Beauty and the Bigot: Clark Ashton Smith as Saint and Sinner

Simon Whitechapel

אמת מארץ תצמח וצדק משמים נשקף תהלים פה יא
Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven. Psalms 85:11.  

Why was Clark Ashton Smith one of the greatest prose-writers who have ever lived? For the same simple reason as Mozart was one of the greatest composers and Botticelli one of the greatest painters: because he created exceptional beauty. But notice that I do not say — because I do not believe — that Smith was one of the greatest writers who have ever lived. A great composer can live by beauty alone and a great painter mostly by it, but a great writer can live mostly without it. Dickens and Lovecraft were greater writers than Smith, but one does not go to their work for pure aesthetic delight. Pure aesthetic delight is why one goes to Smith and why I, at least, no longer go to his horror and science fiction, because his horror and science fiction do not afford it.

Nor, in my opinion, does his verse. Again I choose my words carefully: his verse, not his poetry. Smith was a skilful versifier, not a poet pur sang, because his finest poetry was written in prose. And in some ways it is much harder to create beauty in prose than in verse. The Austrian writer Karl Kraus (1874-1936) once remarked that Meine Sprache ist die Allerweltshure, die ich zur Jungfrau mache — "My language is the universal whore that I must make virgin" — but this is truer of the language of prose than it is of the language of poetry. Very few people have never written prose and even fewer have never spoken it, and the prosateur is much further from the composer and the painter than the poet is. Both prosateurs and poets use language, but one might say that the poet works with atoms of language as well as with molecules: that is, with sounds as well as with words. A symphony or painting can cross linguistic boundaries without needing to be translated, but the gold of an untranslated poem can sometimes glitter even for those who do not speak the language in which it is written. Try one of Horace's most famous lines, for example:

Parturiunt montes; nascetur ridiculus mus.1
Mountains are in labor, and will bear a laughable little mouse.

You do not need to know Latin, or any language remotely related to it, to appreciate the sound-imagery of the original. In general, poetry subordinates sense to sound, prose sound to sense, and that is why prose is rarely universal in the same way. When it is universal, it is poetic prose, but just as not all poetry is universal, neither is all poetic prose. Smith's best prose is poetic, but almost all of it is locked inside English and can only be truly appreciated by those who know English, that curious amalgam of the Germanic, the Romance, and the classical. But a modern reader can confront ugliness amid the beauty of Smith's English, like a worm in the head of Venus. Take this line from his prose-poem "The Corpse and the Skeleton", for example:

The vermin is a very Jew, and will have his last ounce of brain and marrow.2

The theme of the piece is macabre but the prose is marmoreal, and the anti-Semitism is like a crack in the marble. However, that meaning of "Jew" was very widely accepted in older English, and though only anti-Semites or the ignorant would use it today, one was not necessarily an anti-Semite in any strong sense if one used it at the time Smith was writing. But Smith was, alas, quite capable of composing anti-Semitism for himself: few modern readers would fail to be shocked by this passage in a letter he wrote to H.P. Lovecraft in 1933:

I return the Ullman-Knopf communication herewith. Knopf should remove the Borzoi from his imprint, and substitute either the Golden Calf or a jackass with brazen posteriors. I wish Herr Hitler had him, along with Gernsback.3

I don't know of any evidence that Smith was a fully fledged anti-Semite, in that he disliked Jews en masse for racial reasons, but he was certainly an anti-Semite in the same sense as he was a necrophile. That is, he wasn't a necrophile but he did draw on necrophilia for imagery in some of his stories. Similarly, whether or not he was a fully fledged anti-Semite, he did draw on anti-Semitism for invective against some of his enemies. In an earlier letter to Lovecraft, in 1930, he had used the classic anti-Semitic trick of mimicking a Yiddish accent:

The Jews [i.e., the editors of Wonder Stories] want some more "ekshun" in the first part of "The Red World", which they criticize as being "almost wholly descriptive".4

Today we look at such passages and wince, and though we partly exculpate Smith because of the casual anti-Semitism so prevalent then and for his ignorance of what lay ahead, how much better it would have been if he had never said such things at all! Yes, like Lovecraft, he was justified in complaining about his editors, but it was reprehensible of both of them to drag race into those complaints. Anti-Semitism is like halitosis: an unpleasant condition caused by something inside the one afflicted with it, not by anything in those who have to endure its effects.

That, at least, is the modern reading, whereby all prejudices against officially oppressed groups say everything about the prejudiced and nothing about the prejudicee. Racism by whites says everything about whites and nothing about non-whites, and misogyny says everything about men and nothing about women. In short, the oppressed never incite prejudice by their behavior, and Jews, above all, do not incite anti-Semitism. Smith sinned in speaking as he did, and his words, like Lovecraft's, remain a stain on his reputation.

Or do they? Well, I want to suggest that perhaps they don't. I want to suggest that Smith was rational in his anti-Semitism and that he was right to criticize his editors in racial terms. For a start, any objective analysis of Smith's career before the war would have to conclude that he was the oppressed and his editors the oppressors. Smith had to sue Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967) to receive his rightful earnings from work published in Wonder Stories, for example, and in a letter written in 1934 to another correspondent he commented cynically that Gernsback probably relied on the failure of other authors to follow suit:

Miss Ione Weber, 41 East 38th St., New York City, is the attorney whom Mr. Lovecraft mentioned to you. She collects debts on a 15% commission basis, and appears to make a speciality of publishers. I believe she has collected money from Gernsback for Hazel Heald and Raymond Gallun — doubtless for others too. Many authors, I suppose (perhaps the majority) will not go so far as to take legal steps in getting their due; and I dare say that highbinders of the Gernsback stripe are well aware of this and count upon it in their business operations.5

Perhaps Smith was right, but a modern reader will argue that it was wrong of him to stigmatize Gernsback elsewhere as a crooked Jew rather than simply as a crook. But was it wrong of him? One serious failing of modern liberal thought is the inability to understand the concept of higher and lower averages or greater and lesser tendencies. The reasoning is that crooks are found in all races and no race is entirely made up of crooks, and that it is therefore wrong to single out any race in particular as crooked — unless it is the white race once described by the Jewish intellectual Susan Sontag (1933-2004) as "the cancer of history".6

Sontag's description was acceptable because whites are oppressors and criticism of them is therefore justified and indeed necessary as a means of combating the oppression they are responsible for. When the group is oppressed, however, such criticism cannot be justified: Jews belong to an oppressed group and should no more be characterized as crooks and fraudsters than blacks, belonging to another oppressed group, should be characterized as rapists and muggers. But as I've pointed out, in Smith's case he was the oppressed and his Jewish editors the oppressors, and it is certainly possible that, on average, Jewish businessmen were and are less honest than businessmen from the white European majority to which Smith belonged.

Because whom it is easier to cheat: your own group or the group that has, in your eyes, been oppressing you for centuries? The history of Jewish-Christian relations can be seen, in part, as an example of pernicious feedback: Jews have responded to Christian prejudice by treating Christians less favorably, and Christians have responded to this less favorable treatment by becoming more prejudiced against Jews. Anti-Semitism can even work to the advantage of Jews: there was undoubtedly strong anti-Semitism in the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but Jews were still able to enter and eventually dominate publishing and the rest of the media. An in-group welded by the prejudice of a larger out-group can compete successfully with that out-group, and the in-group of American Jews did so: by the 1930s it was accurate of Smith to identify his editors as "the Jews", because that was precisely what they were. On average it was Jewish editors who were employing gentile authors, and on average it was Jewish editors who were cheating those gentile authors.

But that wasn't the only complaint Smith made against "the Jews": as we've already seen, he also complained that they wanted "ekshun" where he wanted to supply description, and in 1931 he wrote to Lovecraft of how he had to follow the market rather than his Muse:

Well, I must put a scientific — or at least a pseudo-scientific — curb on my fancy if I am to sell anything.7

It's possible that non-Jewish editors would have demanded the same of him, but I would suggest that the tendency might not have been so strong. It is regarded as anti-Semitic to say that Jews are interested in money, but when Jews are perhaps 3% of the American population and perhaps 30% of American billionaires, there is something in the claim: there is a tendency that makes it possible to talk of a higher than average trait of acquisitiveness among Jews.8 They are a similarly small minority in Russia too, but of the seven men who emerged as billionaire "oligarchs" after the collapse of Russian communism, no fewer than five were Jewish.9

Smith, of course, was not interested in money or material possessions: he earned to live, rather than living to earn, and for him a necessary part of life was the creation of beauty. In both respects he was unlike "the Jews" against whom he inveighed, and it's interesting that another common accusation leveled by anti-Semites is that Jews promote ugliness and indeed often embody it in their own persons. The accusation, and its physiological corollary in particular, are rejected with horror by a modern liberal sensibility, but that does not mean there is no truth to it. Racism may not be as irrational as it is often painted, because it does not operate at random or claim only the negative of its targets. Anti-Semites do not claim that Jews are stupid and lazy, just as anti-black racists do not claim that blacks are frigid and repressed. The enemies of a race may exaggerate its faults, but they do not seem to invent faults that contradict reality, and the cult of ugliness ascribed to Jews may have some basis in fact.

After all, some of the ugliest prose today is written by the post-modernists and their allies, and post-modernism was the offspring of the Jewish Marx and the Jewish Freud, with the Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) acting as midwife. Smith rejected both Marx and Freud:

Whether or not one believes in the 'super-natural,' it seems to me that the infinite eery mystery that presses upon us is an ineluctable thing that can not be dissipated by test-tubes or Freudian analysis.10

The tenets of Karl Marx are about as practical, and likely to be practised, as the Golden Rule of Jesus Christ.11

Smith's instincts were correct: Marx and Freud reduced the pursuit of beauty through art to materialism, explaining it as an expression of self-serving economics or sexual neurosis. And by their fruits in the Groves of modern Academe we have known Marx and Freud:

The hybrid formations imagined by Deleuze and Guattari — not just the pre-oedipal mouth to the breast, but the pollen-seeking bee to the orchid — mean that sexual orientation has no script. There is, in a philosophy influenced by Deleuze and Guattari, no "homosexual" as such. But there is "homosexual production", which, as Guy Hocquenghem writes, "takes place according to a mode of non-liminative horizontal relations" (Hocquenghem, 1978, pg. 95). Reading male homosexuality "against Oedipus", as Deleuze and Guattari have taught him to do, the maverick French psychoanalyst Hocquenghem explains that the very idea of homosexual desire is meaningless: "Properly speaking, desire is no more homosexual than heterosexual. Desire exists in a multiple form, whose components are only divisible a posteriori, according to how we manipulate it. Just like heterosexual desire, homosexual desire is an arbitrarily frozen frame in an unbroken and polyvocal flux."12

The ugliness of such prose is one proof that there is no contradiction between Smith the artist and Smith the anti-Semite: it is because he was an artist that he reacted as he did to the growing Jewish influence on American culture and literature. The more sensitive the organism, the more readily and strongly it reacts to that which harms it, and perhaps Smith's anti-Semitism was the psychic equivalent of the sneeze with which an Italian greyhound greets a sudden draft. To reason, as the world reasons today, that anti-Semitism is false and irrational because it led to the Holocaust is no more logical than to reason that the theory of the atom is false and irrational because it led to Hiroshima. On the one hand we have the saintly Smith responsible for such masterpieces as "The Witchcraft of Ulua" and "The Dark Eidolon"; on the other, we have the sinful Smith responsible for anti-Semitic letters to H.P. Lovecraft. But just as saint and sinner were embodied in one man, so his writing and his anti-Semitism may have been expressions of one Weltanschauung: love of beauty, hatred of those who threatened it.


1. Horace, Ars Poetica / The Poetic Art, line 139 (See Latin or English).
2. "The Corpse and the Skeleton". (See online copy).
3. Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, c. mid-October 1933. (See online copy).
4. Letter to HPL, c. 21 October 1930. (See online copy).
5. Letter to Richard Searight, May 24th 1934. (See online copy).
6. From the essay "What's Happening in America?" in Styles of Radical Will (1966).
7. Letter to HPL, c. early January 1931. (See online copy).
8. For lists of billionaires, see Forbes list and Jewish Tribal Review.
9. For more on the Russian oligarchs, see for example The Oligarchs, Or How the Virgin Became a Whore, The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia, and The Oligarchs Overstep Their Bounds.
10. "The Validity of Weird Stories", Weird Tales, February 1933. (See online copy).
11. Letter to August Derleth, May 13th 1937. (See online copy).
12. Quotation from Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Critical Introduction, ed. Andy Medhurst and Sally R. Munt.

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