August Derleth: More than Arkham House

 “A time came three decades ago, when I found I must choose between going out into the wider world or traveling widely in the microcosmos of Sac Prairie. I had been away from Sac Prairie scarcely half a year, immured in a city at editorial work, and I could ill bear separation from the village, the river, the hills, and the lowlands among which I had put down roots and with which I had come to terms of a sort … When the opportunity came, I went back to Sac Prairie without regret … I set about to write so that I might afford the leisure in which to improve my acquaintance with the setting and the inhabitants–hills, trees, ponds, people, birds, animals, sun, moon, stars–of the region I had chosen to inhabit, not as a retreat, but as a base of operations into a life more full in the knowledge of what went on in the woods as well as in the houses along the streets of Sac Prairie and in the human heart.” – August Derleth, “Prologue” to Walden West

“Home is one’s ideal setting if one is to develop one’s best attributes … A man belongs where he has roots–where the landscape & milieu have some relation to his thoughts & feelings, by virtue of having formed them.” –  H. P. Lovecraft (Letter to August Derleth, October 6, 1929)

WISCONSIN IN HIS BONES

By Boyd White and Lloyd Currey

For scholars, collectors, and readers, August Derleth (1909-1971) unfortunately begins and ends with Arkham House. Derleth is primarily remembered for preserving the literary legacy of H. P. Lovecraft, as well as Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, in addition to publishing first books by Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, and Ramsey Campbell. A relentless self-promoter, somewhat understandably given the non-existent profit margins of specialty press publishing, Derleth flirted with self-parody throughout his career, particularly after the demise of Weird Tales in 1954 when his focus became codifying and exploiting the Cthulhu Mythos as the defining element of Lovecraft’s fiction in order to keep flagging public interest in the author’s work–and by extension Arkham House–alive, providing a template for an unending flood of bad Lovecraft pastiches in a variety of media that shows no signs of abating even today.

By devoting so much energy and resources to ensuring Lovecraft’s legacy, keeping Arkham House afloat, financially supporting an older generation of all but forgotten pulp writers, and encouraging promising new talent, Derleth inadvertently sabotaged his own literary career, ensuring his reputation as an author with substantial contributions to American literature would be overshadowed and neglected. Derleth considered his supernatural fiction mediocre at best, derivative and formulaic work that, along with his mystery stories and detective novels, provided him not only with the means to be a full-time writer with the leisure to pursue his more literary ambitions but also, later in his career, with the ability to meet his obligations as a publisher. “My prolificacy,” he once wrote, “is a matter of economic necessity, and I have no doubt that the quality of my work has suffered to some extent because of its necessary quantity.”  

In “The Un-Demonizing of August Derleth,” Peter Ruber notes that Derleth is the only member of the Weird Tales circle “who had the ability, ambition, and determination to rise above the level of a pulp writer,” a sentiment shared by H. P. Lovecraft.  When Derleth’s story “Five Alone,” first published in Pagany, received a three-star mention in Edward J. O’Brien’s Honor Roll in The Best American Short Stories of 1932, Lovecraft wrote to E. Hoffmann Price, “You will see in these things a writer absolutely alien to the facile little hack who grinds out minor W.T. [Weird Tales] junk.  There is nothing in common betwixt Derleth A and Derleth B–no point of contact in their mental worlds–and yet one brain houses them both … artist and businessman … Nearly all the gang agree that the kid will go far in literature–probably farther than any of the rest.” Lovecraft’s remarks, however, also highlight the tension that would haunt Derleth throughout his career as his continued immersion in the cesspool of market-driven fantastic fiction kept him from being recognized as a major Midwestern author of the twentieth century. As Peter Ruber states, “To the world outside his home state, Derleth was a man of many literary personas, and they frequently clashed: the critical establishment looked down on Derleth’s continued involvement with pulp-type writing and ignored his serious works. They simply didn’t understand his versatility.”

Derleth always referred to his literary efforts as his “serious work.” His greatest achievement in this vein is the Sac Prairie Saga, a deeply personal, frank, detailed account of the rural Midwest that draws upon his lifetime of personal experiences in and around the twin Wisconsin villages of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac. Derleth originally conceived of this saga as a sequence of fifty books consisting of novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, journal extracts, and nature writing. In an interview with Norbert Blei from 1971, Derleth remarks of his hometown, “This is the microcosm that reflects the macrocosm. Everything is to be found here–hate, greed, lust, love, sacrifice, courage. I saw it. It’s all here! I can find every kind of perversity, sexual or otherwise.” From the publication of Place of Hawks in 1935 to Return to Walden West in 1970, the Sac Prairie Saga reflects Derleth’s adherence to the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau and the literary influences of Thomas Hardy, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, and Robert Frost. Displaying Derleth’s vast knowledge of regional history and nature, Sac Prairie, Wisconsin, is as fully rendered as Willa Cather’s Nebraska plains or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.  Novels such as Still Is the Summer Night (1937), short story collections such as Country Growth (1940), and volumes of poetry such as West of Morning (1960) are infused with the rhythms of the land and the people who live there, what is locked away in their hearts and the region itself, a beautiful but unforgiving landscape in which the villagers of Sac Prairie struggle with frustrated ambitions and lost ideals, a world fraught with loneliness, insanity, alcoholism, and suicide. In a 1945 article in Esquire, Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis writes of Derleth, “His series of the ‘Sac Prairie Saga,’ most of them novels, is already formidable. He has not trotted off to New York literary cocktail parties or to the Hollywood studios. He has stayed home and built up a solid work that demands the attention of anybody who believes that American fiction is at last growing up … He is a champion and justification of regionalism.” Likewise, John O. Stark describes Walden West (1961) and Return to Walden West, Derleth’s masterpieces, “as the closest thing we have to essential literary illuminations of life in Wisconsin … In both books Derleth alternates descriptions of nature and vignettes about Sac Prairie people … Derleth compares the human and natural realms, pointing out the transience of the former, the constancy of the latter, the desperation of the former, the peace of the latter.”  

Key works from the Sac Prairie Saga include the short story collections that Derleth considered his finest works–Country Growth, Sac Prairie People (1948), and Wisconsin in Their Bones–as well as Walden West and Return to Walden West. The intimate, poetic observations of village life in these books introduce readers to finely drawn heartbreaking characters portrayed with sincere pathos, including Ella Bickford, who goes insane when her parents prevent her from marrying, and Norman Kralz, whose mother tries to poison him. Far more chilling than Derleth’s supernatural fiction are the superb midwestern Gothics scattered throughout the Sac Prairie Saga, particularly the studies of aberrant psychology in The House of Moonlight (1953), which traces the mental and physical breakdown of concert pianist Joel Merrihew when he returns to Sac Prairie after a long absence, and “Where the Worm Dieth Not” (from Sac Prairie People) in which young lovers Horace Burdace and Laura Kelton run afoul of Horace’s murderous uncle Anson Nohr. Historical novels such as The House on the Mound (1958) and The Shadow on the Glass (1963) form the backdrop against which Derleth develops the Sac Prairie Saga as they chronicle the lives of prominent Wisconsinites from the state’s formative years, including Hercules Dousman, a fur trader and real estate speculator who became a millionaire, and Nelson Dewey, Wisconsin’s first governor who oversaw the transition from territorial to state government. Collections of poetry, including Here on a Darkling Plain (1940), Rind of Earth (1942), and The Edge of Night (1945), feature some of Derleth’s most carefully crafted, moving writing, such as his epitaph for Effie Kahlmann, who “left behind in needlework most exquisitely made, her tears, her loneliness, the hidden places of her heart.”  

Derleth’s deep connection to his native Wisconsin extends to the author’s strongest non-supernatural genre fiction as well. Sac Prairie serves as the setting not only for Derleth’s Judge Peck detective novels, such as Murder Stalks the Wakely Family (1934) and The Seven Who Waited (1943), but also for the majority of his books for juveniles, including the Steve-Sim mysteries with the Mill Creek Irregulars. Set in the 1920s, this series follows Stephen “Steve” Grendon and Simoleon “Sim” Jones as they foil a variety of criminal plots during their summer adventures in the Wisconsin River Valley. As Steve’s description of the scene of one of his and Sim’s nighttime rambles illustrates, these young adult mysteries exhibit the same keen attention to the natural word–the light, weather, and water–as Derleth’s poetry and fiction for adults: “All along the south now, between us and the river, where the marshes were and the lowland meadows, a thin bank of fog was rising. With moonlight on it, it looked like a distant lake. And with the fireflies flickering on it by the thousands, it looked as if a sunken city lay far beneath the surface of that mysterious lake out of which came the far sound of cow bells from cattle in the night pasture.” Not surprisingly, Steve Grendon is August Derleth’s fictional alter ego, and his recurrence throughout much of Derleth’s fiction–as an adolescent boy detective in The Moon Tenders (1958), a high school student in love in Evening In Spring (1941) and a budding writer in The Shield of the Valiant (1945)–shapes Derleth’s work, as does the setting of Sac Prairie, into a living, breathing world subject to the same forces, both good and bad, we all encounter as we age and grow.

In his foreword to 1962’s 100 Books by August Derleth, Donald Wandrei perhaps best sums ups Derleth’s career, which still had nearly a decade to go, when he writes, “This variety of interest makes it impossible to identify the work of August Derleth by any label or to classify him easily–he is sui generis … But only the distant verdict of time can determine which of his works will have the most enduring value.” As George Feinstein was praising Return to Walden West in The Los Angeles Times by proclaiming, “One needs to be reminded that America has never been all big city. The village plays its role–and in August Derleth–has found a Homer,” Derleth’s reputation, even as regionalist, was already waning. When he died a year later in 1971, he had received very little of the recognition as a writer that he so desperately craved and deserved. These days, when every cramped note or itemized budget Lovecraft managed to scribble on the back of an envelope is endlessly analyzed and scrupulously annotated, Derleth’s considerable oeuvre, flawed as it is, lies fallow with no major critical overview or appraisal in sight. Upon publication of Hawk on the Wind (1938), Derleth’s first book of poetry, Edgar Lee Masters wrote, “The music and imagination of these poems, the originality of the verse schemes in this day when so many experiments have been made and so many have failed–these cannot be forgotten.” The same could easily be said of the best of Derleth’s work. Let us hope this is the case.

PLEASE VISIT LWCURREY.COM to see the selection of works by August Derleth:

https://www.lwcurrey.com/searchResults.php?category_id=20292&action=catalog&browseLetter=A&orderBy=author