Sunday, March 09, 2008

Lovecraft: The First Cousin Issue

Here in Donlad Clarke's biographical notes, we see Clarke's idea that Lovecraft feared that his grandfather and grandmother were cousins and that it was a stem of madness.

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 ... 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!"

Marriage of first cousins has been recently studied by a number of scholars probably prompted by trying to understand the marriage practices of the Middle East now that America has decided to become a new Imperial power there. A recent book (Forbidden Relatives, Martin Ottenheimer) on consanguinity by a sociologist indicates that these were a late nineteenth century enforcement. Cousin marriage was seen as step towards a "less developed" or "more barbarous" level of human society. States entering the Union prior to about 1860 did not have laws against cousin marriage. Those afterwards, did. Nancy Fix Anderson of Tulane University recently authored an article: Cousin marriage, a common practice among preindustrial propertied classes and usually arranged by the families for economic reasons, continued as a marriage pattern among middle-class Victorians, for whom individual choice based on romantic love was the appropriate criterion for the selection of a marriage partner.

Clearly this is incorrect. A famous example is Charles Darwin who married a first cousin with healthy and bright progeny. There seems little effect that marriage by cousins will cause an issue. It is a common practice in many areas where arranged marriages are critical to maintain tribal peace and political tranquility.

Still, we can read Consanguineous Marriages in the American Population byGeorge B. Louis Arner (1908) "The problems to be considered are not only those which relate primarily tothe individual and secondarily to the race, such as the supposedeffect of blood relationship in the parents upon the health andcondition of the offspring; but also the effect, if any, which such marriages have upon the birth-rate, upon the proportion of the sexes at birth, and the most fundamental problem of all, the relativefrequency with which consanguineous marriages take place in a givencommunity." For instance, Rhode Island which had a high incidence of consanguinity was stated to have a very high male predominance. If so, it didn't happen between Whipple and Rhoby who had three daughters and one son.

Despite all this, I find no evidence (yet) that Lovecraft was a bit concerned. I do continue to look, but I think too much is derived from the fiction in The Shunned House, specifically: The shunned house, it seems, was first inhabited by William Harris and his wife Rhoby Dexter ... the widowed Rhoby Harris never recovered from the shock of her husband's death, and the passing of her firstborn Elkanah two years later was the final blow to her reason. In 1768 she fell victim to a mild form of insanity, and was thereafter confined to the upper part of the house ...

Lovecraft certainly underwent a series of traumatic family tragedies which would affect anyone and in many possible ways. Still, I can find no hint of concern by Lovecraft for his grandparents marriage.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Marrying a first cousin increase the chance of birth defects and hereditary illness-to a much more significant degree than a lot of people think.

Marriages to first cousins are much more common in some parts of the world-Muslim majority nations being particularly notable in this respect. In countries where immigrants from Muslim majority nations (and their descendants) have continued the custom of marrying cousins, those groups have a higher rates of birth defects and disablity than the rest of the population. (The UK is an example.)

If his grandparents suffered from depression, their offspring would have had a much higher chance of suffering from it.


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