Review: Letters to James F. Morton

By Randy Stafford

Lovecraft, H.P., writer; Schultz, David E. and Joshi, S.T., eds. Letters to James F. Morton. Hippocampus Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9844802-3-4.

To read a Lovecraft letter is to hear Lovecraft’s voice. That is what those who knew him well enough to make the comparison said. He wrote as he spoke. Modern audiences might think of these letters as a Lovecraft blog full of the details of his life, intermittently playful, sometimes earnest and serious, often returning to the legacy of the 18th century he so loved.

These particular letters are all at least 70 years old, yet they sometimes touch on things we still discuss: economic chaos and dislocation, political reform and radicalism, race, culture, and immigration. Contentious issues then and now, but, at least with these two men, the debate was genial and reasonable. In that, they seem less modern.

James F. Morton maintained a correspondence with Lovecraft from sometime around 1920 until Lovecraft’s death in 1937. Morton was many things Lovecraft wasn’t. He was 20 years older. He was a college graduate – specifically, from Harvard, where he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s and master’s degree at age 22. He was a political radical who had associated with anarchists, including Emma Goldman, and written books on tax policy and religious “freethinking”. He had once made a living as a lecturer and belonged to many national organisations, including ones devoted to natural history, Esperanto and genealogy. For much of the time of their correspondence, Morton was gainfully employed at the Patterson Museum in New Jersey, where, after learning mineralogy in three weeks, he convinced them to hire him as curator and eventually built one of the premier mineralogical museum displays in America.

And yet, the reclusive Lovecraft was, remarked mutual acquaintance Edward H. Cole, the only one in their circle who could talk “on the same plane” as Morton.

Amateur journalism, said Lovecraft, gave him “life itself”, and part of that gift was Morton. Their first contact with each other was not the auspicious start of a lifelong friendship. Lovecraft attacked, in 1915, an essay by Charles D. Isaacson. The latter responded, as did his friend Morton. As Schultz and Joshi put it in the book’s introduction, Lovecraft got “his ears boxed by one of the organization’s grand old men, a liberal, free-thinking anarchist.” In an essay, “’Conservatism’ Gone Mad” – The Conservative was the magazine Lovecraft published – Morton firmly rebutted Lovecraft’s contentions. But, in the final paragraph, after saying, “Lovecraft needs to serve a long and humble apprenticeship before he will become qualified to sit in the master’s seat and to thunder forth ex cathedra judgements”, Morton complimented his “evident sincerity” and “vigor of style” and said that Lovecraft could become “a writer of power”.

But, sometime in the next five years, Morton went from a man who participated in, according to Lovecraft, the “wanton destruction of the public faith and the publick morals” to one of his dearest friends, a man he would write, and personally meet often, until Lovecraft’s death.

None of Morton’s letters are reproduced here. Lovecraft didn’t usually save all the letters from his many correspondents and, despite their long and deep friendship, Morton’s were no exception. For whatever reason, he only saved about 45 of Morton’s letters, and many of those were recycled when Lovecraft wrote his manuscripts on their back. Most of the 162 letters here are from transcripts done for Arkham House’s Selected Letters series, though most of the time, they were abridged there and this volume reproduces each letter in its entirety. Only three of the letters are based on actual physical copies and not those transcripts. Therefore, this is not the entire record of Lovecraft’s letters to Morton and it also omits the many postcards Lovecraft sent Morton.

The subjects covered in the letters are not what you would always expect.

Both living on tight budgets, and in an age of usually regional-only distribution of particular food items, the two spend some letters discussing the merits of particular brands of canned baked beans and coffee. Lovecraft would even sometimes mail Morton particular food items Morton couldn’t find in New York or New Jersey.

Architecture and, especially, Georgian architecture is probably the subject that comes up most often. Morton’s interest in this, perhaps, was not equal to Lovecraft’s, but he seems to have had knowledge and experience with some of the historical restoration projects then under way along the Atlantic seaboard.

Genealogy was an enthusiasm for both. At one memorable point, in a 1933 letter, this spun off into a facetious genealogy, beginning with Lovecraft’s created god Azathoth and terminating in branches that list the reputed ancestors of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

Lovecraft was not enamoured of geology and especially not with mineralogy, which he regarded as mostly an exercise in classification with no intrinsically interesting drama behind it, but he did aid in Morton’s efforts to gather specimens for the Patterson Museum collection. Besides ghost writing, Lovecraft’s other main source of income was small lease payments from the owner of a quarry around Providence, and he worked as a go-between in getting mineral specimens from there, including, according to their mutual friend W. Paul Cook, one that was only known, as far as the eastern United States was concerned, from that quarry. This same friend claimed that there was a ton or more of rocks in “Lovecraft’s room” (presumably a study) for over a year before they were sent to Morton.

Stamp collecting and puzzles are also frequently discussed. Lovecraft had collected stamps as a boy and sent specimens on to Morton. As for puzzles, Lovecraft could not understand Morton’s inveterate love of them. He not only solved them, but created them and two of the many organisations he belonged to were the National Puzzlers’ League and the American Cryptogram Association. To Lovecraft, puzzles were a pointless expenditure of time and mental energy that he would rather spend actually learning facts about history and the natural world, rather than solving an arbitrary and artificial problem. But he granted that Morton probably had the mental energy to spare. And, indeed, Morton was a whirlwind of activity. Lovecraft asked him if he wouldn’t be happier not trying to cram something into each minute of the day, and spending some time in idle contemplation and emotional reflection.

Why, rather than reading at meals, asked Lovecraft, couldn’t Morton just let his mind wander? Then Lovecraft goes off on an example, a remarkable, multi-page chain of free association inspired by the utensils and foods of a common breakfast. At another time, he does this with architecture, and ends with images and plots reminiscent of his stories. For Lovecraft, association was everything, a source of comfort and identification, an aesthetic basis for happiness in a cosmos with no real human values. I sense that these chains of association account for what some critics deem his adjective-heavy style. (Though I would be curious to see Lovecraft’s fiction put to a mathematical stylistic analysis to see how it actually compares, in adjective frequency and density, to the writers these same critics favour.) Perhaps they were the most concise way he could evoke the associations he intended, an allusive imagery of the sort a poet would use, since that was his first field of literary endeavour.

Another interesting feature of these letters is how many times Lovecraft, the lover and emulator of 18th-century English prose, imitates contemporary slang and dialects of various types. Contemporaries said the slang usage was spot on and, of course, he best put this dialectic skill to use in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”.

There is, as with many biographies, a sense of drama that comes as you near the subject’s rendezvous with eternity. A letter from July 25, 1936 mentions the recent suicide of his friend Robert Howard. His last letter, started in December 1936 and found unfinished on his desk after his death, is full of the kind of portents a fiction writer would use: references to muted fall colours, increasing bouts of “grippe”, and the Christmas gift of a skull.

Oddly, this is one of the few letters that actually talk about weird fiction. Morton was interested in a variety of literature, old and new. He was, in fact, the one who introduced Lovecraft to Algernon Blackwood and there is a hilarious letter in which Lovecraft, taking up the suggestion of one of Morton’s museum co-workers, spins out the possible plot details of a detective series featuring two mineralogists, where all the crimes have to do with rocks and all the solutions hinge on points of mineralogy. But Lovecraft seldom mentions any fiction projects he is working on, just sends the completed versions to Morton. His ghostwriting assignments are talked about much more and the two streams of his writing come together when he good-naturedly, but with a hint of exasperation, notes how many tales in Weird Tales under other names were worked on by him. But, in that last letter, he comments on the promise and talent of those who would, in part, take up and expand his legacy: Robert Bloch; Fritz Leiber, Jr; and Henry Kuttner, Jr.

But there is another subject in these letters which must be confronted, that modern sensibilities demand be mentioned: Lovecraft’s views on race.

The Lovecraft essay that Isaacson and Morton responded to said, “Race prejudice was a gift of nature.” For his part, Morton, a member of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People and author of The Curse of Race Prejudice, was having none of it: “Race prejudice is not defensible by reason…Like other vices it can be readily overcome by individuals capable of rising to a rational view of existence,” he said in “’Conservatism’ Gone Mad”.

Judging by Lovecraft’s side of the conversation, the two individuals never altered their starting points much. Morton, said to always be a firm-but-polite debater, seemed to have continued to try to convince Lovecraft, given the references to articles Morton sent him for which comment was sought. There are four long letters in this collection, 64 out of 383 pages of letters, where Lovecraft expounds his views on ethics, tradition, race, and immigration. Essentially, Lovecraft believed that there were no moral, no human values in the universe. There was no end that the human race was working towards, no moral purpose or order it was charged with working towards. Random chance was the starting point of everything and all was determined after that from preceding events. Individuals could usually find moments of happiness in the products and traditions of the culture chance had put them in, and those culture streams were the product of particular races. Thus, race created culture and, except for a few individuals, happiness could not be found in cultures created by other racial groups. His frequent expressions of distaste for other races (and his categories of race are not identical to the ones we would use today) was in the context of their presence in America, and the changes they brought to the land and culture he grew up in.

Now, there’s a lot to argue about with this – and there are plenty of other places beside this site to do that. The key point to take away is that Lovecraft didn’t regard most other races as inherently inferior on all points compared to his self-identified Nordic-Teutonic roots. He cheerfully conceded that, in some areas, they were the equals or superiors to his race. His was a position of racial segregation. (A fuller explanation of these views can be found in S.T. Joshi’s discussion of Lovecraft’s personal philosophy in H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West.)

There were, however, two races excluded from this view, for which he had nothing good to say – at least in these letters: “…the Australian blackfellow & (now extinct) Tasmanian is even more emphatic; this race being nearly as far below the negro as the negro is below the full human.” It is, of course, true that writers, by nature, are at hazard for leaving a record of unpleasant sentiments that are shared by hundreds of mute others of their time. It’s also true that words and thoughts are not the same as actions, and Morton himself noted that Lovecraft always acted gentlemanly. And Lovecraft wouldn’t be the only 20th-century writer who expressed some murderous private sentiments. (George Bernard Shaw’s justification of Stalin’s purges comes to mind, for instance.) But even I, a fan of Lovecraft, squirmed when he wrote this, without a trace of hyperbole or irony:

I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas – giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears…. )

Showing a more nuanced – and, certainly, more gentle – side, Lovecraft, hardly known for a close examination of human relations in his fiction, offers his analysis of the benefits of newly widowed Cook’s troubled marriage and expresses horror on news of the death of Ida C. Haughton, an amateur journalist he had memorably attacked in his poem, “Medusa: A Portrait”.

The shadow of the Great Depression falls across the later letters when Lovecraft mentions his many acquaintances who have lost their jobs. These letters show him moving from an explicit admirer of German and Italian fascism to socialism of the American variety in the New Deal. His complaints about “machine-barbarism” and an American plutocracy may find sympathy with some modern readers. To me, his claims that Mediterranean influences corrupted the Anglo-Saxon world into an undue emphasis on commerce is bad economic history and a place where his intellect failed him.

The book, as usual with Hippocampus Press products, is well organised and thorough in its presentation. The letters are annotated with footnotes – my only complaint is that they are at the end of each letter and not at the bottom of the page. A glossary lists several of the people mentioned in the book and the index is extensive. Not only is there a bibliography for Lovecraft and Morton, but autobiographical writings by Morton, his memorial to Lovecraft, and others’ memorial writings on Morton, including a touching account of the scattering of his ashes by Rheinhart Kleiner, another of Lovecraft’s friends.

Anyone interested in Lovecraft’s letters will want this book. For those curious about the fascination of Lovecraft the correspondent, but who haven’t read any of his letters, I think this could serve as a good introduction to the subject.

You can buy Letters to James F. Morton from Amazon.com.

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