed translations from Verlaine, articles on “the intermediate sex,” and one-act plays sympathetically presenting love between young men. My poetry was obviously addressed to women. My editorials satirized what I saw as society’s stupidities and injustices and the wrongness of the war. The hundred or so copies went locally to our friends and the amateur journalists (“AJ’ers”) in various parts of the U.S.

Elsa Gidlow, ELSA: I COME WITH MY SONGS (1986), 82-83

Roswell George Mills was a Candian poet, journalist, and outspoken homosexual; he quickly became Gidlow’s friend and partner in Les Mouches Fantastiques, and through their bohemian, convention-defying journal they came into contact with other LGBTQ+ folks in the amateur journalism movement—including F. Graeme Davis, an Episcopal priest who also happened to be Offical Editor of the National Amateur Press Association during the 1917-1918 term and NAPA president during the 1918-1919 term. Gidlow claimed that Davis was homosexual, and carried on a brief but intense affair with Mills in Montreal; Davis certainly was full of praise for Les Mouches Fantastiques, Gidlow, and Mills…and it was through his efforts that Lovecraft, Gidlow, and Mills joined the NAPA, while simultaneously being members of their respective United factions.

Despite Gidlow’s recollection that “we formed a group,” the reality must have been more complex than that. She had obviously been a member of the UAPAA for some years before she became President, and she submitted work for other amateur journals which were duly published. Tracing her amateur journalism career is difficult: given both the low print run, the non-U.S. source, and the nature of amateur journalist publications, it is understandable that very few copies of Les Mouches Fantastiques survive in university collections or archives to this day. Other amateur journals are likewise rare, and the contents poorly indexed.

Yet we know that she did make a name for herself in amateur circles, and that her work was read, because Lovecraft commented on it:

The esthetic Elsa Gidlow’s outburst could undoubtedly be a great deal worse, as free verse is reckoned. Of the “two lovers that woo her unceasingly”, I advise her to choose oblivion That is the best way for all vers-libristes. Her colleague, Rossy George, tangles himself all up in some words & phrases, in which a trace of metre is observable. His spasms, however, are less definite in thought (if, indeed, there be any definiteness in imagistical chaos!) & less meritorious altogether.

H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 May 1918, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 111

Lovecraft here refers to Gidlow’s poem “The Two Lovers” and Mills’ poem “Once,” which appeared in W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal The Vagrant #7 (Jun 1918). The comments are less directed at the content of the work than the form; Lovecraft was then a noted “metrical mechanic” and an opponent of “free verse” who thought poetry ought to rhyme. Nor was Lovecraft the only one who took exception to Gidlow’s poetry; his close friend Alfred Galpin conceived and wrote a parody, which was published in Lovecraft’s amateur journal The Conservative vol. 4, no. 1 (Jul 1918):

Two Lovers

I have two lovers who woo me unceasingly:
One is very beautiful;
His countenance is as the face of a god, and radiates a light that is intoxicating;
Through his transparent skin I can see the warm blood leaping in his veins;
The even beat of his pulse is as the restless tide of a thousand oceans;
But he is very fickle.
I know that he would love me well, but only for a little while.
Yes, he is very fickle.
He is as a little yellow bee that draws the warm honey from flowers, then passes on his way;
He is as a seducer that robs young maidens of their sweetnesses, and then mocks at them;
He is as a radiant morning sun-cloud that swallows the little lingering pale stars;
Yes, he is very beautiful and desirable, but he is very cruel.

The other is not fair or lovely:
He has long fingers with nails that are pointed and tipped with purple,
And his hair that flows free is iron grey and very lank;
There are little grooved wrinkles in his brow that make him seem very old;
But his eyes are young.
They are as the eyes of a child that looks upon suffering innocently, not comprehending,
And yet they are so compassionate;
I love his eyes because they are so compassionate.
His soul is very beautiful: It is a pool of light that is depthless; (I should like to bathe in that pool).

I think that he is constant.
He would love me very deeply, and through the forever that is ageless;
Yes, he is very constant.
He would hold me in his restful arms and touch my lips with soft kisses;
He would cover my eyes, that burn hotly, with little green leaves to cool them;
He would breathe sad songs to me so sweetly they would seem happy;
Ah, he is unlovely to look upon, but his soul is very beautiful.

They are Life and Death.

I have two lovers who woo me unceasingly:
Which shall I take?
Two Loves
(After, and with apologies to, Miss Elsie Alice Gidlow in the June Vagrant)

I have two loves, who haunt me unceasingly.
Which shall I choose?

One is ugly to men’s sight, and arouses repulsion in them;
Not so to me; for I know the true heart within.
Yes, he is ugly and repulsive to many—
His robust mien and his plebeian companions dishonour him.
But they are as he:
For his heart is as pure gold, the gold
Scorned in sham by the would-be poetic, but ever true and useful.

He is constant, and I could love him forever;
Yea, with dishnour stamped on his brow by the mob, I yet do love him.
For his heart is as the heart of a thrifty and comely woman sought by all of thought.

He hath a hard skin, and is difficult of acquaintance;
But to him who searcheth beneath, he is a rich mine of delicious treasure.

In my sensuous dreams I behold him, and long for him;
When all the world is heartless and I am weary of it,
Then do I long for him.

The other I would shun; for he is traitorously fair and beauteous:
But he draws me to him inevitably, as the raft through many streams to the ocean.

His soul burneth as the hot torrents that prompt love—
Ever youthful and daring in heart, but changing ere ultimately carefree;
Inspiring hesitant fear at a distance, but enticing and ever victorious.

He is not constant,
Except as he forceth me to everlasting constancy;
For he is exacting.
He draws me to him and I drink of his luscious beauty—
But O the aftermath! The satient afterwhile!

He would destroy me;
He has become a part of my soul, and meaneth my ruin;
And yet I should die without him.

His beauty sparkles, and is given fastidious care. His speech flows swiftly and fluently, and is the language of all who are subject to his sway.
Yea, him I long for passionately, and the other is only a comfort.

I have two loves who woo me unceasingly:
One is bologna and the other Scotch Whiskey:
Which shall I take?
Elsie Alice Gidlow
The Fossil #329, 16
Alfred Galpin (as by “Consul Hasting”)
Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others 402

Lovecraft had initially submitted this parody to W. Paul Cook for The Vagrant, but Cook refused it for unknown reasons. Such games were far from uncommon in amateur journals, and Lovecraft would try his own hand at such poetic mockery, such as “Cindy: Scrub-Lady in a State Street Skyscraper” (1920). Lovecraft was amused:

The general reception of your “Two Loves” is most gratifying to me, both as an endorsement of my own opinion and otherwise. I cannot suggest just the professional magazine for it, but Mo’s suggestion will undoubtedly be satisfactory. […] The Association must not be denied the privilege of seeing it, after having endured the original. Did I tell you that Miss Gidlow is President of the rival “United” Amateur Press Association which split off from ours in 1912? It is a peurile thing, with very easy literary standards. Some idea of its calibre may be gainedby noting the opinion of the majority of its members regarding the weird & wondrous work of the Mills-Gidlow duet. They call it “very highbrow”!! At least, this is what Cook informs me, & his acquaintance with this circle is fairly representative.

H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 27 May 1918, Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others 193

This is the first mention of Gidlow or Mills in Lovecraft’s letters. Cook was apparently a recipient of an issue or two of Les Mouches Fantastiques, who in turn passed it on to Lovecraft (LAGO 215). The same issue of The Conservative which contained Galpin’s parody “Two Loves” also contains Lovecraft’s review Gidlow & Mills’ LGBTQ-heavy amateur journal, which reads in part:

The reader may, up to date, unearth nothing save a concentrated series of more or les sprimitive and wholly unintellectual sense-impressions; instinct, form, colour, odour, and the like, grouped in all the artistic chaos characteristic of the late Oscar Wilde of none too fragrant memory. Much of this matter is, as might be expected, in execrable taste. Now is this Life? […]

It seems to The Conservative that Miss Gidlow and Mr. Mills, instead of being divinely endowed sers in sole possession of all Life’s truths, are a pair of rather youthful persons suffring from a sadly distorted philosophical perspective. Instead of seeing Life in its entirety, they see but one tiny phase, which they mistake for the whole. What worlds of beauty—pure Uranian beauty—are utterly denied them on account of their bondage to the lower regions of the senses! It is almost pitiful to hear superficial allusions to “Truth” from the lips of those whose eyes are sealed to the Intellectual Absolute; who knows not the upper altitudes of pure though, in which empirical forms and material aspects are nothing.

The editors of Les Mouches complain very bitterly of the inartistic quality of amateur journalism; a complaint half just and half otherwise. The very nature of our institution necessitates a modicum of crudity, but if Miss Gidlow and Mr. Mills were more analytical, they could see beauty in much which appears ugly to their rather astigmatic vision.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Les Mouches Fantastiques,” Collected Essays 1.204

There is a bit of a pot-calling-the-kettle black here: Gidlow was only eight years younger than Lovecraft himself, who was not yet 28 at the time and had only emerged into amateur journalism four years previously. Lovecraft did not sign this editorial, but was taking on the rhetorical persona of the old and cynical Conservative of the title of his amateur journalism, even though he and Gidlow were pretty comparable on that score. It is doubtful Lovecraft missed the content of the issue: the reference to Oscar Wilde, who had been jailed for homosexuality in 1895, is a little too pointed. The reference to “Uranian” beauty does not appear to be a reference to the sexological term for homosexuality per se, or to the pedophilic Uranian poets, but the older Classical reference that underlies it: the love of spiritual beauty that supersedes love of physical beauty. It is also possible that Lovecraft used the term without understanding its different possible meanings in the context of homosexual subject matter.

Unfortunately, while Lovecraft’s letters and amateur journal writings have been saved and published; we don’t have Gidlow or Mills’ take on this critique, at least not directly. They could easily have seen it; if W. Paul Cook could send a copy of Les Mouches Fantastiques to Lovecraft, he could easily have mailed a copy of The Conservative to Montreal. Gidlow’s autobiography does not focus much on the response to Les Mouches, aside from a correspondent in Cuba who was appreciative of the openly homosexual content, and Graeme Davis’ arrival in Montreal and his affair with Mills. Davis wrote a lengthy review of Les Mouches in his own amateur journal The Lingerer in 1919.

A total of five issues of Les Mouches would be produced from 1918 to 1920, the fifth and final being dated May 1920. Unlike earlier issues, the final issue was finely printed rather than mimeographed. It is not clear if Lovecraft saw anything more than that single 1918 issue of Les Mouches; his letters are silent on Gidlow and Mills for two years. Then, in 1920, he mentions them again:

The hedonist, following Aristippus and Gidlow-Mills, believes in seeking the wildest delights of sense, and ina accepting all the consequences both to the individual and to society. That is what he calls “living”—the poor fish! He thinks the calm and unemotional epicurean is only half alive; that he misses something in avoiding the violent alternation of emotional exaltation and depression.

H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, April 1920, Letters to Alfred Galpin 90

The attitude is identical to 1918; perhaps Lovecraft had no other prompt than that the conversation had turned to pleasure-seeking as a philosophical issue once again. Yet only the next month, the subject came up again:

As to day-dreams & Rossie George—I am afraid that the wildest of his flights is rather tame compared with what I have seen in other universes whilst asleep. He can’t even get off this one poor planet, or rise much above the animal instincts here. Carcass-worshippers like Rossie & Elsie make me so infernally sick & tired that I lack patience with them. This reminds me—I never shewed you that putrid fellow’s letter, which he wrote me last summer. I promised to do so, & will enclose it herewith. My personal comment is twofold: (a) Nobody home. (B) Throw it in the garbage pail behind the house & cover well with chloride of lime Kindly return this bit of mental & moral aberration for preservation as a horrible example in my private museum of mental pahtology.

H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 21 May 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 164

R. G. Mills’ letter to H. P. Lovecraft is not known to survive, so we can only speculate as to the contents. It seems clear from context that Lovecraft did not destroy the letter, and he seemed willing to lend it to his friend Kleiner, which argues against it having anything blatantly obscene (by 1919 U.S. mail standards), and one can’t quite imagine Mills asking for a photograph of Lovecraft so that he could daydream about him as Gidlow claims Mills did with Davis. It seems unlikely that Mills openly flouted his homosexuality in the letter either, as Lovecraft remarked elsewhere that “I never heard of homosexuality as an actual instinct till I was over thirty” (LJS 146), and he would only have been 28 or 29 in the summer of 1919. The most likely content would probably be simply a response or rebuttal to Lovecraft’s critique in The Conservative; but perhaps there was something more. Lovecraft would go on to write:

Some persons shrink from a fellow like Rossie Mills when young because they deem him an unique & leprous abnormality; yet tolerate him in later years because they lean that most mortals share his foulness. I shrank from such in youth merely because I disliked them & was not like them. And in later life I still shrank from them, for exactly the same reason. I am the same & they are the same—& it does not matter to me that their qualities are more widely diffused than I had fancied.

H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 11 Jun 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 167

There are two possibilities here: either Lovecraft was (despite his later letter) aware that Mills was homosexual and this is simply homophobia, or Lovecraft was not aware Mills was homosexual and this is some other prejudice. While we can’t know for absolute certain which it was, there may be a clue in Lovecraft’s other letters and Gidlow’s autobiography. In a later letter Lovecraft recalled meeting Gordon Hatfield in 1922:

Have you seen that precious sissy Gordon Hatfield that I met in Cleveland? […] When I saw that marcelled what is it I didn’t know whether to kiss it or kill it! It used to sit cross-legged on the floor at Elgin’s and gaze soulfully upward. It didn’t like me and Galpin—too horrid, rough and mannish for it!

H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 8 Jan 1923, Letters to James F. Morton 63

LGBTQ+ folks in the 1920s faced not only legal and social discrimination but genuine violence for nonconformance with expected gender roles and behavior, or even suspected homosexual behavior. While Lovecraft did not engage in such violence, he was clearly aware of the social implications and was reacting as he thought was appropriate. It is notable that Lovecraft did not have that reaction to other homosexuals he met, such as Samuel Loveman and Hart Crane. In another letter he expands:

Another thing many nowadays overlook the fact that there are always distinctly effeminate types which are most distinctly not homosexual. I don’t know how psychology explains them, but we all know the sort of damned sissy who plays with girls & seems to dislike boys, & who—when he grows up—is a chronic “cake-eater”, hanging around girls, doting on dances, acquriing certain feminine mannerisms, intonations & tastes, & yet never having even the slightest perversion of erotic inclinations.

H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 14 Aug 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 146

In her autobiography, Gidlow writes that Roswell George Mills was “ambiguously beautiful” and when not at work “delicately made up and elegantly dressed, wearing exotic jewelry and as colorful clothes as he dared” (ELSA 74). While Lovecraft never met Mills in person, if he did get the impression from the letter received that Mills was a “sissy”—for example, if it was sent on perfumed stationery—that might be enough to satisfy the “putrid” comment.

Lovecraft’s thoughts on homosexuality, gender conformity, and early-20th century crises of masculinity aside, Elsie Alice Gidlow was not idle. In 1920 shortly after her 21st birthday she immigrated from Montreal to New York City, much as Lovecraft himself would do a few years later, away from her parents and her old life. The transition was marked by a change in name: Elsie became Elsa, which had been an occasional byline. While no longer president of the UAPAA (and the cessation of Les Mouches Fantastiques may have been due in part to her precarious finances at the time), she was still involved with amateur journalism…and as it happened, both Gidlow and Lovecraft were members of NAPA, reading and submitting to some of the same amateur journals.

In the United Amateur vo. 19, no. 5 (May 1920), an unsigned editorial “The Pseudo-United” records an attempt to recruit members of the UAPAA for the UAPA—particularly a branch of the UAPAA that had set up in Flatbush in Brooklyn—but the effort was rebuffed. While Gidlow isn’t named, and there is no clear indication she was involved, if she was still involved in the UAPAA while in New York, her word as former president might have carried some weight. The article, right down to the name, echoes some of the sentiments in a previous piece (“The Other United,” United Amateur vol. 16, no. 9, Jul 1917) that ran during Gidlow’s presidency of the UAPAA.

That she was still involved in amateur journalism is clear because she published an essay “Life for Life’s Sake” in The Wolverine (Oct 1920); the same amateur journal which would publish Lovecraft’s “The Street” (Dec 1920), “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (Mar 1921), and “The Nameless City” (Nov 1921). Gidlow’s essay begins:

Now that all the gods are cast down, now that they, products of the golden dust of human imagination that they were, are indistinguishable from the dust of the dead things that they mix with, now that they have become altogether disintegrated, so many are asking, What of us, what of the universe? What of life, to what purpose everything? Truly the first new blankness that comes after one’s exchange of Gods and Eternities for Nothingness is very crushing, devitalizingly deadening, and the resultant persisting thot is, This is life, then death; a flash of rainbow, then endless, cold grey; a light, then no light, something─nothing…middle distance thot. There are also the extremes: extreme nearness and the furthermost distance, and with these two the thot is the same, that thot being─what but Life for Life’s sake?

Elsa Gidlow, reprinted in The Fossil #329, 31

Lovecraft would respond directly to Gidlow with an answering essay: “Life for Humanity’s Sake” (American Amateur Sep 1920), which runs in part:

Miss Gidlow has discovered the fact that there is no vast supernatural intelligence governing the cosmos—a thing Democritus could have told her several centuries B.C.—and is amazingly distrubed thereat. Without stopping to consider the possibility of acquiescence in a purposeless, mechanical universe, she at once strives to invent a substittue for the mythology she has cast aside; and preaches a new and surprising discovery the ancient selfish hedonism whose folly was manifest before the death of its founder Aristippus. There is something both amusing and pathetic about the promulgation of hedonism in this complex age of human interdependence.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Life for Humanity’s Sake,” Collected Essays 5.45

This response was aimed not just at Gidlow, but also at fellow amateur and Lovecraft correspondent Maurice W. Moe who had likewise responded to Gidlow’s piece, which evidently dealt with the consideration of ethics once religion has been repudiated. While Lovecraft points out what he feels are flaws in both their arguments equally, his tone is patronizing…and Gidlow had perhaps been patronized once too often by amateur journalists. She at last responded with “The Literary Decadence of E.G.”, which reads in part:

There is Mr. Goodenough with his rhymed very-moral maxims; Mr. Lovecraft with his morbid imitations of artists he seems not even able to understand; Mr. Ward Phillips who admires Poe wisely and far too well, since he mimics him so laboriously; and a host of others, male and female, who apart from having no new word to speak, cannot write three consecutive rhymed verses in even metre, although they raise their voices tontinuously and wildly against “modern” poetry and that in their opinion heretical expression of a perverted intellect, vers libre.

This opinion, in the main, applies to the N.A.P.A. The “United” displays more youth and spirit but less, if possible, literary ability, its A.J.’s being mostly filled with slangy recruiting propaganda or banal opinions on President Wilson’s or somebody else’s attitude under such and such circumstances. The contributors to these journals also run to imitative verse.

The possibilities of Amateur Journalism are limitless. That I have always believed. But its development is retarded by the majority of its members’ too-obvious limitations.

Elsa Gidlow, reprinted in The Fossil #329, 34

“Ward Phillips” was one of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms. Amateur journalists, including Lovecraft, responded:

In the July American Amateur, the precocious Miss Elsie (alias Elsa) A. Gidlow of Les Mouches fame refers with admirable courtesy to “Mr. Lovecraft with his morid imitations of artists he seems not even able to understand”. Possibly Mistress Elsie-Elsa would prefer that the amateurs follower her own example, and perpetrate morbid imitations of morbid artists whom nobody outside the asylum is able to understand.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Lucubrations Lovecraftian,” United Co-Operative vol. 1, no. 3 (Apr 1921),
Collected Essays 1.284

Miss Gidlow mentions Mr. Lovecraft. I confess I’ve tried manfully to read his poetry and have gone to sleep over it. Yet I have read his few stories with genuine pleasure. I recall that one night I let the moon shine in my eyes because I was afraid to get up and pull down the shade after reading one of his stories, “Dagon” I think it was. No doubt other readers would toss it aside and remark that they could do better than that. Perhaps they could and perhaps some of them tried.

Pearl K. Merritt, “Amateur Journalism is Not Futile” in American Amateur Sep 1920, reprinted in The Fossil #329, 34-35

Lovecraft had begun to publish more fiction in the amateur press, including “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (The Vagrant, May 1920), and Gidlow’s comment seems aimed at those early works. His response is a bit juvenile, amounting to little more than “I’m rubber and you’re glue.” It isn’t known if Gidlow read their replies.

Gidlow left amateur journalism by the end of 1920, though W. Paul Cook published a poem some years later in 1927. In 1923, Elsa Gidlow published On a Grey Thread, considered to be the first book of lesbian poetry published in the United States; she would travel widely, write and lecture, and cement her place in the history of LGBTQ+ literature. Her autobiography ELSA is said to be the first where the author “outs” herself as a lesbian, without a pseudonym.

Lovecraft continued his own life as well, met and married Sonia H. Greene. Their tumultuous marriage would coincide with Greene holding the UAPA presidency for two terms, 1923-1924 and 1924-1925, with Lovecraft as Official Editor. Despite his best efforts, without his leadership recruitment stalled and the UAPA became moribund around 1926; the UAPAA continued on, and Lovecraft’s later dealings with amateur journalism in the 1930s exclusively involve the National Amateur Press Association.

While Lovecraft’s interaction with Elsa Gidlow, R. G. Mills, and Les Mouches Fantastiques was slight, the encounters stuck with him and cropped up in a few of his later writings. In a later issue of The Conservative (#12, Mar 1923) he would recall them in an editorial:

Shall we remain comfortably cloistered with out Milton and Wordsworth, never again to know the amusing buzzing of such quaint irritants as Les Mouches Fantastiques?

H. P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays 2.64

The same year, while Lovecraft was serving as interim president of NAPA for the remainder of the 1922-1923 term, his tone is a bit different:

Intelligent controversy will shortly receive a stimulus from the appearance in our microcosm of Mr. H. A. Joslen, the first thorough “young modern” we have had since the Gidlow-Mills days.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “President’s Message”, National Amateur #45 (May 1923),
Collected Essays 1.334

Mr. H. A. Joslen’s Gipsy [sic] is an unique and by no means unwelcome addition to amateur journalism, supplying the place of the long-departed Les Mouches Fantastiques.
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Conservative #13 (Jul 1923), Collected Essays 1.343

This does not appear to be Lovecraft giving any kind of backhanded compliment to Joslen or his amateur journal Gypsy, as elsewhere Lovecraft spoke approvingly of Joslen’s youth, energy, and determination to maintain a high literary quality in his amateur journal. While Lovecraft as a metrical mechanic was averse to free verse, and his cosmic philosophy would have been at odds with any philosophy that devolved to overwhelming preoccupation with physical pleasure—he never complained of the overall quality of Les Mouches Fantastiques‘ production, nor accused it of being of low literary quality. Perhaps he did have a sneaky respect for Gidlow & Mills and their skill and efforts, even if he disagreed with the specific content.

The last mention in Lovecraft’s published letters involved the contents of an old issue of The Recluse (Oct 1919), as part of a list of notable contents of that amateur journal:

Furthermore—an exotic Chinese piece called “Tea Flowers” (based on Wilde & suggesting Lesbianism) by Roswell George Mills, & a rather powerful ghoul-poem, “The Mould-Shade Speaks” by Winifred V. Jackson. A rather bizarre issue on the whole.

H. P. Lovecraft to Robert H. Barlow, 17 Dec 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 91-92

“Tea Flowers” was a play dedicated to “Sappho,” which was Mills’ nickname for Gidlow. Probably, Lovecraft never knew that his young friend R. H. Barlow was homosexual—and perhaps wasn’t aware that in this off-hand mention, he provided a clue that there were more folk like him involved in amateur journalism, or at least those who dared to write on themes like Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name.”

It was probably Lovecraft’s first encounter with a lesbian; possibly the only one we have any verifiable record of. If that is the case it’s not clear if Lovecraft was even aware of it. His critiques of Les Mouches Fantastiques show he was not totally unaware of such things, but whether he recognized or knew of such matters at that early date, or simply glossed it all as Decadent literature is unclear.

The whole affair is little more than a footnote in the lives of writers that have gone on to be remembered for other things: Lovecraft for his weird fiction, Gidlow for her poetry and autobiography. Most of what we know about the interactions, which happened not in person but through the snail’s pace of scattered pieces published in amateur journals months apart, are from Lovecraft’s side of things—and even his biographies do not record the tiff. Nor does Gidlow mention Lovecraft in her autobiography; six or seven decades is more than enough time for emotions to fade and memories to grow dim. Yet they did play a role in one another’s story…and that story was entwined, informed, and shadowed by the growing awareness of and discrimination applied to LGBTQ+ folks.

For more on Elsa Gidlow, Lovecraft, and amateur journalism please check out:

  • “Lavender Ajays of the Red Scare Period: 1917-1920” by Ken Faig, Jr., in The Fossil #329.
  • Gidlow’s ajay poems and materials related to the history of the United Amateur Press Association, Gidlow’s presidency, and possible early amateur journalism activities are reprinted in The Fossil #332 and #334.
  • “The Lovecraft-Gidlow Centenary” by Ken Faig, Jr. in Lovecraftian People and Places (2022).

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.

Deeper Cut: Conan and the Shemites: Robert E. Howard and Antisemitism

The King of Kings gripped me. I thought it was powerful, though I think Joseph Schildrkraut ran away with the picture as Judas. And William Boyd, that fellow is the most human actor in the world. H.B. Warner lacked fire of course, but I don’t know who else could have done even as good as he did. Damn the Jews anyway.
—Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, recd. 20 Oct 1927, CL 1.229

The King of Kings (1927) was a silent epic, the second part of Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical trilogy, which began with The Ten Commandments (1923) and finished with The Sign of the Cross (1932), and tells the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, including his betrayal by Judas—and, in DeMille’s version, the high priest Caiaphas. The New Testament story has long been a focal point for Christian antisemitism, and Jewish newspapers and the Anti-Defamation League protested the film and its portrayal. They had every reason to: antisemitic violence around the world has never ceased, and the cinematic stirring of prejudices was feared to trigger pogroms. Many Jewish immigrants in the United States would have experienced violence against Jews such as the Kishinev massacre (1903), Lwów pogrom (1918) and Kyev Pogroms (1919) in the Russian empire.

Antisemitism prejudice and attendant discrimination had many forms and facets in the United States in the early 20th century: Christian anti-Judaism had persisted since antiquity in Western culture, but now merged with scientific racism, anti-immigrant Nativism, and ethnic stereotypes. World War I and the Russian Civil War led to parallel accusations of Jewish Bolshevism and Jewish capitalism. While not every American shared all of these prejudices, enough did.

Robert E. Howard was not an exception in this regard. Born in Texas in 1906, he was raised in a succession of small towns before the Howard family settled in Cross Plains, TX. While he often felt himself an outsider in this community, Howard’s views were informed by his environment and the popular media of the day. In that context, Howard’s reaction to The King of Kings is likely not unusual for his time and place—but only hints at the more substantial ways in which antisemitism found expression in his life and writings.

The best evidence of Howard’s antisemitism comes from his letters. However, Howard’s correspondence has to be approached with care: while they are first-hand documents, they are not diary entries, nor were they ever intended for publication, and present neither Howard’s inmost thoughts nor his views as he would have wished to preserve them for posterity. Each letter is to a specific individual, and the content and tone of the letter, right down to the antisemitic content, would have been influenced by Howard’s relationship with the person he was writing to and his purpose in sending the letter. It is important when reading these letters to keep this context in mind, and to judge the content of the letter not just by the written words, but the unspoken assumptions of who would read them and what Howard was trying to convey…and with the knowledge that Howard could, and did, change his tone and content when writing to close friends (like Tevis Clyde Smith or Harold Preece) versus pulp writing peers (like H. P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith).

It is important to remember that the quotes below are selected excerpts from the correspondence of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft. They don’t reflect well on either man, but nor should they: antisemitism is ugly. They do not include every comment on Jews, nor even every antisemitic comment. These letters are quoted here to give an uncensored look at what Robert E. Howard wrote, and why he wrote it; to assist with the analysis of what his prejudices with regards to Jews were, and how it shaped his relationships and influenced his fiction.

Evidence of Antisemitism

Howard’s first-hand encounters with Jewish people in his life were few. He never noted any Jewish friends or correspondents in his letters, and Cross Plains does not appear to have had many Jewish residents—certainly not enough to support a synagogue, though the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish CommunitiesTexas notes small Jewish communities in nearby Abilene and Breckinridge during the period. In discussing his work history, Howard noted “I used to work in a Jewish dry-goods store.” (MF 1.120, cf. CL 2.199, 248) which was probably his closest direct association with anyone Jewish, although he no doubt had casual encounters. One such encounter was recounted in his letters:

There was a Jew sitting beside me who had bet five dollars with a big fireman that Rogers would stay the limit. Rogers stayed and the Jew won the bet, but the fight was harder on him than on Rogers. As Dula would drive Racehorse across the ring, slugging him savagely, the Jew would leap up and wave his arms wildly, shrieking for Rogers to clinch!—hold!—stall!—do anything! As the gong would end the round, the Jew would shriek that Rogers was saved by the gong and would fall limply back into his seat, in a state of collapse.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jan 1932, MF 1.258

This may have been a typical Texas “tall tale”; Howard was prone to a degree of exaggeration and dramatization of events in his letters to Lovecraft, and the letters make very entertaining reading as a result—but a critical reader might wonder how much of this was true. Howard was fond of boxing matches and Kid Dula was one of his personal favorites, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason to doubt that he attended the fight. Whether there was a Jew—and whether they actually affected any such histrionics, or if this was all a bit of a tale for Lovecraft’s benefit, informed by Jewish stereotypes—is a bit of a question.

We can measure Howard’s antisemitic sentiments in some ways by looking at those of his peers: pulp writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth all made antisemitic comments in their letters as well. All four were white men, and though widely separated in different parts of the country, were of roughly similar generation (Lovecraft born in 1890 was the oldest, Derleth born in 1909 was the youngest), and their antisemitic comments all partake of the ambient antisemitism of the United States during their shared lifetime.

Howard’s references to Jews are mostly casual (often jocular) though sometimes bitter, dominated by stereotypes (usually of greed or cowardice, and with exaggerated phonetic Yiddish accents), and reserved for close friends. An example to illustrate this point:

Lizzen my children and you shall be told
Of the midnight ride of Mikey de Gold!
In feathers and tar he rode away
On a ten-foot rail at the break of day.
And Hebrews cheer when the tale is told
Of the thrilling ride of Mikey de Gold. 

Wotta life, wota life! Here is de low-down on Mikey de Gold: “As a Jew I know that anti-Jewish prejudice exists. I will fight it to the death. * I will stand up for my race, as I will for a Negro or Italian in like circumstances. And I refuse to run away, even if there were an escape in Palestine or Africa, as there certainly is not. America is our country, as much as anyone’s. We will plant ourselves here, not retreat to some mythical fatherland in the deserts of Palestine or Africa.”
—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, c. Sep 1931, CL 2.244

The quote is in reference to the quasi-autobiographical novel Jews Without Money (1930) by Michael Gold (pseudonym of Irving Granvich); it is accompanied by a crude cartoon of Gold running away, with the caption “Mikey de Gold fighting to the death, according to the custom of his race” (ibid.) The bitter passages are rarer, but also telling, e.g.:

You can’t justify the existence of the Hebrew race to me. If I ever heard the Humoresque, it didn’t linger in my mind; but anyway, all the music in the world wouldn’t make me like them any better. They are swine as far as I am concerned; a lot of dirty scuts that didn’t have the nerve to come to America until the Irish had killed out the Indians and built the railroads. Then they came over and now they sit up on their bulbous rumps and blatantly announce that they own the damned country. Maybe they do; they’ll never own Ireland.
—Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, recd. 20 Oct 1927, CL 1.340-341

Whether this is just a reflection of Howard in a black mood or putting on one for show is hard to judge by the context of the letter, but the concept of Jews as an outgroup, johnny-come-latelies to the United States after the frontier was settled would persist in Howard’s other letters. Both quotes illustrate the stereotypes that dominated Howard’s depiction of Jews as cowardly, greedy, and wealthy, both in his letters and his fiction.

As far as can be determined Howard expressed these prejudices only in private, among those who would not likely call him out. In this, his antisemitic statements can be compared to those of Clark Ashton Smith or August Derleth in their own letters: off-color jokes and pejoratives shared with those who would presumably have similar cultural background and values. The references to Jews in letters to Harold Preece, Tevis Clyde Smith, and other close friends ultimately don’t tell us much about Howard’s prejudices, except that he had them and that they followed some of the common stereotypes of the period. Howard’s “jokes” only land if the recipient and sender are both already aware of and implicitly agree with the common stereotypes about Jews.

By contrast, H. P. Lovecraft rarely if ever makes this kind of quip—more of his antisemitic statements are “serious” or presented as factual—and consequently, there is no “banter” or exchange of jokes about Jews in the Howard/Lovecraft letters. However, there is also nothing of the pseudoscientific, considered thoughts on Jews in Howard’s letters to his Texas friends: only Lovecraft was a springboard for those more in-depth conversations.

The Lovecraft Letters

The most telling and informative evidence of Howard’s thoughts on Jews comes from his correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft. The subject matter of Howard’s letters is usually very restrained when writing to his friends, editors, and fellow pulpsters; but his letters to Lovecraft covered vast areas of discussion from history and anthropology to contemporary politics and current events, from pulp business to poetry, personal biography to their favorite foodstuffs. In Lovecraft, Howard found a correspondent different from any of the others we have a record of, whom he could engage with on a broad number of topics and in great depth. So while Howard could and did mention Jews in letters to others, he would never discuss them in such depth as he would in his letters to Lovecraft.

The earliest references to Jews in Lovecraft and Howard’s letters grew out of a discussion of anthropology and history:

One legend for instance, has the Gaels wandering into Egypt to serve as mercenaries, just at the time the Hebrews are leaving, and another legend has it that the Milesians were already well settled in the Egyptian barracks when the Jews arrived, and that it was malcontents among the Gaels who went into Goshan and stirred up the Hebrews to revolt.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, [9 Aug 1930], MF 1.35

Christianity had been treating the Old Testament as history for centuries, and during the Middle Ages this had led to national epics and legends that connected (or concocted) national myths with the Bible. The Lebor Gabála Érenn (popularly known in English as The Book of Invasions) begins with Genesis and traces the descent of the Irish from Noah’s son Japheth down to the Milesians, and from the more openly mythological material to the pagan and then Christian kings of Ireland. Howard, like other scholars, saw a grain of historical truth in the old legends and worked them into the anthropological narrative. By the same token, some lexicographers claimed that Irish Gaelic derived from Hebrew; Robert E. Howard discussed this with Lovecraft as well (MF 1.18), probably getting the idea from O’Reilly and O’Donovan’s Irish-English Dictionary.

The term “Semitic” originally referred to the closely related languages of Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Amharic, etc. in the 18th century; the term derived from “Shem,” the son of Noah from whom the Jews of the Old Testament were descended (Genesis 10-11). The term was extended through use to refer not just to the languages, but to the peoples who spoke those languages, their cultures and religions, so that by the early 20th century “Semites” was commonly understood to mean not just these languages, but also Jews, Arabs, Phoenicians, and other peoples that spoke Semitic languages. This was the sense in which Robert E. Howard used and understood the term as well:

As regards the Armenians, I am inclined to the theory that they represent a race whose original type was Semitic, who fell so completely under the dominion of their Aryan conquerors that they forgot their original Semitic language, and retained the later acquired speech through following centuries of re-Semitizing.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Sep 1930, MF 1.43

Your remarks on the Etruscans interested me very much. I am sure you are right in believing them to be of a very composite type of Semite and Aryan. […] I was also interested in the theory of type-differences in the Semitic races, of which I had never heard before. It sounds very plausible, for there always seemed to me to be a basic difference between, say the Bedouin Arab and the Jew, even allowing for the long centuries of different environment and ways of living. That is an aspect of history full of dramatic possibilities; a clean cut divergence of type existing back to the very dawns of time. An ancient feud between the ancestors of the desert dweller and the fertile valley dweller, symbolized by Cain and Abel and by Esau and Jacob. The real basis of the Arab’s hatred for the Hebrew having its roots in primordial racial feud rather than religious differences of comparatively modern times. I must weave that thought into a story some day.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Sep 1930, MF 1.47

While Howard never did write this particular story, these ideas that came out of his discussions with Lovecraft would find their expression in Howard’s later fiction. The combination of national epics and contemporary anthropology gave rise to racial narratives in which contemporary prejudices played out or found expression in historical (or prehistoric) episodes. While C. B. DeMille would tackle this with the New Testament narrative in The King of Kings, Howard would do this with the Shemites in the Hyborian Age.

The pair continued to correspond on this line, among others, and as they got into their topic gradually became more open and less guarded. Howard was one of the few correspondents who matched Lovecraft letter-for-letter, in terms of providing long, detailed, sometimes philosophical and sometimes argumentative responses in what became a long, wandering dispute…and this included discussion of Jews and other “Semitic” races. So for example there was this exchange, starting with Lovecraft:

There is likewise, as you suggest, room for much dramatic reflection in the heterogeneous personnel and history of the Semitic races. My own guess is that the Alpine-Semitic type—the queer-eyed, queer-featured type which we historically regard as Jewish—was originally confined to the fertile valleys and plains, and did not include the early Jews at all; these latter being that homogeneous with the Arabs, and thus chiefly Mediterranean. The Assyrians, as shewn in their sculptures, are extreme examples of this Alpine type; and the Phoenicians and Carthaginians appear to have belonged to it. When the nomadic Jews conquered the cities of Canaan, they probably found this type prevailing there—the difference being clearly shewn in cultural ways. The two elements were mutually antagonistic, but eventually amalgamation occurred—the established and numerically preponderant Canaanite stock of course engulfing the relatively small but ruling element of Mediterranean Hebrews. Thus the Jew of historic times is probably more of a mongrel Canaanite of Alpine ancestry than a descendant of the original Hebraic group. Moses—if he was indeed an historic character—would probably find Mohammed or Saladin more like himself in blood and features than he would find any of the prophets of the later Jewish line. It is obvious that in prehistoric times the Hebrews and Arabs were virtually one. When the Arabic Hyksos or Shepherd Kings conquered Egypt, they brought in myriads of Jews as friendly supporters—these latter becoming a slave-race when the reviving native-Egyptians expelled the Hyksos. It was this period of enslavement, I fancy, which first broke the spirit of the Jew, and gave him that readiness to submit to conquest which has made all his cultural heirs so peculiarly hateful to our unbroken and liberty-worshipping Western race-groups. The Arab of today is a better representative of the prehistoric “Abrahamic” Jew than any type historically known as Jewish. Altogether, there is great stuff in the Semitic peoples—a powerful mentality, and marvellous stamina in limited directions—but somehow they have never been able to coördinate themselves into any solid and enduring fabric comparable with the Aryan world as a whole.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 4 Oct 1930, MF 1.53-54

I am inclined to agree with you that the Assyrians and Phoenicians were of Alpine-Semitic stock, also about the Jews. It is evident that the present day Hebraic race has little in common with the original wandering, fighting type. I wonder if that Alpine type could have been the result of admixture with Turanian races? It is said that the Assyrian’s physiognomy was much like the present day Russian Jew’s, and we know that the Jews of Russia and Poland have a great deal of Mongoloid blood in them—descendents of those Turanian Khazars with whom numbers of Jews settled and mixed in the Middle Ages. […]  The Turanian has always, it seemed to me, been the man of action rather than the man of study and art. He has been, and still is, bold, adventuresome, capable and unsentimental, brutal and domineering; in creative genius he is infinitely inferior to the Semitic race.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Sep 1930, MF 1.82

The “Khazar myth” is an antisemitic pseudohistorical theory that supposed many of the Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Europe—particularly Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire—were actually Central Asian (“Mongoloid” or “Turanian” in late 19th/early 20th-century scientific racism terms) rather than “white,” and that their ancestors had been Khazars who had converted. This theory was used to justify discrimination against the Jews on a racial basis, and while Howard did not lean on it very heavily, these discussions influenced his thinking about Jews as a race, and to open up their history to speculation and re-writing. This kind of activity can also be seen in The King of Kings: C. B. DeMille could not write Jews out of the New Testament narrative, but he could characterize and portray the Jews in such a way to appeal to his interpretation of the story, and of the Jewish people.

While Lovecraft was not in any way shy about voicing his antisemitic views on the Jews of New York City, he had relatively few correspondents who could or did apparently share his views openly. In the case of Clark Ashton Smith, their mutual dealings with Jewish pulp publisher Hugo Gernsback opened up one avenue where they could express antisemitism to each other. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard bonded over their mutual interest in anthropology and anti-immigrant views. In response to a long digression on foreign immigration and the “melting pot” by Lovecraft (MF 1.76-79), Howard wrote in reply:

Once it was the highest honor to say: “I am an American.” It still is, because of the great history that lies behind the phrase; but now any Jew, Polack or Wop, spawned in some teeming ghetto and ignorant of or cynical toward American ideals, can strut and swagger and blatantly assert his Americanship and is accepted on the same status as a man whose people have been in the New World for three hundred years. […] Well—I can’t say that I’ve added anything to the greatness of the nation, but I at least come of a breed that helped build up the country, which is more than can be said today by any number of Hebraic-Slavic-Latins running around and calling themselves “Americans”.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Oct 1930, MF 1.88

These views were sadly not uncommon during the 1930s.

Not all of Lovecraft’s letters to Howard survive, so that there are gaps in the correspondence, but by Howard’s responses we know Lovecraft continued to reference Jews in New York on occasion, and this encouraged Howard to be either more outspoken in his own antisemitism, or more outspokenly antisemitic so as to appeal to his new correspondent:

Thanks very much for the statistics-paper. It seems in truth that only Americans are dying in New York and only Jews are being born. It seems certain that in a generation or so, New York will be a full fledged Hebrew city, 100% Yiddish. Yet I am less sorry to see this happen to New York than I am to note the inroads of the aliens into New England, though I’m sure that wops and Polacks are preferable to Jews. […]  The inevitable Jew infests the state in great numbers. You can hardly find a town of three thousand or more inhabitants that does not contain at least one Jew in business. And the Jew almost invariably has the country trade. It is a stock saying among rural Texans that if the Jew cannot sell his stuff at his price, he will sell it at yours. What they cannot seem to realize is that at whatever price he sells his shoddy junk, he is making a bigger profit than the legitimate merchant can make. No Aryan ever outwitted a Jew in business. I used to work in a Jewish drygoods store. Before each sale—and Jewish sales go on forever—I would “mark down” the goods according to his instructions. For instance, the regular retail price of a pair of trousers would be $5.00. I would mark in big numbers on the tag—$9.50, then draw a line through that and mark below, $5.50. Thus the duped customer, noting the marked out price and comparing it to the new price, would consider that he was getting a bargain, whereas he was in reality paying fifty cents more than the regular price of the garment. But you can’t make the average countryman believe that he’s not saving money and getting gorgeous bargains by trading with the Jews. But to return to the foreignization of the state. Houston, the largest city, has a vast alien population—Jews, Slavs, and Italians, the last drifting up from New Orleans. Dallas fairly swarms with Jews, in ever increasing numbers. In fact, the term, “Dallas Jews” is applied indiscriminately to inhabitants of the city by spiteful people. Dallas also has numbers of Greeks, Russians and Italians and quite a few Mexicans. San Antonio has a large population of Mexicans, twenty or thirty percent of the entire population, and the usual quota of Jews, Italians and Slavs. Of the remaining population, a large percent is Germanic. Fort Worth, thirty miles west of Dallas, and originally settled by cattlemen, is overwhelmingly American; the foreign percentage is very small. Waco, in central east Texas, has, in addition to a vast negro population, a steadily increasing foreign element. The Jew is there, but not many Italians, their place being taken by Poles, Bohemians, Czechs and Magyars. […] Austin, the capital city, set among picturesque hills, is mainly free from aliens, but Galveston and Corpus Christi swarm with Italians, South Americans, Cubans, Filipinos, Slavs, Jews—the usual population of sea-port towns. As for the Rio Grande Valley, the alien population is immense, some towns, I hear, being almost entirely composed of Latins and Jews, aside from their natural Mexican element.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jan 1931,
MF 1.120-121

This is the kind of detailed look at antisemitic prejudice which we don’t see in Howard’s other letters, because Lovecraft was an outsider to Texas and was sympathetic to such anti-immigrant and antisemitic statements, and evinced an interest in Texas and Howard’s descriptions of its culture, geography, and population. Robert E. Howard was no doubt exaggerating a touch for effect (the Texas “tall tale” tradition in action). Lovecraft was less prone to exaggeration but also strove to provide his new friend with entertaining accounts of his own views on New York, and Howard connected this to Lovecraft’s fiction:

It’s a pity the Yids have taken New York. I imagine the mongrel population does present a bizarre aspect—I remember with what deep interest and absolute fascination I read your story, “He”, with its setting in the mysterious labyrinth of New York’s alleys and secret ways.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.149

“He” had been published in Weird Tales (Sep 1926), so this callback gives evidence to how keen Howard was on Lovecraft’s fiction; while the Texan had missed a few early issues of Weird Tales, he was a great admirer of Lovecraft’s fiction. The story was born out of Lovecraft’s New York period, and reflected his own disillusionment with the Big Apple—and while it doesn’t include any antisemitic commentary, Howard’s interest in New York no doubt encouraged Lovecraft to be more open about his prejudices. The two were encouraging one another, as correspondents often do, albeit on a very unpleasant subject. One of Lovecraft’s personal bugbears was his conviction that Jews controlled publishing in New York City:

But the Jews manage to get money and influence without losing a particle of their hard realism and unctuously offensive rattiness. They push brazenly ahead—in the intellectual and aesthetic as well as the practical field. Right now their control of the publishing field is alarming—houses like Knopf, Boni, Liveright, Greenberg, Viking, etc. etc. serving to give a distinctly Semitic angle to the whole matter of national manuscript-choice, and thus indirectly to national current literature and criticism.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Jan 1931, MF 1.134

Which prompted Howard to reply:

I agree with you that there is far too much Semitic control of publication and I view this fact with deep resentment. If American literature can’t somehow shake off the strangle-hold the Jews seem to have gotten on it, I believe it’s doomed. Not denying that the Semitic race is capable of producing fine work itself; but to each race its own literature. I don’t want to control the artistic expression of the Jews, and by God, I don’t want them to control and direct the expression of my race. You’re right about the haggling and noise accompanying commerce among the Orientals. In New Orleans all this noise and argument isn’t confined to the Semites alone.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.150

As with the Khazar myth, Lovecraft and Howard were both responding to a fallacious idea that a very small population of Jews were controlling the media marketplace—not very far removed from the antisemitic propaganda that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis spouted, though neither Lovecraft or Howard had heard of Hitler by this point. What is made clear from this passage is that Howard was responding to Lovecraft’s antisemitism. While Lovecraft had a broader correspondence with many different people with their own perspectives on these issues, as far as we know Howard only had Lovecraft. The two were not free from disagreement on some subjects, but when the conversation turned to Jews they tended to reinforce one another, echoing back the other’s prejudice.

Yet for all that, what they have discussed above are generally common prejudices, not views that are unique to either Lovecraft or Howard—but Howard would soon expand past common antisemitic tropes and offer his own individual views.

Robert E. Howard and the Jews of the Old Testament

I have always felt a deep interest in Israel in connection with Saul. Poor devil! A pitiful and heroic figure, set up as a figurehead because of his height and the spread of his shoulders, and evincing an expected desire of be king in more than name—a plain, straight-forward man, unversed in guile and subtlety, flanked and harassed by scheming priests, beleaguered by savage and powerful enemies, handicapped by a people too wary and backward in war—what wonder that he went mad toward the end? He was not fitted to cope with the mysteries of king-craft, and he had too much proud independence to dance a puppet on the string of the high priest—there he sealed his own doom. When he thwarted the snaky Samuel, he should have followed it up by cutting that crafty gentleman’s throat—but he dared not. The hounds of Life snapped ever at Saul’s heels; a streak of softness made him human but made him less a king. He dared too much, and having dared too much, he dared not enough. He was too intelligent to submit to Samuel’s dominance, but not intelligent enough to realize that submission was his only course unless he chose to take the ruthless course and fling the high priest to the vultures and jackals. Samuel had him in a stranglehold; not only did the high priest have the people behind him, but he played on Saul’s own fears and superstitions and in the end, ruined him and drove him to madness, defeat and death. The king found himself faced by opposition he could not beat down with his great sword—foes that he could not grasp with his hands. Life became a grappling with shadows, a plunging at blind, invisible bars. He saw the hissing head of the serpent beneath each mask of courtier, priest, concubine and general. They squirmed, venom-ladened beneath his feet, plotting his downfall; and he towered above them, yet must perforce bend an ear close to the dust, striving to translate their hisses. But for Samuel, vindictive, selfish and blindly shrewd as most priests are, Saul had risen to his full statue—as it was, he was a giant chained.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.160-161

One of the major influences on Robert E. Howard’s fiction is history. Many of his stories are essentially historical adventures, regardless of whether they possess some element of fantasy or the weird. Howard’s reading of history was always filtered through his own narrative: he admired the soldier, the warrior, the underdog that struggled. In this letter to Lovecraft, Howard uses the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, as history—and the narrative he constructs of Saul is very much evocative, but also familiar, right down to the metaphors. It is suggestive of King Kull, the Atlantean who ruled Valusia and kicked off sword & sorcery in “The Shadow Kingdom” (Weird Tales Aug 1929).

Whether or not Howard had Saul in mind when he wrote some of the Kull stories is unknown, but it’s notable that “The Phoenix on the Sword” (Weird Tales Dec 1932), the first story of Conan the Cimmerian began life as a Kull story (“By This Axe I Rule!”). King Conan, as he would appear in his first story, owes much to Kull—and if the Cimmerian is not quite as somber as the Atlantean, they both have a soft spot for one of the conspirators that seeks to unthrone them, and this too has a bit of a precursor in the Old Testament, in Howard’s reading:

David he knew was being primed for his throne—under his very feet they pointed the young adventurer for the crown. Yet I think he was loath to slay the usurper, because he felt a certain kinship with him—both were wild men of the hills and deserts, winning their way mainly by sheer force of arms, forced into the kingship to further the ends of a plotting priest-craft. To one man Saul could always turn—Abner, a soldier and a gentleman in the fullest sense of the word—too honorable, too idealistic for his own good. Saul and Abner were worth all that cringing treacherous race to which they belonged by some whim of chance. David was wiser than Saul and not so wise, caring less for the general good, much more for his own. He was the adventurer, the soldier of fortune, to the very end, whereas Saul had at least some of the instincts of true king-ship in his soul. David knew that he must follow the lines laid out for him by the priests and he was willing to do so. A poet, yes, but intensely practical. When he heard of the slaying of Saul and Jonathan, he composed a magnificent poem in their honor—but first he gave orders that the people of the Jews should practice with the bow! He knew that archery was necessary to defeat the Philistines, who were evidently more powerful in hand-to-hand fighting than the Israelites, and were skilled in arrow-play. He had a long memory and his enemies did not escape—not even Joab, who did more to win David’s kingdom for him than any other one man. I cannot think of Saul, David, Abner and Joab as Jews, not even as Arabs; to me they must always seem like Aryans, like myself. Saul, in particular, I always unconsciously visualize as a Saxon king, of those times when the invaders of Britain were just beginning to adopt the Christian religion.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.161

Howard’s inability to reconcile the epic history of the Israelites with his personal prejudices of contemporary Jews is in many ways the Texas Christian 1930s response to the Old Testament in a nutshell. Rather than reconsider his own prejudices, Howard recontextualized the Old Testament stories to center around his own chosen identity. This is different than the common antisemitic prejudices of the period, but it is very much in keeping with the euhemeristic approach to folklore and religion which Lovecraft and Howard had already played with in their stories before (see “Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft’s Theory”). 

The end of this particular line of thought was Howard’s description of Samson:

Another Hebrew who interests me is Samson, and this man I am firmly convinced was at least half Aryan. In the first place, he had red hair or bright yellow hair; I feel certain of this because of his name, and the legend concerning his locks. His name referred to the sun, always pertaining to redness, brightness, golden tinted, in any language; his strength lay in his hair; I connect his name with his hair. What more natural than a superstition attached to the red hair of a child born in a in a dark-haired race? And that angel in the field—well, in the old, old days of Ireland, there was a legend that the old gods had fled into the west, from which they occasionally emerged to bestow their favours on some lucky damsel. Many a wanderer from the western hills assumed the part of a god. I am convinced that the “angel” was a wandering, red-haired Aryan, and that Samson was his son. The strong lad’s characteristics were most certainly little like those of the race that claimed him. He wouldn’t even associate with his people. He feasted and reveled with the lordly Philistines, and his drinking, fighting and wenching sound like the chronicles of some lad from Wicklow or a wild boy from Cork. He was a great jester, a quality none too common in his supposed race, and in the end he displayed true Aryan recklessness and iron lust for vengeance. When, in history, did a true Semite deliberately kill himself to bring ruin to his enemies? The big boy was surely an Aryan.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, MF 1.161-162

Samson, in Howard’s description, is not too far from many of his other Irish—or Cimmerian—heroes; Conan in “The Phoenix on the Sword” was described “with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth” and dealt death even when outnumbered and near death himself, with no thought of escape. Whether the Old Testament was a direct influence on the creation of Kull or Conan is hard to say, but it is undeniable that Howard’s particular view of history, and his prejudices regarding Jews, influenced his reading of the Old Testament. Howard would express a similar vision of the Old Testament hero in the poem “Samson’s Brooding,” which begins:

I will go down to Philistia,
I am sick of this conquered race,
Which curses my strength behind my back,
And fawns before my face.

Howard would write a number of such poems that take Old Testament characters as their subject, expressed through his own vision; these were mostly privately circulated to friends via letters, rather than for publication.

After Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the Nazis’ antisemitic policies were rarely brought into discussion—although Howard made it very clear that he was no Nazi:

I might also point out that no one has ever been hanged in Texas for a witch, and that we have never persecuted any class or race because of its religious beliefs or chance of birth; nor have we ever banned or burned any books, as the “civilized” Nazis are now doing in “civilized” Germany.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, [15 Jun 1933], MF 2.598

On assuming power, Hitler and the Nazis immediately began passing antisemitic legislation; yet Howard would die before the pogrom of Kristallnacht (9-10 Nov 1938) or before the mass murder of the Holocaust began in earnest or was widely known.

As it happens, this was largely the end of serious discussion of Jews in Howard’s letters to Lovecraft; while there are a number of brief references and snippets, he never again went into this depth on the subject. Lovecraft and Howard’s correspondence had shifted to their sprawling discussion of civilization vs. barbarism, the physical vs. the mental, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and Howard’s sweeping, epic histories of the Southwest and Lovecraft’s travels. Yet the Lovecraft-Howard correspondence is key to understanding how Jews and antisemitism find expression in Howard’s fiction.

Conan and the Shemites

Jewish characters are rare in Robert E. Howard’s fiction. Yet there are a few: Jacob, “a short, very fat Jew” who served as majordomo to Skol Abdhur in “The Blood of Belshazzar” (Oriental Stories Fall 1931) and one or more unnamed Jews in “The Shadow of the Vulture” (The Magic Carpet Magazine Jan 1934) noted only for their wealth and penchant for mercantilism; these are typical roles for secondary characters, especially in historical adventure stories where “Jew” is basically a stereotype with little nuance. Such stereotypes and stock characters were common tools in the pulp writer’s arsenal, and even H. P. Lovecraft (“The Descendant”) and Clark Ashton Smith (“The Parrot”) used them occasionally.

In a broader sense of “Semitic” characters, Howard used any number of Arabic characters in his historical adventures set during the Crusades or in the Middle East, including “Hawks Over Egypt” (unpublished during Howard’s lifetime) and “Hawks of Outremer” (Oriental Stories Spring 1931), both of which touch on the complicated ethnic and religious milieu of that place and period. A remnant of the Assyrians show up, perhaps rather surprisingly, in an unfinished Solomon Kane story, “The Children of Asshur,” where they are distinguished from both the indigenous Black Africans and the white European Solomon Kane.

The usage of “Semitic” characters, be they Jews, Arabs, or hypothetical older peoples such as the Assyrians or Phoenicians in historical stories could be taken as a matter of course; however it was difficult to have Jews and Muslims in the Hyborian Age. Howard’s solution is a callback to his discussions with H. P. Lovecraft about the hypothetical racial origins of the “Semitic races”:

Far to the south dreams the ancient mysterious kingdom of Stygia. On its eastern borders wander clans of nomadic savages, already known as the Sons of Shem. […]  To the south the Hyborians have founded the kingdom of Koth, on the borders of those pastoral countries known as the Lands of Shem, and the savages of those lands, partly through contact with the Hyborians, partly through contact with the Stygians who have ravaged them for centuries, are emerging from barbarism. […] Far to the south sleeps Stygia, untouched by foreign invasion, but the peoples of Shem have exchanged the Stygian yoke for the less galling one of Koth. The dusky masters have been driven south of the great river Styx, Nilus, or Nile, which, flowing north from the shadowy hinterlands, turns almost at right angles and flows almost due west through the pastoral meadowlands of Shem, to empty into the great sea. […] The Shemites are generally of medium height, though sometimes when mixed with Stygian blood, gigantic, broadly and strongly built, with hook noses, dark eyes and blue-black hair. The Stygians are tall and well made, dusky, straight-featured—at least the ruling classes are of that type. The lower classes are a down-trodden, mongrel horde, a mixture of negroid, Stygian, Shemitish, even Hyborian bloods. […] The ancient Sumerians had no connection with the western race. They were a mixed people, of Hyrkanian and Shemitish bloods, who were not taken with the conquerors in their retreat. Many tribes of Shem escaped that captivity, and from pure-blooded Shemites, or Shemites mixed with Hyborian or Nordic blood, were descended the Arabs, Israelites, and other straighter-featured Semites. The Canaanites, or Alpine Semites, traced their descent from Shemitish ancestors mixed with the Kushites settled among them by their Hyrkanian masters; the Elamites were a typical race of this type.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Hyborian Age” (1936)

The Shemites, as Howard conceived and depicted them, were not Jews; they were that hypothetical precursor race from which Jews and Arabs both emerged that he and Lovecraft had discussed in their letters. This was not presented as historical fact, even though it clearly derived from Howard’s readings of national mythos such as the Book of Invasions

The Hyborian world of Conan is best understood not as a self-contained and separate setting like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Lewis’ Narnia but as a fantasy setting where Howard would be free to write historical adventures without regard for the limitations of historical fiction—Conan the Cimmerian could thus adventure with Elizabethan buccaneers (“The Pool of the Black One”), rub shoulders with Afghani hillmen (“The People of the Black Circle”), face indigenous peoples on a colonialist frontier reminiscent of Texas (“Beyond the Black River”), explore strange forgotten cities (“Red Nails,” “Xuthal of the Dusk,” “The Queen of the Black Coast”), lead medieval European armies (“The Scarlet Citadel,” “The Hour of the Dragon”) all within the same setting and period. In this context, Howard did not require Jewish characters exactly—he never touched on Christianity or Judaism as religions in the Hyborian tales—but in tracing back the peoples of his present day, the narrative of Jews in the context of European and Biblical history rather demanded they be accounted for somehow; they would have been notable absence, otherwise.

If the Conan stories are considered in the order of their writing (as near as we can determine from Howard’s letters), Robert E. Howard conceived of Shem and the Shemites in the first Conan tale, but didn’t flesh out their history or culture—as Patrice Louinet notes in “Hyborian Genesis,” Howard did not write “The Hyborian Age” essay until after he wrote the first three Conan stories (The Coming of Conan the CImmerian 440). But they were there from the first: “The Phoenix on the Sword” mentions the “pastoral lands of Shem” and a “Shemitish thief.” Then in “The Tower of the Elephant” there is described “a Shemitish counterfeiter, with his hook nose and curled blue-black beard” who obviously derives from Jewish stereotypes—and that is really the heart of it: to present a people as a known quantity, familiar enough that readers could instantly understand the implied association, but distinct enough that Howard was not bound to any particular historical set of facts, as he might if he had set the tale in a familiar place and time-period.

The fact that the Shemites were not explicitly Jews works a bit into their favor: Howard did not feel obliged to make Shemites conform to every stereotype of Jews as he might have (and sometimes did, as in the case of Jacob in “The Blood of Belshazzar”). Indeed, the Shemites in “Black Colossus” and “A Witch Shall Be Born” are more reminiscent of the Assyrians portrayed in “The Children of Asshur,” with their courage, conical iron helmets, iron scale shirts, and mastery of archery. This would have been appropriate to Howard’s view of the Shemites as a race that was as yet “unbroken”—with their own kings and homeland—which opposed the common early 20th century narrative of Jews as a nation dispossessed.

As the Conan series wore on, the Shemites continued to develop as part of the background, mentioned here or there but seldom prominent on the page. The most important Shemite in the Conan series is Bêlit in “Queen of the Black Coast.” In this story, we can still see the echoes of Howard’s prejudices in lines like:

They sighted the coast of Shem—long rolling meadowlands with the white crowns of the towers of cities in the distance, and horsemen with blue-black beards and hooked noses, who sat their steeds along the shore and eyed the galley with suspicion. She did not put in; there was scant profit in trade with the sons of Shem.
—Robert E. Howard, “Queen of the Black Coast” (Weird Tales May 1934)

Bêlit herself is described in sufficient detail to paint a picture; whatever prejudices Robert E. Howard had in his lifetime, he was well aware that women could be beautiful regardless of race—as evident from his sensual portrayal of Black women in stories like “The Vale of Lost Women.” While we don’t have any other Shemitish women for comparison, the description of Bêlit approaches fetishization:

Bêlit sprang before the blacks, beating down their spears. She turned toward Conan, her bosom heaving, her eyes flashing. Fierce fingers of wonder caught at his heart. She was slender, yet formed like a goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous. Her only garment was a broad silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian’s pulse, even in the panting fury of battle. Her rich black hair, black as a Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back. Her dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian.

She was untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a she-panther. She came close to him, heedless of his great blade, dripping with blood of her warriors. Her supple thigh brushed against it, so close she came to the tall warrior. Her red lips parted as she stared up into his somber menacing eyes.
—Robert E. Howard, “Queen of the Black Coast” (Weird Tales May 1934)

Ethnicity informed character in Howard’s stories. While this did not mean that every character of a given nationality reacted exactly the same way, it was common for them to share certain attributes and instincts beyond skin or hair color—and this difference in attitudes and ways of thinking was often at the core of many conflicts, whether openly stated or not. There is no question of “whiteness” for Bêlit, but her undoing was in part due to her Shemitish heritage:

Bêlit’s eyes were like a woman’s in a trance. The Shemite soul finds a bright drunkenness in riches and material splendor, and the sight of this treasure might have shaken the soul of a sated emperor of Shushan.
—Robert E. Howard, “Queen of the Black Coast” (Weird Tales May 1934)

For all that her greed is ultimately her doom, Bêlit’s love for Conan was real—and stronger than death. Bêlit may have been, for Howard, one of the ultimate portrayals of a Shemite character…beautiful, courageous, deadly, faithful, but not without her human flaws.

An inversion of this type, beautiful on the outside but rotten to the core, can be seen in the character of Salome in “A Witch Shall Be Born.” Salome is not explicitly a Shemite, and the Khaurani people are physically and culturally contrasted with the Shemite mercenaries. However, Salome bears many of the same physical attributes as Bêlit (black hair, pale skin, voluptuous), and Khauran worships “Shemite” gods such as Ishtar—suggesting a bit of Shemite cultural influence on Khauran, and possibly more than that. The name “Salome” is likely taken from the New Testament story of Salome, who had asked for the head of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew, implying beauty and sin. Beauty might seduce a barbarian, but while Conan loves Bêlit, he rejects Salome.

Robert E. Howard’s development of the Shemites—from his initial discussions with H. P. Lovecraft, the usage of Jewish and “Semitic” characters in his historical fiction, his interpretation of Old Testament stories through the heroic lens of his historical narratives, and finally to the creation of a fantasy setting which he could people with idealized races to fill the roles necessary to tell the adventures of Conan, are all grounded in Howard’s prejudices regarding Jews. They are also expressions of the cultural antisemitism of the period. As the correspondence with Lovecraft demonstrates, those common prejudices, the way the Bible was still read as history and influential on anthropology, linguistics, scientific racism, and in popular culture with works like The King of Kings buttressed and influenced Robert E. Howard’s own worldbuilding…because they also influenced the world he lived in.

Beyond Shem

Readers of Conan stories in the 1950s-1990s might remember other Shemites—notably in the story “Hawks Over Shem” which first appeared in Fantastic Universe (Oct 1955) and Tales of Conan (1955). This had begun as a non-Conan Robert E. Howard story titled “Hawks Over Egypt,” and was rewritten as a Conan story by L. Sprague de Camp. The last English reprint was in The Conan Chronicles, Vol. I (1989), though it had also been adapted for Marvel Comics and been translated into many other languages. Shem and Shemites have been expanded in further stories, in comic books and roleplaying games.

Even without Howard, there are Shemites. This is part of the legacy of Robert E. Howard’s antisemitism: the characters and ideas that he created persist long after his own death. His conception of the Shemites, rooted as they might be in discussions about anthropology with H. P. Lovecraft or a particular interpretation of the Old Testament through a pulp adventure story lens, continue to endure. Which means, especially if the writers following behind Howard aren’t careful, they can continue to propagate the antisemitic stereotypes that in part informed their creation.

Normally when we think of the legacy of Robert E. Howard, antisemitism doesn’t spring immediately to mind. Howard is noted primarily for his weird and fantasy fiction, the characters he created like Conan, Solomon Kane, and Kull that have gone on to star in comic book series and have been adapted into Hollywood films. Howard’s Jewish characters are so few, and in his relatively less-read stories, that they are easily overlooked. Unlike H. P. Lovecraft, Howard’s letters were rather late in getting published, and haven’t always been widely available; while his antisemitism has never been denied, it’s also not prominent enough to draw much attention away from the rest of his life and work.

That being said, it doesn’t take a Howard scholar to make the connection between Semites and Shemites. While the letters with Lovecraft that help trace the origin of this idea weren’t published until considerably later, “The Hyborian Age” essay published by the LANY cooperative in 1936 makes the connection explicit. Writers that came after Howard and writing Conan stories would have known—or at least they should have—what kind of ideological building blocks they were playing with. Just because Howard’s original conception of the Shemites might have been rooted in his 1930s cultural milieu and his personal interpretation of anthropology and antisemitism doesn’t mean that anyone writing after him had to follow suit. Writing a 1930s pulp story with racial stereotypes in the 1930s isn’t laudable, but might at least be understood as a product of the times; writing the same thing in the 1950s is not. This was a point that L. Sprague de Camp was specifically called out on by Charles D. Saunders in his 1975 essay “Die Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature.”

The Hyborian Age isn’t over—in many ways it’s just beginning. Adaptations of Howard’s original stories continue to be made; in some countries the copyright on the original Conan stories has expired and the texts have moved into the public domain, and people are writing new stories; licensed fiction and novels surrounding the original Conan series and the games, films, and other products that have spun out of it are being written and published. It falls to the fans, writers, and scholars of today to interrogate Robert E. Howard’s life and work, to not promulgate antisemitism in fantasy just because it is easy or convenient.

Addenda: Solomon, Malachi, & Other Hebrew Names

As far as Hebrew names went, Robert E. Howard appeared to have no conspicuous prejudices—nor is this is suprising given that his father’s full name was Isaac Mordecai Howard. Biblical names were common: Dr. Solomon Chambers, an associate of Dr. Howard’s who provided medical services in nearby communities of Cross Cut and Burkett, was another example.

Robert E. Howard’s swashbuckling Puritan adventurer appears to have one, or possibly two names drawn from the Old Testament, and is the most notable such character in Howard’s corpus, which otherwise tends heavily toward Irish names for protagonists. In fact, Howard appears to have borrowed the name from a character in “Sir Piegan Passes” (Adventure, 10 Aug 1923) by W. C. Tuttle (see Todd Vick’s “What’s In A Name?: Discovering the Origin of Solomon Kane’s Name”).

W. C. Tuttle’s Solomon Kane is not explicitly Jewish, but may be read as coded Jewish by the stereotypes of the time and the pulp magazines: a greedy but shrewd assayer who did no honest work, but cheated others and traded to make his fortune. The story was popular enough to be adapted to film twice, as The Cheyenne Kid (1933) and The Fargo Kid (1940); both films rename and recast “Solomon Kane” to something less conspicuous.

While we don’t know Howard’s precise reason for re-using the name, his Solomon Kane isn’t coded as Jewish either. The Puritan background is enough to explain the first name, and no explicit connection is made between Kane and the Biblical figures in Howard’s first stories. Indeed, in a rewrite of “The Blue Flame of Vengeance,” Howard changed “Solomon Kane” to “Malachi Grim”—a trick he had tried on other characters such as Sailor Steve Costigan (Sailor Dennis Dorgan) and Conan of Cimmeria (Amra of Akbitania).

Much later in the series, Howard does forge a connection between his character and the Biblical Solomon in “The Footfalls Within” (Weird Tales Sep 1931), as it is suggested that Kane’s magic staff was once the possession of the Biblical king—who has gained over the centuries a great reputation as a magician. While direct links to the Bible were unusual in Howard’s writing, Biblical references were not unknown: “Black Canaan” (Weird Tales Jun 1936) being the foremost example.

Solomon Kane’s name shows how embedded Jewish names have become in Christian culture, from Elizabethan England to the American Bible Belt. Howard’s usage of the name is not antisemitic, any more than Joseph or John or Adam or Mary would be, but is intended to evoke historical and literary connections in the mind of the reader—and, of course, it sounds cool and distinctive.

Works Cited

CL1 The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard vol. 1 (2nd edition)

CL2 The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard vol. 2 (1st edition)

MF A Means to Freedom (2 vols.)

Thanks for my proofreaders Bob Freeman, Dierk Guenther, Leeman Kessler, and Jewish Horror Review for your feedback and suggestions. Any mistakes left are mine, not theirs.


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.

Deeper Cut: Hugo Gernsback

Unfortunately, the prevailing approach in science fiction studies has been to dismiss the Gernsnback magazines as embarrassingly simplistic, tasteless, and even detrimental to the eventual emergence of a mature literature. This is an ironic and all-too-casual judgment of a Jewish immgirant who throughout his life was in search of the respect as a technologist and editor that always seemed to elude him. A certain tone seems to have been set early on by the spectacularly racist H. P. Lovecraft’s moniker for Gernsback: “Hugo the Rat.”
—Grant Wythoff, The Perversity of Things (2016), 8-9

Hugo Gernsback is a central figure in the development of science fiction pulp magazines and on science fiction fandom. His direct dealings with Lovecraft were very few, mostly limited to the purchase of “The Colour Out of Space,” which ran in the September 1927 issue of Gernsback’s magazine Amazing Stories. Yet Gernsback’s reputation among Lovecraft and his circle of correspondents was low, and the moniker “Hugo the Rat” which Lovecraft coined has continued to stick, in fan-circles and to a degree among scholars, for decades.

Hugo Gernsback was Jewish; H. P. Lovecraft was an antisemite. Many readers and even scholars might take it as a given that Lovecraft’s prejudices were at play in his antipathy to Gernsback, and there is some truth to that. The real history of why and how this antipathy came about is a bit more complicated than it might first appear, and Lovecraft was not the only pulp writer involved with Gernsback in the series of exchanges that turned Hugo Gernsback into “Hugo the Rat.”

It’s not a pretty history; the most critical events in this narrative take place against Hitler and the Nazi’s rise to power in Germany in 1933, and antisemitic language in the period letters will be presented as it was, uncensored. Reader discretion is advised.

Gernsbacher & Modern Electronics

Hugo Gernsbacher was born in Luxembourg in 1884, into a Jewish family. His father was a successfull wine wholesaler and Hugo had been educated by private tutors, able to read, write, and speak German, French, and English fluently, and had attended L’Ecole Industrille et Commerciale in Luxembourg and the Technikum in Bingen, Germany. Before the age of 18 he had developed a significant amount of practical experience with electricity (even receiving a papal dispensation to complete the telephone wiring of a Carmelite convent), and had a penchant for invention. In 1904 at age 19, the industrious young man emigrated to the United States of America and simplified his name to Hugo Gernsback.

For the next several years, Gernsback was notable as an electrical experimenter, inventer, and businessman. The full scope of his engineering and business enterprises is too long to go into here, but chief among them was co-founding the Electro Importing Company in 1905, the foundation of Modern Electronics magazine in 1908, and the creation of the Wireless Association of America in 1909. Gernsback encouraged amateur experimentation with electricity and especially with early radio, profited from the sale of wireless sets and other components, helped spread technical knowledge of electricity and radio, and invested his profits in further developments of the technology.

Modern Electronics was Gernsback’s first magazine. Nominally, Modern Electronics was a mail-order catalog for the Electro Importing Company, but it carried much more than a list of goods for sale and their prices. The magazine was designed for the amateur enthusiast, full of practical technical knowledge in plain English, with the occasional fiction clearly marked and entertaining. Gernsback’s first science fiction novel was Ralph 124C 41+serialized in the pages of Modern Electronics from 1911-1912.

In 1913, Gernsback began publication of a new magazine, The Electrical Experimenter, which dropped the catalog and focused on a combination of science fact and fiction. Modern Electronics continued until 1914, when it was merged with Electrician and Mechanic (1890-1014) to form Modern Electrics and Mechanics—which in 1915 changed its title to Popular Science Monthly, which is still published today.

By 1915, the Electrical Experimenter was published through Gernsback’s Experimenter Publishing company. Hugo’s older brother Sidney Gernsback had emigrated to the United States and joined his brother’s businesses c.1913. In addition to the magazine, Experimenter Publishing published a number of correspondence courses for electricity, and proved successful enough that he introduced a new magazine, Radio News, in 1919. “Scientific stories” (science fiction) had their place in the Electrical Experimenter as well, and Gernsback encouraged the readersamateur experimenters, mostly—to imagine new possibilities and write and submit stories. In 1920, the Electrical Experimenter became Science and Invention, but the solicitation of science fiction continued despite the new title.

Science fiction already existed, but Hugo Gernsback was set to popularize it.

Lovecraft & Amazing Stories

If there is one issue that clings closest to the memory of Hugo Gernsback it is that he was very bad at paying authors.
—Mike Ashley & Robert A. W. Lowndes, The Gernsback Days (2004), 123

Pulps like The All-Story had been running “scientific romances,” such as Edgar Rice Burroughs novels of John Carter of Mars, since the 1910s. In 1920, the Argosy and All-Story combined to form The Argosy All-Story; the consolidated magazines meant one less market for prospective science fiction in the pulps.

Weird Tales was founded in 1923, and H. P. Lovecraft quickly found a place in the magazine, making several sales to editor Edwin Baird and owner J. C. Hennenberger. The first year or so of the magazine was unstable, with an irregular schedule and changes in size and format; in 1924 the magazine was reorganized. Baird was out, and Farnsworth Wright assumed the editorial role. While still favoring Lovecraft, Wright was more cautious in what he would buy, and would end up rejecting many of Lovecraft’s stories—but Weird Tales did run science fiction on occasion, putting it into slight competition with Science and Invention.

In 1924, Gernsback tested the waters for a new, all-science fiction pulp magazine, with the proposed title Scientifiction. Response was lukewarm, and the idea was set aside as Gernsback focused his attention and money on a new project—WRNY, a radio station (with occasional television broadcasts) which raised its antenna in 1925. Once the station was successful,  Amazing Stories was issued by Hugo Gernsback’s Experimenter Publishing company beginning in 1926. It was the first pulp magazine devoted entirely to science fiction (“scientifiction”), although the term was so new and ill-defined that could mean almost anything; Amazing’s first issue included stories from H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe. In practical business terms, however, instead of per-word rates Gernsback and Amazing Stories preferred to pay on a per-story basis. Mike Ashley and Robert A. W. Lowndes noted in The Gernsback Days (123-130) that the rates Gernsback offered were reminiscent of the many writing contests his magazines would run with cash prizes for the winners, ranging fro $100 to $1.

It is difficult to talk about exact rates, since Amazing Stories seemed to negotiate on a per-piece basis except when it had contracted for a number of stories at once, but it appears short stories typically went for up to $50, and novels for $100. Depending on the exact wordcount, this could be either very fair or very bad. For example, if a 1,000 word “short” story sold to Amazing for $50, then ther effective per-word rate of 1/2¢ per word—the “average” rate for Weird Tales (cf. The Weird Tales Story 2)—not terrible if a pulp writer has no where else to place a science fiction story, and possibly good if they can turn out several short pieces in quick succession, but you would rarely reach Weird Tales’ top rate of 1¢ or 1.5¢ per word…and Weird Tales’ rates were relatively low compared to other pulps. If a 60,000 word novel is sold to Amazing for $100, however, the effective per-word rate is 1/6th of a cent per-word, below Weird Tales‘ lowest rate—and that was the price Gernsback paid to reprint H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in Amazing Stories Aug-Sep 1927 (The Gernsback Days 125).

In March 1927, H. P. Lovecraft had completed “The Colour Out of Space,” a 12,000-word novelette (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 127). By June, it had been submitted and accepted by Amazing Stories (DS 134). Lovecraft duly reported this to his friends, which occasioned a bit of scuttlebutt:

Congratulations on having sold “The Colour Out of Space”. I wish it had been W.T., because Amazing Stories pays poorly, and is not going so well as its backers believed it would. But it will probably extend your audience by some thousands.
—Donald Wandrei to H. P. Lovecraft, 6 July 1927, LWP 136

As for “The Colour Out of Space”—Wandrei tells me that Amazing Stores doesn’t pay well, so that I’m sorry I didn’t try Weird Tales first.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 15 July 1927, DS 136

There are a few things to unpack here: first, we have no idea where Wandrei was getting his information on Amazing Stories. None of his own fiction appeared in its pages up to 1927. The second is that “it is not going so well”—this is a point that Ashley & Lowndes delve into in The Gernsback Days, and it is true that Hugo Gernsback claimed that Amazing Stories was not yet on a paying basis in 1927, despite a circulation in excess of 100,000 (much more than Weird Tales)…and came to the conclusion that Hugo Gernsback was using the profits from his magazines to fund his lifestyle and prop up his radio station WRNY (130-132).

What this meant in practical terms was that in 1927 the rates per story were low:

Amazing Stories, being still in its infant stage, our rates per story are hardly based on the story’s merit—rather on the extent of our budget for the year. Our rates for short stories just now range from $15 to $30 per story…
Amazing to Edmond Hamilton, 28 Sep 1927, quoted in The Gernsback Days 129

So whomever was the source of Wandrei’s data on Amazing Stories, it jived with what Amazing was telling its own authors. There are a two more points which are tied up together: payment was supposed to be on publication, and both Wandrei and Lovecraft suggest that Lovecraft tried “The Colour Out of Space” on Amazing first, instead of Weird Tales. This is significant because of a point of confusion that arose later:

“Colour out of Space” was sent to Gernsback because of Wright’s rejections of other things which L. esteemed, and in anger at this! It brought only $25.00, and that after three dunning letters!
—R. H. Barlow, “Memories of H. P. Lovecraft” (1934), O Fortunate Floridian! 404

Here, Lovecraft’s friend Barlow appears to be misinformed—Lovecraft apparently did not send “Colour” to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales—and he suggests that Lovecraft was not paid promptly. This latter issues seems to be confirmed by other letters:

The cheque ought to be very respectable, since the text covered 32 pages.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, June or July 1927, Essential Solitude 1.98

[…] “The Colour Out of Space” appears in the current Amazing Stories. They sent me two copies of the magazine, but I am still awaiting my cheque.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 6 Aug 1927, LWP 143

Speaking of payment—beware of Amazing Stories! I haven’t received anything yet for “The Colour out of Space”, & shall have to make inquiries soon.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, November 1927, Essential Solitude 1.114

Amazing Stories has just promised to remit before the end of this month—though I fear, from what everyone tells me of their rates, that it won’t be an impressive sum.
H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 13 Jan 1928,Essential Solitude 1.125

[…] I haven’t forgotten that his skinflint magazine gave me only $25.00 (& that after long months & repeated requests!) for a story (“The Colour Out of Space”) of the same length as one for which Weird Tales paid me $165.00.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 10 May 1928, LFF 2.655

$25.00 at 12,000 words works out to a little over 1/5¢ per word—the other story that Lovecraft mentions is “The Call of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales Feb 1928), which at 11,200 words was being paid the top rate of 1.5¢ per word. So even if Barlow was incorrect about Lovecraft submitting “Colour” to Weird Tales, all the other particulars check out…and we can well imagine Lovecraft begrudging the “skinflint” magazine that paid him so little, and so late.

We can only speculate for Amazing’s part of the whole business. $25 would have been just in line with the rates quoted in the 1927 letter to Hamilton; and in keeping with their general policy of paying relatively low rates for fiction. The lateness of the payment could be anything from a clerical error, unethical business practices, or a temporary shortage of funds…we have no idea. What we do know is that Lovecraft wasn’t the only one: creditors were piling up, and authors were going unpaid:

I never collected a single payment on time, and when it got so that they ran several months behind, and I had a tip they were on the verge of bankruptcy and changing hands, I quit.
A. Hyatt Verrill to Forrest J. Ackermann, quoted in The Gernsback Days 132

What’s notable is at this point Lovecraft was not directing any animosity at Hugo Gernsback, either as the magazine’s publisher or as a Jew. Lovecraft’s letters from this period don’t mention Gernsback, which is easily understandable when Lovecraft wouldn’t have been dealing with him at all, but with the editor C. A. Brandt. Whatever the case, Lovecraft made no effort to submit to Amazing Stories again.

Clark Ashton Smith & Wonder Stories

Hugo Gernsback’s creditors moved in, and in 1929 they forced Experimenter Publishing into bankruptcy. This was the end of Hugo Gernsback’s involvement with Amazing, but not Amazing Stories itself:  the creditors re-invested in the company, recognizing the sci-fi pulp as a viable business, and Amazing would outlast Gernsback and the pulp era.

For his part, Hugo Gernsback was not done with science fiction. As the bankruptcy was proceeding, Gernsback was already planning three new magazines: Radio-Craft, Air Wonder Stories, and Science Wonder Stories. The two new publishing companies, Stellar Publishing and Techni-Craft Publishing, were family affairs, with his brother Sidney, with his wife Dorothy and her sister Harriet Kantrowitz. David Lasser, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and a recent M.I.T. graduate, became editor. Lasser knew little of science fiction, but he knew science and writing, and Hugo Gernsback still saw his magazines as primarily educational as well as entertaining.

In addition to regular monthly magazines, Amazing Stories had published a companion quarterly issue; Stellar Publishing continued this practice with Science Wonder Stories and also issued a Science Wonder Quarterly from Fall 1929 to Spring 1930; in May 1930 Air Wonder Stories and Science Wonder Stories merged into a single magazine titled Wonder Stories, and Science Wonder Quarterly became Wonder Stories Quarterly. In that last Spring 1930 issue of Science Wonder Quarterly before the merger took place, Lovecraft’s friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr.’s story “The Thought Materializer” appeared.

As for Wonder Storieshave you seen anything of Belknap’s in that lately? He had one story accepted, but has not been paid—hence assumed that it had not appeared. Dwyer, however, says he distinctly recalls such a tale 2 or 3 months ago—though his memory is indistinct about it. The matter forms quite an enigma. Apparently Gernsback continues his old financial habits in his new company!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 23 Jun 1930, DS 220

Thanks for the definite information about Belknap’s tale in the Wonder Stories Quarterly. I had just received a letter from the firm stating that they had never carried any Long story in any of their publications, when your news arrived. I at once wrote again—& finally they admitted that the tale was published. I have now sent a half dollar for the magazine, & am hoping for the best. Meanwhile Belknap has received no cash. Undoubtedly this Gernsback outfit is something which it is well to have as little as possible to do with!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Jul 1930, DS 222-223

What you tell me about Belknap’s experience with the Gernsback crowd is indeed amazing. I don’t see how they do business on a basis of that sort. Certainly Dr. Keller, Arthur B. Reeve, Starzl, and a lot of other people whose work they use aren’t writing just for the glory of seeing their names in print. I suppose their game is to cheat the more obscure or occasional contributors, if they can “get away” with it. There ought to be some way of getting at them. Anyway, let me know how the affair works out! They have not yet reported on my “Andromeda” (after nearly two months) and I am writing to make a rather curt inquiry.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 30 Jul 1930, DS 224

I’ve lately received the Wonder Quarterly with Belknap’s tale, but he has not yet heard from the editors despite a fresh inquiry on his part a fortnight ago. As you suggest, it probably takes real prominence to get satisfactory dealings from the Gernsback organisation! Good luck with “Andromeda”!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 6 Aug 1930, DS 225

Clark Ashton Smith had achieved early recognition as a poet in California, but had never been able to translate that into financial success. Living with his aged parents and doing considerable seasonal work to make ends meet, Smith was able to sell several stories and poems to Weird Tales in the 1920s, and determined to try his hand as a full-time pulpster, sending stories to several outfits, including Wonder Stories and another Gernsback magazine, Amazing Detective Storiesand his stories were accepted.

What had changed from Lovecraft’s initial encounter with Amazing is that Wonder Stories could not be differentiated from Hugo Gernsback; the bankruptcy had thrust his name prominently into the news in science-fiction and science-fiction fandom circles. While the market for science fiction pulps was now growing, with fiercer competition, Lovecraft and Smith were focusing on Hugo Gernsback as the personality behind Wonder Storiesnot the editor David Lasser. This was a very different relationship than both men had with Weird Tales and its editor Farnsworth Wright.

As it happened, though Smith was cautious, Wonder Stories bought “Andromeda” at 3/4¢ per word (not great, but not bad either), and sent a check promptlywith a request for more. Smith conveyed this information to Lovecraft…with one more note:

By the way, the Gernsback outfit has just remitted a sizable check ($90.00) for “Andromeda”, and they seem anxious to see the new story, which I am now submitting. They may have taken me for a compatriot, from the tone of my letter to them! And they are saying to each other, “We will not bamboozle our Jewish brother even if we could.”
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Sep 1930, DS 232-233

In some previous letters to Smith, Lovecraft had made some antisemitic remarks regarding Jewish people in New York, so Smith may have felt “safe” in expressing this opinion. As it happens, this is the first reference in the extant letters that either Smith or Lovecraft made to the Wonder Stories staff being Jewish. Explicit here is the stereotype of Jewish greed or unethically sharp business practice; certainly uncalled for considering that Smith had been paid in full and fairly promptly.

Smith needed the money and was happy to write if they would buy, though the relationship was not always so enthusiastic. No one else could write like Smith, his poetic language and prodigious vocabulary were inimitable, and his mind tended more toward the weird and horror than to bright shining futures or action-adventure space operas. Editorial requests from Lasser thus brought about a bit of friction:

The Jews want some more “ekshun” in the first part of “The Red World”, which they criticize as being “almost wholly descriptive”. It looks as if they were trying to compete with “Astounding Stories.”
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c. 21 Oct 1930, DS 251

Astounding Stories had begun publication in January 1930, an immediate competitor to both Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories, and those three magazines would top the science fiction pulp market for the rest of the 1930s. The syndication of the Buck Rogers comic strip in 1929 spurred readers interest for space opera, and the pulps responded; Smith himself was asked to write such stories, and his Captain Volmar tales “Marooned in Andromeda” (Wonder Stories Oct 1930) and “A Captivity in Serpens” (Wonder Stories Quarterly Summer 1931, under the title “The Amazing Planet”) are examples of this type. However, action (“ekshun” to mimic a New York Yiddish accent phonetically) was not Smith’s strong type…and Lovecraft was not one to correct Smith about “the Jews.”

So Meester Gernspeck vants someding more should heppen by de “Red Voild” a’ready! Oy, should ah poor men pay oudt good money by ah story vere efferyding stend still ent dunt say it nuddings? I fear that I shan’t find the gentleman’s periodical much of a haven for my stuff—though he did take my “Colour Out of Space” in the old Amazing days . . . . paying all of 25 dollars like the generous philanthropist he is!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 30 Oct 1930, DS 252

Which reminds me that I am beginning another Volmar yarn for the Jews—“Captives of the Serpent.” I’ll give them their “action” this time!!!
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 10 Nov 1930, DS 266

I hope I may soon see “Captives of the Serpent”, in spite of the specially ordered overdoses of “ekshun”. Which reminds me that young Belknap is meditating a complaint to the Author’s League concerning the dishonesty of Meestah Goinspeck’s outfit. They haven’t paid him a cent for his story of last spring, & utterly ignore the courteous inquiries he has written them. I advise him to make a final try for payment by sending Gernsback an advance carbon of his letter to the League—announcing that the original will be despatched if no satisfactory word is received within five days.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, Nov 1930, DS 268

I am glad that Belknap is planning to bring a complaint against that gang of Yiddish highbinders.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c 17 Nov 1930, DS 271

The rhetoric was already getting very acerbic. Perhaps encouraged by Lovecraft’s response, Smith would begin to write more openly of these prejudices to others as well.

No, I have not signed (and could not be induced to sign) a contact with that Gernsback gang of Yiddish high binders. They merely suggested the writing of a series of astronomical tales, dealing with the adventures of a space-ship and its crew; and they have paid ¾ a cent per word for such material of mine as they have used. My chief grievance against them is that they are putting so many restrictions on my work, and have shown themselves utterly oblivious or disregardful of literary values.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 22 Nov 1930, EID 30

I have been feeling rather punk lately, and have done nothing but hack-work—another piece of junk for the Jews. I’ll recommend the Gernsback outfit for quick action in publishing material—the novelette that I wrote for them in December is out in the issue (April) now on the stands. But if I were a vain person, I’d sue them for criminal libel because of the alleged picture of me that they are using. It makes me look as if I had been on a forty-day debach; of all the cock-eyed caricatures!
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 8 Mar 1931, EID 39

Ashley & Lowndes in The Gernsback Days noted an apparent misapprehension of the situation on the part of Wonder Stories: Lasser thought with his directions and prompts he was helping to develop Smith as an author, while Smith thought he was churning out hackwork for an illiterate bunch of moneygrubbers (173-175). This and other editorial high-handedness such as changing titles arbitrarily were slowly alienating Smith from Wonder Stories.

Yet they continued to pay in full and on time, so Smith kept writing. However, at this point the idea of Gernsback’s personal involvement, his supposed sharp business practices, and the lack of any pushback on antisemtic comments meant that the latter were continuing to spread:

Glad “Beyond the S.F.” landed with Shylock ben Gernsback. I shall have my eyes open for the Novr. W.S.—for I must own this tale, in conjunction with its predecessor.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 11 Sep 1931, DS 322

Beginners have far more chance with the Shylock Gernsback outfit-chance to “land”, that is, not chance of getting prompt or adequate remuneration.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 13 Sep 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 49

“The City of the Singing Flame” (Wonder Stories July 1931) and its sequel “Beyond the Singing Flame” (Wonder Stories Nov 1931) by Clark Ashton Smith are two genuine classics of the period, but Lovecraft’s depiction of Gernsback as quite literally the stereotype of a greedy Jew show that he was fixed on Gernsback as personally responsible for both his own issues with Amazing Stories and Frank Belknap Long’s issue with Science Wonders Quarterly. Isolated incidents and existing prejudice had come together…and then there began to be a delay of payments.

Too bad about the delay in your checks. Even at that, the Clayton system is vastly preferable to that of Gernsback, who doesn’t seem to have any time-limit at all on the settlement of arrears. The blighter still owes me about 250 djals.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 10 Feb 1932, EID 97

Gernsback has taken a hunk of tripe, The Invisible City, which is scheduled for appearance in the June Wonder Stories. They certainly take the palm for promptness in printing accepted matter—but they make up for it on the payment end.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 15 Mar 1932, EID 105

As it happened, circumstances weer a bit different than when Amazing Stories began delaying payments in the late 1920s. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 which started the Great Depression took time to hit the pulp market, but it did; Weird Tales suffered considerable delays in paying authors after its bank closed, owing some authors hundreds of dollars (see Scott Connor’s “Weird Tales and the Great Depression” in The Robert E. Howard Reader for details).

In December 1932, the bank for Stellar Publishing closed, delaying payments to many authors, including Smith. The problem was compounded by in mid-1932 when the Eastern Distributing Corporation, which was the distributor for Wonder Stories, went bankrupt. The result was that Gernsback’s publishing companies likely lost a vast chunk of money, taking a substantial hit to their liquidity (The Gernsback Days 202-203). Nevertheless, Smith continued to sell to Wonder Stories in the hopes of being paid.

Gernsback has written to tell me that he can’t pay for any of my material at present, since he claims to have lost huge sums of money through the bankruptcy of a firm that had been distributing his magazines. All this helps to make the financial outlook as bright and sunny as a cloud of sepia fifty fathoms down in the undersea.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 5 Apr 1933, EID 171

Assessments of Gernsback/Wonder Stories in the letters of Lovecraft & co. were not uniformly negative during 1932-1933, but were often hedged with casual antisemitism, e.g.:

Glad the Invisible City is due in the near future, & that Gernsback has some appreciation of what he is offering. It’s odd, but in spite of that damn’d kike’s financial remissness & sharp dealings, I really think he offers a better & more vital range of scientifiction than either of his two competitors. He is not quite so rigid in his demand for the commonplace & the stereotyped.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 4 Apr 1932, DS 360

The Chance story offers infinite possibilities. And so the eckshun-luffing management of W.S. suggested the idea! I’m hanged if those damn kikes aren’t brighter & more sensible in many ways than the philistines controlling Astounding & the technologists in charge of Amazing! Really, there is little doubt but that Wonder is the most generally interesting of the scientifiction magazines. Sorry the space-limit has gone down so annoyingly.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 27 Aug 1932, DS 381

As to Wonder Stories, I am somewhat in a quandary. I can recommend the mag. For ultra-prompt publication of material; but they seem to make up for it on the payment end. They have, so far, paid for seven of my stories at ¾ of a cent per word, but are in arrears on the last five or six, and protest their inability to pay at present together with their anxiety to do so. I don’t know whether to gamble any more stuff on them or not, since I more than suspect that they are capable of sharp dealing. My worst apprehension is that old Hugo may pull another bankruptcy stunt, as he did with Amazing Stories several years back. Undoubtedly the magazine—Wonder Stories—is having a hard time just at present. Their treatment of Belknap is pretty raw, I’d say. The chief reason that I’ve had anything to do with them is, that Gernsback has had the perspicacity to print some of my more out-of-the-way stuff which no one else would touch. And I have had, after all, about five hundred bucks out of the old highbinder.
—Clark Ashton Smith to Donald Wandrei, 10 Nov 1932, Selected Letters 195-196

The final straw for Smith came with “The Dweller in the Gulf,” published in Wonder Stories march 1933 as “The Dweller in the Martian Depths.” In addition to changing the title, the editors had taken a hacksaw to Smith’s prose and bowdlerized the ending. Editor David Lasser wrote to Smith that the changes had been made “at Gernsback’s express order” (DS 408)—and Smith would submit no more to the magazine, which already owed him over six hundred dollars, although two previously submitted stories would still be published after this.

Hazel Heald & Hugo the Rat

I suppose Gernsback is still withholding ‘eckshun’ on his debts. One of my clients is about to write an indignant letter to the Authors’ League concerning his financial shortcomings—though I imagine its effect will be close to zero.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 2 Feb 1933, DS 403

Yes—my Gernsback-mulcted client is Mrs. Heald—whose story was nothing extra, although it surely deserved some remuneration.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, c.10 Feb 1933, DS 404

“The Man of Stone” by Hazel Heald had been published in Wonder Stories Oct 1932. On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Even at that point, Hitler and the Nazis were a byword for antisemitism, and while few may have believed the full extent of Hitler’s plans in Mein Kampf, which would see its first abridged English translation published in October 1933, the rhetoric was clear…and influential.

I await sight of the “Weaver” & “Flower Women” with keen interest, & shall try to get sight of the misnamed “Secret of the Cairn” in Hugo the Rat’s kosher mekasin. Hope his ekshun on debts won’t be delayed beyond all reason—I’d like to set Adolf Hitler on the scoundrel!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 8 Apr 1933, DS 414

As for Hugo the Rat—probably he’s waiting for the dollar to get as low as the German mark did in the early 1920’s. Then—oy, he shood pay it up by his condribudors a’ready!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 May 1933, DS 415

This is the first appearance of the epithet “Hugo the Rat.” Whether this was in a reference to Gernback’s “greedy” nature or an allusion to his Jewishness is unclear; Lovecraft had elsewhere referred to “rat-faced Jew[s]” (LFF 1.256) and Jewish “rat-like temperaments” (LWP 84), so either is feasible. However Lovecraft intended, the nickname stuck.

Unrestricted prejudice, stereotypes, and delay or denial of payments to Lovecraft, Smith, and their friends and clients had soured both men on Hugo Gernsback, who they now held personally to blame for a situtation which might honestly have been somewhat out of his hands to control, as the Great Depression worsened and Wonder Stories began to make economic cuts in length, and moved to a bi-monthly rather than monthly schedule.

Incidentally—I’ve passed on to him, & will pass on to Mrs. Heald, the information about the bad-debt collector. This certainly sounds promising, & I hope you yourself can ultimately employ her to advantage. Anyone who can extract cash from Hugo the Rat is an expert!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 12 Jul 1933, DS 425

Yes, I have heard that Gernsback has a doubtful reputation in matters of payment. Though I disapprove strongly of the Hitler regime, I think that it might be administered, not unjustifiably, on a Jewish gyp and literary sweat-shop keeper such as H. G. I have a suspicion that he may try another of his bankruptcy stunts before long. I have the address of a lawyer in N.Y. who is said to be good at collecting money from backward publishers and shall at least try holding the threat of legal action over Gernsback.
—Clark Ashton Smith to Donald Wandrei, 6 Aug 1933, Selected Letters 218

The lawyer in New York City was Ione Weber, a female attorney. Not much is publicly available on her career; she was a charter member of the Fiorello LeGaurdia chapter of Phi Delta Delta at the Brooklyn Law School in 1922, and in 1924, Ione Weber was listed editor of the magazine for Phi Delta Delta operating out of the Eagle Building in NY, and she is listed as author of New York Pleading and Practice (1930). It’s not clear if Weber was in normal practice, or part of a firm, but being asked to recoup relatively small claims from a pulp publisher suggests she must have had some other source of income. Still, she apparently had some success:

Hope Miss Webber [sic] has been able to collect you something from Hugo the Rat—as she has for Mrs. Heald. Hugo still manages to get decent stuff in spite of his delinquencies—I don’t buy W S now, but Comte d’Erlette has just sent me a fine story by Carl Jacobi—“The Tomb from Beyond”—clipped from the November issue. If you haven’t seen it I’ll send it to you.
—H. P. Lovcraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Nov 1933, DS 483

Some magazines pay much less—especially Wonder Stories, whose editor Gernsback is a veritable Shylock. Hugo the Rat (as Clark Ashton Smith & I affectionately call him) never pays at all except under pressure—in fact, one New York lawyer makes a speciality of Gernsback bad debt collection!
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 13 Jan 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 25

A woman lawyer in New York—a Miss Weber, whose address I’ve forgotten but who could be located through Clark Ashton Smith—makes a speciality of collecting bad debts from Gernsback, & actually did extort $35.00 from him on behalf of a revisions lenient of mine. I’d probably try something on the old reprobate just for the fun of it if I had any unsold MSS. of the right length & character!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 15 Jan 1934, LPS 298

Searight’s story “The Cosmic Horror” had appeared in Wonder Stories Aug 1933, and he had not been paid, hence Lovecraft’s advice. Clark Ashton Smith dithered as he contemplated legal action. Lovecraft, who had no skin in this particular game since he had settled accounts with Amazing Stories, encouraged him to act.

I am, by the way, giving the Gernsback outfit a broad hint that some legal action will be forthcoming unless they pay up a good installment of their arrears at an early date. Wandrei recommends Nat Schachner, one of the star scientifictionists, as a capable lawyer for such collections. Schachner must have had some experience with old Hugo, since he contributed a number of stories to W.S. some time back. I must admit that the idea of setting a Jew to catch a Jew is one that appeals to me. But, on the whole, I’d prefer to collect something without legal bother and expense, if I can.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Mar 1934, DS 535

Let us hope you can eventually arrange to get something out of Hugo the Rat. Eh deedn’t know it Meestah Schechner vass ah smart lawyer a’ready. Oy! He shood make Hugo pay det money ef he hass to boin his shop to get it!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 9 Mar 1934, DS 540

I think seriously of putting the collection of my arrears from Gernsback in the hands of a New York lawyer before long. That Yiddish highbinder makes me boil. I have it on good authority that he draws down one hundred bucks a week for adorning Wonder Stories with his name, while the real editor, doing all the work, receives only twenty per. In rough figures, he owes me about $750.00, representing a lot of blood and sweat, which is too much to lose.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 17 Apr 1934, EID 219

At this point, David Lasser was out as editor of Wonder Stories and Charles D. Hornig, the former editor of The Fantasy Fan and a friend of Lovecraft and Smith, had been installed as editor—so Smith actually did finally have an inside line on Wonder Stories. Gernsback, meanwhile, was seeking to diversify his pulp line with Pirate Stories and High Seas Adventure—and even was contemplating a Weird Tales rival titled True Supernatural Stories. A “dummy issue” of the latter was filed with the Library of Congress to secure rights to the title, and included reprints of of Smith and Lovecraft’s work from The Fantasy Fan; whether they were ever compensated for this is unknown (see Sam Moskowitz’ “The Gernsback ‘Magazines’ That No One Knows” in in Riverside Quarterly v.4, #4).

Finally, Smith took the legal plunge:

I have written to a New York attorney about the little matter of collecting from gernsback. His arrears total $769.00, and I do not intend to be robbed of it all by low-class Jewish business morality.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 16 May 1934, EID 221

Miss Ione Weber, New York attorney, has undertaken the collection of my arrears from Gernsback but does not seem to be overly optimistic about getting anything at an early date. I’m not eager to press the matter with an actual lawsuit: one has to pay the legal expenses in advance, and the lawyer gets 25%, or perhaps even 50% of the proceeds. Oh hell….. I never was very enthusiastic about laws, lawyers, et al.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 4 Jun 1934, EID 222

Miss Ione Weber, the attorney in whose hands I placed the matter of collecting from Gernsback, has evidently not succeeded in compelling him to disgorge, so far. I fear me he’s a hard-boiled Hebrew hellion, if there ever was one; and I’d gladly turn him over to the ministrations of Herr Hitler.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 28 Jun 1934, EID 223

Much to my surprise, the New York attorney, Miss Weber, has succeeded in prying fifty dollars out of Gernsback. This, according to G’s own accounting dept, leaves only $691 more to pay! I hope that I’ll receive at least part of it before the onsent of inflation or the forming of a proletariat government in the U.S.A.
—Clark Ashotn Smith to August Derleth, 22 Jul 1934, EID 225

My lawyer, Miss Weber, succeeded in extracting another 50 from Gernsback; also, a promise to pay the balance of arrears in trade acceptances, at 75 per month.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 29 Sep 1934, EID 237

Liquidity was obviously still an issue with Gernsback’s magazines—launching several new ventures no doubt didn’t help that—but Weber seems to have reached an out-of-court agreement for payments to be made on the debt. A trade acceptance is, effectively, a type of IOU—a bill of exchange acknowledging a debt, which can in turn be sold, traded, or redeemed for cash at a future date. Ashley & Lowndes write:

Ione Weber cautioned Smith that she was “not optimistic about how soon collection can be made. The last few months I have been having more than the usual difficulty in collecting from them.” She explained further. “Gernsback himself told me that these magazines were not paying but made an arrangement with me by which he would pay my other author clients at stated intervals. However, this promise was not kept.”
(The Gernsback Days 243)

Smith wasn’t the only author that Gernsback hadn’t paid. Although Smith did eventually recoup all that he was owed, many more authors went without. Richard F. Searight suggested a joint lawsuit (LPS 226, 330), although nothing came of this. E. Hoffmann Price quoted science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton in a letter to Lovecraft:

You speak of Fantasy being connected, via editor, with Wonder Stories. From all I gather, their rates, when they pay off, are indeed nominal! Something like 1/4 ¢, and rumored but never realized 1/2 ¢ payoffs. I’m afraid I couldn’t spend much time trying to seduce the fancy of an outfit like that—or have I confused them with the nest of vipers assembled under the Gernsbach [sic] standards? Hamilton assures me no one is a scientifiction writer until he has been defrauded at least once by Hugo Gernbach! [sic]
—E. Hoffmann Price to H. P. Lovecraft, 21 Nov 1933, Mss. John Hay Library

In October 1934, Hornig optimistically wrote that Wonder Stories would shortly be able to pay promptly, and repay its past debts…and there are some signs that Gernsback & Wonder Stories was trying to do this (The Gernsback Days 243). Lovecraft wrote of his young Jewish friend Kenneth Sterling:

He has already sold stories to Wonder . . . .& collected from Hugo the Rat (it takes a Yid to catch a Yid!) . . . . & is bubbling over with ideas.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 26 Mar 1935, DS 596

However, more problems lay ahead.

Donald A. Wollheim & Thrilling Wonder Stories

Nofor Jesu’s sake don’t mention that Klarkash-Ton & I call Gernsback “Hugo the Rat.” That would form a thoroughly unjustifiable attack, despite the fact that the damn skunk undoubtedly deserves it!
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 16 May 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 86

“Hugo the Rat” was a pet name, of the kind that Lovecraft reserved for many. Farnsworth Wright was often “Pharnobozus” or “Farney” in his letters; William Crawford, editor/publisher of the fanzine Marvel Tales, was “Hill-Billy Crawford.” The nicknames were sometimes slightly derogatory, but were basically meant in fun…and in private. Lovecraft never called him “Hugo the Rat” in public, or made any public statement about the financial situation of Gernsback not paying his authors. Others did.

Donald Wollheim published “My Experience with Wonder Stories” was published in the April 1935 Bulletin of the Terrestrial Fantascience Guild. Wollheim’s story “The Man from Ariel” had been published in Wonder Stories Jan 1934, and not paid for. Up to this point, the science fiction fandom aspect of Gernsback’s career hasn’t been terribly relevant, but it should be remembered that it was Gernsback who, pursuing his enthusiasm for amateurs, encouraged science fiction fans to write to oen another by publishing their names and addresses in the pages of Amazing Stories in the 20s, and in 1934 founded a fanclub called the Science Fiction League through Wonder Stories. Now, Wollheim’s public airing of the dirty laundry caused an uproar in fandom, made all the worse when Gernsback banned Wollheim from the Science Fiction League, leading to a splintering in the group (see Up To Now: The ISA-SFL Clash).

Lovecraft commented on the affair, which was still spooling out:

I saw the Wollheim article dealing with Hugo the Rat—through the kindness of a bright young member of the Science Fiction League, Kenneth Sterling, who has recently moved to Providence. It was nothing new to me—for more than one friend of mine has been robbed by that thieving son-of-a-beachcomber. He printed a story by Frank B. Long in the Spring 1930 Wonder Stories Quarterly, & neither paid the author nor gave any attention to letters about the matter. I advised Long to take drastic steps, but he thought the sum wasn’t large enough to bother about. Others I know—including C A S—have recovered cash from the Rat only through legal action. There’s no real answer that Gernsback can make to the Wollheim expose—all he can do is to kep quiet. But his shifty tactics will overreach themselves & wreck him in the end. Meanwhile he relies on suckers, pays two or three contributors whom he can’t afford to lose, & counts on the MSS. of writers who don’t care whether they’re paid or not. I wouldn’t mind a non-paying magazine if the editor would honestly call it such—like the F F [The Fantasy Fan], F M [Fantasy Magazine], & M T [Marvel Tales]. It is his masquerading as a remunerative publisher which makes Hugo such a damn’d thief! Fortunately he is an exception.
—H. P. Lovecraft to William Anger, 24 Apr 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 233

Regardless of whether the issue of payments was due more to circumstances of the Great Depression or sharp business tactics, Wollheim’s expose and the resulting fan-feuding, coupled with professional pulpsters who now shunned Wonder Stories and other Gernsback magazines, sank Gernsback’s reputation. Eventually, the situation was untenable.

Wonder Stories sold by Hugo the Rat to the Margulies group which Belknap likes so well.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11 Mar 1936, O Fortunate Floridian! 326

Leo Margulies was the chief editor of Standard Publications, sometimes called “Thrilling Publications” because they published titles like Thrilling Adventures, Thrilling Detective, Thrilling Love, Thrilling Mystery, Thrilling Sports, and Thrilling Western. In August 1936, when they purchased Wonder Stories, Margulies renamed it Thrilling Wonder Stories. Charles D. Hornig was laid off as editor. Hugo Gernsback left science fiction to its own devices for a while.

Although Lovecraft and Gernsback never met, and it isn’t clear if they ever even corresponded, the publisher’s reputation remained with Lovecraft for the short time remaining to him. Even into 1937, barely a month away from death, Lovecraft wrote:

By the way—Hugo Gernsback is a notorious sharper who ought never to be trusted. He tries to sensationalise pseudo-science, and is so dishonest in his non-payment of contributors that reputable authors have virtually blacklisted his magazines.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Nils Frome, 8 Feb 1937, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 352

If you think the pay is bad, pray be informed that Hugo the Rat often parallelled it in the old days, & that according to some reporters Amazing Stories now does little better.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 14 Feb 1937, LPS 437

In January 1936, Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling collaborated on “In the Walls of Eryx” (Weird Tales Oct 1939), a story which incorporated several punning references to personalities in science fiction pulpdom. There on the jungled Venus they conceived:

I was always slashing ugrats and stepping on skorahs, and my leather suit was all speckled from the bursting darohs which struck it from all sides.

“Ugrats,” “Hugo the Rat.” A bit of a petty immortalization for Gernsback, who despite his infamy in regards to business practice, editorial tastes in science fiction, etc. is still today recognized as a critical figure in the popularization of science fiction, and the namesake of the Hugo Awards.

Conclusion

The question may fairly be asked: Why has “Hugo the Rat” stuck in the consciousness of fans and writers of science fiction history? I suspect that it is Lovecraft’s own posthumous popularity, and the publication of his letters, that have spread the epithet far beyond the limits of personal correspondence that Lovecraft ever intended. Other writers may well have said things as bad or worse about Gernsback, but their letters haven’t been published, studied, or folded into the history of pulp publishing in anything like the same way Lovecraft’s have. I haven’t been able to find any usage of the term in fanzines of the 40s and 50s so far. The epithet was most prominent in volume 5 of Lovecraft’s Selected Letters (1965), and usage of it picks up in science fiction scholarship in the 1970s.

Whether or not you consider “Hugo the Rat” as an antisemitic label or a playful jab at a non-paying publisher, it is undeniable that antisemitic prejudice colored Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith’s views. That the views were expressed particularly sharply in 1933, when Hitler was coming to power and antisemitism was gaining increased traction makes their particular prejudice all the worse, especially in hindsight.

It didn’t start out that way. Which is probably as close as a we might get to a lesson from this episode. This post doesn’t contain every single instance where Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith referred to Gernsback as “Hugo the Rat,” or made an antisemitic comment regarding him; a full list would be tedious rather than informative. Neither Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith started out lambasting Hugo Gernsback for being Jewish. One made a comment, the other didn’t censure them for it, and before long the two men were jocularly passing back and forth antisemitic quips that neither would ever air in public. If there is a lesson to this exchange, it’s that allowing prejudice to go unchallenged, even in joking fashion, makes prejudice more acceptable over all…and that has shaped how we see and talk about the past.

Grant Wythoff in The Perversity of Things felt the need to address Lovecraft’s characterization of “Hugo the Rat” because that epithet has become so strongly identified with Gernsback, even though no more than a dozen people likely ever knew Lovecraft said it during his lifetime. The name and characterization have been repeated so many times, that most people assume it was true, and that Hugo Gernsback was a “sharper” who didn’t pay his authors. Of course, Gernsback wasn’t alone in this; Weird Tales faced its own difficulties and delays in paying authors; when Robert E. Howard died in 1936, Farnsworth Wright owed him more than Gernsback ever owed Clark Ashton Smith. While Gernsback certainly exacerbated some of his own troubles in his dealings with Wollheim and other authors, and there were likely poor business decisions that were responsible for delays and nonpayments, it seems likely that much of the negative characterization of Gernsback carries at least a whiff of antisemitism, intentional or unconscious. It is a very weird aspect of Lovecraft’s legacy that this nickname should stick, to a man he never met and had very little to do with directly…but, here we are.

For the facts of Hugo Gernsback’s life and publications, and details on his magazines I have relied primarily on Hugo Gernsback: A Man Well Ahead of His Time (2007) edited by Larry Steckler, and The Gernsback Days (2004) by Mike Ashley and Robert A. W. Lowndes, and recommend them both for learning more about Gernsback’s life and his involvement with science fiction publishing.

A Final Word on Clark Ashton Smith’s Antisemitism

The vermin is a very Jew, and will have his last ounce of brain and marrow.
—Clark Ashton Smith, “The Corpse and the Skeleton” (1965)

While H. P. Lovecraft’s antisemitism is fairly well-documented, with dozens of instances in his letters regarding Jewish persons, race, and religion; the antisemitic comments that Clark Ashton Smith made towards Hugo Gernsback and his company may come as something of a surprise to many readers. Smith’s comments on Jewish people are very few in his published letters, and the bulk of his antisemitic comments were directed solely against Gernsback & co.—with an occasional swipe at other Jewish publishers, e.g.:

I return the Ullman–Knopf communication herewith. Knopf should remove the Borzoi from his imprint, and substitute either the Golden Calf or a jackass with brazen posteriors. I wish Herr Hitler had him, along with Gernsback.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Oct 1933, DS 456

Too bad about Knopf. I wish Hitler had him, along with Gernsback.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 19 Oct 1933, EID 196

The tone and wording of the comments suggest frustration with publishers in general, which focused in on their being Jewish as a convenient target for abuse—even though their being Jewish had nothing to do with, say, editorial changes in Smith’s tales in Wonder Stories or Knopf turning down a collection of Lovecraft’s fiction.

In terms of fiction, Clark Ashton Smith had very few Jewish characters or references in his fiction, and so few occasions to express any antisemitism. Smith’s usual line was fantasy & horror set in imaginary worlds, and science fiction set in the far future, so references to Jews in his work are rather rare—there is no more need for Jewish characters in Zothique, Atlantis, Xiccaraph, Hyperborea, or Mars than there would be for Christians or Buddhists or run-of-the-mill Satanists—so absence of Jewish characters isn’t particularly unusual or necessarily reflective of antisemitism on Smith’s part.

Those few stories which do feature Jewish characters rely almost entirely on Jewish stereotypes that were old when Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, the same stereotypes Smith expressed in negative terms in his anti-Gernsback commentary. Clark Ashton Smith’s unpublished story “The Parrot” is the most prominent example, with Ben Stein as a veritable caricature of a “greedy Jew”…and the only good thing that can be said about the sketch is that it wasn’t published until after Clark Ashton Smith’s death.

In general, it must be acknowledged that casual antisemitism was sadly common among many members of the Weird Tales circle; in addition to Lovecraft and Smith, Robert E. Howard and August Derleth at least are also known to have made antisemitic comments in letters. Smith also never (as far as I can find) made any such comments to Jewish correspondents like Robert Bloch or Samuel Loveman. While it is dangerous to generalize, and certainly never a major aspect of any letter, this kind of antisemitic commentary against Jewish publishers appears to have been generally tolerated among the non-Jewish members of the Weird Tales circle of correspondents. This kind of discrimination was no doubt someting that Hugo Gernsback and other Jews in the United States faced frequently during the 1930s.


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

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Jim Crow, Science Fiction, and WorldCon

No black fans had become active to any extent by 1957, but females without brothers or husbands in fandom became more numerous. The one who attracted the most notice was Lee Hoffman, whom everyone had assumed to be male until she appeared at a fan gathering for the first time and almost disrupted the New Orleans Worldcon in 1951 in the process.
—Harry Warner, Jr. “Fandom Between World War II and Sputnik” in Science Fiction Fandom 70

Nolacon I, held over Labor Day weekend (September 1-3) in New Orleans in 1951, was the ninth WorldCon. Harry Warner’s pronouncement that no black fans had become active in fandom by 1957 was not true: black fans bought pulps and science-fiction books, and some even participated in “active fandom” as members of science fiction fan clubs and organizations. Allen Glasser in “History of the Scienceers” recalled:

During the early months of the Scienceers’ existence—from its start in December 1929 through the spring of 1930—our president was Warren Fitzgerald. As previously mentioned, Warren was about fifteen years older than the other members. He was a light-skinned Negro—amiable, cultured, and a fine gentleman in every sense of that word. With his gracious, darker-hued wife, Warren made our young members welcome to use his Harlem home for our meetings—an offer we gratefully accepted.
(Science Fiction Fanzine Reader 49)

Attendees at Nolacon might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. While the convention itself made no formal statement regarding race, racial segregation was very much in effect in New Orleans in the 1950s. Public transportation, restrooms, and other facilities were segregated into “white” and “colored” under Jim Crow; restaurants, hotels, and other businesses simply refused to serve black customers, blacks and whites had separate beaches and parks.

There were less than 200 attendees. Nolacon Bulletin #2 (July 1951) lists 196 members; Harry Warner, Jr. in in his memoir of fandom in the 50s A Wealth of Fable says 183 were officially registered “and 300 or more persons were believed to be on hand at one time or another” (352). Membership at the door was $1; tickets for the southern chicken fried banquet, $2.50. The convention hall was at the St. Charles Hotel, which was air-conditioned—and traditionally white-only. Not all the rooms in the surrounding hotels were air-conditioned, and fans sweltered in the heat. Unable to sleep, they began an all-night poker game in room 770, which became a two-day room party that reached legendary proportions.

One highlight was a midnight showing of The Day the Earth Stood Still at the local Saenger Theater. Seating was segregated. Black attendees would have had to enter through a side door, to sit up on the balcony. Had any black science fiction fans done so, the film they watched could have stood as a metaphor for the mythic white space they found themselves in: a film of the possibilities of the future starring white people, for white people; the few non-white actors such as Rama Bai and Spencer Chan went uncredited.

day-the-earth-stood-still-people-watch-as-klaatu-approaches-crowd

Segregation had risen as an issue in science fiction fandom long before Nolacon I was a glimmer in the New Orleans Science-Fantasy Society’s eye. In Summer of 1944, archfans Forrest J. Ackerman and Jack Speer had published an 8-page one-shot periodical in the Fantasy Amateur Press Association titled Black & White [PDF]. Ackerman published an editorial denouncing Speer’s racial prejudice and support of Jim Crow; and recalled:

On our way to the Nycon [1939, the first WorldCon], Morojo and I felt distinctly uncomfortable, embarrass[ed] to be members of such a country, when we passed through a certain state wherein seats in the coaches were partitioned temporarily and marked “For Colored Only.” We resented this, we did not like to think any colored people were blaming us in their minds, looking at us accusingly. Beyond personal, selfish considerations, we considered the situation fundamentally unjust. (Science Fiction Fanzine Reader 92)

The other half of the ‘zine was Speers’ rebuttal; which is proof if any was needed that even science fiction fans could be prejudiced and close-minded. The best that can be said is that Speer’s position was soundly thrashed in the fanzines that reviewed the periodical. Seven years later, it was in another fan-periodical that the issue of Jim Crow and Nolacon was raised:

On the subject of this year’s World Science Fiction Convention: It will be of great interest to this editor to discover whether there were both WHITE and COLORED entrances to the convention-hall this year, for the tenets of the sovereign state of Louisiana and the noble city of New Orleans strictly forbid the mingling of ‘Caucasian and non-Caucasian races’ in such public buildings as are usually the sites of conventions. Just as a clinical study, let’s review the case.

We know that the basis for the persecution, discrimination, and segregation of and against the negro in the southern U.S. is an economic one. It is profitable for the Southern bourgeoisie (if we may borrow a work from the marxist lexicons) to oppress the Negro and other minority groups. The only way in which to fight this racist fascism is [to] make it extremely unprofitable for the South to pursue this racist policy.

Cities like Miami Beach and New Orleans derive a sufficient sum from the tourist trade (which includes the many convention dollars spent, not at the auction, but on such relative nonessentials as food and lodging) to make them review with alacrity the necessity of maintaining feudal laws in the face of a serious decrease in this income. Therefore, we must look upon the South’s financial dependency on the tourist trade as a weapon which democratic Americans from more e[n]lightented sections of the county must use, as a club if need be, against the forces of bourgeois reaction and open fascism in the South.

Many progressives are foregoing the annual vacation-trip to Miami Beach, in the hope that this will graphically inform the business interests in the south who profit from such vacation-trips that democratic dollars shall not be spent to uphold [and] strengthen an undemocratic system.

It is up to the fans who will vote on future convention site[s] to make sure that all fans will be able to have an equally good time, regardless of the racial, national, or religious differences that may be evident to the eye of a sovereign state or a noble city.

—Michael DeAngelis, Asmodeus #2 (Fall 1951), 5

The call to action may sound familiar. The World Science Fiction Convention still struggles with issues of making sure that all fans, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or ableness are able to fully participate, enjoy, and share their common love of science fiction art, literature, and media. While the Jack Speer of this generation may no longer be arguing explicitly and out loud for segregation, behavior which demeans, denigrates, and disenfranchises others based on such factors accomplishes much the same thing. Likewise, DeAngelis’ suggestion that fans vote with their wallets, choosing not to financially support racist policies, is still very much sound advice.

The editorial in Asmodeus #2 made little splash in fandom; by the time it came out, it isn’t clear that it would have been in time to affect attendance, even if it had achieved widespread distribution. Yet at least two fans chose to respond, in letter to the editors. The first is from L. Sprague de Camp:

Mr. DeAngelis’s attribution of Southern race-prejudice to the economic motives of the Southern reactionary bourgeoisie is the usual Marxian pseudo-scientific fertilizer, based on the ludicrous assumption that people mostly act in accordance with economic class interests. If he’d lived in the South he’d know that the strongest such prejudice is found among the Southern white proletariat, & and that it’s based not on economics but on a psycho-cultural attitude imbibed in childhood and derived from the former Southern caste system. Actually Southern segregational practices are highly unprofitable to all Southerners, but most Southern whites take the view they’d rather be poor than suffer what they consider spiritual defilement. I don’t approve of their attitude any more than deA, but to drag in Communist twaddle merely confuses the issue.
—L. Sprague de Camp, Asmodeus #3 (Spring 1952), 25

This is ultimately nitpicking without addressing the substance of the problem, something else that fans of science fiction today will recognize whenever the issue of discrimination rears its head. A penchant for pedantry often undermines any real progress, and carefully side-steps the issue of acknowledging a problem exists or what to do about it.

The second letter is from Redd Boggs, a prominent fan and fanzine publisher who has been nominated for several Retro Hugo awards for his fan-writing:

DeAngelis seems to be belaboring a dead horse with his remarks on the Nolacon. And after all, it was not the fault of the Southern fans themselves that Jim Crow exists down there. I might think more of them if I know they were doing what they could to break down racial barriers, but I don’t think less of them for putting on a convention despite the segregation that had to be observed. What else could they do? Should we have allowed the South to have a convention? I think we should have. They deserved the chance to have one, and to deny them one on the basis of racial prejudice smacks of another kind of prejudice. Sectional discrimination is almost as bad as racial discrimination. I don’t think fandom should ever allow a con to be held in a hotel where anti-Semitic rules are found, or—if it is anywhere but the South—where Negroes are barred, but if we go to the South there is little or no alternative. If there is an alternative, as there will be almost anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon, I trust we’ll take it. Otherwise, deAngelis’ analysis of the economic basis of segregation leaves much to be desired. I fail to see how an end to the tourist trade, if it affected the South very much, could accomplish anything but the opposite effect Mike desires: making the whites poorer and thus more in competition than ever with the Negro.
—Redd Boggs, Asmodeus #3, 27

“Sectional discrimination” in 1952 was the “reverse racism” of the 2020s—a fallacy used by those who claim that efforts to combat or reverse racial discrimination are themselves a form of discrimination. Boggs’ claims break down what might be the typical white fan’s mindset of the era: philosophically displeased with Jim Crow, but unwilling to actually do anything about it.

Implicit in all the Asmodeus debate are a number of implicit prejudices: that the culture of the American South was monolithic and unchangeable, that economics were a key factor in racial discrimination, that African-Americans were as a population disadvantaged by this discrimination, that science fiction fandom should not support racial discrimination…and that fandom as a whole was unwilling or unable to confront these issues with positive action.

We don’t know if any black fans tried to attend Nolacon I and were turned away at the door, but these issues were not simply theoretical—they were real, and affected real people. We know because there is at least one account of that actually happening:

[Gene Deweese had] been corresponding with a girl, Bev Clark, in northern Indiana, and wanted me to go with him to meet her, which suited me fine; I was finally finding girls I could talk to. Gene arranged things and we went up. It was the first time I’d met a black (or African-American, if you prefer) person socially. We got along fine, and later on we’d arranged that the three of us would drive to Midwestcon, again in my car; that car got a lot of use that summer; Juanita and her friend Lee Tremper would meet us there, and we’d have fun. We arrived at Beatley’s Hotel (or Beastley’s-on-the-Bayou, which was one of the fannish descriptions at the time) but Bev was refused admittance. No blacks allowed. None of us had even considered the possibility. On the way out, we talked to a few fans sitting on the hotel porch and some anger was expressed, especially by Harlan Ellison, who said that all fandom would hear about this outrage. We drove home, and as far as I know, nobody ever mentioned the episode again. Except me, of course.
—Buck Coulson, “Midwest Memories” in Mimosa #13 [PDF] (1993), 36

That was in 1953; Coulson added that later that year Bev attended the 1953 WorldCon in Philadelphia with them and there were “no room problems.” Juanita Coulson (she and Buck married in 1954), would add on to the account:

Lots of people commiserated and thought this was terrible and something should be done about it—but nobody did anything. We happen to know this particular instance pretty well. The convention hotel was Beatley’s at Indian Lake, a Midwestcon, and the Negro girl fan was Beverly Clark. She, Buck and Gene drove over from Indiana, had their reservations cleverly lost by the hotel management, much sympathy and no action from the other con attendees, and turned around and drove back that same night. A procedure I would not recommend. I didn’t find out about this until Saturday night, despite repeated inquiries of other people, some of whom were witnesses to the earlier incident. (I had come on the bus with Lee Tremper, expecting to meet the other trio. Obviously, I never did.) What could have been done? Well, at an outside guess I would say if the managers of the con and plenty of the fans had gotten together and promised the hotel keeper if she didn’t admit a guest with a reservation regardless of color they’d take their business elsewhere something might well have been accomplished. Nobody suggested this, and there was no indication that enough of the fans were willing to put their actions where their mouths were. They had lots of company in mundania at that time. […] It’s nice to think fans are slans and ahead of their times and farseeing and politically and socially advanced and all—but I’d take it with a healthy dose of salt. I been there. At least I got into fandom on the time-line edge, It was at that break point in the early-mid 50s that hotels began realizing there’d been an emancipation proclamation* or Buck and I would have missed a lot of cons. We wrote ahead to the hotel in Philly to make sure Bev Clark and her friend Eleanor Turner would be admitted, or we probably wouldn’t have gone.
—Juanita Coulson, Starling #14 [PDF] (1970), 19-20

Racial segregation in the United States has been officially over for some time; Supreme Court cases like Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964) and legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped end Jim Crow—though it was a long and uphill struggle, and far from bloodless. We still deal with the issues raised by segregation and its ends today, culturally and socio-economically.

The full effects of Jim Crow and racism both implicit and explicit prevalent on early fandom will never be known. How do you measure the effect of those fans who wanted to attend, but were denied access to the hotel where the convention was held? How many fans were turned off by the lukewarm response from fans like Redd Boggs, who didn’t agree with Jim Crow but were willing to implicitly endorse it so that Southerners could have their own science fiction conventions?

While Jim Crow is a thing of the past, it is a part of science fiction fandom history—and one which we forget only at our own peril. There was a time when white fans did nothing, while black fans had to use side entrances and were denied entrance. If we are to not be hypocrites, to embrace and celebrate our diversity and look ahead to the future, we must make sure that all science fiction fans are treated equally—not harassed or discriminated against, not made second-class citizens because of their ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation—and to not retreat when such remarks are made.

Remarks were made at the 78th WorldCon, CoNZealand, in 2020. George R. R. Martin has been criticized for his hosting of the Hugo Awards at the event, where he spent considerable time discussing historically important figures in science fiction like John W. Campbell—long time editor of Astounding (1937-1971) and a noted racist in the Jack Speer vein. Martin has also been criticized for disrespecting the award winners, mispronouncing names and undercutting accomplishments like N. K. Jemisin’s “hat trick” of three Hugo awards for best novel in as many years, and four in the last five (2016, 2017, 2018, and 2020). Several times, Martin reminisced about when fandom was so much smaller, and the convention was simply held in a hotel.

Many fans and writers, including Jemisin and other nominees and winners, tweeted, blogged, and essayed about the awards, but one observation from genre fiction scholar Jess Nevins stood out:

In their way, the SFF gatekeepers are the equivalent of the Lost Cause Southerners: clinging for dear life to this fantasy construction of the past that is at angle to the real thing, making secular saints of white men of reprehensible moralities and behavior. (tweeted by @JessNevins 11:17 AM · Aug 2, 2020)

It can be difficult to get away from the shadow of the past. John W. Campbell and H. P. Lovecraft were racist; that does not negate their accomplishments as editor and writer, respectively, but it does cast a shadow over their legacy. In 2011, Nnedi Okorafor’s response to winning the World Fantasy Award—then in Lovecraft’s likeness and nicknamed “The Howard”—sparked a petition for the replacement of the award, which happened in 2015. In her acceptance speech for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best New Writer, Jeannette Ng called out the award’s namesake:

John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist. Through his editorial control of [Astounding Science Fiction], he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists.

Her words sparked change; the award was renamed to the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, and Ng herself earned the 2020 Hugo for Best Related Work for making that speech.

Positive change can happen, if people raise their voices and work for it.


Originally published in The Cromcast Chronicle #1 (Dec 2020).

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

Deeper Cut: Lovecraft in Harlem

Late night in Harlem on a Friday and the streets more full than at rush hour. Tommy Tester cherished the closeness, to his father and to all the bodies on the sidewalks, in their cars, riding buses, perched on stoops. The traffic and human voices merged into a terrific buzzing that seemed to lift Tommy and Otis, a song that accompanied them—carried them—all the way home.
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 36

Places have character in the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. Dunwich and Arkham, Kingsport and Innsmouth, these are Lovecraft country and as much a part of the stories as any of the human characters taking part in the narrative. New York City was a character in Lovecraft’s stories too—in “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” and “Cool Air”—yet there are parts of the city conspicuous by their absence. There is no Harlem in Lovecraft’s New York tales, scarcely any mention of Harlem in any of his fiction.

Lovecraft’s Mythos is expressly not a mythic white space. People of color exist, and are subject to the common contemporary prejudices that Lovecraft knew. They are supporting characters, often derided and stereotyped. Because there is a New York City in Lovecraft’s stories, we can assume there is a Harlem somewhere in it, and that African-Americans live there. Harlem as the center of the Harlem Renaissance, though; Harlem as the cultural center of African-Americans in New York; that Harlem is not present. Lovecraft never tried to capture the soul of Harlem in his fiction, and nor did many writers that came after him in the Mythos.

2016. Enter Victor LaValle with The Ballad of Black Tom. The novella is a re-working of “The Horror at Red Hook,” but this time Harlem is present. Tommy Tester and his father live there, it is their home, their haven, though even they don’t know all of its secrets. LaValle’s book expressly addresses the systemic racism and discrimination of 1920s New York, tries to tie it in to the fabric of Lovecraft’s stories and the geography of New York.

Even then, LaValle struggles with the portrayal of Harlem. The geography is right, but the descriptions are spare, often less than compelling, and mostly avoids major landmarks or descriptions of street life. “The Horror at Red Hook” takes place mostly in Brooklyn, so for much of The Ballad of Black Tom the main characters are not in Harlem itself, and consequently there is less opportunity to develop the character of the place. It isn’t Harlem as Lovecraft would have seen it—but then, what would that have looked like? What would it be like for a white man, known for his racism and cosmic horror fiction, to visit the Black Mecca of the United States?

Lovecraft in Harlem

At the elevated station at 6th Ave. and 42nd St. I lost my fellow Anglo-Saxon, whose home is far to the north in the semi-African jungles of Harlem […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 18 May 1922, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 95

The Great Migration saw thousands of African-Americans move from the rural South to the cities of the North. In Manhattan, the neighborhood of Harlem became a center of black demographics and, as the 1920s wore on, black culture. Harlem became the geographic center of and gave its name to the Harlem Renaissance, a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that celebrated the best that African-Americans had to offer. Many white people during this time were more interested in Harlem’s nightlife, the cabarets, clubs, speakeasies, and sexual underworld which rose to legendary proportions during Prohibition, as chronicled in Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven (1926).

H. P. Lovecraft first visited Harlem in 1922. The native of Providence, Rhode Island had been invited to visit New York City by Sonia H. Greene, an amateur journalist who wished to disprove some of Lovecraft’s prejudices by broadening his horizons (Ave Atque Vale 148). The thirty-two-year-old weird writer, who had not yet made his first professional publication, traipsed through much of the city, visiting museums, parks, admiring the remaining old architecture, and visiting with friends such as James F. Morton, a progressive-minded white man who had authored The Curse of Race Prejudice (1906), was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and whose apartment was in Harlem.

Morton and Lovecraft had “met” in 1915, where they ended up on opposite sides of an argument over race and prejudice in the amateur journals In A Minor Key and The Conservative (see “Concerning the Conservative”). Disagreement led eventually to correspondence, and then to friendship—though they never came to agreement on the issue of racial equality, they enjoyed the debate, and had other common interests in amateur journalism and writing.

There is no indication that Lovecraft stayed long or delved deep into Harlem on that first visit, or any subsequent visit to Morton’s, but he would later write to his aunt:

After a period of discussion & repartee, which Mrs. Long said reminded her of the epigrammatic paradoxes of Oscar Wilde & Whistler, the gang adjourned to Morton’s chaotic apartment in Harlem. I had never before seen Morton’s abode, & naturally I was interested. He dwells in a street now overrun by niggers of the cleaner & less offensive sort—decayed, but still retaining the outlines of its former beauty. There are pleasing trees on both sides, & the architecture of the houses is highly prepossessing. No. 211—the Morton mansion—is an old brick single house owned by an elderly eccentric named Edwin C. Walker; a spacious & unkempt edifice, thick with dust, & with half the rooms unused. Morton’s room is on the top floor, reached by dark & winding stairs, & is remarkably neat though atrociously dusty.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 13 Sep 1922, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.64

Walker was a noted freethinker who had founded the interracial Sunrise Club in 1889 and served as its secretary until his death in 1931; he and Morton were both advocates of free love, although it is not clear if this was in any way involved with how Morton came to live in Harlem. Nor did Lovecraft have go to Harlem to be aware of it, on the same trip he visited the Bronx Zoo:

Before the chimpanzee cage; gazing with rapt interest, & unconscious of the time, we noted two huge, jet-black buck niggers; one of them—curiously enough—in army uniform with a very businesslike trench helmet.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 29 Sep 1922, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.79

The United States Army was still segregated in 1922, and most troops were relegated to non-combat roles. An exception was the 369th Infantry Regiment, which gained popular renown during World War I as the Harlem Hellfighters. The unit was demobilized in 1918, but the segregated 15th New York National Guard Regiment from which it was formed continued. It is possible this was a member of that unit.

Lovecraft’s eye was mainly captured by the architecture, although on subsequent visits he would pay more attention to the inhabitants. The sheer numbers of black people living together in New York was amazing to Lovecraft—while Providence was not legally segregated in the sense of the Jim Crow South at that time, Lovecraft had always lived in the predominantly white portions of the city, though he was aware that there were black neighborhoods:

I hardly wonder that my racial ideas seem bigoted to one born & reared in the vicinity of cosmopolitan New York […] Over on the “West Side”, it is very cosmopolitan, but the East Side child might as well be in the heart of Old England so far as racial environment is concerned. Slater Avenue school was near my home, & the only non-Saxons were niggers whose parents work for our families or cart our ashes, & who consequently know their place.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 6 Dec 1915, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 47

To put the demographics in perspective, the 1920 census put the total population of Providence at 237,595; in New York City in 1920, the black population alone was 152,467—and by 1930, there would be more African-Americans in New York than there were people of all races combined in Providence (1920 Census, 1930 Census). For a white man who had spent probably his entire life without seeing more than a handful of black people at a time, visiting Harlem would have been an eye-opening experience. He would visit New York, and Harlem, again.

In 1924, Lovecraft would return to New York to marry Sonia H. Greene, and to take up residence in the city. It was a tumultuous time in the writer’s life, as he struggled with domesticity, inability to find work, his wife’s illness, financial struggles, and finally separation as she left to take a job in the Midwest, leaving Lovecraft alone in a Brooklyn apartment. One of Lovecraft’s pleasures during this period were his outings with ‘the Boys,’ or as they became more formally known, the Kalem Club—a loose association of writers who would gather at each other’s houses and apartments to converse on every subject from poetry to politics. Morton held his share of the meetings:

Sonny [Frank Belknap Long, Jr.] and I settled the fate of literature betwixt us and parted early in the evening—with the understanding that The Boys meet up there on Thursday, August 7th, if Mrs. Long is well enough to stand the racket. Otherwise we convene at Morton’s dump in Bantu and barbaric Harlem, our first meeting there, by the way.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 1 Aug 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.145

In the evening The Boys met at Morton’s—up in niggerville—and had a great time despite the African cast of the contiguous terrain.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 20 Aug 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.147

Few accounts of these meetings survive outside of Lovecraft’s letters, although fellow Kalem-club member George C. Kirk once recalled:

August 15. Friday. Went to a party in black belt last night. If Lovecraft is a prince James F. Morton Jr. is a king. (Ave Atque Vale 223)

As time went on, Lovecraft found himself in Harlem again for other purposes than visiting Morton’s. Accounts are generally few and far-between; Lovecraft was a teetotal, against interracial relationships, and disliked jazz, and so appears to have had zero interest in the more “touristy” parts of Harlem that Carl Van Vechten might have showed him.

Saturday was a hectic round of the shops—both Harlem & Brooklyn—on Kirk’s behalf; & in the evening we parted laden with vases, candlesticks, sofa pillows, steins, Japanese panels, & the like—which Kirk bore to his room whilst I returned to 169 [Clinton St.] for slumber.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 22 Jan 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.239

However, for the most part during this period Lovecraft was only aware of Harlem from stops on the subway station at 125th street and Lenox Avenue. These were unsegregated cars, as Lovecraft would attest to an aunt who had experienced Jim Crow conditions in Georgia:

The separation of people & niggers at the stations is an excellent idea—which ought to be practiced on the Harlem subway trains here—& it would please me always to alight at the quaint & picturesque town of WHITE.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 10 Feb 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.243

Lovecraft’s experience of encountering African-Americans on New York subways is among his more odious anecdotes of living in New York, as evidenced by a trip to Pelham Bay Park:

It took an hour to get there; & since the train was uncrowded, we formed the highest expectations of the rural solitudes we were about to discover. Then came the end of the line—& disillusion. My Pete in Pegāna, but what crowds! And that is not the worst . . . . for upon my most solemn oath, I’ll be shot if three out of every four persons—nay, full nine out of every ten—weren’t flabby, pungent, grinning, chattering niggers! Help! It seems that the direct communication of this park with the ever thickening Harlem black belt has brought its inevitable result, & that a once lovely soundside park is from now on to be given over to Georgia camp-meetings & outings of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mah lawdy, but dey was some swell high-yaller spo’ts paradifyin’ roun’ dat afternoon! Wilted by the sight, we did no more than take a side path to the shore & back & reënter the subway for the long homeward ride—waiting to find a train not too reminiscent of the packed hold of one of John Brown’s Providence merchantmen on the middle passage from the Guinea coast to Antigua or the Barbadoes.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 6 July 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.310

It is worth pointing out that Lovecraft was more vocally racist in his letters to his aunts than to pretty much any of his other correspondents; whether this is because they shared his prejudices or that he was simply more relaxed about writing to them is unclear. The tendency to slip into farcical vernacular English and African-American dialect is typical of Lovecraft—he was a student of dialect and did the same thing for many accents, in New England, New York, the South, and elsewhere in his letters, often playing for comedic effect—but even so, the naked prejudice on display shows how far out of his element Lovecraft felt. In large part, the degree of prejudice evidenced in Lovecraft’s few mentions of Harlem is because race is what set Harlem apart, at least in his mind.

The New York adventure ended in 1926. Separated from his wife, still with no job, and having had his apartment broken into and clothes stolen, Lovecraft finally packed his things and left New York to return to Providence. For the rest of his life, Lovecraft would maintain a detestation for the city—with its vast hordes of immigrants, Jews, and African-Americans. The rhetoric of Lovecraft’s prejudice increased during the rising tide of antisemitism that accompanied the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, as can be seen in one of Lovecraft’s more egregious statements:

I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears ….. & the same goes for the dago slums!)
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 12 Jun 1933, Letters to James F. Morton 325

Morton had by this point moved from Harlem to New Jersey, so Lovecraft wasn’t literally calling for his death, and the full horrors of Hitler’s policy of genocide were not understood when he came to power in 1933. The callous suggestion for mass murder is hyperbole, a statement about his dislike of New York as a whole. The quote is worse in hindsight, knowing as we do today about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany’s use of poison gas to murder millions. Lovecraft did not know about that—but it speaks to the depths of his antipathy to the multiracial, multicultural melting pot that he had failed to find a place in.

Yet Lovecraft also retained ties to the city in the form of friends like the Longs, and would revisit it several times during his travels. He would also write of the city to his friends. When one young correspondent considered visiting New York, Lovecraft provided a list of places to visit, and included:

Harlem negro district (sinister & fascinating—not a white face for blocks—Lenox Ave. subway to 125th St.—walk N.)
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 1 Jul 1927, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei 128

The longest and most detailed account that Lovecraft ever gave of Harlem was to another young friend, a jazz pianist and aficionado of Duke Ellington:

Black Harlem—of possible interest to you as a source of sy[n]copated melody—is impressive to the Easterner chiefly on account of its size, since all the eastern towns have large African sections. To many westerners—as, for instance, a friend of mine in Appleton, Wisconsin, who never saw a nigger till he was in college—it would be quite stupefying. I don’t know whether there are any blacks in your part of the world or not—of, if so, how thick they are. In Harlem there must be about as many as there are in all the southern states put together—one realises it unpleasantly in the uptown Broadway subway, one of whose three branchings above 9th St. leads to the black belt. The Bronx trains are bad enough—packed solidly with bulbous-nosed or Mongoloid-faced Jews—but de Lenox Ab’noo trains sho’ ain’t no place fo’ no blond of any kind! Black Harlem itself I know largely from ‘bus windows—the coach lines from Providence passing down Lenox or upper 7th Ave. through the heart of the district. It is the extent which almost stupefies one…block after block after block…outdoing anything that Charleston or Richmond or Savannah or Atlanta or New Orleans can produce. You’d never think there were so many niggers in the world, or that there were so many denizens of New York that aren’t Jews! I’ll bet Senegal & Nigeria look white as compared with that zone from about 150th St. down to 125th & beyond. Africa pushes south all the time—crowding the Jews & impinging on the white Puerto-Ricans (who nosed out the Jews in their region about 1930) of upper 5th Ave. And yet this whole black colony scarcely dates from before 1913, when the blacks of “San Juan Hill” downtown were evicted to make room for the new Pennsylvania station. The dispossessed families found some cheap tenements in upper Harlem (then mainly Nordic-Aryan) & formed a nucleus—quickly spreading as the white families on their borders moved away. How far they will get, no one can tell. The Jews don’t retreat before them as rapidly as the Aryans did, but they begin to go when the blacks get very thick in a block. The northern rim of Central Park will probably check them & turn their spread eastward—where they’ll displace great Greek & Hungarian colonies. The most amusing parts of Harlem are where the rich blacks dwell—these being almost as neat & spruce as Aryan neighbourhoods. The houses include some of the most elegant reliques of the Stanford White period, & the prosperous professional Æethiops keep them spic & span! Amusing in another way are the shop windows of Lenox & 7th Aves. All the drug stores carry rabbit’s-foot luck charms, dream books, anti-kink fluid & pomade for the wool of dusky sheiks & sirens, & (also for the rites of Congolese coiffure) devices called “straightening-irons.” The clothing-stores feature gaudy & eccentric suits & flaming haberdashery. Sharp social distinctions are said to exist among the blacks—for example, West Indian negroes are disliked by the coons of the continental U.S. Some of the West Indians—who speak with a British accent & have an independent arrogance which grates on Southerners—despise the American blacks as much as the latter hate them. Portuguese negroes—so-called “Bravas” from the Cape Verde Islands, unpleasantly common in Providence & other southern New England ports—appear to be absent from nigger Harlem. While the black belt has no well-defined eastern limit, it is checked abruptly on the west by the rocky precipice of St. Nicholas Heights, atop which are the Gothic quadrangles of N.Y. City College (whose student body is almost solidly Jewish) & the streets of a rather passable & fairly Aryan neighbourhood amidst which can be found (overtaken & packed in among modern city blocks) the old country seat (built about 1800) of Alexander Hamilton, out of whose door he walked to his death on that fatal duel morning in 1804.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 27 Mar 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 65-67

There is some excellent detail here—one would not normally look for a random white tourist in Harlem to comment on straightening irons—but it is notable that by 1934 Lovecraft had traveled much more widely, visiting as far south as Key West and as far east as New Orleans. He had seen segregated buses and work gangs down South, visited the Cuban enclave of Ybor City and the Hispanic old city of St. Augustine, and yet he still found Harlem fascinating in its own unique way.

There are a few more scattered references to Harlem in Lovecraft’s letters, but with no friends to visit and not living in the city himself, he does not appear to have visited the city except passing through on bus trips for the rest of his life. The exploitative image of Harlem that Carl Van Vechten and others portrayed of Harlem appear to have largely passed Lovecraft by. Yet that was not quite the end of the connections that Lovecraft had with Harlem.

Lovecraft and the Harlem Renaissance

The published letters and essays of H. P. Lovecraft include few mentions of any African-American writers or artists directly apart of the New Negro Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. This does not mean that Lovecraft was completely ignorant or unaffected by the work of such creatives—we know for example that Lovecraft was gifted a copy of Paul Morand’s Black Magic (1929) in 1931, and that book is illustrated by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas. But the main works of that movement appear to have passed Lovecraft by.

This lack is particularly notable in his critical essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” first published in 1927. This survey of weird fiction misses contributions to horror fiction by black authors, including Harlem Renaissance writers like Zora Neale Hurston, whose anthropological writings on folklore such as Mules & Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938) would expand on subjects such as Haitian voodoo. Such a blind spot is understandable as Lovecraft explains in one letter:

Ordinarily voodoo & Yogi stuff leaves me cold, for I can’t feel enough closeness to savage or other non-Caucasian magic.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 3 Sep 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 45

Lovecraft was not generally derogatory toward fiction written by African-Americans, and could even praise the efforts of individuals, but he simply had very little interest in the black point of view, and consequently read very little of such works.

By an odd coincidence, however, Lovecraft did have relationships with two individuals who were connected with the Harlem Renaissance. In 1921, Winifred Virginia Jackson and William Stanley Braithwaite established the B. J. Brimmer Company, which published a number of works by Harlem Renaissance artists such as Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Bronze: A Book of Verses (1922). 

Jackson was white, divorced, a poet and writer who sometimes contributed poems to W. E. B. du Bois’ The Crisis. She had met Lovecraft through amateur journalism in 1918, and they had collaborated on two stories together: “The Green Meadow” and “The Crawling Chaos.” R. Alain Everts and George T. Wetzel in Winifred Virginia JacksonLovecraft’s Lost Romance (1977) repeated gossip that Jackson and Lovecraft may have been in a relationship, though there is no evidence of this in Lovecraft’s letters. The same source claimed that Jackson was the mistress of William Stanley Braithwaite, though there is no evidence for that either. Whatever the case, in 1921 Lovecraft met his future wife Sonia H. Greene, and his friendship with Jackson faded.

Braithwaite was mixed-race, but in the United States at that period that made him “colored.” Lovecraft was aware of him as a prominent Boston editor and critic, but did not become aware of his race until 1918, when he read a newspaper account of Braithwaite winning the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, which occasioned a stunningly racist outburst (LRKO 112). Whatever Lovecraft’s feelings, they did not extend to discourtesy: a letter at the John Hay Library from Lovecraft to Braithwaite survives, dated 7 February 1930, and is formal but cordial, and Lovecraft’s surviving letters to Jackson that mention Braithwaite praise him as a poetry critic.

Harlem in Lovecraft’s Fiction

The match had been between Kid O’Brien—a lubberly and now quaking youth with a most un-Hibernian hooked nose—and Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke”. The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922)

Buck Robinson as a black boxer echoes Jack Johnson, the African-American heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915) whose very existence caused white America to clamor for a “Great White Hope” to unseat him—and Lovecraft began writing this story in 1921, before he had gone to New York or seen Harlem. He had that much cultural knowledge of Harlem, as center of black population and black culture, to provide that detail. “The Harlem Smoke” is the only explicit reference to Harlem in Lovecraft’s fiction.

Which is a very weird absence when it is remembered that Lovecraft was writing fiction in New York, and those particular tales he wrote while living there—“The Shunned House,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” “In the Vault,” and “Cool Air”—were set in or take inspiration from his experiences in the city. The only reference to black people among these stories is a brief mention of “an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth” and “population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another,” in “The Horror at Red Hook,” which is set in Brooklyn.

The conspicuous absence of Harlem from Lovecraft’s fiction is somewhat characteristic. Lovecraft wasn’t shy about including depictions of race prejudice in his fiction, so since Lovecraft basically didn’t write anything about Harlem in his stories means he inadvertently avoided saying anything negative about that place and its inhabitants. There were none of the exaggerated or exploitative material about Harlem that was characteristic of white writers like Carl Van Vechten.

On the other hand, it is also something of a tradition of erasure. Because there is no Harlem in these stories, there are also very few black characters and almost nothing about black culture in the Lovecraft Mythos. So while Lovecraft managed to minimize saying anything explicitly racist about Harlem in his fiction, there is also literally nothing about Harlem for later writers to expand off of. Harlem in the Lovecraft Mythos is effectively a blank slate, on which anyone might write anything.

So they did.

Harlem in the Cthulhu Mythos

Almost all of Lovecraft’s contemporaries at Weird Tales and his correspondents were white; the bulk of those did not live in or near New York City. At the time of his death in 1937, Lovecraft was an obscure author who never achieved widespread or enduring publication; his fanbase was small but loyal and vocal. Two in particular, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, sought to get Lovecraft’s fiction and letters into hardback publication, and to this end they formed the small publisher Arkham House—and managed through legal wrangling and much self-advertisement to establish a near-monopoly on Mythos fiction until Derleth died in 1971.

Which is to say that it took several decades for Harlem to really make any substantial appearance in the Mythos after Lovecraft’s death, but by the time that it did, the United States was in many ways a different place. Jim Crow and segregation had ended in the 1960s through decisions like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. The legal successes of the Civil Rights Movement did not translate into financial or social equality, as African-American science fiction fans, writers, and artists remained in the minority, though increasingly they were given opportunities to make their talents known and voices heard.

This is the context in which The Ballad of Black Tom was written: faced with a mostly blank slate, trying to address a notable gap in Lovecraft’s corpus. Not just the absence of Harlem itself, but the absence of an African-American point of view. While LaValle’s Harlem may not come through as visceral as Lovecraft depicts it in his letters, he does succeed in depicting a Harlemite, and a much-neglected viewpoint.

Victor LaValle was not the only writer in the wider Cthulhu Mythos to attempt and address this gap. The most extensive effort to bring Harlem into the Mythos has been, not in short fiction, but in tabletop roleplaying. Chaosium, Inc. produced the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game in 1981, based on Lovecraft’s fiction and with a primary focus on characters assuming roles in the period in which Lovecraft’s fiction is set (1920s-1930s). Settings for this game include New York with books like Secrets of New York (2005, Chaosium), and entire third-party settings such as Harlem Unbound (2017, Darker Hue Studios). In these works, the focus is much less on Lovecraft’s prejudices and more “filling in the gaps” by addressing both what he did and especially what he did not write about. As editor Chris Spivey put it:

There’s a feeling of possibility in the air, like never before. But even in this land of promise, Harlem’s time is fleeting. While classes, sexuality, and cultures collide, Lovecraftian horrors lurk beneath the streets, creeping through dark alleys and hidden doorways into the Dreamlands. What Great Old One shattered our reality? Can you hold it together and keep the Mythos at bay for one more song? (8)

There are differences between Secrets of New York and Harlem Unbound. The former is a product for a general audience; that is, the players and their characters are not assumed to be of any particular race or ethnicity—while Harlem Unbound focuses in on the black experience in Harlem, and while the players may by of any race, with the assumption that the player characters at least are going to be black Harlemites, like Tommy Tester in The Ballad of Black Tom. In that respect, Harlem Unbound has the heavy lifting to do of trying to show what Harlem was like, during Lovecraft’s life, as well as to find angles with which to connect Harlem with the Mythos.

For writers like Victor LaValle and Chris Spivey, Harlem is unclaimed territory, a blank space on the map where they can imagine and write their own stories. Yet it is not a place without a history; books have been written about Harlem, movies set there, contemporary street maps and photographs are available, and not a few stories left from people that remember what it was like when they were children there—if not during the 20s and 30s, then in later decades. Plenty of colorful detail where a savvy writer can fit in some aspect of the Mythos, either one dreamed up by Lovecraft or a brand new horror that ties into the greater framework.

Which is the promise and possibility of the Cthulhu Mythos and Harlem going forward: having been neglected for so long, we have arrived at a point where people of color can write and publish their own approach to what horrors might lurk in the shadows of Harlem, and how the Harlemites might deal with it. Which may ultimately be the way forward when it comes to Lovecraft’s fiction: to see and go beyond his personal limitations and prejudices, to explore the possibilities that his fiction offers, and to carve a new Mythos that can address the fears and experiences of all people.


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

Deeper Cut: William Stanley Braithwaite

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 spothence 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.


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