I have written before about my obsession with Benjamin De Casseres. I lay the blame for this obsession squarely at Mythgard‘s feet, as I first discovered him through a 1936 pamphlet he wrote titled “The Individual against Moloch” while researching the paper I went on to present on Moloch at Mythmoot II.
The Lovecraftian Connection
So, what exactly does De Casseres have to do with Lovecraft? Well, a few weeks ago, I would’ve said nothing. Then, this morning while procrastinating on writing a paper, I discovered a link. But before I get to that link, let me describe four reasons why I think De Casseres and Lovecraft should (or at least could) be linked:
1. By the time Lovecraft moved to New York in 1924, De Casseres was a well-established name in the city’s literary and cultural atmosphere. If Lovecraft read anything having to do with New York literature, theater, movies, or radio (with the advent of commercial radio in the early 1920s, De Casseres was one of the first people to actively promote his own writing via radio interviews and did a series of radio appearances from August – October 1925), he would have heard about De Casseres.
2. De Casseres knew a lot of other writers and, like Lovecraft, had many lifelong friends in the writing field. Jack London named a character in The Mutiny of the Elsinore after De Casseres; Eugene O’Neill wrote an introduction to one of De Cassere’s books (Anathema!). These are just a couple famous examples: Like Lovecraft, De Casseres was an inveterate correspondent, and he wrote letters to many, many established and upcoming authors. Both authors’ circles were wide enough that they must have had at least some mutual acquaintances.
3. Lovecraft and De Casseres were quite compatible philosophically…at least, they would have been until Lovecraft threw his support behind FDR and the New Deal. Specifically, both very much admired Nietzschean existentialism – though De Casseres probably viewed it a bit more hopefully than Lovecraft did. Consider the short piece “Dust” that first appeared in Cosmopolitan Magazine (June 1907).
4. They both loved to write about weird things! Despite being a man of culture, De Casseres was nothing if not an oddity, and he reveled in his own love of strangeness. His one science fiction story is a satirical – if not all that impressive – story called “Arcvad the Terrible” about an alien looking through his telescope at the inanities of earth life (kind of like a proto-Marvin the Martian). De Casseres’ poetry is all over the place, but his one enduring poem that has been anthologized many times is “Moth-Terror,” which describes the assassination of a moth only to leave the narrator in terror of the Time-Moth, Change-Moth and Night-Moth that haunt him inexorably. In his more literary pieces, De Casseres frequently referenced our favorite American gothicists, including Poe and Hawthorne, and wrote about horror themes in others’ works as well.
All of this is well and good, but liking similar things and even being in the same city and having the same friends doesn’t mean that De Casseres and Lovecraft knew each other. What I wanted to find was something – a reference, or hopefully more than one – to tie the two together.
This morning, I stumbled upon the connection I had been seeking:
Clark Ashton Smith
Unfortunately, it is not as direct as I’d like, but I found a singular post from two years ago in a Facebook group dedicated to creating a bronze bust of Lovecraft in his hometown of Providence. The post asks followers, “How many of you hardcore fans can name every reference to Benjamin DeCasseres in [Lovecraft’s] Selected Letters?” to which a most informative reply came:
In ST Joshi’s Index to the Selected Letters, De Casseres is mentioned in II.25, 33, 38, 45, 49, 178. IV. 153.
Not having a copy of either Joshi’s index nor the five volumes of Lovecraft’s Selected Letters, I am unable to confirm these references. However, in doing some quick searches, I did find at least some affirmation.
The first is the transcript of a letter from Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith written on Nov. 27, 1927. In that letter, Lovecraft refers to some drawings (or perhaps copies of drawings) that Smith had sent to him for review:
Dwyer was as enthusiastic as all the rest concerning your pictures, as he has probably informed you directly ere now. Like me, he bitterly regrets his financial inability to invest in some of them—especially the black & white “Dreamland” illustrations, which also exercised a powerful imaginative influence over me. He has now sent them on to Long & the gang in N.Y., & I suppose Loveman will see that they reach the eye of De Casseres. You might drop him a line asking him not to overlook De C. or the Miss Turner you mention—or I’ll do so myself, to save time. Now my curiosity is sharpened by that fresh sheet tacked to your drawing-board. May I behold it ere long, made blasphemous by the visions of daemoniac genius!
To me this indicates several things:
- That Lovecraft, a year after moving back to Providence from New York, was at least aware of De Casseres.
- That Lovecraft and De Casseres had at least one mutual friend in Samuel Loveman (more on this in a moment).
- That Lovecraft knew De Casseres’ tastes well enough to believe he would enjoy Smith’s strange drawings that “exercised a powerful imaginative influence” over him.
- However, that he was not close enough to De Casseres himself to recommend Clark’s drawings directly. (Note that he says he will write to Loveman by way of recommendation.)
This is significant because as it turns out, in 1971 – ten and twenty-six years after Smith’s and De Casseres’ deaths, respectively – Arkham House published a volume of Smith’s selected poems. In that volume is a short piece by De Casseres titled “Clark Ashton Smith: Emperor of Shadows.” This piece is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is that De Casseres remembers receiving Smith’s Ebony and Crystal in 1923. De Casseres calls Smith “one of the rare company of the Brotherhood of the Unearthly Imagination” among whom he also places “Poe, Baudelaire, Shelley, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Leconte de Lisle, Keats, Chopin, Blake and El Greco” — but not, apparently, Lovecraft.
I don’t know when this piece was first published or how Arkham House got a hold of it. (I would love to find the original source!) However, the subtitle “Emperor of Shadows” also grabbed my attention because this is not the first time De Casseres attached an imperial silhouette to a writer. Specifically, in the July 1904 issue of The Critic, De Casseres had used the same exact subtitle to describe Nathaniel Hawthorne – who also is notably absent from that “Brotherhood of the Unearthly Imagination.” Did De Casseres simply forget that he had used the title before (seems unlikely to me)? Is this an example of laziness by a writer who has to consistently produce a lot of copy? Is it a subtle way of noting that Smith has taken over Hawthorne’s sovereign role? I don’t know.
Another thing that intrigued me is the need for Lovecraft to write to Loveman to introduce Smith’s work. If De Casseres truly did remember receiving Smith’s book in 1923, then it seems odd that he would need second- or third-hand recommendations in 1927. Nonetheless, that’s what Lovecraft suggests, and he chooses Loveman for the vessel.
Lovecraft’s relationship with Loveman is documented elsewhere. They became very good friends during Lovecraft’s NYC period, and they were both in the Kalem Club, a group composed of writers whose surnames began with the letters K, L or M. Loveman certainly influenced Lovecraft’s writing, especially “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and “Nyarlathotep,” which were both based on dreams that Lovecraft had about his friend. Lovecraft also dedicated other works to Loveman. By the time Lovecraft wrote his Nov. 1927 letter to Smith, he and Loveman had been corresponding for at least a decade.
Loveman began publishing poetry in 1905, a few years after De Casseres published his first notable essay (“Thomas Hardy’s Women”). He published writings and translations into the 1920s, and in 1926 he published a lengthy story titled The Hermaphrodite in the style of an ancient Greek poem. The introduction to that work was written by Benjamin De Casseres.
I have not (yet) found other direct connections between De Casseres and Loveman, but it seems clear, based on Lovecraft’s letter to Smith, that Loveman and De Casseres were close enough in late 1927 to be making recommendations to each other. There are, nonetheless, many other connections between them, such as George Sterling (mentor to Smith), who once called De Casseres “our greatest epigrammatist” with a “flaming soul.” Loveman also greatly admired Edgar Saltus, with whom De Casseres corresponded regularly. (De Casseres once reportedly wrote, “There are three mysteries in American literature—the appearance of Edgar Allan Poe, the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce, and the burial alive of Edgar Saltus.”) The secondary connections go on, but I think the picture is detailed enough to stop here for now.
Again, none of this implies a direct connection between Lovecraft and De Casseres. So far as I know at this point, De Casseres never wrote to Lovecraft nor referenced him at all in any of his writings, and there’s no evidence the two men ever met, even during Lovecraft’s time in New York. Still, given the preponderance of evidence, it seems unlikely that De Casseres would not have at least heard of him.
Someday, when I have time, I will travel to the NYPL and have a look through the 30 years of De Casseres correspondence kept there. A connection to Lovecraft will be one of the many things I will look for.