H. P. Lovecraft grew up in a culture where racism was relatively commonplace, and prejudices with regard to race, ethnicity, language, and cultural heritage dominated the national discourse. 135 years after the Declaration of Independence and 46 years after the end of the American Civil War, people still argued about who was a “real” American, or who could be.
In the New-York Tribune for 30 June 1911, an anonymous editor filled some column inches with the article “‘American’ Is Right,” which reads in part:
The article argues in favor of the continued use of “American” as a demonym for citizens of the United States, and “American” as an adjective related to the United States of America and its people—and in common use, the term continues to carry that meaning into the present day.
Buried as it is on page 6 of a slim 14-page daily newspaper, the “‘American’ Is Right” elicited little immediate attention. Some months later, however, reader John L. M. Allen wrote in to the editor concerning the article, and this letter was published in the 10 September 1911 New-York Tribune as “Wants An American Language”:
The years before World War I were marked by increasing nationalism in the United States and abroad; relations between the United States and the United Kingdom were undergoing a change, as close economic relations, common language and culture, racialist ideas, shared history, and similar political ideologies fostered a Great Rapprochement between the two nations. Still, anglophobia remained in the United States, and ultranationalists emphasized the differences rather than the commonalities between United States and United Kingdom culture, a sentiment especially strong in immigrants or those with ties to Ireland or British colonies.
In September 1911, H. P. Lovecraft was in his seclusion; the death of his grandfather in 1904 had forced his mother Sarah Susan Lovecraft and himself to move out of the family house where he had grown up and into smaller quarters; nervous illness in 1908 forced his withdrawal from high school, so that he did not finish his formal education or receive a high school diploma. Twenty-one years old and unemployed, he seems to have largely made his own hours, and filled them in part by reading extensively in newspapers and magazines. As this was some years before Lovecraft’s joining amateur journalism or any regular correspondence that has come down to us, there is little data to go on. However, we know that Lovecraft read “Wants An American Language”—because the opinionated young man wrote his own letter to the editor; “The English Language” was published in the 21 September 1911 New-York Tribune:
Lovecraft was a lifelong and ardent anglophile, a point which would in a few years bring him into contention with the Irish-American amateur journalist John T. Dunn, first with regards to Lovecraft’s support of the United Kingdom in World War I, and then with regard to the Irish War of Independence. As a lover of the English language, Lovecraft was also in favor of British (and, to a point, British Colonial) spelling, as is evident in many of his letters and stories. It would not be out of line to suggest that Lovecraft saw himself as essentially English except in certain trifling legal definitions, and saw the English language as his own:
I deny flatly that American civilisation is composite, or in any way otherwise than Anglo-Saxon. This land was bleak, Indian-haunted wilderness when England found it. England made it what it is. […] If this nation ever becomes really composite; if the polyglot lower elements ever rise to the surface and direct the destinies of the whole people, then the United States will have undergone intellectual and moral death, and must be content to take its inferior place beside Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and other decidedly immigrant nations. […] If other nationalities are now represented here, it is only on sufferance. They are charity boarders, as it were. For this is an Englishman’s country.
—H. P. Lovecraft to John T. Dunn, 14 Oct 1916, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 166
I stick to the civilisation my blood & people belong to—the Old English civilisation of Great Britain, New England, & Virginia. To that, & to the language & manners characteristic of it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 8 Jan 1930, Letters to James F. Morton 215
At this point in his life, Lovecraft’s white supremacist notions (“Anglo-Saxons […] by their racial superiority”) and nativist bias (“polyglot mass of sodden foreigners”) were likely as yet unperturbed by broad travel, first-hand experience, or vocal opposition.
Lovecraft’s use of the term “Anglo-Saxon” as synonymous with “English” in this instance is worth examining. “Anglo-Saxon” is an often misunderstood and misused term that found its place in racial hierarchies because it fit the narrative of an “English race” that the people at the time wanted to impose on their understanding of history—the idea of a homogenous, and above all white, population that was distinct from the indigenous Gaelic peoples of the British Isles or from the British Empire’s colonial possessions. When Lovecraft uses the term “Anglo-Saxon,” he is specifically invoking that idea of racial and cultural unity and the added implications of white supremacy.
By comparison, while “American” has gradually become a term to refer to all citizens of the United States regardless of race or ethnicity, during Lovecraft’s time it was still predominantly seen as a synonymous term for “white” — the default assumption was that “American” referred to someone descended from Northern Europe, probably British, and English-speaking — “Anglo-American” was used when Lovecraft or others felt the need to specify such descent to differentiate from other ethnicities, but even this sometimes involved pushback. After a visit to New Mexico, Robert E. Howard wrote:
The native population is, of course, predominantly Mexican. Or as they call them out there, Spanish-Americans. You or I would be Anglo-Americans according to their way of putting it. Spanish-American, hell. A Mexican is a Mexican to me, wherever I find him, and I don’t consider it necessary for me to hang any prefix on the term “American” when referring to myself.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jul 1935, A Means to Freedom 2.872
Lovecraft, Howard, and many others during this period were inculcated in the use of racialist language to both define and promulgate the ideas of white supremacy. To Lovecraft, the use of “Anglo-Saxon” was a technical and specific term to emphasize the English people he felt himself a part of, biologically and culturally. Even though the idea that “Anglo-Saxon” race and culture are essentially pseudo-scientific and historical fictions, they were commonly accepted as real at the time, and used by folks like Howard and Lovecraft to define their own identities. While we don’t have much material from the period of 1910-1912 to work with, based on Lovecraft’s later letters this kind of comment slipping would probably have been relatively common—after all, “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-American” were the prevailing paradigm. Who was going to correct him?
An answering letter to the editor appeared as “Not All Anglo-Saxons” in the 25 September 1911 New-York Tribune:
This is an impressive turnaround time…all the more so since Lovecraft’s letter was published on the 21st, yet Herbert O’Hara Molineux’s reply is dated the 20th! What likely happened is that the next day’s paper was sold in the late night or early morning of the 20th/21st, and Molineux was incensed enough to write a letter to the editor immediately, complete with date (or else there was an error somewhere in the transcription and printing). Even with Molineux in New York at the time, it must have been delivered and read by the editor within a day or two, who then chose to publish it only a day or two after that, so only four days after Lovecraft’s letter was published there was an answer. This small controversy in letters foreshadows Lovecraft’s later disputes-by-mail in the letters column of the Argosy and All-Story in 1913-1914.
Not much is known Herbert O’Hara Molineux (sometimes Molyneux); a number of short articles and letters to the editor were published by that name, mostly between 1910-1914 in New York papers, often on subjects of Ireland and Irish or “Celtic” peoples in newspapers, and those same articles describe him as an antiquarian and a member of the Gaelic Society of New York. Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans in the United States were still often discriminated against in the early 20th century and its racialist schemas, but the rise in nationalism had affected Ireland and the Irish diaspora too, with a renewed interest in Irish language and culture called the Gaelic Revival, which would precede and inform the broader Celtic Revival of the 1920s and beyond.
It is not surprising to see in this letter that Molineux’s hibernophilia or celtiphilia ran up hard against Lovecraft’s anglophilia. The most notable point in Molineux’s argument is not his assertion that most Americans are Celts, but his deriding Lovecraft for his racial prejudice. If Lovecraft read these lines, it might be the first denunciation of his racism he had ever seen in print—predating “Concerning the Conservative” (1915) by Charles D. Isaacson by some years.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Lovecraft ever read this rebuke. This period of Lovecraft’s life is simply too poorly documented; where we would normally turn to his letters to find some reference to Molineux or the brief affray in letters, there is nothing in the indices to shed any light on the subject. It is interesting to speculate how Lovecraft might have responded; in 1915, private correspondence with friends and peers ultimately tempered and muted Lovecraft’s instinct for a vicious reprisal in print, and even his poetic rejoinder went unprinted. Interestingly, there is a poetic barb aimed at Herbert O’Hara Molineux, but it is from several years later, in a different newspaper, and not at all in Lovecraft’s normal style or signed by one of his known pseudonyms.
In the context of Lovecraft’s other letters, this brief exchange doesn’t share much of anything new in terms of his prejudices—we knew he was a nativist and an anglophile—but it is a data point that extends our understanding of how Lovecraft’s views on race were received during his own lifetime. While white supremacy prevailed in the United States, even down to the terminology of history and science, it was not the sole viewpoint. Lovecraft would learn, as he emerged from his period of relative obscurity into the company of amateur journalism and then pulp writing, there were many people who did not agree with the prejudices he had long accepted as facts, and other perspectives of history and biology that would challenge his preconceptions.
As with several of his other letters, Molineux’s “Not All Anglo-Saxons” was picked up and published in at least one other paper, which can be found in an online newspaper database; from there the chain of letters-to-the-editor can be traced back through papers whose scans don’t include sufficiently accurate optical character recognition to search for specific names. Otherwise, this small affray in letters might have gone unnoticed.
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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