Another good question from one of my $6 Patreon patrons…

Did HPL [Lovecraft] ever engage with the Harlem Renaissance or any of its major figures? Did he ever comment on them or their works? I’m especially interested in Zora Neale Hurston, but of course there were others. Did he ever visit Harlem when he was living in NYC (or at any time)?

Lovecraft had fond memories of Harlem. In 1896 at age six he enjoyed his first stage play in Providence, an event and staging thereafter forever indelibly etched within a nook of his capacious memory. This play had included “Act IV — A political picnic in Harlem” and he later recalled “the oddly loud apparel of the ‘ladies’ & ‘gents'” in the park. This play offered an idealised stage echo from an 1890s world of straw-boater hats, bright political rosettes and sawdust lucky-dips. A Harlem into which his friend Frank Belknap Long had been born in 1901, and where Long had also grown up. Long’s extensive conversations with Lovecraft in the 1920s would have undoubtedly conveyed certain memories of that older time and place, thus allowing Lovecraft to piece together a firmer idea of the old Harlem and its ways. Long before, their idol Poe had also walked alongside the Harlem River.

Lovecraft probably had some vague awareness of the changing demographics of modern Harlem before he first visited New York in 1922, perhaps via titbits picked up from the newspapers. For instance, his comic poem “The Nymph’s Reply to the Modern Businessman” (1917, in Tryout) has the suspicious young nymph remark… “But others have said things like that | and led me to a Harlem flat!” This appears to generally allude to Harlem’s reputation for licentious behaviour, since at that time Lovecraft had not met Long.

Long had grown up in Harlem, but he and his family had since moved away. Yet in the early 1920s James Morton, another of Lovecraft’s close friends, was still living there. During ‘the New York years’ Lovecraft appears to have heard repeated and vigorous arguments from Morton in favour of Harlem’s population, and he probably also heard something about their emerging modernist culture. Morton had been an active anarchist back in the days of ‘Red Emma’, and was still of that bent intellectually and also ardently anti-racist and had published and lectured on the topic. Though ageing and increasingly ‘past it’, as a seasoned travelling-lecturer he could still put up a stiff argument for racial equality. For instance Kirk, in his Diary, compares Morton to a “King” in terms of his conversation and arguments in 1924/26. We know that in 1922 Morton still lived in Harlem because Lovecraft wrote…

At the elevated station at 6th Ave. and 42nd St. I lost my fellow Anglo-Saxon, whose home is far to the north in the semi-African jungles of Harlem.” (18th May 1922).

This was later confirmed by Long’s autobiography, which noted Morton lived in one of the old New York ‘brownstone’ buildings and worked as a lecturer. From the new Family letters we now know that Lovecraft actually briefly saw Morton’s “No. 211” apartment in September 1922, and noted it as being of good architectural quality in a tree-lined street. In contrast to Long’s memory of it as a “brownstone” Lovecraft has it as “an old brick single house … spacious & unkempt” in which Morton had apartment rooms on the top floor. It was owned by “Edwin C. Walker” (d. 1931) who ran the freethought / free-love / inter-racialist Sunrise Club, which also had spiritualist speakers at its dining meetings. Lovecraft’s mention of the owner’s name and “211” gets me the address: “Edwin C. Walker, 211 W. 138th St.” in Publisher’s Weekly, 1917, and the American Booktrade Directory for 1925. Edwin C. Walker also merits a listing at that address in Hartmann’s Who’s Who in Occult, Psychic and Spiritual Realms, 1925. For more on Walker see the book The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America (1977).

The contrast between Lovecraft’s “single house” and Long’s “brownstone” is explained by a photograph. Lovecraft was likely using the architecturally-correct Georgian term for a long single-block of row-houses, built in the pseudo-Georgian style in the 1890s…

211-203 W. 138 St. With No. 211 glimpsed on the far left.

Thus it would be curious if Morton, prior to his move to New Jersey, was not verbally conveying to Lovecraft some sort of outline of Harlem’s emerging culture. Both he and his landlord appear to have been in the ‘cultural oratory’ business. Thus Morton might have re-shaped a rosy picture of Harlem very vaguely formed from hearing Long’s boyhood memories of the place. Conversation with Morton may have helped inform the over-the-top horror serial Herbert West (1922), penned by Lovecraft for the salacious Home Brew magazine. This serial “shocker” featured an episode in which a resurrection is attempted on a dead back-room boxer called ‘The Harlem Smoke’. The letters from Morton to Lovecraft, which we don’t now have, may have also given many details of the Harlem life in which Morton was involved.

There had been at least one meeting of the Kalem Club in Harlem, at Morton’s place in the searing heat of August 1924 (perhaps the place was larger and cooler than other venues, or the flat roof was accessible?) and this is attested by a Lovecraft letter and Kirk’s Diary. But it is quite possible he did not walk the streets at night to get there, and took a tram instead. On the way back, in the middle of the night, the streets would likely have been almost empty.

Morton moved away from Harlem in 1925, but for some reason Lovecraft actually visited Harlem in person at the start of 1925. His telegraphic 1925 Diary cryptically records…

[Jan 17] Morn. fix up GK room. Aft. shop — Harlem — return 106.

… thus we know that Lovecraft was strolling through Harlem on the afternoon of 17th January 1925. Why he was there is anyone’s guess. Possibly it was to make a last visit to Morton before the old fellow’s marriage and move to Paterson, New Jersey.

In a 1927 letter Lovecraft talks of the sights his young correspondent must see in New York, and one of these is Harlem…

sinister and fascinating – not a white face for blocks. Lenox Ave. subway to 125th St. – walk north.

This most likely indicates a route Lovecraft was familiar with, most probably the one he occasionally took to visit Morton.

Lovecraft was also aware of Harlem as a home of jazz, and once remarked in his New York letters on his awareness of the new cultural forms of theatre then being born in the clubs of Harlem. Like many in the USA, he did not subscribe to the correct ‘little journals’ such as the Dial, where he might have read sympathetic and informed accounts of the new modern forms of culture. But he would have picked up the gist of the place from the newspapers and from his circle. It would have been part of his ‘mental map’ of the city.

We also know of a tangential connection he briefly made with Harlem. Toward the end of March 1925 Lovecraft’s silhouette was crafted at a Broadway book shop by the silhouettist E.J. Perry, who in the summer worked a stand at Coney Island’s Luna Park and who lived in Harlem in the mid 1920s.

Lovecraft’s wife Sonia later had her silhouette cut twice by the same artist, this time at Coney Island.

Should Lovecraft have known, during his New York years, of what are now thought of as the major writers of the Harlem Renaissance — Hurston, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes? Let’s consider them one by one.

The mystic poet Jean Toomer published just one book, Cane (1923). This experimental modernist collection of poems and vignettes centered about the black experience in Georgia, in the deep south of America. The book took a nostalgic view of the black rural folk-culture, which Toomer saw as fading away in the face of the drift to the big cities. However, Cane was not widely read until republished and hailed as a classic in the late 1960s.

Zora Neale Hurston was an undergraduate student during Lovecraft’s New York years, graduating from her B.A. degree in 1928 and then taking a two-year Masters degree at Columbia. After that she spent five years travelling the South, Jamaica and Haiti collecting folklore and songs. Hurston does appear to have had two short pieces in a small Harlem modernist magazine of the mid 1920s, including the now-notable “Sweat” about an abused washerwoman, but during this period it was unlikely that even the Harlem-based Morton knew of her as a writer of fiction. Her first substantial print works were Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934, debut novel, semi-autobiographical work about a philandering father), and Of Mules and Men (1935, a study of African-American folklore collected from North Florida logging camps, and some initial ventures into voodoo in New Orleans/Haiti). These appeared late in Lovecraft’s life and obviously went un-noticed by him, though it’s possible he encountered book reviews of Of Mules and Men in the press in the Fall of 1935. Her later books Their Eyes Were
Watching God
(1937, novel) and Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938) appeared after his death.

Langston Hughes was at Columbia for a year as an undergraduate in 1921 and is said to have enjoyed the night-life of Harlem at around that time. It appears that Hughes was not then in New York again until 1929, when he graduated from a B.A. degree elsewhere and returned to live in New York City. So far as I can tell he does not seem to have been in New York when Lovecraft was living there. His debut poetry collection was published in 1927, after Lovecraft left New York and it was his “least successful in terms of both sales and critical reception” (Wikipedia, citing a study of the book’s reception). His debut novel was Not Without Laughter (1930, coming-of-age in rural Kansas before the First World War) and — despite being hailed as a powerful debut — its subject matter does not seem likely to have appealed to Lovecraft.

Claude McKay appears to have been substantially an IWW (syndicalist) and then a communist journalist, until his first novel Home to Harlem (1928). This followed the white Carl Van Vechten’s ground-breaking sensationalist novel about Harlem nightlife, which had been published in October 1926 — six months after Lovecraft had left the city (Carl Van Vechten: A Bibliography). McKay’s novel appeared even later, several years after Lovecraft had left New York City. According to Wikipedia McKay’s novel was controversial when published, as like Van Vechten he… “depicts a culture in Harlem that is full of drug use, prostitution, and a variety of sexual encounters”. McKay’s novel was acclaimed and well reviewed, and Lovecraft may well have seen reviews of it and recalled the earlier Van Vechten novel. Yet neither sound like the sort of book that would have made Lovecraft regret not venturing further into Harlem in the mid 1920s. Nor would either have modified his racist view, encountered in the letters, that New York City was a giant ‘pest zone’.

As we can see from the dates above, there is very little reason why either Lovecraft or his circle should have been strongly aware of these writers while living in New York City in the mid 1920s. Nor, in the books I have access to, did he ever comment later on their works. He was, however, aware in the mid 1920s of Harlem as a home to jazz and new cabaret theatre. Probably this knowledge came both from reading the New York press and from talking with those in his circle who were long-standing New Yorkers.

A decade later in 1934 he shows in a letter than he was still aware of the then-current racial geography of New York City, presumably from first hand experience, stating that the black district formed a “zone from about 150th St. down to 125th & beyond” and was pushing south into the then Puerto-Rican area of “upper 5th Ave”. He also noted that expansion… “is checked abruptly on the west by the rocky precipice of St. Nicholas Heights … & the streets [around] the old country seat of Alexander Hamilton”. He also comments in passing on the strong divisions of ‘social standing’ which black people operate among themselves (rich and poor, different island origins and skin shades etc.) and notes the tidiness of those small parts “of Harlem where the rich blacks dwell”. He also comments on the curiosities and voodoo-like items sold in shops on “Lenox & 7th Aves”. All of which indicate he had by then walked the streets involved, and thus might seem to contradict the old notion that Lovecraft ‘ran screaming and cowering’ on seeing a black face. By 1934 he was slowing down in his writing, but such things could have influenced his tales had he gone on living. He might well — as I have suggested elsewhere — have written tales of ancient Africa in the time of the Roman Empire, in the liminal setting of the border region between the Empire and Africa.