He was known for his prolific writing production—at one time 10,000 words a day. He was also bisexual.
This book moves through Derleth’s many talents, from a five-year-old’s first reading experience to the man’s present statue as the only classic author to come out of the 20th century. It speaks eloquently of the hellish life endured by homosexuals in a society where their kind of living was confined to the boundaries of “closet” walls.
—Back cover copy of Derleth: Hawk…and Dove
Dorothy M. Grobe Litersky was a Wisconsinite, a charter member of the August Derleth Society, and one of the founders of the Rhinelander School of Arts where Derleth was engaged as a Writer in Residence. By her own account, this book—so far the only full biography of August Derleth’s life—was the result of 25-30 years of research, including interviews with family and friends and reference to Derleth’s private journals and correspondence, archived with his other papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Before going into the particulars of Derleth: Hawk…and Dove, it’s important to place Derleth’s life in its proper context. He was born in 1909 in Sauk City, Wisconsin; sold his first story, “Bat’s Belfry” to Weird Tales at age 16, and from that point on never looked back at the writing game. He was a regular at Weird Tales, but prolific beyond that pulp magazine and that genre; a friend and correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, E. Hoffmann Price and others, when Lovecraft died in 1937 it was Derleth and his friend Donald Wandrei that conspired to publish Lovecraft’s fiction and letters in hardcover. When they could not convince an established publisher to do it, they founded their own small press. Arkham House would, for the next fifty years, be one of the most important publishers of weird fiction, fantastic poetry, and Lovecraft-related materials in the world.
Derleth had a literary life outside of Arkham House. He became an important regional writer with the Sac Prairie Saga, a series of novels and short stories about his native Wisconsin and especially his home tome of Sauk City and the adjacent Prairie du Sac. For mystery fiction he created the detective characters Judge Peck and Solar Pons, the latter a deliberate pastiche of Sherlock Holmes, who remains popular. Beyond that, he wrote nonfiction histories and biographies, children’s books (including a series for which the authors received the Apostolic Blessing of Pope John XXIII) and poetry, articles and reviews. Awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1938, Derleth used the money to bind his collection of newspaper comics; those archives are now an important source for comic strips that may otherwise have been lost to time.
Much of this would have been opaque to even dedicated fans and readers of Arkham House. Derleth was a capable self-promoter, as his volumes, August Derleth: Twenty Years of Writing, August Derleth: Twenty-Five Years of Writing, and August Derleth: Thirty Years of Writing attest, but he rarely wrote publicly about his marriage, love life, children, or the full details of his business. He had a diverse fanbase, but their interests typically appear narrow: the weird fans had little interest in his Sac Prairie saga, the Solar Pons fans little interest in his poetry, etc. So while there was no little interest in Derleth as a writer, bookman, publisher, and individual, there were few works that could—or even tried—to encompass all of the man and his range of writing. Those few works were mostly published by the August Derleth Society, which continues to work today to keep his writing in print and his memory alive.
Derleth’s death in 1971 saw an opening up of both Lovecraft scholarship and wider dissemination of the Mythos. During his time at the helm of Arkham House, Derleth had strongly claimed proprietary interest on Lovecraft’s fiction and letters, assuming effective (if not legal) control from Lovecraft’s literary executor R. H. Barlow. Derleth limited the ability of others to publish Mythos and Lovecraft-related works beyond Arkham House’s control (see the C. Hall Thompson affair and the publication of The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) by Sonia H. Davis). Without him, and with the 12-year lawsuit between Arkham House co-founder Donald Wandrei and Derleth’s estate over the rights to the Lovecraft material, Mythos fiction began to proliferate. Derleth himself became criticized posthumously, both for his actions as editor and publisher, and for his Mythos fiction; Richard L. Tierney’s “The Derleth Mythos” (1973) was a watershed moment that emphasized the critical pushback against Derleth among Lovecraft studies.
Yet for all this, there was still relatively little on Derleth as an individual. The August Derleth Society Newsletter and volumes such as Remembering Derleth (1988), Return to Derleth (1993), and August Harvest (1994) are memoirs and essays by those who knew him, but approach hagiography at points. While valuable in their own right, there was for some decades after Derleth’s death no one willing or able to do the kind of initial work comparable to L. Sprague de Camp’s Lovecraft: A Biography (1975).
Not until Dorothy M. Grobe Litersky, who had been gathering material for the book since before Derleth’s death, finally wrote and published it.
Her book is, even from the most generous reading, far from perfect. Readers interested in a detailed account of his writing career, the development and publication schedule of Arkham House and its imprints, even his friendship with Lovecraft will be disappointed. There are no real revelations on these aspects of his life. It is not that Litersky ignores these things, but her interest is more focused on Derleth’s personal life.
As Derleth’s biographer, I have, to the best of my ability, tried to present as accurate a profile as possible. He wanted a portrayal of the whole man, free of the closet of lies he had been forced to hide in throughout his lifetime.
—Litersky, Derleth: Hawk…and Dove ix
While written without malice, Litersky’s “warts and all” approach to Derleth’s life includes a number of statements and assertions that are serious eye-openers to those who had only known Derleth through his fiction, essays on Lovecraft, and introductions to Arkham House books. Some of these are unequivocally true; many are simply impossible to verify without more information—and Litersky’s citations are minimal, often frustrating to work with, missing dates or page numbers, and typically take the form of “A. D. Journal” or “Robert Marx to A.D.” (ibid. 130); dates and page numbers are rare. Where they do exist, they are almost invariably accurate; there is every evidence that while she had access she was drawing directly from Derleth’s correspondence. However, the citations are still sparse and often lacking critical information, making it difficult to verify the contents.
One example of an event that we can confirm:
A group of about fifty young people converging upon the Place of Hawks on an evening in mid-October, 1948, included a precocious fourteen-year-old beauty who had made up her mind a year earlier that she was going to marry August Derleth.
—Litersky, Derleth: Hawk…and Dove 113
August Derleth’s marriage to Sandra Winters in 1953, which resulted in two children (April and Walden Derleth) and ended in divorce in 1959 is a matter of public record. They became engaged when she was 16 and still attending high school, and married shortly after she turned 18 in 1953, when Derleth was 44 years old (Rhinelander Daily News, 7 Feb 1953). The relationship appears to have been sexual even before they were married—and that Derleth was far from head-over-heels in love with the apparently infatuated teenager:
Oh, yes, I would not deny that Sandra has done me a lot of good. Not just making love to her, Sandra herself. Of course, she is sharp enough to know that, and I think that in this lies the ultimate dissolution of the affair, unless an accident makes it necessary for us to be married. For, being young, she is entirely likely, even with her mother’s advice, to take me for granted, and that might well be fatal. She has been frank enough to say that she intended all along that I should ultimately need her more than she needs me, and, while she intends to marry me, she intends also to have as much of her cake and eat much of it too, as possible. That never works, manifestly. But whatever takes place, it is certain that I have already benefited a great deal, and all the clothes and jewelry I’ve bought her won’t balance my own benefits.
—August Derleth to Zealia Bishop, 18 Aug 1949
Litersky’s account of the marriage goes into further detail, but there remains much unspoken about the entire relationship. The biographer never cites Sandra’s version of events; she appears to have relied entirely on Derleth’s accounts, despite the fact that the former Mrs. Derleth was still alive. There are no interviews with or letters from Sandra that might shed light on her side of the story. Derleth is apparently the sole source of all of the lurid details (her affairs, his affairs, the nude photography, the surprise pregnancy, etc.), as filtered through Litersky’s gloss of Derleth’s letters and journals.
The issue of statutory rape is hardly discussed. Sandra Winters as portrayed in the book is described as sexually precocious, and it beggars belief that a girl at fourteen could seduce a 40-year-old man. Derleth had to know what he was getting into, and it feels weird that in the context of the book more attention is not given to how the difference in ages was felt by both the immediate family or the community at large, or to how this reflected in the wider context of Derleth’s personal life. This is characteristic of Litersky’s style throughout the book; she presents the events as a fait accompli, not laying any moral judgment on Derleth’s flaws or foibles, but her portrait of others is colored by Derleth’s own perceptions—they become supporting characters, sympathetic when Derleth loves them and flawed or monstrous when he turns against them.
How reliable Litersky’s information is remains an open question. The book is not without errors of fact, and there are certainly instances where error of interpretation seem likely. The nature and paucity of the citations makes it difficult to assess the overall accuracy of the text, or even of specific sections. As a researcher, the book must be considered more as a guideline than a source of concrete data. Each instance has to be independently verified as much as possible.
That being said, very few of the claims in Derleth: Hawk…and Dove claims appear to be entirely baseless. If the interested reader can track down Litersky’s original sources or supplement them with other primary materials, usually there is at least some evidence to support them. To take one example:
Years later after Derleth’s death Sara told her story to a class of young students and reporters of her walk in the woods with August. She was relaxing on a blanket when he proceeded to discard all his clothes except his socks and to dance under the trees. She said she was shocked and embarrassed and pretended to be asleep.
—Litersky, Derleth: Hawk…and Dove 206
While somewhat inexplicable to Sara (and Litersky), a letter from Derleth to Lovecraft may suggest that nudism was a common practice for him, at least when the weather permitted: “I am brown as a berry, and have managed to rouse some indignation by being a one-man nudist colony on the hills only a third of a mile across the river from the village” (Essential Solitude 632–33). So while we cannot say that this event actually happened, we can at least say that there is evidence that Derleth may have at least engaged in this behavior at some point. The anecdote is at least plausible, even if it isn’t provable.
A more complicated matter is Litersky’s assertion that August Derleth was bisexual, especially that he maintained long-term sexual relationships with both men and women. For reasons of privacy, Litersky does not name all of Derleth’s sexual partners outright; even her citations in this regard appear more circumspect than usual. This makes it especially difficult to verify; and there are no published letters where Derleth specifically states he has ever engaged in a homosexual relationship.
The importance of this aspect of Derleth’s character is arguable: it would make him the first bisexual author in the Cthulhu Mythos, and perhaps lend insight into readings of his fiction. Certainly it would cast some of Derleth’s occasional homophobic comments into new perspective, e.g.:
Barlow is I am sure a homo; from what I have heard, so was the later minister-weird taler Henry S. Whitehead.
—August Derleth to Donald Wollheim, 21 Mar n.d. 
Could this be performative homophobia from a closeted bisexual? Or the genuine mild prejudice of an individual who, regardless of their sexuality, conformed to early 20th-century cultural norms regarding gender behavior and sexuality? Hard to tell. But the possibility of Derleth being on the LGBTQ+ spectrum is interesting, and deserves a deeper look.
When the subject turned to sex, August stated, “…I have no inhibitions, had few all my life sexually, that if I wanted to masturbate, I did so without guilt; if I wished to make love to a member of my own sex, likewise; if I wished to make love to a woman, again, likewise, the only condition being that sexual pleasure must rise from love, or at least a deep and genuine affection….”
—Litersky, Derleth: Hawk…and Dove 211
Here, Litersky is apparently relaying a snippet from a private conversation, as no other source is cited, so no separate confirmation is possible. Some of her statements in this line are even more unreliable; for example when she wrote:
The name Mara was mentioned only casually. He’s in love with her, the correspondent realized suddenly. Her fingers, holding the letter, felt a strange vibration. She met Mara a few years later, and had another shock. Mara was not a young lady, as she’d assumed. It wasn’t until after August’s death, a decade later, that she’d discovered her psychic flash had been 100% correct. August was bisexual and was indeed in love with Mara.
—Litersky, Derleth: Hawk…and Dove 180
“Mara” was a name used in some of Derleth’s poetry and fiction, notably in an eponymous 1948 ghost story about an unfaithful female lover; the volume of poetry This Wound (1962), which includes love poems, is dedicated to “Mara.” So while there was apparently a Mara (probably a nickname of a pseudonym), there is no indication Mara was male—also but not enough information for positive identification.
August Derleth never admits to a homosexual liaison or relationship in his published letters, but he did discuss sexuality in his correspondence, and there are several letters which are suggestive of the idea that he might be open to it, at least intellectually:
I must confess, that though I am steeped in abnormal sex, having studied all kinds of perverts at first hand, the suspicion of necrophilia in A Rose for Emily never once entered my mind. [. . .] Here is a woman starved for something—what is it, love perhaps? Let us assume it is. But she knows nothing about it. Love to her means a possession, a having. What she had come to regard as hers seems to be too independent. She kills. Thus, she keeps, she possesses, she loves. Necrophilia may or may not enter into this relation; it’s a minor point to me, since my own experience with people in this existence has led me to look on such things as part and parcel of life, though I am still conservative enough to be horrified by them, deeply. Yet I would be the first to jump tot the defense of a necrophiliac, a homosexual, &c., largely because I know that so often these poor creatures are incapable of helping themselves, have had their nerve systems tortured and twisted permanently from birth.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 9 Nov 1931, ES 406
I can understand your detestation of sex irregularities in life as violations of harmony and I here fully agree with you. I had previously misunderstood you to mean protestation from a basis of morals, and on this basis I would have stood squarely opposed to you. I have known and still know many people who are sexually irregular, both homosexual men and women, and except for three cases out of perhaps 21, I have always found these people highly intellectual, fully aware of what they were doing, and in all cases quite helpless. Speaking perspectively and in the abstract, I could as easily conceive myself entering upon a monogamous homosexual relation as a heterosexual one—though perhaps practice would change that pointofview. To quibble about mere words, I should not say that perverts necessarily lived inartistically.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 14 Feb 1933, ES 543
The idea that Derleth had an interest in the psychology of sex is supported by evidence he took out a subscription (under a pseudonym) to ONE Institute Quarterly, the journal of homosexual studies, in 1962. He would discuss the issue with others besides Lovecraft as well:
As for homosexuals—my only feeling is that I abhor promiscuity and I dislike violently to see children troubled; but this holds true also for heterosexuals, so there is actually no prejudice. Consenting behavior between adults is not offensive to me. But I do detest the flamboyant homo, the almost professional gay. To tell the truth I don’t know many real homos, though; I do know quite a number of bisexuals, and I never found one offensive, indeed, many of them strike me as brilliant, and most of them appear to be limited to one lasting affection, and are not promiscuous, that is one woman, and one man—oddly, there seems to be no conflict despite what the head-shrinkers insist upon.
—August Derleth to Ramsey Campbell, 24 May 1966, Letters to Arkham 277-278
The subject comes up more than once in the Derleth-Campbell letters, and it is this sort of substantial quote which perhaps could have lent authority to Derleth: Hawk…and Dove. Therein lies what is arguably the single major issue with the book, beyond any question of Litersky’s style, sourcing, or quality of her analysis:
Missing Journal dates and dates of letters to and from August Derleth resulted from biographer’s incomplete notes, and a loss of actual copies of those items, journal entries and letters, beyond her control. When her lawyers accidentally discovered that the failure of Derleth’s lawyer to renew copyrights on all of Augie’s works, as requested by the U. S. Copyright offices, and informed April and Walden Derleth of the fact, the children not only moved quickly to remedy the mistake, they froze the Derleth papers in the Wisconsin State Historical Society’s Museum archives to prevent anyone access to them until the year 2020. Only then will it be possible to verify some of the material in Chapter 22, and elsewhere throughout the book.
—Litersky, Derleth: Hawk…and Dove 201-202
This is essentially the claim for why the book is not cited better than it is. Unfortunately, like everything else in the book, it is impossible to take Litersky at face value. It is true that there are some restrictions on access to portions of the Derleth archive, as described in the Administrative/Restriction Information; not all of the details quite align with Litersky’s version of events given above, but circumstances can change over time—or perhaps she misunderstood or misrepresented the reasons for the sealing. We don’t know.
It also isn’t clear why Litersky chose to publish this through the National Writers Press—a vanity press—rather than the August Derleth Society; one can imagine the content might have given the ADS pause. To say that Litersky’s assertions or interpretations of August Derleth’s life are “contested” or “controversial” would be inaccurate; most scholars don’t engage with Litersky’s biography at all. In part, this is more a reflection of a failure of the scope of Derleth: Hawk…and Dove than the question of its scholarship or distribution.
Readers who want to learn more about Derleth and Arkham House or Derleth and the Cthulhu Mythos will pick up John Haefele’s August Derleth Redux (2010) or A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos (2014); those interested in his Sac Prairie writings will pick up Evelyn Schroth’s The Derleth Saga (1979). For those who want more information on the man himself, his volumes of letters with H. P. Lovecraft and Ramsey Campbell are the major primary sources available in print.
In many ways, Litersky’s biography is characteristic of many first biographies of authors, in that it is only a beginning. Derleth: Hawk…and Dove is not the last word in Derleth studies; it is at best the start of the serious study of his life and work, and any subsequent biographer of Derleth will be forced to read Litersky and tackle the errors and weaknesses in her approach if they hope to produce anything that can surpass her work. Such a biography, when and if it written, can at least take advantage of sources that Litersky herself did not have available: the published letters, digital scans of unpublished correspondence, databases to help track down errant Derleth publications and criticism—and it would be worthwhile to see such a book published.
August Derleth was an important figure in the life and literary afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and many other writers. His vast body of work and his personal life are of interest in and of themselves, but he also touched on the lives of so many others—it was largely through his hard work and diligence that Arkham House became a legend, and that Lovecraft, the Mythos, and even weird fiction are still known and loved today. Whatever his personal flaws and foibles, and Derleth was certainly no saint, the ripples his life left on the world continue to expand and touch others.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).