H.P.L. BIOGRAPHY: PART ONE
THE YOUNG LOVECRAFT
A study of Lovecraft's life would not be complete without a look into
his genealogy. Though he claimed not to be a good genealogist, the facts
of his ancestral roots were of great importance both in his personal life
and in his writing. To understand young Howard Phillips, a peek into that
ancestry seems requisite. On his paternal side, his great-grandfather Joseph
Lovecraft and his five children moved from Devonshire, England to Rochester,
New York in 1847 because of financial difficulties. His grandfather George
Lovecraft (1815-95) was, at the time, twelve years old. H. P. Lovecraft
never met his English-born grandfather but drew a strong, romantic impression
of him from daguerreotypes and photographs. He would always be proud of
the fact that he was, on his paternal side, "only of the second American-born
generation," (1) and would often describe himself as more
British (and eighteenth century) than American. After moving to Mount Vernon,
New York, Lovecraft's grandfather, George, married Helen Allgood. Her father,
Lancelot Allgood, had been a British officer in the American Revolution
who had remained in the United States after the war. The Allgood's English
ancestral home was the manor of Nunwick, near Hexham in Northumberland.
Lovecraft's father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, was born in 1853, the youngest
child and only son of George and Helen. Winfield's older sisters were Emma
(who married Isaac Hill, the principal of the Pelham, New York High School)
and Mary. Winfield was educated in private and military schools and specialized
in modern languages. He went on to be a travelling salesman for the Gorham
Silver Company of Providence.
In contrast, his maternal Phillips side was classic New England Yankee
from the ancestral lines of Phillips, Place, and Rathbone. Reverend George
Phillips came from Norfolk, England to Salem, Massachusetts in 1630. Shortly
after arriving, his wife died and he moved to Watertown with his many children.
Lovecraft's great-grandfather, Jeremiah Phillips, owned one of the first
mills in Foster, Rhode Island. His son, Whipple Van Buren Phillips, (Lovecraft's
grandfather), was born on November 22, 1833. When Whipple was only thirteen,
his father, still a young man, was accidentally killed in the mill's machinery.
Whipple went to school at the East Greenwich Academy (then called The
Providence Conference Seminary) and went on to teach in the country schools.
Whipple left teaching to build a mill in the western Rhode Island village
of Coffin Corner, which he renamed Greene, Rhode Island. He married his
first cousin, Miss Rhoby Alzada Place, (who had been educated at the Latham
Seminary). Whipple and Rhoby Phillips had four children: Lillian Dolores
(1856-1932), Sarah Susan "Susie" (Lovecraft's mother, born 1857), Edwin
E. (1864-1918), and Anna Emiline (1866-1941). Lillian and Sarah attended
the Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts. Lillian went on to the State
Normal School and became a teacher. In 1873, Whipple Phillips sold off
his estate and interests in Greene and moved to Providence where he entered
the real estate business. He purchased a large home at 194 Angell Street
in Providence, Rhode Island. (Later the city would change the street number
to 454.) Despite Lovecraft's love for his grandfather and grandmother,
their close lineage would become a source of fear for Lovecraft, a fear
of the dangers of inbreeding, perhaps sparking his response to Cotton Mather's
epitaph for his maternal ancestor: "'Hic Jacet GEORGE PHILLIPPI, Vir Incomparabilis,
nisi SAMUELUM genuisset'. It is a cantankering sorrow of my life, that
I am descended through another son than the more than incomparable Samuel!"
Winfield Lovecraft and Sarah S. Phillips were married in Boston on June
12, 1889, and moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts.
As for Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself, the future purveyor of horror
and science fiction was born on August 20, 1890, when Winfield was 37 and
Sarah 33. He was their only child and born in the Whipple Phillips home
in Providence. Lovecraft's first year and a half were spent in Providence.
In 1892, the Lovecrafts decided to build their own home in Massachusetts.
While the plans were being made, the family stayed in rental apartments
and with the family of Susie's friend, well-known poetess Miss Louise Imogen
Guiney (1861-1920), in Auburndale, Massachusetts. The Guiney household
was often visited by such famous personages as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Miss Guiney had a collection of Saint Bernard dogs which were named after
authors and poets. Lovecraft had a fondness for one male dog named Bronte
who would walk alongside as his mother wheeled him around in his baby carriage.
Miss Guiney's mother was the cultured widow of a Civil War general. Mrs.
Guiney called Lovecraft "Little Sunshine" as much for his temperament as
for the long blond ringlets Lovecraft's mother had him wear. He was a rapid
talker, learning his alphabet from his building blocks and his picture
books, and was soon reciting verses from Mother Goose to entertain the
Of his father, he wrote, "I can just remember my father-an immaculate
figure in black coat & vest & grey striped trousers. I had a childish
habit of slapping him on the knees & shouting 'Papa, you look just
like a young man!' I don't know where I picked that phrase up; but I was
vain and selfconscious, & given to repeating things which I saw tickled
my elders. I was highly nervous-[...]-& distinctly like to 'show off'.
This latter tendency-& the vanity & self-consciousness behind it-later
succumbed to good advice & the better perspective of life imparted
by reading, though its disappearance was slow & gradual." (3)
The family house was never built. In April of 1893, Lovecraft's father,
after a number of bouts of hallucinations, was stricken by what the doctors
of the time called a condition of advanced cerebral disease or "general
paralysis of the insane." Lovecraft himself believed his father suffered
a paralytic stroke "...resulting from a brain overtaxed with study &
business cares." (4) Lovecraft and his mother moved back
to the Phillips family home in Providence. His father would spend the next
five years until his death in the hospital unable to move or speak.
Life in the Whipple Phillips home was to change young Lovecraft radically.
Rather than grow up the son of a struggling, travelling silverplate salesman,
Lovecraft became the young inheritor to the grand Providence manor of a
rich, retired mill owner. The house was a three-story, fifteen-room edifice
dedicated to the serenity and culture of the nineteenth century. It was
an idyllic world for a young boy with its extensive grounds, terraces,
walks, fountains as well a horse stable with coach and driver. When Lovecraft
was four or five, the family coachman built him a clubhouse in the vacant
lot adjacent to the property with a stair to the flat roof where Lovecraft
would eventually mount his
telescope. An avid railroad buff, he called this shack "The Engine House"
and constructed engines and cars using his express-wagon and carts with
packing crates. The whole lot and the family grounds became his railway.
Whipple Phillips was a grand man who, in the style of the nineteenth
century, had travelled in Europe and was versed in the art of Italy and
Roman and Greek culture. Lovecraft soon came to revere his grandfather
and saw himself growing to emulate his cosmopolitan ways.
The entire household was well educated and upper-class. His grandmother,
Rhoby Phillips, was a serene, quiet lady, prim and proper. She was a devoted
student of astronomy and it would be her books that eventually gave rise
to Lovecraft's own interest in the science. His uncle Edwin soon married
and moved away from the house. His oldest aunt, Lillian, was a devotee
of science and literature. She turned Lovecraft toward the classics and
guided him toward his interest in chemistry. She would have been a great
artist, Lovecraft thought, if she had not given it up when she eventually
married Dr. Clark. His youngest aunt, Anna, was in the social life of Providence.
She brought gaiety to the rather conservative household. Annie was dating
Mr. Edward F. Gamwell, a Brown English instructor and editor of the Atlantic
Medical Weekly of Providence. Lovecraft admired Gamwell second only
to his grandfather, but was too young to understand adult relationships
and became cynical of love affairs by the time Anna and Edward announced
And in the middle of all these adults was Lovecraft. He was greatly
fawned over and over-protected. It is uncertain why but, either in truth,
or because of his father's example, or because of his mother's overprotective
attentions, Lovecraft grew to be a boy of what was called "fragile health."
He would often have nervous attacks, migraine headaches, and insomnia.
Very early on, Lovecraft displayed a great desire for knowledge. By
age four, he began reading through the ample Phillips library and would
look up every word he didn't know in the dictionary. His paternal grandfather,
George Lovecraft, sent him the Lovecraft library since, due to his father's
paralysis, he was now the family heir. Lovecraft was especially proud of
the older volumes with fly-leaf inscriptions such as "Tho. Lovecraft, Gent.
His Book, 1787", and "Stephen Place's Book, bought by Him in Boston, May,
1805." By the time he was five he had devoured Grimms Fairy Tales
and The Thousand And One Arabian Nights. As he would later
admit that "for attractiveness I favoured the Arabian Nights. At one time
I formed a juvenile collection of Oriental pottery and objects d'art, announcing
myself as a devout Mohammedan and assuming the pseudonym of 'Abdul Alhazred'-which
you will recognize as the author of that mythical Necronomicon which
I drag into various of my tales." (6) He attempted his
first short story, "The Little Glass Bottle." It was a 200 word tale of
a ship that discovered a treasure map in a bottle only to find out, after
sailing half way around the world, that it was only a practical joke.
At six, Lovecraft discovered the world of fairy tales through Nathaniel
Hawthorne's 'Wonder Book' and 'Tanglewood Tales.' Though these were prose
versions of the great Greek and Roman epic poems, Lovecraft embraced the
philosophies of these ancient cultures. He also found, amongst his aunt
Lillian's books, a copy of the Odyssey in 'Harper's Half-Hour Series.'
"From the opening chapter I was electrified, and by the time I reached
the end I was for evermore a Graeco-Roman. My Bagdad name and affiliations
disappeared at once." (7) From the children's versions
of the classics he moved rapidly on to an illustrated edition of Bulfinch's
'Age of Fable'.
He also came in contact with contemporary tales of horror: "I never
heard oral weird tales except from my grandfather-who, observing
my tastes in reading, used to devise all sorts of impromptu original yarns
about black woods, unfathomed caves, winged horrors (like the 'nightgaunts'
of my dreams, about which I used to tell him), old witches with sinister
cauldrons, & 'deep, low, moaning sounds'. He obviously drew most of
his imagery from the early gothic romances-Radcliffe, Lewis, Maturin, &c.-which
he seemed to like better than Poe or other later fantasistes. He was the
only other person I knew-young or old-who cared for macabre & horrific
In the winter of 1896, Mr. Manow from across the street, who ran The
Providence Opera House, gave one of Lovecraft's aunts tickets and she took
him to see his first play, The Sunshine of Paradise Alley by Denman
Thompson, about Nellie O'Grady, the piece of sunshine in the slums of Brooklyn.
Lovecraft had never seen slums except for that stage set.
"In January 1986, the death of my grandmother plunged the household
into a gloom from which it never full recovered. The black attire of my
mother and aunts terrified & repelled me to such an extent that I would
surreptitiously pin bits of bright cloth or paper to their skirts for sheer
relief." (9) It also brought on the first of Lovecraft's
many bouts with depression. He pored over the eerie Gustav Dore drawings
in John Milton's Paradise Lost which he found one day in the east
parlor. He began to have nightmares about 'nightgaunts,' a phrase
he coined. He would try to stay awake rather than succumb to these nightmares.
Lovecraft also discovered and embraced temperance, reading and rereading
John B. Gough's Sunshine and Shadow.
In 1897, at age seven, based on his study of classical mythology in
Bulfinch's Age of Fable, Lovecraft wrote his first major poem entitled
'The Poem of Ulysses: or, The New Odyssey.' He also wrote a story about
a cave of robbers called 'The Noble Eavesdropper.' In a letter to
J. Vernon Shea in July of 1931, Lovecraft described this story as "about
a boy who overheard some horrible conclave of subterranean beings in a
His younger aunt, Annie, married Edward Gamwell, now associate editor
of the Boston Budget and Beacon (a fact that may have inspired Lovecraft's
own publishing attempts). They moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It was about this time that he began to feel the weight of his Puritan
religious upbringing: "Religious matters likewise fretted me. I never
had the slightest shadow of belief in the supernatural, but pretended
to believe, because it was deemed the proper thing in a Baptist household.
Sunday school so much depressed me, that I was soon relieved of that care."
He became aware that the family fortune was dwindling as the servants
and coachman were let go, the stables closed down, and the horses and carriage
sold off. The only pleasant aspect of this was that the abandoned stable
and coachhouse gave Lovecraft with an even greater playhouse. He built
his own world here using a section of the coachman's apartment for offices
and the stables for a great railroad terminal, theater, etc.
Unable to paint like his mother and his eldest aunt (who had canvasses
hung at the Providence Art Club), Lovecraft tried his hand at music, studying
with Mrs. Wilhelm Nauck, a local violin teacher. This "career" lasted only
two years. "I began to detest classical music, because it meant so much
painful labour to me; & I positively loathed the violin! Our physician,
knowing my temperament, advised an immediate discontinuance of music lessons,
which speedily ensued." (12)
During Christmas week, Lovecraft was taken to the Opera House to see
his first Shakespearean play, Cymbeline, featuring Margaret Mather
as Imogen. The play and the sets impressed him to the point that he went
home and created hand-painted pasteboard characters and performed the play
again and again at home.
In 1898 on July 19, when Lovecraft was eight, his father died in the
Butler Hospital in Providence. After a private funeral, he was buried in
the nearby Swan Point Cemetery. The effect of this on Lovecraft is uncertain.
With few exceptions, he rarely spoke of his father.
Living without a father in a Victorian household with a mother who was
cold to sexual matters, Lovecraft fell upon the 'facts of life' on his
own. He came across the family copy of Quinn's illustrated anatomy, Dunglinson's
Physiology, and others. "This was because of curiosity & perplexity
concerning the strange reticences & embarrassments of adult speech,
& the oddly inexplicable allusions & situations in standard literature.
The result was the very opposite of what parents generally fear-for instead
of giving me an abnormal & precocious interest in sex (as unsatisfied
curiosity might have done), it virtually killed my interest in the subject.
The whole matter was reduced to prosaic mechanism-a mechanism which I rather
despised or at least thought non-glamorous because of its purely animal
nature & separation from such things as intellect & beauty-&
all the drama was taken out of it." (13)
In general, Mrs. Lovecraft kept her son close and did her best to shelter
him from the realities (and, therefore, dangers) of life. Lovecraft admitted
that, being raised by a sensitive and overprotective mother, he grew up
in relative isolation, forced to think of himself as unlike other people.
He was, he claimed, a precocious child and "very peculiar and sensitive,
always preferring the society of grown persons to that of other children."
When his mother asked him if he wanted to go to dancing school to be around
other children he responded: "Nemo fere saltat sobius, nisi forte insanit!"
[Almost nobody dances sober, unless they are insane] from Cicero's oration
Though it had been decided that young Howard was too irritable and sensitive
to attend school, in 1898 he finally entered the Slater Avenue School in
Providence. He was taken in at the highest level of primary school since
his home education had been extensive. His attendance was erratic and his
indifferent health prevented him from making the usual childhood friends
or partaking in games, but his own rapid progress in reading and writing
gave him both a satisfactory substitute for social activities and a preference
for the company of adults. He was, thus, a solitary child, though not a
lonely one because of his many scholarly interests.
It was at this time at the age of eight that he wrote The Secret
Cave, which he described as a short story whose conclusion contains
a violent death as did most of his stories.
"In my ninth year, as I was reading the Grecian myths in their standard
poetical translations and thus acquiring unconsciously my taste for Queen-Anne
English, the real foundations of my skepticism (for religion) were laid.
Impelled by the crude but fascinating picture of scientific instruments
in the back of Webster's Unabridged, I began to take an interest in natural
philosophy and chemistry; and soon had a promising laboratory in my cellar,
and a new stock of simple scientific text-books in my budding library."
Chemistry, thanks to Aunt Lillian, came first. A family friend, Professor
John Howard Appleton, a published professor of chemistry at Brown, presented
Lovecraft with his own book for beginners - The Young Chemist.
"But mythology was by no means neglected. In this period I read much
in Egyptian, Hindoo, and Teutonic mythology, and tried experiments in pretending
to believe in each one, to see which might contain the greatest amount
of truth. I had, it will be noted, immediately adopted the method and manner
of science! Naturally, having an open and unemotional mind, I was soon
a complete skeptic and materialist. My scientific studies had enlarged
to include geographical, biological, and astronomical rudiments, and I
had acquired the habit of relentless analysis in all matters." (16)
Lovecraft wrote a treatise called 'Mythology for the Young' and a treatise
called 'Egyptian Myths.'
About this time he got his first volume of Poe and adopted him as a
model. Virtually all his tales were weird, for nothing has ever fascinated
him half so much as the mystery of time and space and the
unknown. Remote and inaccessible places and other worlds enthralled
At the turn of the century, Lovecraft turned his
interests to geography and history and began an intense interest in
Antarctic exploration. The Borchgrevink expedition had just made a new
record in South Polar achievement. He would write fanciful tales of the
Antarctic Continent and composed factual treatises. He also wrote 'An Historical
Account of Last Year's War with SPAIN.'
Lovecraft again tried to attend the Slater Avenue School. The school
had added grammar levels. Though he claims to have been 'intractable' to
his teachers, lecturing them whenever they tried to lecture him, he attempted
to fit in with his peers. It was here that Lovecraft made a few childhood
friends: the three Banigan brothers and the Monroe brother, brothers Chester
Pierce Munroe (1889-1943) and Harold Bateman Munroe (1891-1966). These
were the core of the "Slater Avenue Army," a group of boys who staged wars
in the neighboring woods. Chester would also join the United Amateur. Harold
would later become Deputy Sheriff.
One of the ways Lovecraft related to the local boys was to invite them
to his 'Engine House' in the vacant lot. With the "Army" he built a little
village of with roads and gardens protected from the Indians by an impregnable
fort made of earthwork walls. This village came to be called 'New Anvik'
after an Alaskan village Lovecraft had read about in a popular boys' book
called 'Snow-Shoes and Sledges,' by Kirk Munroe. He managed, despite his
scholarly demeanor, to remain one of the "guys."
At eleven, Lovecraft wrote what he called his pompous book, two volumes
of poetry under the title 'Poemata Minora.' These he dedicated: "To the
Gods, Heroes, and Ideals of the Ancients', and harped in disillusioned,
world-weary tones on the sorrow of the pagan robbed of his antique pantheon."
Unfortunately only the second volume of these poems still exists.
By the next year, Lovecraft had written a number of other short stories
entitled 'The Haunted House,' 'The Secret of the Grave,' and 'John the
Detective.' He had written many non-fiction treatises: 'Acids,' 'Explosives,'
"Iron Working,' 'Static Electricity.' His historical works included 'Early
Rhode Island,' 'Ross's Explorations,' and 'Wilkes's Explorations.' His
poetry included 'The Hermit' and 'The Aeneid,' 'The Argonauts,' and 'The
Iliad' (all of which, like 'The Poem of Ulysses,' retold the epics).
Lovecraft returned to school but "The most poignant sensations of my
existence are those of 1896, when I discovered the Hellenic world, and
of 1902, when I discovered the myriad suns and world of infinite space.
Sometimes I think the latter event the greater, for the grandeur of that
growing conception of the universe still excites a thrill hardly to be
duplicated." (18) He began work on his six volume "Chemistry"
of which only four volumes have survived.
On April 10, 1902, Aunt Lillian finally, after years of courtship, married
Dr. Franklin Chase Clark, M.D., A.B., A.M., a graduate of Brown, Harvard
Medical School and Columbia College and a distant relative. Lovecraft was
greatly impressed by Dr. Clark who was learned in classical languages and
in poetry. The Doctor's poetry was also derived from classical form and
Lovecraft would labor for hours over a piece in hopes to elicit praise
from the man. But Lovecraft always felt inferior to Clark. He would watch
enviously, in 1915 after Dr. Clark's death, as the Rhode Island Historical
Society took over the Doctor's unpublished papers for archival safe keeping.
In February of 1903, Lovecraft's mother gave him a 2 1/2" telescope.
Professor Upton of Brown, a family friend, let him have the run of Ladd
Observatory which was about a mile from the Phillips house. He would walk
his bike up the hill to the observatory and coast back down.
In March of that year, 1903, Lovecraft began publishing his daily paper
on chemistry called The Scientific Gazette of which he made four
carbon copies for "circulation." This paper was to continue for seven years
though it soon degenerated to a weekly. Unfortunately no issues exist between
Volume 1 Number I (April 12, 1902) and Volume 3, Number 1 (August 16, 1903).
Aunt Annie's husband, Edward Gamwell, taught Lovecraft the Greek alphabet.
Gamwell was the owner and editor of the Cambridge Tribune, (a fact
that encouraged Lovecraft to found, in August, the Rhode Island Journal
of Astronomy to replace the almost defunct Scientific Gazette,
though for a time that year he managed to publish both). Annie and Edward
had two children, a girl who died in a matter of days, and a son, Phillips
Gamwell (1898-1916). Lovecraft liked and helped educate his little cousin
who, unfortunately, died young of tuberculosis. After the death of his
son, Gamwell turned to drinking. Annie would eventually leave him and return
to Providence where she worked various jobs including librarian.
The very small hectographed paper, The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy,
continued for a few years. He also wrote 'Antarctic Atlas.' At the age
of sixteen (while still in school) he broke into professional print for
the first time with a monthly article on astronomical phenomena in a new
local daily, and followed this with other astronomical articles in the
Instead of returning to school in the autumn, Lovecraft was privately
tutored until 1904, when he was fourteen. He wrote 'The Science Library'
of which three of the nine volumes exist. The lost volumes has such titles
as 'The Life of Galileo,' 'The Life of Herschel (revised)'; '6. Selections
from Authros 'Astronomy',' and 'The Moon,' (Parts I & II).
In the spring of 1904, Lovecraft received one of his greatest blows.
On March 28th, his grandfather died of a apoplectic stroke. His death also
brought the financial ruin to the family. As the president of the Owyhee
Land & Irrigation Co., Phillips had weathered many calamities including
the bursting of the Snake River Dam. But without him, the company dissolved
resulting in a great loss to the stockholders. Lovecraft and his mother
were forced to vacate the 454 Angell Street house and move three block
east to 598 Angell Street. The loss of his paradise left Lovecraft emotionally
broken. He vowed to become a success and buy back the family mansion. Perhaps
he secretly knew he never would be able to and considered himself a failure
because of it.
Of the house he was born in, Lovecraft wrote, "In the mid-seventies,
my grandfather transferred all his interest to Providence (where his offices
had always been) & erected one of the handsomest residences in the
city - to me, the handsomest - my own beloved birthplace! The spacious
house, raised on a high green terrace, looks down upon grounds which are
almost a park, with winding walks, arbours, trees, & a delightful fountain.
Back of the stable is the orchard, whose fruits have delighted so
many of my sad (?) childish hours. The place is sold now, & many
of the things I have described in the present tense, ought to be described
in the past tense..." (19)
Young Lovecraft did, however, resurrect New Anvik in a lot near his
new house with the help of his friends Chester and Harold Munroe. It was
his personal attempt to recreate some of the lost glory of the Phillips
In the autumn, he entered the Hope Street High School.
CHAPTER TWO -