April 2008

American fiction 1900-1945

Career woes continue to plague “weird fiction” author H.P. Lovecraft, in this latest installment of the notes for the screenplay that will, at some future date, lead to a motion picture, tentatively titled The Providence Detective Agency.

Lovecraft and his new bride, Sonia, continue to have professional and financial setbacks. In 1924, she leaves to look for work in the Midwest, and he pursues the life of a bachelor. At first, Lovecraft enjoys his new found freedom. One night, he stays up until dawn on an impromptu architectural tour of Manhattan with his literary buddies, the Kalem Club, so named because all its members’ last names begin with the letters K, L or M. But penury wears Lovecraft down, so much so that he loses weight, and the novelty of his all-nighters wears off as he finds it hard to maintain a stable creative output.

The following comments are based on notes I am taking as I read Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters, edited by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz.

Page 138 — Sonia closes her hat shop. She goes to work at another millinery. Her new employer, the Bruck-Weiss Millinery, asks her to prepare a letter that will go out to all of her clients, letting them know that she has taken a position with another establishment. Next, she gets two weeks off. This makes Sonia think her boss is going to sack her, but not before this “woman with more ability than conscientiousness” tricks Sonia into giving Bruck-Weiss her client list. “Such is modern business, as practiced by the rising and exotic commercial oligarchy of bad manners and vacant background” that has taken over the rag trade, Lovecraft writes.

Pages 139-140 — HPL tries writing ad copy for new companies, though the companies haven’t asked for these ads and apparently don’t even know they’re being written. Salesmen will then take the brief pieces he writes and try to sell them to the companies in question. Lovecraft doesn’t express much enthusiasm for the venture: “Rapid hack work is demanded…. These business vistas turn swiftly to mirages….” He hasn’t given up hope, though that hope sounds vague and tenuous: “I can see myself…with an actual income and possible future….”

Page 141 — HPL gets a temporary job addressing envelopes in Samuel Loveman’s bookshop, March 1926.

Page 143 — Poverty forces HPL to go on an austere diet of bread, beans and cheese. Three days’ worth costs 30 cents. He drops nearly 50 pounds, going from a robust 193 pounds to a bony 146 pounds. He tries to make it sound like he’s doing it for his health. “[M]any vigorous Chinamen live on vastly less,” Lovecraft says.

Page 144 — In the evening of August 21 and the morning of August 22, 1924, Lovecraft goes on his predawn architectural tour of Manhattan. He notes the differences between lower Manhattan and the rest of the island: below 14th Street, remnants of its colonial past survive, and a few farmhouses remained on Mott and Mulberry Streets at the time Lovecraft wrote this letter to his aunt, in September 1924. He and his friends visit the Planters’ Hotel, the home of Edgar Allan Poe “in seedy old age,” and Tom’s Chop House, “which has been open continuously since 1797.” Lovecraft finally heads home at around 8 a.m.

Page 147-148 — Lovecraft visits Samuel Loveman’s apartment, where he meets Hart Crane, who lives in the same building. In the same September 1924 letter, Lovecraft describes looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. He remarks on the weird lights and sounds of the port: “Fog horns, ships’ bells, the creaking of windlasses….” It turns out Crane is working on a poem about the Brooklyn Bridge.

158.2 Interpersonal relations (according to the Winter Park [Fla.] Public Library)

Out of all the stories of growing up rolling around in my head, the story of Timmy Morrell stands out because it illustrates so well the power of well-chosen words, regardless of their source. Timmy was one of those kids I knew in elementary school who just seemed to disappear after sixth grade, as if his parents knew that taking him any further through the conventional public school system would be a death sentence for him.

Timmy was the most uncoordinated person I have ever met in my life. His limbs just seemed to have a life of their own. He was gangly, pale, high-voiced, had no friends as far as I could tell, didn’t really talk to anyone, had no special talents, couldn’t play games, couldn’t write legibly—just hopeless. And he scared easily. In fifth grade, he was so scared of the teacher he hid under his desk. That would have been inappropriate at practically any age except infancy. And the same guy who bullied me bullied Timmy—Brody Lumpkin.

Between the two of them, Brody and Timmy, it was a total mismatch. That didn’t matter. If Brody hadn’t focused his malevolent energy on this classic weakling for at least a day or two, people would have wondered why he didn’t take advantage of such easy pickings.

Harassing Timmy had important benefits for Brody: it would show people that he would stoop to any level to intimidate, to terrify, to make someone else feel as if living were not worth the effort. If Brody had stuck merely to picking on people his own size, we all might have begun to think he could exercise good judgment, discretion, moderation; that, yes, he was still a bully, but a bully with principles, someone whose actions we could safely predict and plan around. By picking on Timmy, he could show us all that he had no such good judgment, that we had all better be on our guard around him, and that, in the end, even that kind of vigilance wouldn’t do us much good.

Timmy’s Day of Reckoning: I knew it would happen one day. It had to. I dreaded it as something I didn’t want to witness, even as I welcomed it as some terrible thing that was happening to someone other than me. Brody had more muscles than any other kid in school. He was more aggressive than other kids, too. The only kid who came close was Jim Stort, and before him, Eddy Andreotti.

And so it began: Brody would push Timmy, tease him, threaten him, slap him, push him, whatever he could do to make Timmy upset. And Timmy took it, and took it, and Brody just laughed and smiled, and no one, including me, did a thing about it.

Then one day, instead of going psycho or breaking down and crying, Timmy just said, “You’re nothing but a bully!” And Brody’s expression changed. He still had that evil smile on his face, the grin of a sadist, but a look of concern had crept in; the corners of his mouth lowered a little, and he didn’t bare his teeth as much as before. You could tell that, with just a few simple, well-chosen words, Timmy had gotten to him. That may have been when Brody started in on me.

You know you’re not working for a newsgathering organization when:

  • The owner of the company comes around and tells everybody to stop making so many long-distance calls.

Actually, that’s the only warning sign I can think of today. If that’s not enough to make you look for another job, you must be in a coma. I was in a coma.

New York, March 1924.

Wedded bliss for Lovecraft and Sonia Greene quickly gives way to the realities of supporting themselves in the big city. Her hat business fails, and Lovecraft is a washout as a salesman.

124-125: Weird Tales publisher J.C. Henneberger hires HPL to ghostwrite a story in which an Egyptian tour guide ties up Harry Houdini and traps him in a pyramid, just to see if he can get out. Henneberger says he heard the story from Houdini himself. Houdini is “supremely egotistical,” says Lovecraft, who doesn’t believe the story is true.

126: HPL marries Sonia Greene, 3.3.1924, in NYC. Writes his aunt on 3.9, suggesting marriage may have been an escape from boredom or a way to quell thoughts of suicide.

127: He also hoped marriage would stabilize his finances. It seems like he really likes Sonia, though. He credits her with bringing him out of his funk, making him want to live and work.

128: Sonia likes him, and everyone else bores her, he says.

130: Lovecraft says he may find work with a Miss Tucker, from old Baltimore stock. She works for a journal called The Reading Lamp. He says she’ll get him a job in publishing.

131: He and Sonia go to a “Dago joint” for dinner.

Sonia wants a cheap wedding ring. He persuades her to get a more expensive one. He says he’ll pay for it with the money he makes off the next Weird Tales job.

132: Following their civil ceremony, HPL and SG have a formal ceremony at NYC’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, at Broadway and Vesey. It makes him feel really British or something.

134: No more “facial trouble.” He tells his aunt he can shave now just like everyone else. What was the facial trouble? Folliculitis? Ingrown hair? Jesus, that must’ve hurt.

Sonia makes Lovecraft do Walter Camp exercises.

Sonia’s millinery business fails, and HPL can’t find a job.

136-137: Lovecraft tries a job in sales, working for a debt collection company that serves businesses.

“A gentleman born and bred has very little chance for success in such lines of canvassing salesmanship…where one must either be…magnetic…or boorish,” Lovecraft says. He quits before the week is up. His boss, a Mr. Bristol, wants HPL to write letters for him.

I play this e-mail game with some friends of mine from junior high, where we send out an e-mail that contains the name of someone from our class and nothing else. So I’ll get a letter in my inbox from one of these guys, and all it says is “John Smith” or something, and I’ll know the gauntlet has been thrown down. The idea is to think of the most ridiculous person we can remember from those days, and then someone else responds with an even more ridiculous name.

I don’t mean to say the people behind these names are ridiculous. Back then, practically everyone was ridiculous, or at least most of the guys were. We generally don’t ridicule girls, for some reason.

Junior high was the worst. You’re not a cute kid anymore and you’re not a grownup. This whole business of calling 13-year-old “young adults” doesn’t sit will with me at all. It may have applied when life expectancy was something like 39, and kids quit school in the eighth grade to work on the family farm. There are still plenty of places like that today, but the suburbs of Washington, D.C. has not been such a place in a long time, not even when I was growing up there.

As a boy in junior high, you are trying to figure how to wear your hair, how to avoid wearing stupid clothes, wondering when your voice will stop cracking, all the usual misery. I looked so ridiculous I threw all my junior high yearbooks away.

We’ve been playing the e-mail game for several years now. You’d think we would have run out of names by now, but it was a pretty big class. Or maybe we’ve been playing the game for so long now that we’ve forgotten we might have already used someone’s name five years ago.

Today’s name, from a correspondent who now resides on the West Coast, brought back some not-so-great memories, however. The person attached to this name, we’ll call him “Eduardo,” made my life very difficult one day. As I’m trying right now to help another family member deal with a bullying problem, I thought the following recollection of that day might help somehow.

I’ve got more where this came from, because people have been giving me s*#! pretty much right up to the present day.

It was in fourth grade. I don’t know what I said to set him off, but all he said was “Meet me after school.” I tried to take back whatever it was I had said, but he wouldn’t budge. So I was sh—ing bricks all day, and when the final bell rang, I just sat there, all alone except for the teacher, Ms. Karamanlis, who didn’t like me very much.

She finally asked me what I was doing there. I told her Eduardo wanted to beat me up. I thought she would’ve called the principal or something, but all she said was, “Sometimes you just have to face these things.” So I just thought, “Thanks a f— of a lot, bi–h.”

I’m trembling as I go outside, and Eduardo’s there, ready and waiting. I have no friggin’ idea what I’m supposed to do, so I just hold my arms straight out in front of me, and Eduardo bolts up the front lawn to the corner where the crossing guard is.

In the process, he drops his jacket. I pick it up and run to give it to him. I’m panting because I was out of shape even then. I hand him his jacket, and all he can do is imitate me panting. What an obnoxious little s—. The next day, he acted like he kicked my butt. I had to decide between setting the record straight and possibly facing his wrath yet again, or just dropping it. I chose the latter. Even then, I knew I was letting him save face. What a great guy I am.

791.44 Radio
320 Politics

By the beginning of April, ABC’s story about Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America” sermon was more than two weeks old, but apparently the furor over this sermon and others in which Sen. Barack Obama’s former pastor denounced America had yet to die down.

Boston talk radio station WTKK used the fortieth anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, to ponder how King would have reacted to Wright’s angry rhetoric. About five minutes and fifteen seconds into the podcast of this show, morning host Michael Graham said that King would have walked out.

He does not qualify that statement with words or phrases like “probably,” “most likely,” “I think,” or “my guess is that . . . ” Michael Graham has no doubt whatsoever that he knows how a man who died four decades ago would behave today. He provides no evidence to support that claim, but neither can anyone else provide any evidence to refute it. No such evidence exists on either side of the question.

Graham makes a half-hearted attempt to back up his idle speculation with more idle speculation from columnist Juan Williams, who asked in The Wall Street Journal what Jesus would have done in such a situation. I will say what I say every time I hear this question posed or read it on a bumper sticker: I have no idea what Jesus would have done. Unlike Graham or Williams, I would not pretend that I do.

If either of them had provided some supporting documentation for their predictions on the actions of Jesus or MLK, it might have helped. I came across one online citation that said King had grown frustrated by white indifference to black suffering and to the continued prosecution of the Vietnam. That site also referred to King’s fear, in an earlier speech, that America was going to hell.

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal pinned down the exact quote, when and where King said it, and in what context. “And I come here to say that America is going to Hell, if we don’t use her wealth,” King said in Memphis on March 18, 1968, in support of a strike by city garbage workers who wanted better wages.

I hope to have more information soon on the following two additional topics:

  • Whether this sentiment (that America might suffer eternal damnation) formed the basis of the sermon King was working on before he was murdered
  • The meaning of the James Brown song “The Big Payback,” which Michael Graham played on the same 4.4.2008 broadcast cited above

You know you’re not working for a newsgathering organization when (and this is all purely hypothetical, mind you):

1. You pitch your editor an idea for a column in which you would review products for people who work in industry X. The pitch goes something as follows: “So, the way it works is, companies would send us press releases on their products, and we call up people working in the industry who’ve actually used whatever it is we want to write about, and we just print whatever they say.”

And your editor responds: “What if the companies don’t like what we write?”

2. The company won’t run ads in its newsletters because it says that would compromise the publications’ objectivity.

3. Your editor makes you rewrite a story so that it matches the marketing copy for a new product your company is trying to sell. Your company says the product can do X. Your editor tells you to write a story about doing X. You call three sources and ask them if they think people need to do X. Two say no. One of those two sources knows your company’s reputation (bad), and he says, “People don’t need to do X, and even if they did, your product wouldn’t help them anyway.” A third source says maybe people should do X, but only if doing X won’t cost anything.

You write a story saying what your sources said. You show it to your editor. She gets mad and tells you to call someone else. You don’t have time to do it, but you do it anyway. Your fourth source says people can do X if they want to, but they don’t have to. You think that seems a little closer to what your editor wants to hear, so you run it by her. She gets even more upset.

Finally, you hear from a coworker that another company is working on a product very similar to your company’s product. You think, this may be my ticket out. You call someone at that company and ask her if people need to do X. She says, “My god, yes, it is absolutely essential that people know how to do X.” You add that to your story. Your editor is relieved, but when she does your evaluation, she notes that you sometimes had a hard time coming up with appropriate material.

4. Newsletters have no news.

5. “Editors” have no reporters working under them.

6. Your boss actually says, “There’s no ‘i’ in team.”

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