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Entries in #racism (1)

Monday
Mar042013

Lovecraft, Part Two: In Which Things Get Problematic

From "He," a description of New York City:

...the throngs of people that seethed through the flume-like streets were squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eyes, shrewd strangers without dreams and without kinship to the scenes about them, who could never mean aught to a blue-eyed man of the old folk, with the love of the fair green lanes and white New England village steeples in his heart.

And now I feel just a touch naive in my earlier assessment of H.P. Lovecraft--this is just one of many passages that I could have cited that dehumanizes those who are Not Quite WASPs. 

I'm not actually surprised by any of this; while I find the interwar period fascinating, if one reads enough written by white men and women in that time period, it takes a lot of work to not notice the blatantly racist comments and assumptions. And I'm not disowning the Lovecraftian aesthetic that is so often reimagined and recycled these days. Whether the problematic elements of Lovecraft seep into these contemporary works is a question worth investigating, but not one that I will handle here. What I'm most disappointed about is that I didn't see this coming--that is, that while my general 21st century cultural knowledge already included quite a bit of Lovecraftian themes and monsters, there wasn't so much as a footnote somewhere in the back of my brain that might have indicated that Cthulhu doesn't come without baggage. Lovecraft seems to have been whitewashed just a bit.

I remember vividly being about eleven years old and hearing Groucho Marx make a racist joke in Duck Soup. Suddenly an artist that I had, until that moment, been enjoying unreservedly, was placed within a socio-cultural milieu that had some pretty big problems. And it's only continued since then--the list of writers and artists whose work I enjoy in spite of taking issue with their politics, for lack of a better term, is long. And I won't lie--as a white woman, encountering racist themes in literature, film, and art infuriates me. But encountering misogynistic themes aches; the creator, to whom I necessarily am allowing pretty unfettered access to my mind and spirit via his work, is judging me. No matter how deep my previous intimacy with the author and/or characters was, it never quite recovers from knowing that, were he to meet me in real life, he'd be judging me by how full my lips might be, because we know that tells you something real and considerable about any woman beyond how much chapstick she might use (thanks, Steinbeck).

All this to say that I don't think we can realistically evaluate someone like Lovecraft while ignoring his bluntly racist tendencies. I'm not saying toss out the baby with the bathwater, but I am saying that when he is, on any level, culturally praised and elevated, omitting a discussion of these other issues not only sidelines a very real part of his work but sidelines a very real chunk of his, and our, readers.