Book Review: I Am Providence (Hippocampus Press, 2010).

I’ve finally finished reading S.T. Joshi’s magnificently expanded two-volume life of H.P. Lovecraft, I Am Providence. I came to it without reading through the earlier versions, although I had consulted Joshi’s books extensively via Google Books.

I Am Providence is certainly a hefty treasure, both in terms of the weight and the $100 cost. It is handsomely presented in two volumes between firm black boards, and was printed on good paper. The binding stood up well to my robust first reading, the boards staying flat and the spine only becoming very slightly slippy. Some have suggested (seemingly at a first glance?) that the font choice is a little small, but I had no problem at all with eye-strain while reading through the 1150 pages. I was reading the volumes in a bright summer light, though — so perhaps those reading by a single bulb in the winter, and with older eyes than mine, may have more trouble with the font size. More photographs might have been welcome, and on glossy rather than matte paper, though I expect that the cost of reproduction rights was a factor here. I spotted about ten very minor and trivial typos, but these are obvious and don’t affect the meaning of the passage or the word used. In a work of this size it is no doubt impracticable for a niche small press to get all the typos out, without crowd-sourcing the job or paying a small fortune to professional proof-readers. Both in terms of their tactile nature and their readability / technical precision, the two volumes are very pleasing.

I Am Providence is clearly written in plain English, and it has a straightforward organisation and a substantial index and bibliography. Overall I felt that the book was not a whit too long, although I admit I did skim-read perhaps thirty pages or so, mostly pages that detail petty squabbles within the amateur journalism movement of the 1910s and 20s. Joshi laces the volumes with reams of fascinating facts that must have taken platoons of scholars and fans years of time and trouble to unearth during the last 70 years. Those of us who may be becoming interested in Lovecraft scholarship in the 2010s really do owe an immense debt of gratitude to these grand old fellows for all their painstaking work, some of which has apparently still not been published. In addition, some of the facts in I Am Providence are quite new, arising from quite recent scholarship and discoveries. There is also a useful end chapter giving a distilled summation of the later development of the Lovecraft mythos, its adaptation in other media, and the outlines of Lovecraftian scholarship from 1937 to about 2009.

Are there flaws? There are a few, and it’s probably very churlish of me to mention them but I’m going to anyway. Joshi’s socialism pokes its giant elbow in here and there, but it is always eminently detectable and dissolvable. Homosexuality in Lovecraft’s circle is often left unmentioned or barely treated at certain points, where some very useful elaborations might have been made in the same manner as Joshi elaborates elsewhere on the racial aspects. I was especially curious to see if Barlow’s homosexuality was a factor in Barlow being bullied out of the Lovecraft estate by Derleth. Possibly not, but this occurrence is very vaguely despatched by Joshi in one rather curt and short line, with no reference to where one might find the full facts.

In general the book only allows the various historical contexts to play rather lightly in the background. But to be fair, to have fully treated these would no doubt have required another complete volume of appendices, and the reading of a great many weighty history books from university presses (many of which have appeared only in the last decade, with 1920s New York and the Great Depression being especially well covered with new scholarship). In particular, though, Joshi’s view of the political response to the early years of the Great Depression seems to me to rest too much on out-of-date and partisan leftist histories of the era.

But these are relatively minor and carping points, when set against the grand and impressive sweep of the book. The Lovecraft that emerges from the pages is certainly not ‘the isolated mad freak’ that many have claimed (and some would still like to believe) Lovecraft was. Nor does the book give the slightest encouragement to those who wish to claim Lovecraft as some kind of occult practitioner or prophet. Some have apparently quibbled at the way Joshi inserts his critical opinions on the worth of each of Lovecraft’s stories. I found these short comments and asides to be useful, especially since they do not arise from trendy academic theories and are not obscured by lit-crit jargon. Over the last year I have returned to Lovecraft and have re-read nearly all of the fiction, and I found myself in general agreement with Joshi’s opinions and his plainly-worded rankings of the various works. Likewise the attention Joshi pays to issues of anti-semitism and racialism seems fair-minded and careful, and the broader context of the ubiquity of such ideas in the 1920s and 30s is introduced and considered. In conclusion, I Am Providence is a highly recommended and valuable grounding for those becoming interested in Lovecraft’s life and works, and it is likely to remain so long into the future. Next on my list is the sadly out-of-print Lord Of A Visible World: an autobiography in letters (Ohio University Press, 2000), in which Lovecraft effectively gives us his life in his own words via the letters. It should make a fine bookshelf-companion for Joshi’s two monumental volumes.