Letters, Lovecraft’s

   Shortly after his death, HPL’s longtime friend Maurice W. Moe wrote: “If there is ever a survey to determine the greatest letter-writer in history, the claims of Lovecraft deserve close investigation” (“Howard Phillips Lovecraft: The Sage of Providence,” O-Wash-Ta-Nong,[1937]). While it is unlikely that HPL will soon attain celebrity solely or largely on the basis of his letters, it is now abundantly clear that his correspondence ranks among the pinnacles of his literary achievement. The number of letters written by HPL has been a matter of debate. L.Sprague de Camp ( Lovecraft: A Biography[1975]) casually estimated a figure of 100,000, but this is probably too high. HPL stated in 1936 that he wrote 5 to 10 letters per day ( SL5.369); if we assume that he maintained this ratio over his literary career (1914–36), we arrive at 42,000 to 84,000 letters. Given that HPL was probably not considering the vast numbers of postcards he wrote during his travels, the total figure is probably closer to the higher than the lower amount. But mere numbers do not tell the whole story. What makes HPL’s letters remarkable, beyond their sheer quantity and size, is their extraordinary candor; their abundance of wit, humor, satire, and persiflage; and their exhaustive and penetrating discussions of a wide range of topics including philosophy, literature and literary theory, history, art and architecture (especially of colonial America), and the contemporary political, economic, cultural, and social trends of the nation and the world. His letters are, in this regard, far more interesting and perspicacious than many of his essays on the same subjects.
   HPL remarked that “Not until I was twenty years old did I write any letters worthy of the name.” He attributed his enthusiasm for letter-writing at this time to his cousin Phillips Gamwell, who, although only twelve, “blossomed out as a piquant letter-writer eager to discuss the various literary and scientific topics broached during our occasional personal conversations” ( SL3.370). HPL gained his initial celebrity (or, rather, notoriety) by the letters in prose and verse to the Argosyattacking the sentimental fiction of Fred Jackson, which aroused a storm of protest on the part of Jackson’s supporters. It was, however, when HPL joined the amateur journalism movement in 1914 that he first began writing letters regularly and voluminously. No doubt many of these letters concerned routine matters of amateur business and were correspondingly short; few of these have survived. The letters that do survive are those to his earliest colleagues in amateur journalism—Maurice W.Moe (1914f), Edward H.Cole (1914f), Rheinhart Kleiner (1915f), and Alfred Galpin (1918f). No letters to W.Paul Cook, who was instrumental in HPL’s resumption of fiction-writing in 1917, survive. HPL came in touch with Samuel Loveman in 1917, but very few letters to him are extant, most of them being of much later date. There is a small batch of letters to John T.Dunn (a member of the Providence Amateur Press Club) of 1915–17, mingling amateur affairs and controversial political topics (especially the Irish question); they have been published in Books at Brown(38–39 [1991–92]: 157–223). Some letters to Winifred Virginia Jackson of 1918–21 survive, but they do not settle the question of whether HPL and Jackson were romantically involved. Early letters to Anne Tillery Renshaw supply hints of HPL’s employment in the Symphony Literary Service. In 1920 HPL came into epistolary contact with Frank Belknap Long, who had just joined the amateur movement. Long was a lifelong friend of HPL, but HPL’s letters to him after the spring of 1931 have been lost. Only two letters to HPL’s mother (1920–21) survive; they were both written while she was confined in Butler Hospital. No letters to other members of HPL’s family, with the exception of a few letters to his aunt Annie Gamwell, survive prior to 1924, although a few letters by HPL’s grandfather Whipple Van Buren Phillips to HPL, dating to as early as 1894, survive at JHL and in private hands.
   Two distinctive groups of letters are the round-robin cycles, the Kleicomolo and the Gallomo. In these cycles, the various members (Kleiner, Ira A.Cole, Moe, and HPL in the first; Galpin, HPL, and Moe in the second) would sequentially write letters discussing one or more controversial topics; as the batches of letters circulated to each member, he would remove his previous contribution and write a fresh letter, commenting on the letters of the others. In an unsigned article (probably by Kleiner), “The Kleicomolo” ( United Amateur,March 1919), it was noted that “One of the members [Moe?] was desirous of keeping a complete copy of the correspondence, and began by copying the letters as they went through his hands. This task soon became so great as to be impracticable, and the rest elected him librarian and promised to send him carbon copies of their instalments.” But only the letters by HPL survive, and not many of these: only three to the Kleicomolo (1916–17) and four to the Gallomo (1919–21).
   HPL’s involvement with his future wife, Sonia H.Greene, could presumably be traced in the many letters he wrote to her from 1921 to their marriage in 1924; Sonia herself reports that for two years HPL wrote letters to her almost daily, “sometimes filling 30, 40 and even 50 pages of finely written script” ( The Private Life of H.P.Lovecraft[Necronomicon Press, 1985 (rev. ed. 1992)], p. 18). But around 1935, two years after their last meeting, Sonia went out into a field and burned all the letters, so that only a few postcards now survive in private hands. In 1922 HPL came in touch with Clark Ashton Smith, to whom he would write 160 letters and 60 postcards. James F.Morton also became a close if argumentative colleague in 1922, and HPL’s letters to him are among the most remarkable he ever wrote for their breadth of subject and pungency of style.
   HPL’s solitary letter to the first editor of Weird Tales,Edwin Baird (February 3, 1924), and many letters to his successor, Farnsworth Wright, allow glimpses of HPL’s conflicted involvement with that pulp magazine.
   HPL’s two years in New York (1924–26) are exhaustively chronicled in letters to his aunts Lillian Clark and Annie Gamwell; the letters to Lillian alone for this period total about 200,000 words. They allow nearly a day-to-day record of HPL’s activities and fluctuating temperament during this critical period in his life. Few letters to members of the “Kalem Club” (James F.Morton, Everett McNeil, Arthur Leeds, Long, George Kirk, Wilfred B.Talman, and others) survive for this period, since HPL saw them frequently in person. Letters to Talman are abundant for a later period. Upon his return to Providence, HPL came into contact with August Derleth and Donald Wandrei; his correspondence with these two writers survives almost intact. His letters to Derleth—more than 380—may represent the greatest number of letters to any of his correspondents. In 1930 HPL received a letter from pulp writer Robert E.Howard, and there began a sporadic but extremely voluminous correspondence that lasted until Howard’s suicide in 1936; the letters total roughly 200,000 words by HPL and 300,000 by Howard. HPL’s single longest surviving letter—70 handwritten pages (35 pages written on both sides) and totaling 33,500 words—was written to the little-known Vermonter Woodburn Harris in 1929. HPL’s work as revisionist caused him to come into contact with would-be writers, but only letters to Zealia Bishop (1928–30) and Richard F.Searight (1933–37) survive in any quantity. The letters to Adolphe de Castro (1928–36) are very scattered, and there are none to David Van Bush or Hazel Heald.
   By the 1930s HPL had become a fixture in the worlds of pulp fiction and fantasy fandom, and he accordingly began corresponding with a great many fellow writers (notably E.Hoffmann Price [1932– 37] and Henry S.Whitehead [1931–32]) and disciples (R.H.Barlow [1931–37], Robert Bloch [1933– 37], Duane W.Rimel [1934–37], F.Lee Baldwin [1934–35], Donald A.Wollheim [1936–37], Wilson Shepherd [1936–37], C.L.Moore [1936–37], Fritz Leiber [1936–37], and Willis Conover [1936–37]). The letters to Whitehead were, however, evidently destroyed.
   HPL preserved relatively few letters he received over a lifetime of correspondence; not only because of restricted space in his usually cramped quarters, but because most of these letters probably did not seem to him of enduring interest. Exceptions are the early letters of Donald Wandrei (later ones were kept only sporadically) and the letters from Robert E.Howard, E.Hoffmann Price, C.L.Moore, and the amateur writer Ernest A.Edkins (1932–37). None of HPL’s letters to Edkins survive. Frank Belknap Long’s and James F.Morton’s letters survive in fair numbers but with many gaps and omissions; there are few letters by August Derleth. A fair number of Clark Ashton Smith’s letters are extant; substantial extracts have been published as Letters to H.P.Lovecraft(Necronomicon Press, 1987). Late in life HPL admitted that he had 97 regular correspondents (HPL to R.H.Barlow, January 3, 1937 [ms., JHL]). On the purpose of maintaining such a far-flung correspondence HPL wrote: “As a person of very retired life, I met very few different sorts of people in youth—and was therefore exceedingly narrow and provincial. Later on, when literary activities brought me into touch with widely diverse types by mail—Texans like Robert E.Howard, men in Australia, New Zealand, &c., Westerners, Southerners, Canadians, people in old England, and assorted kinds of folk nearer at hand—I found myself opened up to dozens of points of view which would otherwise never have occurred to me. My understanding and sympathies were enlarged, and many of my social, political, and economic views were modified as a consequence of increased knowledge. Only correspondence could have effected this broadening; for it would have been impossible to have visited all the regions and met all the various types involved, while books can never talk back or discuss” ( SL4.389). It can thus be seen that, aside from all questions of courtesy and gentlemanliness, HPL’s correspondence was vital to his intellectual and aesthetic development, putting the lie to those critics who assert that he “wasted” his time writing so many letters.
   The publication of HPL’s letters was a high priority with Derleth and Wandrei as they were founding Arkham House to preserve HPL’s work in book form. Wandrei in particular was determined to preserve HPL’s correspondence, and Derleth wasted little time in contacting HPL’s colleagues and urging them either to transcribe the letters themselves or to send the letters to him so that his secretary, Alice Conger, could transcribe them. In this way Derleth and Wandrei produced the socalled Arkham House Transcripts—nearly 50 volumes of single-spaced typescripts of letters (each volume averaging about 100 pages) upon which the long-delayed Selected Letters(published in 5 volumes in 1965–76, and largely edited by Wandrei) were based. These transcripts contain texts of many letters that may no longer survive in manuscript, as well as full (or, at any rate, more extensive) versions of letters published in abridged form in the Selected Lettersor not published at all. Otherwise, most of HPL’s letters now survive at JHL; the letters to Derleth are at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and a few other letters are scattered in other institutions or in the hands of collectors. The letters in the Selected Lettersare in almost every instance abridged, and occasionally the abridgements result in incoherence or a misleading impression of HPL’s meaning. Numerous typographical errors also mar the edition, as well as the absence of an index. S.T. Joshi has supplied the latter (Necronomicon Press, 1980 [rev. ed. 1991]). Joshi and David E.Schultz have prepared annotated editions of unabridged letters to individual correspondents, all published by Necronomicon Press: Letters to Henry Kuttner(1990); Letters to Richard F.Searight(1992); Letters to Robert Bloch(1993); Letters to Samuel Loveman and Vincent Starrett(1994). Also of note is Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters(Ohio University Press, 2000), in which Joshi and Schultz have arranged published and unpublished letters in the form of an autobiography, covering many aspects of HPL’s life, work, and thought.
   See S.T.Joshi, “A Look at Lovecraft’s Letters,” in Selected Papers on Lovecraft (Necronomicon Press, 1989).

An H.P.Lovecraft encyclopedia. .

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