The January 2021 question has arrived from John Miller, a Patreon patron…
What did HPL think of Prohibition? Was he a drinker? Did he have a favourite drink?
Lovecraft was not a ‘sot’ nor even a ‘tippler’, as he might have phrased it his best Georgian manner. He remained ‘dry’ until the end of his life. As for the wider society in which he lived, he was early in favour of the Prohibition Party and then welcomed the advent of the well-known ‘Prohibition era’ of 1920-33. His publication The Conservative championed prohibition. In letters and even an occasional private story (“Old Bugs”) he tried to guide his early proteges away from hard drink. Though, like many, he became increasingly sceptical about the practicalities of formal Prohibition.
His early stance on prohibition was forthright. It is in evidence in print from around 1915, though probably existed earlier. One vivid early example is his response to an encounter had on a night-walk in October 1916. He happened upon an open-air speech by a member of the Prohibition Party. The man had driven into what was obviously an insalubrious part of Providence at night, and was giving a public talk from an open car. Lovecraft, then aged 26, admired the seasoned and savvy fellow immensely. But was even more intrigued by the crowd listening…
… scarcely less interesting than the speaker were the dregs of humanity who clustered closest about him. I may say truly, that I have never before seen so many human derelicts all at once, gathered in one spot. I beheld modifications of human physiognomy which would have startled even a Hogarth, and abnormal types of gait and bodily carriage which proclaim with startling vividness man’s kinship to the jungle ape. And even in the open air the stench of whiskey was appalling. To this fiendish poison, I am certain, the greater part of the squalor I saw is due. … I reflected upon the power of wine, and marvelled how self-respecting persons can imbibe such stuff, or permit it be served upon their tables. It is the deadliest enemy with which humanity is faced. Not all the European wars could produce a tenth of the havock occasioned among men by the wretched fluid which responsible governments allow to be sold openly…. I am perhaps an extremist on the subject of prohibition, but I can see no justification whatsoever for the tolerance of such a degrading demon as drink.
Did Lovecraft ever get more than a sniff of booze? Perhaps. There is the vague and possibly made-up story that, at a party in New York (or perhaps Cleveland), someone once spiked his drink. It is said he became more talkative and voluble than usual, but that was apparently the only effect. Did he “know” afterward that he had experienced alcohol? That, as I recall, was left unstated. A more reliable account of a ‘brush with booze’ was an incident which occurred in the nighted alleys of New York City, when Lovecraft had to be rescued by friends from a well-hidden ‘speakeasy’ — a clandestine bar of the Prohibition period, run by gangsters. In pursuit of yet another shapely Georgian door-knocker, or perhaps an especially winsome stray kitty, he had innocently stumbled upon the concealed entrance.
In 1928 he felt much the same about the need for Prohibition, though by then he had come to doubt the practicalities of it when enforced by the state…
The existence of intoxicating drink is certainly an almost unrelieved evil from the point of view of an orderly and delicately cultivated civilisation; for I can’t see that it does
much save coarsen, animalise, and degrade. Any step to get rid of it is to be welcomed — just as any step to get rid of murder, robbery, and forgery is to be welcomed — and the only criticisms one can make of prohibitary legislation is that which pertains to its effectiveness and enforcement. … to a cynical soul [there comes] the question of whether or not the law is
worth the trouble of enforcing. … I am beginning to doubt. In 1919 I was a whole-hearted prohibitionist, but in 1928 I am more or less of a neutral [on the question of] legalised liquor versus futile and troublesome prohibition […] It is [now largely] an aesthetic matter with me. I think drink is ugly, and therefore I have nothing to do with it. This aesthetic position, by the way, may sound odd for one who professes to be a conservative; since of course all our respected forbears indulged [and] I think my own paternal great-great grandfather could have drunk any young modern cake-eater under the table without shaking a bit of powder from his Albemarle tie-wig; nor do I think any the less of him … [society has gradually lessened its need for alcohol, through temperance, led by the Victorians, and the habit seems to by dying out among the upper classes, but] my own aesthetic theory cannot help carrying it onward to the ideal of total extinction [where] the graces of wine live [only] in literature.
By 1929 he was indulging in a gargantuan correspondence with Woodburn Harris who, before his sudden conversion to doctrinaire communism, was a firebrand writer on the prohibition of liquor. Presumably Lovecraft learned much about the ways of the bootleggers and gangsters, in passing and over the years, from this and other correspondence. In “Old Bugs” he implied knowledge of the trade in Chicago, presumably gleaned from a correspondent, stating that… “Sheehan’s is the acknowledged centre to Chicago’s subterranean traffic in liquor and narcotics”. Later he even knew where it might be possible to obtain ‘hooch’ in Providence. He once joked with a friend that he might acquire a local case of bootleg whisky to ship to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright (to help steady his physical jitters induced by Parkinson’s disease)…
I feel tempted to unearth a local bootlegger [and] Providence’s Italian quarter is a miniature Chicago of hootch, gang wars, and rackets!
This was indeed the state of affairs in Federal Hill, under the Morelli mafia gang which had been allowed to become established there from 1917. Prohibition was said to be very unpopular in Providence, and it seems likely that some blind eyes were turned. That was one of the problems of Prohibition: it tended to bring the interest of gangsters and politicians into an uneasy alignment.
Prohibition lightly enters a few of Lovecraft’s stories. In “Red Hook” Detective Malone makes… “well-timed offers of hip-pocket liquor” to get information from his street informants. In Dexter Ward we learn of the hijack of clandestine “liquor shipments”, and in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” the narrator procures some under-the-counter bootleg liquor to lugubriate the tongue of old Zadock Allen. “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” mentions “a whiskey debauch”. Alcohol features most centrally in “The Quest of Iranon”, with the pivotal tragedy being how… “Romnod who had been a small boy in granite Teloth grew coarser and redder with wine”. In “Dream-Quest” some of the exotic wines of the Dreamlands can appear unimaginably potent to a visitor, as when the hero Carter takes… “only the least sip [of wine, and], he felt the dizziness of space and the fever of unimagined jungles.”
Prohibition also enhanced the idea of ‘the swamp’ in the popular mind. Such places were partly drained but still vast and trackless, prior to the extensive heavy-logging and draining of the mid 1930s. As such they had become key criminal conduits for running quality liquor and narcotic drugs into the USA, and it appears that some swamp dwellers added baby-farming to the roster of crime. This fed into the imaginative popular culture of the 1920s and thus the background of prohibition is implicit in the vivid swamp scenes of “The Call of Cthulhu”. Readers of the time would have recognised this link.
In some revision tales “whiskey” briefly appears. In “The Curse of Yig”… “Charms were always ready in exchange for whiskey”, and “The Horror in the Museum” states that it was… “on a night when Jones had brought a bottle of good whiskey and plied his host somewhat freely, that the really demented talk first appeared.”
Thus, there is ample evidence that those who today brew a pungent craft-beer or a spice-seasoned gin should be wary of naming it after Lovecraft, his creations or places. He would have raised an eyebrow at least, and would certainly not have endorsed the fiendish brew.
A different question is, did Lovecraft have a favourite drink? Well, his habitual drink was coffee, but that does not necessarily make it ‘the favourite’. One does not tend to sup ‘the favourite’ every day, or it palls. And as all coffee drinkers know… there is ‘coffee’ and there is ‘coffee!’ As with all pleasures, the experience can come close to disgust in some aspects, if over time one becomes more refined and discriminating in one’s pursuit of the chosen pleasure. The Camp bottle-coffee, that once delighted a glugging youth, in middle-age may come to seem a strange and somewhat distasteful brew. The coffee connoisseur will have long since moved on to better brands, with whiter and purer sugar, and he undoubtedly expects the beverage served at a certain temperature and even in a certain type of tableware. Perhaps ‘the favourite’ then becomes a certain exquisite coffee variety served in the expected way, and with a topping of vanilla ice-cream.
Lovecraft was lucky enough to live for a time in Brooklyn at its height, in the mid 1920s, where ‘coffee’ was ‘coffee!’ He patronised the Double-R Coffee House, whose manager was a seasoned Brazilian and where the “nicotined atmosphere” and artistic “types” added an extra buzz. In New York coffee was also available by the bucket, if needed. Lovecraft often carried a ‘pail’ of fresh coffee back to the gang, to help fuel their all-night ‘talk and walk’ sessions in Hell’s Kitchen, and he even purchased his own galvanised steel bucket for the purpose. Doubtless he also sampled the coffee-flavoured inventions of the city’s many glittering ice-cream bars, and may well have found an occasional favourite or two there. But ‘Lovecraft and coffee’ is an essay that has yet to be written.