Return to On the Creation of Niggers (review)

Text

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Iove's fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th'Olympian host conceiv'd a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a nigger.

H.P. Lovecraft

Personal Experience

On the Creation of Niggers is a bizarre and (obviously) racist poem written by famed American horror/science fiction/fantasy/etc. author Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890-1937). Lovecraft is of course most famous today for his development of the Cthulhu mythos, an invented pantheon of horrible deities from other dimensions who feature as motivating narrative factors in many of his stories. Although he is best known for these works, Lovecraft wrote more poems and personal letters (thousands of them) than he did short stories, and indeed did not come to prose-writing until well after a long spell of writing poetry (extending back to at least the age of 7). The poem in question here seems to have been written in either 1912 or 1913, when Lovecraft would have been about 22, about ten years before Lovecraft "professionally" published a piece of fiction.

I first got interested in Lovecraft and his works when I was about 14 years old and I heard the Metallica song The Call of Ktulu. I had no idea who or what a "Ktulu" was and the song didn't help very much because it's an instrumental. I did some research and found out about the Cthulhu Mythos and its creator, H.P. Lovecraft. I bought a Lovecraft compilation book a few weeks later and read through it. I didn't find any of the stories terrifying as such (Lovecraft's gratuitous verbosity takes some of the terror out of them), but I found them fairly disturbing on a metaphysical level. I would reread select stories from the book until it, along with most of my room at the time, was destroyed during a hurricane in 2004 owing to water damage. Later on, when I wanted to read the Call of Cthluhu for what must have been the eighth time, I looked it up online, and came across a fairly comprehensive list of Lovecraft's known works, including On the Creation of Niggers. I was really rather surprised and didn't think it was real, but after reading into it, I discovered that it was not only a legitimate Lovecraft piece but that its racist theme was hardly unique in Lovecraft's oeuvre.

Analysis

On the face of it, there's really not much to "analyze" in the poem: the gods decided that man and beast were too separate from one another, so they created Black people as an intermediary. It's tempting to dismiss this poem and Lovecraft's general racial views as being typical of his time, but really, they're not. At the very least, Lovecraft's racism was more pronounced than that of his contemporaries. He believed very firmly in the concept of what we might now term "White Power," whereas a more common view among his class would have been racial segregation: he promoted an active form of ethnic glorification at the expense of others, while many American Whites felt that, with the American Civil War still in living memory for many, physical separation and as little mutual antagonism as possible would have been preferable. To understand Lovecraft's racial views, though, necessitates an understanding of his broader socio-political beliefs.

It was his opinion that eighteenth century England was essentially the pinnacle of culture up to that point. For Lovecraft, it was a more interesting and altogether decent time. It was during that century, however, that one of Lovecraft's most loathed events occurred: the American Revolution. Believing that "pure" Anglo-Saxon culture was in every way preferable to others, he viewed the "melting pot" conception of America with extreme disdain. He even took to backdating his letters by two hundred years as a sign of his contempt for modernity and reverence for those halcyon days.

In 1919, Lovecraft wrote a really short story called the Street, which took place at some unspecified time in the future and reflected the collapse of the United States. The cause for this collapse was immigration of non-whites, who at one point made a conscious decision to "tear down the laws and virtues that our fathers had exalted; to stamp out the soul of the old America - the soul that was bequeathed through a thousand and a half years of Anglo-Saxon freedom, justice and moderation...{in which} many millions of brainless, besotted beasts would stretch forth their noisome talons from the slums of a thousand cities, burning, slaying, and destroying till the land of our fathers should be no more." Before this plan can be enacted, however, the buildings on the hypothetical street simply collapse onto them of their own volition and these "besotted beasts" are destroyed. A later story, the Horror at Red Hook, has a virtually identical ending. The story itself was written as a result of a particularly bad experience Lovecraft had shortly after he bizarrely married Sonia Greene, a tradeswoman of Ukrainian and Jewish extraction. The couple moved to New York and in fact lived in the Red Hook neighborhood, which was a hub for poor recent immigrants to the United States. Separate correspondences from Lovecraft and Greene indicate the former's extreme anxiety at living in this extremely multicultural area, a far cry from his relatively homogenous upper class Anglo-Saxon hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. He apparently never found a job while in New York, and he largely blamed this on the immigrants there. The Horror at Red Hook is about an investigator trying to track down a man in the neighborhood, and he is disgusted by the poor, multi-ethnic community. The man he's seeking is actually dead and is in the process of being transformed into a zombie when the buildings of the area collapse on the foreigners because, the narrator theorized, they are just too rotted from age and neglect. The subtext is obvious: the more heterogenous a place becomes and the longer it stays that way, the weaker and more decrepit it becomes before ultimately imploding in on itself.

Accordingly, one of Lovecraft's greatest fears was miscegenation, particularly between Whites and non-Whites (as opposed to, say, Asians and Arabs). He was of the eugenic opinion that such interbreeding led to racial degeneration, the reasons for which can be plainly seen in On the Creation of Niggers: Black people (and by extension, all non-Whites) are "missing links" between humans and animals. The title character of his story Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn And His Family is the scion of a prominent, wealthy family with a history of bizarre and eccentric behavior. In the course of his investigations into his own family history, he discovers that an ancestor of his had gone to the Congo and while there had married a female ape who had been deified by a local tribe. Upon realizing that he is descended from an ape and that his was the cause of his family's unnatural mental and physical condition, the man immolates himself to stamp out the last vestige of his cursed bloodline. This brings up another common Lovecraftian theme: that people can never escape the sins of their ancestors (one of these great sins being to mingle blood with one's social and racial inferiors). The Lurking Fear is another story that features both of these themes: the upper class Dutch inhabitants of a wealthy town in Colonial America refuse to be lorded over by the British and insulate their city from the outside world; they interbreed with their non-White and white trash laborers until by the time of the story, the entire town is comprised of virtually subhuman dwarfs who resort to cannibalism, another huge no-no for Lovecraft. In one of Lovecraft's most famous stories, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the inhabitants of another nonexistent town become wealthy and prosperous through their fishing trade as a result of a deal made with the Deep Ones, a race of fish creatures who live in the sea. The deal, of course, is interbreeding between the human population and the nonhuman Deep Ones. As people age, they themselves gradually physically transform into fish-like creatures and join their benefactors at the bottom of the ocean. The narrator of the story eventually discovers that he too is distantly descended from the Deep Ones and that he is becoming one of them. The implication of course is clear: if you intermarry with a person of another race, your progeny, no matter how remote, is racially degenerate.

There are legions of other examples of these sorts of things, but one interesting thing in particular is that the worshippers of the various gods invented by Lovecraft are almost always non-White. Lovecraft (and many other people of his time, and indeed, many people in our time) believed that "primitive" peoples were always more in tune with nature than those who were "civilized." Nature is often a symbol for Cthulhu and his comrades and vice versa; these "savages" are thus (frequently unknowing) instruments of strange and unimaginably horrible gods. However, not all of these extraterrestrial (or extradimensional) beings are inherently bad; indeed, in The Shadow Out of Time, the story's "Great Race" is described as noble and enlightened, practicing a form of government that Lovecraft describes as a type of "fascistic socialism." This reflects Lovecraft's own idiosyncratic later political views, where he showed a preference for the economic policies of the New Deal but retained a certain sense of admiration for the racially exclusionary laws of the Third Reich (or at least the nonviolent ones; Lovecraft evidently abhorred physical violence). At the Mountains of Madness is another story centered around a noble, enlightened alien master race that ultimately is brought down by its racially inferior slave caste.

Conclusion

On the Creation of Niggers is one of the earliest examples of Lovecraft's racist views. He's sometimes alleged to have undergone a conversion in later life where he abandoned them, but the evidence doesn't really support this. He supported Franklin Roosevelt in his elections because of the "genteel fascism" of the New Deal policies and because he felt that FDR represented the American Anglo-Saxon aristocracy of which Lovecraft felt himself a part (in terms of his ancestry, this was true, but his family had lost its wealth by that time). There's really no way to tell for sure where Lovecraft's racism actually came from, but one theory is that it was a byproduct of his highly sheltered upbringing. After the death of his father at a young age, Lovecraft was raised by his overbearing and overindulgent female relatives, which arguably created a whole host of other issues; Lovecraft's views on women -- or perhaps more appropriately, the lack thereof -- were undoubtedly partially created by his coddled childhood. In any case, he always felt ill at ease when out of his bubble of Providence, Rhode Island. His views on race went hand in hand with his views on class, ironic because Lovecraft was not a member of the "upper class" after his childhood. His experience in Red Hook only cemented his already established beliefs. There are, however, two facts that in my opinion support the idea that Lovecraft's racism was the result of his own racial insecurity: first, the fact that he married Sonia Greene (who was decidedly non-Anglo-Saxon), and secondly, the fact that he discovered a distant female ancestor of his was Welsh, as opposed to the purely Nordic conception that he had previously had of himself. Whether from his upbringing, economic disadvantage, or repressed self-loathing, however, Lovecraft's racist tendencies are a demonstrable part of his writing and ought not be ignored. None of this, however, diminishes the quality of his work or the very potent feelings of terror they inspire to this day.

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