Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Context people, Context.

I'm a major history buff. That means I know how to put things, such as facts, in their proper historical context and not get all bent out of shape about them. It doesn't make them right or wrong. It just helps you understand were to place them. So why do so many people find themselves incapable of placing historical writers in the context of the world they lived in?

Enter This guy. Another in a long list of bloggers who read a pulp story from the 1920's and apply a 2011 mindset to it.

Pro Tip. It doesn't work. You cannot separate the work from the time period it was created in or the audience it was created for! The thing you have to consider about Lovecraft, is was he exceptional for his time? Location? Class? Keep in mind that Lovecraft wrote Herbert West a scant 7 years after D.W. Griffith's A Birth of Nation came out. Look at Woodrow Wilson (yes, the President of the United States... was a horrible racist too!) and his writings of the time. He excused the KKK as a "Natural outgrowth of reconstruction". The 1910's, 20's and 30's were a time of profound racial oppression across the United States. Wilson, like Lovecraft had little compassion for immigrants of any race, even the Irish, who at the time weren't really white men either, they got upgraded later only because they were lighter skinned than the Italians!

There were books circulating at the time such as Madison Grant's "The Passing of the Great Race", Henry Ford's "The International Jew" and Houston Stewart Chamberlain's "Foundations of the 19th Century". These were books which inspired the atrocities which eventually came to Germany. Reading them today gives you a frightening glimpse into the popular zeitgeist that existed at the time. It makes you realize that Nazi Germany isn't that surprising, but what is surprising is that it only happened there and didn't spread to the rest of the western nations.

Before you begin chundering in impotent rage at some writer who lived nearly a hundred years ago, wrote for the people of his time, and was living in a time of extreme change the likes of which we wouldn't even be able to recognize. When Lovecraft was a boy, people still drove horse and buggy to town! Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to have a motor car, and that was when Lovecraft was 20 years old. You have to look at his entire life to understand where these feelings came from. He barely scraped by, his malnutrition may in fact have lead to his death. He viewed immigrants, much as many modern Americans today do, as some how taking the lively hoods of good, honest, hardworking Americans. The world which Lovecraft lived in, was in the early stages of transforming into the world we know today, but he himself grew up in, and of which he held the values from, is one which would be considered entirely alien today.

British literature is full of novels which show this transition. The transformation from the Victorian period, where people still fit into a rigid social order, to the modern day where to be a member of the upper class is to be ridiculed. In the last 50 years alone, such dramatic social change has influenced the western world that it is unrecognizable to what it once was. We have finally begun implementing the ideals which we built our nations on in the first place.

If you can't appreciate Lovecraft's work in the proper context, thats fine. To each their own. But don't act as if he was some how extraordinary in his views from that of the common man at the time.


Brian Murphy said...

Although I'm not versed enough in Lovecraft to say whether or not he was more or less racist for his time, I completely agree about the need to contextualize this stuff. It's real easy to scream racism; it's a lot harder to prove that someone's racism was not endemic to the time in place in which they lived.

You probably saw this, but I had probably the longest knock-down, drag-out internet fight I've ever had on the same subject of racism and its context, albeit regarding Robert E. Howard:

Lagomorph Rex said...

It's been a while, but I do vaguely remember that.

Taran said...

but I had probably the longest knock-down, drag-out internet fight I've ever had on the same subject of racism and its context, albeit regarding Robert E. Howard:

Faustusnotes is kind of notorious as a dick in the sf community. However, it can swing in the opposite direction: one time I butted heads with S.M. Stirling when he claimed Robert E. Howard wasn't racist in any way at all.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Yeah that would be preposterous.. I think thats the thing.. Howard was racist by todays standards for sure. But, for his own time, judging by the number of sympathetic characters he wrote about who were not Caucasian.. I'd say that he certainly had a progressive streak to him, and had he lived he likely would have continued to evolve his opinions accordingly with the times..

Even that arch-hater Lovecraft came to regret many of his opinions, but simply didn't like long enough to balance his earlier diatribes..

I think that may be the difference, Howard was very much a product of his times.. Lovecraft was very much a product of his grandfathers times, and likely would have fit in more comfortably in that time period with his racial attitudes than he did in the 20's and 30's.