The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) by Sonia H. Davis

I’ve heard from various sources in town that Lovecraft’s wife has suddenly put in an appearance and is causing somewhat of a rumpus. Is this true, or is it, as usual, the kind of ill thought out gossip that is prevalent among the inept citizens of the L. A. Fantasy Society?
—Ray Bradbury to August Derleth, 19 Nov 1947 

Lovecraft’s wife did turn up; she is now a Mrs. Sonia Davis, the widow of the husband (no. 3) she had after HPL. She wrote a biography called THE PRIVATE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT, and wanted to incorporate a lot of his prejudices as if they were major parts of his life, seen through her Yiddish eyes; she also wanted to include letters of Lovecraft, but we pointed out that the only way she could do that would be with our permission first. We have heard nothing further from her, though I had a talk with her in New York City.
—August Derleth to Ray Bradbury, 21 Nov 1947

Howard Phillips Lovecraft met Sonia Haft Greene at an amateur convention in Boston in 1921; on 3 March 1924 they were married. The union was brief; they cohabited for only about fifteen months in New York City, with Sonia forced to seek work in the Midwest where Howard would not follow, and Howard returned to Providence. In 1929, Sonia petitioned Howard for a divorce; due to the laws in place at the time, this could not be granted without cause, and the pretense was made that Sonia had deserted him. Howard, however, did not sign the final decree. They remained in touch for some years, and Howard even helped her with her travelogue. In 1933 Sonia left for California, and in 1936 she remarried, to Nathaniel Abraham Davis. H. P. Lovecraft died in 1937; Sonia was not made aware of this until 1945, when informed of the fact by their mutual associate Wheeler Dryden. Nathaniel Davis died 6 April 1946.

So it was, in the immediate aftermath of the second World War and the revelations of the Holocaust, that Sonia H. Davis cast back her mind some twenty years to write her memoir of her second husband, H. P. Lovecraft. The resulting document is a valuable account on several fronts: no one was as intimate with H. P. in the way of his wife, and since H. P. was very reluctant to write about his marriage in his letters, Sonia’s account provides the major source for their domestic life, as well as incidental information on their courtship.

Getting published, however, was a bit tricky.

While here Belknap Long put me in touch with Mr. August Derleth, who seems to have full rights to HP’s work; at least so he states.

I read a few pages to him from my scribbled manuscript (it was almost illegible to myself).

At first he told me that he wanted to publish it. Then he shunted me off to one Ben Abramson who, he said would publish it. At first Derleth said he would me $600.00 for it at the end of three years, with possibly a small initial sum against royalties.

I’m not young enough to wait three years. If the work is important to those who are most interested I felt it ought to be paid for outright.

So upon reflection I wrote to Mr. Derleth telling him I would have my own publisher do the work and that I would use my story of the “Invisible Monster” as revised by H.P. of mine first as well as some very personal letters and poems of his revision.

In reply he shot back a spec. del. letter that all HP. material belong to the estate of H.P.L. and that “Arkham House” (ie. he) alone had full legal rights to its use; and that I was likely to find that the could would restrain the sale of the work, would confiscate & destroy it.

I have written him stating that I had already offered the material to you, but that I may have to retract the offer if I am to be punished for using letters that were addressed to me personally.

Perhaps I am quite ignorant of the law but I cannot see how these can belong to the Lovecraft estate, to Mr. Barlow (as he stated) or to himself! Personally I no longer feel an interest in my past. Other interests have developed since then. However, because Mr. D. & you and others clamored for HPL’s private life with me, I thought it might be a source of income, and at the same time tell some truths that would throw more light on his character and perhaps on his psychology.

Since I do not know the law regarding these matters and as I have no money to start any “fights” it might be the better part of valor to drop the matter altogether, since while I do not fear Mr. D’s veiled threats and open intimidation I’m not in a position to fight.

Mr. D’s method of “high pressuring” me into doing what he wants is not to my taste. It would be interesting to contact the county clerk in Providence and make sure my reasons to believe that H.P. died intestate. If so, how does the property belong to Barlow and Derleth?

Had HP. lived and known of D’s aims, I feel sure he would not have countenanced D’s intimidation of me, no matter how much he would have liked to have his words read by his followers.

Sonia Davis to Winfield Townley Scott, 13 Sep 1947

We will never know exactly what passed between August Derleth and Sonia when they met in New York, but some correspondence survives regarding the meeting and its aftermath. After his death, Lovecraft had provided instructions that R. H. Barlow was to be his literary executor, and whether or not the document was exactly legal his surviving aunt Annie Gamwell respected his wishes. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei were anxious and eager to get Lovecraft into print so that their friend’s work would not be lost; to this end they quickly got to work, and after securing permission from Mrs. Gamwell, began looking for a publisher. Failing to find one, they founded their own small press: Arkham House.

Barlow’s position as literary executor was a complication; especially as Barlow was at university at the time and moved from Kansas City to San Francisco, and then down to Mexico. Donald Wandrei joined the U.S. Army during WWII (Derleth was exempted from the draft for health reasons), leaving Derleth in essential control of Arkham House—and by extension, the Lovecraft estate, having secured Barlow’s essential cooperation for access to Lovecraft’s manuscripts and letters and Gamwell’s permission to print. Derleth took a very proprietary stance with regard to Lovecraft’s fiction, claiming that Arkham House had sole and exclusive rights to all of it, as well as his letters and any other materials—if it was to be published, it would be through Arkham House. In part, this legal bluff was hard-nosed business sense, Arkham House was not exactly a cash cow, with small print runs of relatively expensive books that took a long time to sell, the company basically supported by Derleth’s other writing. But also in part Derleth wished to preserve the memory of H. P. Lovecraft and his image. So Derleth would also threaten legal action against C. Hall Thompson during this period for using the Mythos without permission, and in 1950 would refuse publication of Warren Thomas’ thesis on Lovecraft, which cast an unflattering light.

Meanwhile, did I tell you Sonia Lovecraft Davis turned up with some laughable idea of cashing in on HPL’s “fame” and the desire to publish a “frank” book, entitled THE PRIVATE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT, and quoting generously from his letters. She read me part of the ms. in New York, and in it she has HPL posing as a Jew-baiter (she is Jewish), she says she completely supported HPL for the years 1924 to 1932, and so on, all bare-faced lies. I startled her considerably when I told her we had a detailed account of their life together in HPL’s letters to Mrs. Clark [Lovecraft’s aunt Lillian Clark]. I also forbade her to use any quotations from HPL’s letters without approval from us, acting for the estate. I told her by all means to write her book and I would read it, but it was pathetically funny; she thought you could get rich on the book. She said it would sell easily a million copies! Can you beat it! I tried to point out that a biographical book on HPL by myself, out two years, had not yet sold 1000 copies, and that book combined two well-known literary names. She thought she should have $500 advance on her book as a gift, and royalties besides! I burst into impolite laughter, I fear.
—August Derleth to R. H. Barlow, 23 Oct 1947

Sonia probably didn’t have an idea about the realities of publishing, and she did likely need the money. An agreement was finally reached: Sonia cut all the quotations from Lovecraft’s letters, and the journalist Winfield Townley Scott heavily edited the piece, which was published in the 28 August 1948 edition of the Providence Journal as “Howard Phillips Lovecraft As His Wife Remembers Him.”

In September 1948, Sonia suffered a heart attack.

“Howard Phillips Lovecraft As His Wife Remembers Him” was published in Books at Brown vol. XI, nos. 1-2; Lovecraft’s papers had been placed at the John Hay Library at Brown University in Providence by R. H. Barlow shortly after Lovecraft’s death. Cordial relations between Sonia and August Derleth were re-established. In 1949, Arkham House published Something About Cats and Other Pieces which included “Lovecraft As I Knew Him” (a Derleth-edited version of “Howard Phillips Lovecraft As His Wife Remembers Him”) as well as the stories “The Invisible Monster” and “Four O’Clock.”

Little other material was forthcoming; Sonia broke her hip in 1960 and ceased to work, moving into a rest home. Arkham House eventually published a briefer remembrance “Memories of Lovecraft I” in the Arkham Collector (Winter 1969), and later a letter that Lovecraft had sent her as “Lovecraft in Love” in the Arkham Collector (Winter 1971). A young student named R. Alain Everts, interviewing Lovecraft’s surviving correspondents interviewed her and obtained a copy of Alcestis which he would eventually publish. His final telephone call with her was 22 December 1972; Sonia H. Davis would pass away four days later.

While a few more items would be published after Sonia’s death, her memoir of Lovecraft remains her single largest work. It was eventually published in its original form—sans any quotes from Lovecraft’s letters but before Scott or Derleth edited it, with an appendix on their mutual friend Samuel Loveman—in 1985 from Necronomicon Press under her original title: The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft.

As an historical document, Sonia’s memoir is both extremely valuable and not without its flaws. On the one hand, it is a first-person account, even if some of the events being written about are twenty years in the past. Many of the basic facts that can be checked against other sources do check out; there are a few claims that probably deserved caveats—S. T. Joshi in his introduction to the text notes:

The extent to which Sonia harps upon money matters in her memoir may in part be justified—she was clearly trying to set the record straight and correct the inadequacies of previous treatments, especially by W. Paul Cook—but also underscores another point of tension which Lovecraft was perhaps reluctant to mention to his correspondents. For a full two years—from 1924 to 1926—Lovecraft was essentially supported financially by his wife. he had virtually no independent income, and his bootless efforts to find employment in New York are poignantly chronicled in his letters of the period. (5-6)

Some claims have to be measured against what else we know. Sonia’s assertion that:

He admired Hitler, and read Mein Kampf almost as soon as it was released and translated into English. I believe he was much influenced by that book. It may have had much to do in influencing further his hate, not only for Jews, but for all minorities, which he made little effort to conceal. (28)

This claim is on the last page of the book, in an addendum of afterthoughts that are predominantly about Lovecraft’s racial views. Keeping in mind that Sonia was writing this after World War II, when antisemitism was more prominent, and that she had very limited contact with Lovecraft after 1932 when Hitler came to power—which she and Lovecraft chronicled a small part of in their European Glimpses. The first English edition of Mein Kampf was the Dugdale abridged version published in 1933; it is possible Lovecraft read this, although there is no mention of it in his correspondence, and excerpts were published in the Times. So the claim is a bit iffy on the face: it’s not clear how Sonia would know this, the timing is a bit suspect, and there is no clear corroborating evidence from Lovecraft’s letters that he read Mein Kampf. But it cannot be completely discounted; they may well have continued corresponding in the mid-30s, and Lovecraft may have read the excerpts in the Times and mentioned them.

Similar consideration has to be given to every claim in the book. Her insistence on the importance of The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft to Howard does not seem borne out by a study of Lovecraft’s letters, but many other little details are. In some cases, such as the writing of “The Horror at Martin’s Beach,” Sonia is essentially the sole source we have to go on. Her manuscript sans Scott and Derleth’s writing is often disordered, written down as she remembers it, or to counteract specific points in previous memoirs about Lovecraft that had been written at that point (1946).

Also telling at the things that Sonia does not talk about. She makes almost no mention of her previous marriage or family; barely mentioning her mother (Lovecraft’s mother-in-law), who was alive and in New York at the time of their marriage, or her adult daughter Carol Weld (they had become estranged sometime in the 1920s), and no mention of her half-siblings in the Midwest. Juicy details on the Lovecrafts’ sex life were also not forthcoming, although Everts would provide what few we have from his interviews with Sonia, and Derleth noted after meeting Sonia in Los Angeles in 1953:

A propos your piece on Lovecraft, the question of HPL and sex had been bothering me for some time […] so in 1953 when I was in Los Angeles, I asked Sonia Davis—the ex-Mrs. Lovecraft—rather bluntly about HPL’s sexual adequacy. She assured me that he had been entirely adequate sexually, and since she impressed me as a well-sexed woman, not easily satisfied, I concluded that HPL’s “Aversion” was very probably nothing more than a kind of puritanism—that is, it was something “gentlemen” didn’t discuss.
—August Derleth, Haunted (1968) vol. 1, no 3, 114

Much of the actual domestic life and some of their later visits after their separation are not included in Sonia’s memoir. We know from Lovecraft’s letters to his aunts that he spent an extensive amount of time out of the household, visiting friends and the Kalem Club; we know that they enjoyed going out to dinner and to the theater; that when she was ill he would visit her in the hospital for hours; that they struggled with finances after Sonia lost her job and ended up selling some of her furniture.

It is an important memoir; perhaps one of the most important memoirs of Lovecraft that we have. Nearly forty years were required to get Sonia’s unedited words to the public, and she did not live to see that happen. The few errors in it or the critical assessment of some claims do not detract from its importance; it is the nature of historical research to question sources, to view them critically, to weigh the evidence against other accounts. To ask ourselves why Sonia was writing this, and to whom. There she was, alone once more, writing about a husband that had died nearly a decade before, and whom she had first met over twenty years before—and there are moments in her recollections that may be a bit rose-tinted, and others where Sonia was clearly trying to answer to claims about Lovecraft’s prejudices, or refute the inaccuracies of early biographers. Yet she wrote what only she could—and we are the richer for it.

“The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” has been most recently published in Ave Atque Vale (2018) from Necronomicon Press, alongside other memoirs of Lovecraft.

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

“European Glimpses” (1988) by Sonia H. Greene & H. P. Lovecraft

After a year and a half of almost daily letter-writing, back and forth, we were finally divorced in 1929, but we still kept up correspondence; this time it was entirely impersonal, but on a friendly basis, and the letters were far and few between until in 1932 I went to Europe. I was almost tempted to invite him along but I knew that since I was no longer his wife he would not have accepted. However, I wrote to him from England, Germany and France, sending him books and pictures of every conceivable scene that I thought might interest him.

When I visited the Cheshire Cheese Restaurant in London I sent him a replica of the beerstein out of which Dr. Johnson drank, and other souvenirs including a picture card of the corner (which was roped off and held sacred) in which the table and chairs stood that D.r johnson and his cronies and Boswell sat and drank and talked. […] From Germany and from france I sent him more scenic views; whole sets of the Castle of Rambouillet, the residence of Francis I, Versailles, Fontainbleau, Chartres, Rheims, Soissons, Chateau Thierry, Sevres, Le Lido, in Paris, the Luxembourg, the King’s Chapel—the entire walls of which are made of exquisite stained glass of which the process of coloring has become a lost art—Montmartre, Eglise Madeleine, Genevieve, the beautiful Russian Church on the Hill from which hilltop the entire city of Paris may be seen, Notre Dame, and many, many more places of historic interest that I no longer remember at present.

But I sent a travelogue to H P. which he revised for me.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 141-142

H. P. Lovecraft and his wife Sonia would meet for the final time in March 1933, when she prevailed upon him to visit her during a trip to Farmington, Connecticut. Whether she had any intention of publishing these “European Glimpses” is unknown, as the manuscript was not published until some years after her death. Most of their letters were largely lost—Sonia claims in her memoir to have burned her letters from Lovecraft—and as for her side of the correspondence:

[Lovecraft’s surviving aunt] Mrs. Gamwell also gave the children about a hundred picture postcards that Sonia had mailed to Howard. These all held loving, spirited messages to H.P.L. from his sweetheart in New York. Not knowing their possible value in the far-away future, I did not hold on to any of these cards bearing Sonia’s signature, written in her breezy, happy handwriting. […] The children played for hours with the cards, and they eventually went the way all children’s toys go…in the ash heap!
—Muriel Eddy, The Gentleman from Angell Street 17

Lovecraft himself spoke only very rarely of his wife in his letters after the divorce, and very seldom mentioned the marriage itself. It is possible that this circumspection may be why Lovecraft wrote to one friend living and studying abroad in Paris:

For the past year I have had such knowledge of Paris that I’ve felt tempted to advertise my services as a guide without ever having seen the damn place—this erudition coming from a ghost-writing job for a goof who wanted to be publicly eloquent about a trip from which he was apparently unable to extract any coherent first-hand impressions. I based my study on maps, guide-books, travel folders, descriptive volumes, & (above all) pictures—the cards secured from you forming the cream of the latter. Fixing the layout of the city in my mind, & calculating what vistas ought to be visible from certain points (pictures seen under a magnifying-glass furnish a splendid subsittute for first-hand vistas), I cooked up a travelogue which several Paris-wise readers have almost refused to believe was written by one never within 3000 miles of the place. If I ever get to your beloved burg I shall be able to stat in sightseeing without any preliminary orientation-tour or rubberneck-wagon ride. In my article I took a vicious fling at the ugly Eiffel Tower, & ventured the suggestion that the Victorian trocadero is an eyesore at close range, but glamourous when seen in the distance against a flaming sunset. Other parts of the text touched on chartres, Rheims, Versailles, Barbizon, Fontainebleau, & other tourist high spots. I revelled in the London section (I studied Old London intensively years ago, & could ramble guideless around it from Hampstead Heath to the Elephant & Castle!), but was not able to do it justice because of the nominal author’s hasty passage through it. nothing but the Tower, the Abbey, & the Cheshire Cheese seemed to give him a first-class kick.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 4 Nov 1933, Letters to Alfred Galpin 196-197

All of these sites were in fact included in “European Glimpses,” and despite the references to “he” it seems clear that this travelogue was Sonia’s, with Lovecraft being misleading about the identity of his “client.” A manuscript written on the backs of letters to friends at the John Hay Library is dated 19 December 1932, and aside from internal evidence, this is the only date we have for when the piece was written.

As with Lovecraft’s other revisions, there is a question as to how much of his own writing makes up the final product. S. T. Joshi weighs in on this in the introduction to its first publication:

What we have, therefore, is a travelogue recounting Sonia’s experiences but written in Lovecraft’s style and frequently with his outlook and perspective. Would Sonia have called certain vistas of Paris “Dunsanian”? Would she have harped on the “meaningless” and “hideous” modernistic architecture of Germany (the subject of Lovecraft’s essay “Heritage or Modernism” written three years later)? Would she have thought of Rémy de Gourmont (author of the languidly philosophical prose-poem A Night in the Luxembourg) when wandering through Luxembourg Gardens? As we read this document we mut constantly adopt a sort of schizophrenic mind-set: the first-person narrator is supposed to be Sonia, but Lovecraft cannot help injecting his own views into her sights and experiences.

To be quite frank, however, Lovecraft was extraordinarily charitable to rewrite this travelogue for Sonia. Even in his version it is hopelessly unpublishable. Where did Sonia think she could land such a piece? Do we really want yet another commonplace account of hackneyed tourist sites like the Tower of London or Versailles?
—S. T. Joshi, “Introduction” to European Glimpses 5

It is a valid point; most of the entries are relatively brief and contain little real insight or interest as a travelogue. The ending of the narrative seems to acknowledge this:

There may be those who will think my modest jaunt a sadly hackneyed coursing in the beaten paths, but to them I can only reply that no path is truly purged of its glamour so long as any ancient memories or overtones of fancy still cling around to its sights and impressions.

The contents also echo both Sonia’s memoir and Lovecraft’s letter to Galpin strongly. For example, in discussing the Cheshire Cheese tavern, “European Glimpses” notes on Dr. Johnson’s mug: “Duplicates of these mugs are for sale, and form especially apt mementoes of the place and its illustrious frequenter.” (Collected Essays 4.234)

The one part of the travelogue that does hold continued interest is a reference to a gathering of the National Socialist party at which Adolf Hitler, then on campaign for the presidency of Germany, gave a speech:

During my stay of five days at Wiesbaden I had opportunities to observe the disturbed political state of Germany, and the constant squabbles between various dismally uniformed factions of would-be patriots. Of all the self-appointed leaders, Hitler alone seems to retain a cohesive and enthusiastic following; his sheer magnetism and force of will serving—in spite of his deficiencies in true social insight—to charm, drug, or hypnotise the hordes of youthful “Nazis” who blindly revere and obey him. Without possessing any clear-cut or well-founded programme for Germany’s economic reconstruction, he plays theatrically on the younger generation’s military emotions and sense of national pride; urging them to overthrow the restrictive provisions of the Versailles treaty and reassert the strength and supremacy of the German people. He is fond of such phrases as: “Germany, awaken and take your rightful heritage with your own strong hands!”—and when speaking of elections usually intimates that in case of defeat he will consider an armed march on Berlin corresponding to Mussolini’s Roman coup d’etat of 1922.

Hitler’s lack of clear, concrete objectives seems to lose him nothing with the crowd; and when—during my stay—he was scheduled to speak in Wiesbaden, the Kurpark was crowded fully two hours before the event by a throng whose quiet seriousness was almost funereal. the contrast with America’s jocose and apathetic election crowds was striking. When the leader finally appeared—his right hand lifted in an approved Fascist salute—the crowd shouted “Heil!!” three times, and then subsided into an attentive silence devoid alike of applause, heckling, or hissing. the general spirit of the address was that of Cato’s “Delenda est Carthago“—though one could not feel quite sure what particular Carthage, material or psychological, “Handsome Adolf” was trying to single out for anathema.

After the conclusion the crowd respectfully opened a path for his departure, and he left in his car as quietly as he had arrived—the only sound being a shot of farewell from his followers. then—silently, though perhaps with the general muffled discontent of the period—the kindly burghers dispersed to their not quite happy homes. At the time of this speech Hitler’s tactics hinted of a “back to the Monarchy” movement; and Prince August Wihelm, sone of the ex-Kaiser, was a brief supplementary speaker. the royal scion, however, failed to overshadow the would-be dictator in the popular emotions.

The waste of energy and widespread chaos caused by the incessant conflict of no less than thirty-six separate parties—of which three may be called major ones—is the most distressing phenomenon in modern Germany; yet no one seems able to reconcile the various shades of opinion and feeling which cause this confusing diversity. Taxes are exorbitant, unemployment terrific, and general confidence at a very low ebb. the people of Wiesbaden have lately come to call their habitat “the city without a smaile”, though the same might be said for almost any city in the Reich. Passport restrictions are very stringent, including both visas and police registration; and the tourist is taxed nine pfennigs a day during his sojourn in the country. yet the German people as a whole, apart from the governmental meshes in which they are entangled, are perhaps the most kindly and affable beings I have ever met. they are gracious, courteous, and delightful; and seem to radiate a really cordial glow devoid of hollowness or superficiality. they perform their duties with an almost military precision and effectiveness, and when once led out of their present chaos will undoubtedly resume their place of importance in the world. One hopes that a suitable leader may arise before the existing misery increases. (ibid. 239-240)

This speech was July 28th, 1932, part of a tour that Hitler was giving in the run-up to the 1932 elections in Germany (election day was 31 July). There is a lot to unpack in the general sentiments; some bits are clearly Lovecraft, some bits are clearly Sonia. The date of the manuscript is after the election, so he would know of the Nazi party’s success, even as Hitler lost his bid for the presidency.

Lovecraft’s own opinion of Hitler was one of cautious optimism. The Providence writer had a low opinion of the intellect of the masses, and believed that the democratic trust of the lowest denominator was illogical; he believed in a kind of natural aristocracy of the intelligent and capable who would rise to leadership positions—and thought he saw this in the rise of Mussolini, and later Hitler. He approved of strongly nationalistic ethos, which jived with his own prejudices regarding race and culture, and with a planned, state-run economy. However, he disliked the Nazis’ racial theories—finding them unscientific—and he thought Hitler a clownish figure (particularly the mustache). Overall, Lovecraft’s opinion on Hitler was mixed, and leaned toward approval…at least until Hitler became chancellor and began to actually enact his program, where Lovecraft’s support rapidly dwindled. Lovecraft died in 1937, before World War II or the horrors of the Holocaust could be revealed.

Sonia’s opinion of Hitler is less well-known; no correspondence from her survives from before the end of the war. As a Jewish woman, she would have been keenly aware of the anti-Semitic thrust of Nazi ideology. Her memoir of their marriage includes mention of Lovecraft’s apparent consideration, including a claim that Lovecraft read Mein Kampf as soon as it came out; the only English-language translation during HPL’s lifetime was the Dugdale abridgment, available for sale in 1933 (after their final meeting), and there are no mentions of it in Lovecraft’s surviving letters. Possibly she referred to excerpts from the translation published in the Times in 1933, which Lovecraft would more likely have had access to, and which presumably he may have written her about.

So how much of this was incident was Sonia, and how much was Lovecraft? It seems clear that she must have mentioned the rally in her notes or correspondence; the interpretation seems more strongly evocative of Lovecraft. It is not unlikely that this represents a sort of balancing-act between Sonia’s disapproval and Lovecraft’s tentative optimism toward a man and political party that would go on to be some of the greatest monsters in human history. This was the calm before the storm that would be another world war and the horrors of the Holocaust. Lovecraft and Sonia could not have known that, readers today cannot forget it.

Where was I? Oh, yes, back from Europe and once more in New England with Howard at my side exploring the grounds and places of cities more than three hundred years old. Yes, I believe I must have still loved Howard very much, more than I cared to admit even to myself.  For, although in my travels I met many eligible men, some of them offering honest proposals of marriage, none appealed to me until after a period of eight years, during which time I could not help but compare what to me appeared as the inadequacy of other men, when compared in point of intellect, with Howard.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 143

If “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” marks the true beginning of Sonia and Lovecraft’s relationship, then “European Glimpses” marks its true end. A strange and fitful journey that left its imprint on both of them.

“European Glimpses” was first published in 1988 by Necronomicon Press; it is republished in volume four of Lovecraft’s Collected Essays. The unedited 1932 manuscript is available to be read online for free.

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

“Concerning the Conservative” (1915) by Charles D. Isaacson

Charles David Isaacson was born in Brooklyn in 1892. He studied the violin with his father, Mark N. In 1916, he became associated with “The New York Globe” as editor of the feature “Club Family” music. In connection with this newspaper feature, Mr. Isaacson organized and directed several thousand free concerts in all parts of the city. He was associated with other newspapers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, as musical critic, and was the author of “Face to Face With Great Musicians,” “Simple Story of Music,” “Jews, Money and Such,” and “Stories from the Hindu.” He died in 1936.
⁠—History of Brooklyn Jewry (1937)169

ISAACSON, CHARLES DAVID: Writer, publicist; b. Nov. 9, 1891, Brooklyn, N.Y.; s. Mark Napoleon and Kate Cohen (Aarons) Isaacson; ed. Public schools; m. Emolyn Gloria Silverman, 1915, Brooklyn, N.Y. Founder and dir. of Charles D. Isaacson free concerts, totaling over 4,000 in number, covering period of 12 years; over 3,000,000 in N.Y.C. have attended; first under auspices N.Y. Globe and then N.Y. Evening Mail, of which was music editor; over 6,000 foremost artists contributed services. Toured U.S., lecturing and writing for newspapers and syndicates on music and art; associated with Chicago Opera, San Carlo Opera, Soc. of American Singers, etc.; contributes articles and short stories to Collier’s, Pictorial Review, Musical Quarterly, Musical America, Theatre Magazine, Jewish Tribune, Arts and Decorations, Motion Picture News, Ladies’ Home Journal, Outlook, American Hebrew, and others, many as regular editor. Author: Face to Face with Great Musicians (6 vols., Appleton); Music of David Minden (novel); THe Music Garden (Pictorial Review, 2 years); New Democratic Philosophy; Journeys of Modern Wandering Jew (Jewish Tribute); On Tour with Temperament (Hearst’s). Inventor; holds several patents. Director, Radio Station WRNY. Wrote several motion pictures, traveled in Chautauqua three seasons and carried on many civic “Art revivals” in Dallas, Philadelphia, Tulsa, Chattanooga, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Washington, etc. Res.: 51 Charlton St. Office: Roosevelt Hotel, N.Y. City.
Who’s Who In American Jewry (1926), Vol. 1, 288

In early 1915, Charles D. Isaacson, along with his new wife Emolyn G. S. Isaacson and William Harry Goodwin, published the first issue of In A Minor Key, an amateur journal which followed his musical upbringing and social and aesthetic interests, including: “advocated pacifism, condemned prejudice against African Americans and Jews, and praised Walt Whitman” (An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia 127). He was a member of the National Amateur Press Association, and would receive a laureateship for his sketch “Andante Appasionato [sic]” in 1916 (The History of Amateur Journalism 222). Edward H. Cole in 1917 lauded Isaacson’s participation in the Blue Pencil Club (an amateur journalist group, whose members would include James F. Morton and Sonia H. Greene, the future Mrs. H. P. Lovecraft).

H. P. Lovecraft had joined amateur journalism in 1914, and began publishing his own amateur journal The Conservative in 1915, around the same time as Isaacson. Pretty much from the beginning, Lovecraft and The Conservative attracted attention; the second issue included “The Conservative and His Critics,” a rebuttal to an unflattering review of the first issue which had appeared in William B. Stoddard’s amateur periodical The Brooklynite. In the same issue, Lovecraft also sets his critical sights on another amateur journal:

It was the good fortune of THE CONSERVATIVE to receive from The Blue Pencil Club a pamphlet entitled “In a Minor Key”, whose phenomenal excellence furnishes emphatic evidence that the old National still retains some members who would have done it credit even in its palmiest days. But great as may be the literary merit of the publication, its astonishing radicalism of thought cannot but arouse an overwhelming chorus of opposition from the saner elements of amateur journalism.

Charles D. Isaacson, the animating essence of the publication, is a character of remarkable quality. Descended from the race that produced a Mendelsshon, he is himself a musician of no ordinary talent, whilst as a man of literature he is worthy of comparison with his co-religionists Moses Mendez and Isaac D’Israeli. But the very spirituality which gives elevation to the Semitic mind, partially unfits it for the consideration of tastes and trends in Aryan thought and writings, hence it is not surprising that he is a radical of the extremest sort.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “In A Major Key,” The Conservative (July 1915)
reprinted in Collected Essays of H. P. Lovecraft 1.56-58

Lovecraft that goes on to criticize Isaacson’s appreciation of Walt Whitman (whose Leaves of Grass was sometimes considered obscene), his arguments regarding prejudice (including the film The Birth of a Nation released in 1915, based on the book and play The Clansman, which inspired the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan), and the call for pacifism. The point/counter-point approach of Lovecraft’s critique in The Conservative can be read in The Fossils #331.

Isaacson answered these claims in the next issue of In a Minor Key with a lengthy double-spread editorial:


“Concerning the Conservative” has the distinction of being the first public address of Lovecraft’s antisemitic views in print. It may be the first real criticism that he had received regarding his views on Jews in his entire life. Such views were evident in his juvenile writings, beginning with a Latin inscription in the Poemata Minora (1900-1902) when Lovecraft was 10-12 years old. By his own account in his letters, his first encounters with Jews were fellow students at Hope Street English and Classical High School in 1904; the teachers appeared to tolerate this attitude without disciplining Lovecraft, giving tacit acceptance to his antisemitism (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 74-75).

In his rebuttal to Lovecraft, Isaacson strikes a chord when he describes his critic as “a lingerer in the traditions of the past.” The Eighteenth Century was the period that Lovecraft most identified with, aesthetically and personally; while Isaacson could not have known about Lovecraft’s Anglophilism (unless he had read the previous issue of The Conservative), he was absolutely correct when he identified that Lovecraft did not believe in the spirit of Republicanism, and the list of assertions that follows shortly after is basically accurate:

He is against free speech.
He is against freedom of thought.
He is against the liberty of the press.
He is against tolerance of color, creed and equality.
He upholds race prejudice.
He is in favor of monarchy.
—Charles D. Isaacson, “Concerning the Conservative,” In A Minor Key 2, Aug 1915

Lovecraft would eventually change his mind regarding censorship, but most of these were traits that the Old Gent from Providence would continue to espouse in his letters for the rest of his life. What is really striking about these comments, however, is how clearly and accurately they strike at the flaws in Lovecraft’s own method of argument. When Isaacson adds:

Despite his continued abeisance to the intellectuality and spirituality of the Jew, he continually attempts to place him apart—explaining away the ideas of an individual by his religion. (ibid.)

This was a direct counter to Lovecraft’s own claim that “Mr. Isaacson’s views on race prejudice […] are too subjective to be impartial.” Again, the insight is incredibly accurate.

Throughout his life and letters, Lovecraft would dismiss views regarding racial equality or attacking scientific racialism by saying that the individuals who held such views were either biased or sentimentalists—not, as he himself maintained to be, objectivists who held that scientific racism was a proven and unassailable fact. This is in direct contrast to many other fields of science, where Lovecraft would change his world view when new evidence presented itself. Scientific racism supported Lovecraft’s prejudices, and Lovecraft’s prejudices largely prevented him from considering the errors of scientific racism.

Isaacson’s comments regarding The Birth of a Nation are worth examining in some detail:

When, however, Mr. Lovecraft objects to my excoriation of “The Birth of a Nation” and agrees with me that in this moving picture there is an appeal against the negro,  he does not get the point of my protest. […] In my condemnation of “The Birth of a Nation” I did not enter into a sociological argument for tolerance of the negro, nor will I do so now. If Mr. Lovecraft is the true American he professes he will not seek to destroy what Lincoln has built. He will aim to assist and uplift the black and aid him to a clearer reason and purer morality. (ibid.)

At this point, Abraham Lincoln had been dead for some 50 years, and Reconstruction had been over since before either Lovecraft or Isaacson had been born. The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Dunning School were quite literally re-writing the history of the Civil War and its aftermath, recasting the Southern rebels as heroes and martyrs to the Lost Cause, erecting monuments and having unfavorable school books labeled “unfair to the South.” Isaacson missed the mark here; Lovecraft had already been exposed to these views and expressed sympathy for the Confederacy:

In history classes we used to have thunderous debates, for while “Abbie” was the daughter of a Union veteran, the Munroe boys & I were Confederate sympathizers. How we used to annoy her with our “compositions”—all flaming with love & glorification of the South! I subjoin for some verses which I once placed upon her desk. I have the original copy, for I composed them on the back of a half-tone illustration in Montgomery’s “American History”—a book still on my shelves. (LRK 72)

So it is not that Lovecraft did not get Isaacson’s initial point, but that Lovecraft did not see anything wrong with the work in question (even though Lovecraft had not seen the film, he had read the book and seen the play it was based on.) Isaacson’s argument that the film incited racial hatred ultimately fell on ears that were not deaf, but heard nothing wrong. Neither man could foresee that in November 1915, the Ku Klux Klan would be re-founded, inspired by the film. Nor could they envisage the domestic terrorism that this second Klan would be responsible for.

The subject which both Lovecraft and Isaacson dance around is the issue of Whitman’s sexuality, an issue which has been the subject of continued debate, although the general consensus is that Whitman was either homosexual or bisexual. This, as much as any particular language of Whitman’s poetry, is what Lovecraft hints obliquely at when he wrote: “His joys were sordid, and his morals mean.” Isaacson’s answer to this is equally circumlocutive:

I know what it is that Mr. Lovecraft and others object to and think vile. But if ever Mr. Lovecraft and these others grow so foolish as to love; and out of their love their reason for existence is justified, I hope they will not be ashamed.
—Charles D. Isaacson, “Concerning the Conservative,” In A Minor Key 2, Aug 1915

Again, Isaacson hits home: Lovecraft had no real romantic experience at this point, and would not marry until some years later. Given that both men were of about the same age, it may be that Isaacson’s careful and mostly correct dissection of Lovecraft suggests experience dealing with such arguments and prejudices. In the end, Isaacson’s final statement is about as clear a distinction of how far apart their two positions were:

We are looking forwards, not backwards. We are living, not acting. We are Americans, not ancients. We are coming to the land of Whitman, according to Lincoln, the greatest American, who said of him:

“There is a man.” (ibid.)

Unsurprising that he should find himself in disagreement with Lovecraft, who would declare in 1929: “The past is real—it is all there is.” (Letters to James F. Morton 180).

Lovecraft’s “In A Major Key” apparently demanded a response from Isaacson, and at least one friend apparently warned Lovecraft that it was coming and suggested an apology. In a letter that apparently dates before “Concerning the Conservative” was published, Lovecraft responded:

From your hint regarding Isaacson I imagine that my reply will differ very much from the apologetic form! A Jew is capable of infinite nastiness when he seeks revenge, & I believe I shall have ample grounds for making this particular Israelite the hero of a spirited Dunciad. I can almost predict his line of attack. he will call me superficial, crude, barbaric in thought, imperfect in education, offensively arrogant & bigoted, filled with venomous prejudice, wanting in good taste, &c. &c. &c. But what I can will say in reply is also violent & comprehensive. […] I am an anti-Semitic by nature, but thought I had concealed my prejudice in my remarks concerning Isaacson. I showed him every consideration in my article, carefully saying that I attacked not the man, but the ideas. […] The Jew is an adverse influence, since he insidiously degrades or Orientalizes our robust Aryan civilization. The intellect of the race is indisputably great, but its nature is not such that it may be safely employed in forming Western political & social ideas. Oppressive as it seems, the Jew must be muzzled. Wherefore Isaacson has reason to expect a warfare of the bitterest kind if he uses his revengeful sarcasm on me. I shall not utter the first word, but shall hold the CONSEVATIVE until the serpent strikes. Then—LET HIM BEWARE. Like old Marcus Fabius on his mission to Carthage, I come with folded toga, ready for peace or war.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 10 Aug 1915, LRK 18-19

That Lovecraft thinks he concealed his antisemitism in “In A Major Key” speaks to how far out of touch he was with the daily realities of prejudice; the grandstanding regarding the war of editorials in amateur journals has all of the drama of an internet forum flamewar in this century. As it happened, Isaacson did not make the arguments that Lovecraft predicted, refraining from ad hominem attacks and addressing the substance of Lovecraft’s own claims.

When “Concerning the Conservative” did appear, Lovecraft’s response in private was irate at the intellectual challenge to his criticism:

Isaacson’s predilection for obscenity has robbed him of all the delicacy inherent in real white men, & he views Nature without its beauty & its refining adornments. It is a mistake to allow Jews to mingle with Aryans as social equals. I have never been forced to do this, & at high school I drew the colour line at Jews as well as negroes, though of course there is no racial comparison between the two classes of undesirables. How diabolically Isaacson tries to compare different classes of prejudices, & trace to one source those arising from race, religion, & politics. As fellow sufferers with himself he groups races both above & beneath him; he calls everyone “persecuted”, from the masterful Aryan German, representative of the world’s highest racial stock, to the bestial nigger, link between man & the apes! If this be radicalism, let me thank heaven I am a conservative!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 25 Nov 1915, LRK 25

Lovecraft’s distinction of different sources of prejudice and discrimination rings a bit hypocritical, considering that his own justifications often combine aspects of historical prejudice, religious bias, scientific racism, and classism. Considering that this was, from all appearances, his first real interaction with a Jewish person in his adult life, and that the individual happened to hold largely opposite views to Lovecraft’s own, the reaction is not entirely unexpected. Challenged and called out on his views for basically the first time, Lovecraft’s response is an ugly diatribe—and might have been nastier, except for one thing.

Morton is a problem. I can feel the more wholesome nature of his work—with him I can come to grips as man to man—there is no slimy Jewry or Orientalism there—while Isaacson defies analysis with his shifty Asiatic caprices. Morton is harsh, insolent, overbearing, but not nasty. (ibid.)

James Ferdinand Morton had also published “Conservatism Gone Mad,” his critique of The Conservative in In A Minor Key No. 2; as Lovecraft recognized, he was not Jewish and could not be dismissed via prejudice as easily. Morton was the author of a tract, The Curse of Race Prejudice (1906), an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and very much the social progressive to Lovecraft’s social conservative—but also literate, intelligent, and insightful.

Lovecraft prepared an epic poem insulting both men: “The Isaaconio-Mortoniad”, in imitation of Alexander Pope’s “The Dunsiad”—but it was never published. In the next issue of The Conservative, Lovecraft still apparently had not read “Concerning the Conservative,” and gave some brief remarks in “The Conservative and His Critics”:

It appears that The Conservative’s review of Charles D. Isaacson’s recent paper was not accepted in the honestly critical spirit intended, and that Mr. Isaacson is preparing to wreak summary verbal vengeance upon the crude barbarian who cannot appreciate the loathsome Walt Whitman, cannot lose his self-respect as a white man, and cannot endorse a treasonable propaganda designed to deliver these United States as easy victims to the first hostile power who cares to conquer them. In view of The Conservative’s frank and explicit recognition of Mr. Isaacson’s unusual talent, the predicted reprisal seems scarcely necessary; yet if it must come, it will find its object, as usual, not unwilling to deliver blow for blow.
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Conservative Vol. 1, no. 3, Oct 1915

As it happened, Lovecraft made no public rejoinder to either Isaacson or Morton. Whether Kleiner or someone else in amateur journalism impressed on Lovecraft the need to let it drop, or he came to the conclusion on his own, Lovecraft chose not to continue. This may have simply been a matter of time to cool off more than anything else; the general substance of Lovecraft’s prejudices would not change, although experience in the coming years would considerably broaden his horizons.

There were three perhaps surprising outcomes of Charles D. Isaacson’s rebuttal to Lovecraft. The first came on 1 July 1916, when Isaacson and Kleiner passed through Providence on their way to a NAPA convention, stopping off to meet Lovecraft. The meeting was apparently amicable, and Lovecraft was invited along, but couldn’t go. The second came when he met James F. Morton at another amateur convention; this initiated a friendship that would last until the end of Lovecraft’s life, and Morton would continue to challenge his friend regarding the prejudices that he held.

The third and final outcome came late in 1936. Lovecraft and Isaacson had gone their separate ways for the most part, and there are no indications that they had conversed for twenty years, though one or two references to Isaacson’s work appeared in Lovecraft’s essays. Then, within months of succumbing to his terminal illness, he wrote:

Dominating the contents of this issue is the satiric mythological allegory on certain phases of human nature entitled “The God and the Man, a Saga of the Uphrigees”, by the late Charles D. Isaacson. Here we have grace, brilliancy, and wit of a high order; clever parallels, gentle irony, and apt imagery clothed in musical and well-balanced prose. this allegory, we are told, would have appeared some years ago in The American Mercury but for H. L. Mencken’s withdrawal from that magazine.
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Californian vol. 4, no. 3 (Winter 1936)
reprinted in  Collected Essays of H. P. Lovecraft 1.404

Charles D. Isaacson spoke out, in “Concerning the Conservative.” It is good that he did. He would not be the last to challenge Lovecraft’s preconceptions. Lovecraft’s response in his private letters speaks to how thoroughly ensconced he was in that worldview at that time; his lack of response—and effective letting go of the feud, aside from a few snide remarks in letters—and ability to praise Isaacson in later years speaks well for Lovecraft.

What would have happened if Isaacson had kept his peace? How long would Lovecraft have gone on, blissfully confident that no-one would challenge his prejudices? No one can do more than speculate. Yet we can say that this confrontation brought the subject out in the open, where Lovecraft’s views would be challenged repeatedly by Kleiner, Morton, and others. Isaacson was far from the last Jewish person that Lovecraft would meet—he would come into contact with the Jewish poet Samuel Loveman in 1917, and Jewish expatriate Sonia H. Greene of the Blue Pencil Club, who would become his wife in 1924. These relationships were not free from the shadow of Lovecraft’s antisemitism either, but they certainly influenced his life and writings.

It would be accurate to say that the brush with Lovecraft was but a footnote in Charles D. Isaacson’s life, one devoted chiefly to music and music journalism. So too, from the standpoint of Lovecraft’s career as an author of weird fiction, the incident is an early contretemps, from years before the founding of Weird Tales. Yet for both men, it is a tangent point, one where their stories collided—and, perhaps, changed them both.

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