Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Architecture vs. Communist Hordes

"There be those who say that things and places have souls..."
—from The Street (1920) by H.P. Lovecraft  

S.T. Joshi describes H.P. Lovecraft’s The Street as “this wild, paranoid, racist fantasy…” and believes that “…it is probably the single worst tale Lovecraft ever wrote.”  In my view, the worst by far is The Quest of Iranon, (1935), Lovecraft’s tribute to narcissism written in tiresome King James Bible-ese.  (The story was actually written a few years after The Street, but published much later.)  This may be a matter of personal taste—how one reacts to a work of fiction may say more about the reader than the author’s actual intent or level of success.

Joshi interprets The Quest of Iranon as basically a lament about the sufferings of the creative artist under religious and specifically Christian repression.   Though his thorough and illuminating biography is a critical resource for Lovecraft scholars, Joshi is an enthusiastic atheist, and never misses an opportunity to find literary support among dead authors for his world view.  As a Christian, though a mediocre one, I feel that Iranon suffers a just, if too long delayed end for his presumption and egocentrism.  Iranon—perhaps Lovecraft as well—expected that others would work to support his ethereal and artistic lifestyle, as slaves did in Ancient Greece.

The Street is not really a story.  There are no real characters, unless one counts the paranoid narrator who clearly gives voice to Lovecraft’s conservative and reactionary views.  He published this story relatively early in his career and may have modified his views of racial and ethnic minorities as time went on, as some have suggested.  Through his narrator, Lovecraft ruminates about the seditious activities of immigrants in what was once an idyllic—that is, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant—New England city. 

Anxiety about foreigners and also about African Americans migrating from the south was intense during the early 1920s.  To some extent, it is still prevalent even today.   The Street is basically a short metaphorical synopsis of American history up to and just after the First World War

The narrator begins by glorifying the Puritans and their contribution to New England society.  (One imagines that Lovecraft’s principle biographer found this section annoying and unhelpful to his cause.)  The city thrives despite wars and early struggles with Native Americans; it later sends its young men abroad to support American and British allies in The Great War.  Near the end of that war there is a revolution in a foreign land.  This is presumably the Russian Revolution, which brought the communists to power and nurtured Marxist movements around the world, including in America.  Modernization and mechanization also arrive, and “the air was not quite so pure as before.”

Seditious activities around the city intensify as the numbers of foreigners increase.  Lovecraft describes them as having “swarthy, sinister faces with furtive eyes and odd features, whose owners spoke in unfamiliar words…”  There are clandestine meetings in what were once sturdy historic old homes.  There is talk of revolution, instigated by “a vast band of terrorists” whose plan is “to stamp out the soul of the old America.”  The narrator appears to be some sort of proto-Tea Party member.

An unbeliever, Lovecraft puts his faith instead in the ancient colonial architecture of New England.  At the end of this remarkable piece, the communist hordes are gathered in various buildings, just about to launch their long awaited attack on America And All It Stands For.  But all along ‘the street’ the old buildings fashioned by the original citizenry collapse on the newcomers, killing them all.  Given what the world has recently experienced of terrorism and political violence, The Street has an eerie resonance.

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