Sunday, October 21, 2007

James Ferdinand Morton & (circa 1900) Documents Related to His Challenge to H P Lovecraft (circa 1915).

{CP: Fascinating, if unverified, information on Morton's & Lovecraft's conflict and subsequent friendship}

JAMES FERDINAND MORTON. Unsigned AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT of AUTOBIOGRAPHIC NOTES, 1870-1900 [Massachusetts?, ca. 1900?] 6 x 9.5 inches, 18 pages. Mostly written on verso of 1898 stationery of International Order of Good Templars, Middleton, Massachusetts.. Some pages are filled with wrting; others have only a few words, with spaces left for elaboration which was never completed. Some edge-wear, darkening; Fair condition overall.
According to Sunand Joshi's 1996 biography of H.P. LOVECRAFT (1890-1937), when, in 1915, that future master of "weird" horror fiction defended D.W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation and its subject, the Ku Klux Klan of Reconstruction days, as a "noble but much maligned band of Southerners who saved half of our country from destruction", he was excoriated in print by New York radical JAMES FERDINAND MORTON (1870-1941) as a Conservative "gone mad".
It wasn't until five years later when the two men, fellow devotees of the avocation of "amateur journalism", first met face to face - that they, surprisingly, became instant friends, Lovecraft feeling "unreserved liking" for this "thoroughly erudite...conversationalist", whose "geniality and friendliness...overlay his unusual attainments".
Morton, twenty years Lovecraft's senior, was to have an enormous influence on the writer's life, both personal and professional. They apparently collaborated in editing a book of poems that was Lovecraft's first hardback literary production; Morton introduced a young Russian immigrant woman into his insular "amateur press" circle, where she met Lovecraft and became his wife; and together with Clark Ashton Smith, Morton urged Lovecraft to begin writing for the fantasy and horror fiction pulp magazine Weird Tales, which launched his literary career.
There are dozens of references to Morton in Sunand's book - as there are in the completely unrelated Utopias on Puget Sound(1975), Charles Pierce Lewarne's scholarly study of pre-World War I utopian communities of Washington State.
But I could locate no existing biography of James Ferdinand Morton - not even a comprehensive historical monograph on this fascinating man. Besides the little that Sunand and Lewarne unearthed, and a chapter I haven't seen in E. Hoffman Price's Arkham House Book of the Dead, I could find only three biographic summaries - an entry in Who's Who in America; a sketch in the obscure 1919 book Ex-Presidents of the National Amateur Press Association ; and a 1941 obituary notice in the journal of the Mineral Society of America.
When, some day, some enterprising Lovecraft aficionado - or historian of early American radicalism - undertakes a Morton biography, the autobiographic notes offered here will prove not only invaluable but indispensable. They cover the first 30 years of Morton's life - up to the point, around 1900, when he moved to the Anarchist Home Colony near Tacoma, where he spent five years before returning to the East Coast to join the women's suffrage movement and produce Socialist harangues, including the critique of Lovecraft's early defense of white-supremacy.
There are some fascinating, scattered, tidbits about Morton which I discovered in a few hours of googling on the Internet: That he was the direct descendant of a Pilgrim father; that his grandfather was author of the famed song America and his father was headmaster of Phillips Exeter Academy; that he was an impassioned advocate of racial equality and while a student at Harvard, became friends with the great African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois; that, according to unsubstantiated rumor, his future wife was of African-American descent; that he nearly lured Elbert Hubbard to move his Roycroft shops from New York to Washington; and so on.
These autobiographic notes do more than fill in some of the gaps, they seem to be the only existing source on Morton's early years, almost each word offering tantalizing hints for future research.
Here are a few historically mouth-watering excerpts:
"Isolation and unpopularity with playmates. Peculiar temperament. Lifelong sense of special destiny...Temperance Pledge at 5...Attempt to win church to reform...Growing dissatisfaction...Harvard at last...Unpopular from temperance views...First to broach inter-collegiate debates...Beginnings at Poetry...Some affairs...Extreme holiness people...Losing love for church...Hebrew studies...First hearing of A.J. [Amateur Journalism]... Elected President N.E.A.P.A. [New England Amateur Press Association]...Call on Gov. Russell...Unconventionality. War on fashion and prudery...Seal Harbor experiences... reform in Harvard Union...Split in N.A.P.A.[National Amateur Press Association]. My share in controversy...Politics. Harvard Prohibition Club...World's Fair. Voice correspondent. I go into People's Party...Brief experience in K. of L. [Knights of Labor]...People's Party candidate for Congress...Attempt to get position as teacher...Anti-Viv. [vivisection?] Soc....President, N.A.P.A...Collapse of Nationalist Party in Massachusetts. I join Dem.Party....Socialist schemes...Growing radicalism...Trip to Frisco...Anarchy...Andover at last...Work on ms. acount of my beliefs, tastes, wishes, intentions...Wendell's theology...Dreyfus. Philippine War...Plans and dreams...New York. The comrades...Philadelphia. The comrades...Cleveland. Pittsburgh... Mining towns. Cincinnati...Masquerade balls. Murder...Chicago. Lectures. From workingmen to divinity students...Darrow. South African War. Different comrades. Rochester. Davenport...St. Louis...A glance at osteopathy...Chief Campbell's confession and offer...Americans and the Boer War...Kentucky law and order...Starvation in Porto Rico. Harrison's insult to working classes...Still a teetotaler among drinkers...Down in a coal mine...Plans for World's Fair...Attempt at disturbance...Sedalia. Kansas City. Leavenworth...Visit to Penitentiary... Topeka...An Anarchist Chief Justice, etc....Clemens...Dodge City. Denver. First view of Rockies...Salt Lake City...A Mormon conference...S.L.P. and S.D.P. [Socialist Labor Party and Social Democratic Party]...Seattle. Home. A remarkable colony. Experiences and decision to return and settle...Last days in Tacoma...Vegetarian restaurants...Chinese...Sea voyage. sea sickness...San Francisco...At work on Free Society...Alameda. Berkeley...The comrades..."
These unsigned and undated notes - immediately identifiable as Morton's by the date and place of birth - appear to be written by an aged man, but as I have no example of his handwriting for comparison, it may be that he was simply a sloppy writer. This is significant, of course, in trying to determine when the Notes were written. My guess is that they were scribbled down at an early age, while his childhood and youth were still fresh in memory, just before he settled at The Home Colony - not only because they end abruptly around 1900, but also because they're mostly written on the backs of Massachusetts Good Templar stationery dated July 1898 - and, in one case, an 1896 printed petition for Massachusets laws to protect "immature girls" from "seduction".
If this dating is correct, one burning question is: Did Morton ever bring them up to date - after meeting Lovecraft 20 years later?
Whether or not such later notes exist, these earlier jottings are a treasure-trove for anyone exploring the life of this extraordinarily colorful man.

{Images should be expandable if you click on them and open in a new window - CP}

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