The first time I read this story I was left feeling a little uneasy, and not sure why. If I had read it in the past, it escapes my memory, so it was one I came to fresh for this blog. It did not leave me feeling uneasy for all the good reasons a Lovecraft story sometimes leave you with a sense of unease. This was not an unease at considering humankind’s place in the cosmos. Nor was it an unease about what the shadows of my room might hold, that itch at the back of your mind after being drawn into a tale. This was another form of unease and one I could not quite put my finger on at first reading. So I read it again, despite some misgivings as it is not a story that grabs me, at the end the feeling of unease remained.
‘The Street‘ is the story of a street, so bonus points for the title telling you exactly what to expect. It is told from the perspective of a timeless observer, which may well be the street itself, and follows its beginnings as a few rude huts as the first European settlers arrive in North America, up to Lovecraft’s own time. It is also, beyond that, the story of the rise of the United States from the humble beginnings of those original British colonies. Through the wars of independence, the civil war, and the first world war. As well as how the nature of the street and its inhabitance changed over time. The sense of place its installed within them, the pride of young men marching to war. The sacrifices paid along the way.
While it is never mentioned directly, it is safe to assume ‘The Street’ would be found in what becomes a New England city. The general consensus is that it is Boston, on account to Lovecraft taking inspiration from the Boston police strike of 1919, just after which the story was written. By the time it reaches what to Lovecraft would have been the present day, ‘The Street’ has gone from been the fashionable heart of the city, to a down at heel part of town in slow decay, cheap rents have made it the haunt of immigrant families clustered in small communities. Accents no longer native to the city are heard in the street and attitudes too. And this is where my own sense of unease begins, with echoes of an attitude and a zeitgeist that can be seen today.
They went in pairs, determined-looking and khaki-clad, as if symbols of the strife that lies ahead in civilisation’s struggle with the monster of unrest and bolshevism.
The above quote is from a letter Lovecraft wrote to the fellow author and early collaborator Frank Belknap Long. He was talking of the national guardsmen drafted in to keep the peace due in the strike. But it is the latter part of the quote that holds the most interest, and disquiet. This was after all only 1919, two years after the October revolution in Russia. Fear of the ‘Red Menace’ was an influential force in the American body politic, as it remained up to and throughout the second and cold wars. But it is the xenophobia of Lovecraft that stands out, rather than his anti-communist stance. Or rather the projection of that anti-communism upon the Russian immigrants who inhabit the street.
There is an irony here, that apparently bypassed Lovecraft, much as it’s echo’s by-passes too many people today. The Russian immigrants in Boston in 1919 would have been for the most part, if not entirely, refugees from the October revolution. People fleeing the same red menace which they were being accused of championing. If they were Bolsheviks they would have remained in the new Russia they had won. While there was terrorism being perpetrated in the USA at the time by the far left, it was being committed not by Russian immigrants but by homegrown extreme Marxist’s. It seems inconceivable that those who fled Marxism in Russia having suffered through the revolution would wash up in Bostons poor districts and plan the destruction of the United States from within. The Russian immigrants were the ones who had taken the brunt of political upheavals in their motherland. What they sought was peace, work and a chance to rebuild their lives.
The Russians in Lovecraft’s ‘The Street’ however are planning a new revolution of their own, to bring down the United States from within and strike on Independence Day. They fall foul of the street itself. A place that has become entwined by the souls of all who have dwelt there from its humble beginnings, and taken on their nature, their independence and fighting American spirit of pride and patriotism. So when the nation is threatened by the evil Bolsheviks its rises up to defend its people, its nations and collapses itself upon the Russians plotting in its cellars, killing them all. Which answers a question posed early in the narrative, can places and things have souls? Clearly, for Lovecraft’s street, they can and do. And it is the soul of, to Lovecraft’s mind, a ‘patriot…’
That Lovecraft was xenophobic is hardly a new realisation. There are examples of his early poetry that reveal his strong anti-immigration stance, and his leanings towards the right side of the political aisle are well known. That he expressed these concepts so firmly in ‘The Street.’ is not what gives me a sense of unease when reading it. For all my own more left of centre political beliefs I do not have any problem with stories written by those whom politics are at odds with my own. It is, however, the parallels to the political situation in the new Trump era of American politics I find sending a shiver down my spine rather than the more traditional reasons to feel uneasy when reading Lovecraft.
Rather than the ‘Red Menace’ it is ‘Islamaphobia’, and once again it is as often as not the greatest victims of the terrorists, the ones fleeing war and destruction, in the hope of a new life, or just plain a life that are painted by the xenophobes as the menace itself. Almost a hundred years have passed since Lovecraft penned this story, and still we find the victims who have lost the most, are often hated, distrusted and vilified.
This blog, at least the Lovecraftian parts of it, aren’t supposed to be about Lovecraft’s politics, any more than they’re supposed to reflect my own. I intended from the start to focus on his writing, the world’s, ideas and concepts he created, but there are points in reading his work it is impossible to put his politics to one side. The issues with some of his stories, latent racism, inherent misogyny, and indeed his politics, can be pushed aside as indicative of the time he lived and wrote in, others are more reflective of the world as it is today. ‘The Street’ is one such tale, with echoes of sentiments that still exist as a force in the world today, all be it in new forms. Indeed had I read ‘The Street‘ a few years ago it would perhaps have had far less of a negative impact for me, but it is hard to not be repelled by xenophobia in a world where it has becomes so prevalent of late. With a rising far right in Europe, a Trump presidential campaign that first pushed the USA to the right a little then split the nation with wounds that three months after the election show no sign of healing. Mexicans, African Americans, Muslims are all becoming the ‘others’ for an increasingly powerful religious right that has a figurehead in Trump.
With a rising far right in Europe, a Trump presidential campaign that first pushed the USA to the right a little then split the nation with wounds that three months after the election show no sign of healing. Mexicans, African Americans, Muslims are all becoming the ‘others’ for an increasingly powerful religious right that has a figurehead in Trump. It is hard not to see parallels in this story and the world as it is today.
Xenophobia is fear of those who are unknown, and fear of the unknown if often at the very heart of Lovecraft. It is then perhaps not a surprise to find xenophobia within Lovecraft’s tales. The story itself is worth a read, for its descriptive nature, it an excellent exploration of the growth of a nation, but the message within it is one humanity would do well to grow beyond. As it is that perhaps shades my opinion and I give it only 2 tentacles, but then it is not the Lovecraft I wish to read.