Thursday, March 22, 2018

Augustus T. Swift (1867-1939)

Teacher, Writer, Investigator
Born September 23, 1867, New Bedford, Massachusetts
Died November 4, 1939, presumably in Providence, Rhode Island

Anonymous left a comment on my blog the other day regarding Augustus T. Swift and his contemporaneous comments on the fiction of Francis Stevens. For a long time people believed that Augustus T. Swift was H.P. Lovecraft writing under a pseudonym. I thought that this idea had been corrected or debunked already, but apparently there are still some who believe that these two men were one and the same. So I'm going to interrupt my series on the Shaver Mystery to re-debunk the idea that Augustus T. Swift was H.P. Lovecraft. This won't take long. Actually it will, but it won't stretch into a series. I think we'll find some interesting things along the way.

The Swift-Lovecraft story began with two letters written to The Argosy magazine by a man named Augustus T. Swift of Providence, Rhode Island. The first was published in the issue of November 15, 1919, the second in that of May 22, 1920. I don't have anything on the first letter, but here is an image of the second as it appeared in the magazine:

"Not Out for Blood," a letter of comment from Augustus T. Swift of Providence, Rhode Island, published in The Argosy, May 22, 1920, page 288. Contrary to stories bandied about, this was not the work of H.P. Lovecraft.

In this letter, Swift expressed high praise for three stories written by Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1883-1948), then known to readers only as Francis Stevens. The stories were "The Citadel of Fear" (Sept. 14-Oct. 26, 1918), "Avalon" (Aug. 16-Sept. 6, 1919), and "Claimed" (Mar. 6-20, 1920), all serials and all published in The Argosy. Swift's letter has been used not only with the assumption that Lovecraft wrote under the pseudonym Augustus T. Swift but also as evidence that he knew of Francis Stevens' work, moreover that he was influenced by it. Two of those claims are of course bogus, and the third--that Lovecraft knew of Francis Stevens' work--is open to question.

So for the record, Augustus T. Swift was not H.P. Lovecraft. I don't know how that story got started, but it goes back at least to 1949 and Chicago Tribune columnist Vincent Starrett, who was reporting on a newsletter, called The Lovecraft Collector, by Ray Zorn (Jan. 1949). (1) For many years it must have been common knowledge among pulp historians that Swift was Lovecraft. Here for example is a quote from 1991: "Yet the 15 November 1919 issue [of The Argosy] featured a letter from Augustus T. Swift, a name now known to be a Lovecraft pseudonym . . . ." (2) We can excuse mistakes or overenthusiasm on the part of researchers believing they have made some kind of discovery. After all, here was a letter to a pulp magazine from a reader in Providence, Rhode Island. The time, place, and interests in popular fiction were right. And that name--Augustus T. Swift. It must have been a fake. Only characters played by Groucho Marx and W.C. Fields have names like that. Lovecraft must have come up with it himself, for he was a great admirer of British writers of the Augustan period, one of the exemplars of which was of course Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Augustus T. Swift just had to be Lovecraft.

Except that he wasn't.

Augustus Taber Swift was actually a teacher, writer, and investigator born on September 23, 1867, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to John Franklin Swift (1836-1905) and Helen Taber (Foster) Swift (1837-1926). Swift's great-great-grandfather through his mother's line was Zenas Bryant (1753-1835), a native of Plympton, Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, and a drummer in two different units of Massachusetts men during the Revolutionary War. By that descent, Augustus T. Swift was eligible for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution. When he applied in 1930, he was residing at 122 Rochambeau Avenue in Providence, Rhode Island, not far north of where Lovecraft lived on the peninsula between the Providence and Seekonk rivers. They may not have been the same man, but they were close.

In the 1880 census, Swift was, at age twelve, still in New Bedford with his family. His father was a clerk in a store. His older brother, Frank H. Swift, was employed as an architect. Also at home was younger brother John C. Swift. We'll hear more about the two of them in a minute. Augustus T. Swift graduated from Brown University with an AM and a PhD on June 19, 1889. Commencement exercises that year were held at "the old First Baptist meeting house" (3, 4), presumably the First Baptist Church, located at 75 North Main Street in Providence. Lovecraft fans might recognize the church for its connections to his life and writing. Swift delivered one of the orations at his own graduation. For the next two years, he taught German at Brown University. In 1891, he applied for a passport in Providence. Giving his city of residence as New Bedford and his occupation as teacher, he planned to be abroad for a year. His brother, Frank H. Swift of Providence, witnessed the application, the fee for which was a whole dollar.

In August 1892, Augustus T. Swift accepted a position as master of modern languages at the brand new Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut (a school still in existence). By 1900, Swift was in Providence, living at 46 Rochambeau Avenue and working as a teacher. With him was his young wife, the former Emma A. Morris, whom he had married on August 3, 1898, in Rhode Island, probably in Providence. In 1900, she worked, too, as a type-writer, that is, a typist. In 1905, Swift applied for another passport, again in Providence. This time his younger brother, John Campbell Swift of 54 Moore Street, was the witness. 

In the 1910 census, Augustus T. Swift was still in Providence, living at 122 Rochambeau Avenue and employed as a high school teacher. His wife served as a clerk in the office of the superintendent of schools. The 1915 Rhode Island census recorded the same information for the Swifts, who, despite their surname, were seemingly immovable for thirty or forty years. Emma Swift always worked for schools and her husband was always a high school teacher. And that brings up a question, namely, did H.P. Lovecraft know Augustus T. Swift?

Born in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft would have graduated from Hope High School in Providence in 1908 if he had not suffered a breakdown of some kind. Established in 1898, Hope High School is now located north of College Hill and not far south of Rochambeau Avenue, more or less halfway between Lovecraft's stomping grounds and the Swifts' home. So if Swift taught at Hope High School, and the school wasn't an especially big one, then maybe Lovecraft was in Swift's classes. But we still don't know.

By the 1920 census, things hadn't changed much in the Swift home: same place, same jobs, even Swift's widowed mother, at age eighty-two, was still in the household. By 1930, she was gone, and the Swifts, though working their same jobs and living in their same house, were nearing retirement age. Unfortunately, Swift didn't make it to the next census, for he died on November 4, 1939, at age seventy-two and was buried with his parents at Riverside Cemetery, Fairhaven, Massachusetts. His wife, Emma A. (Morris) Swift, followed him to the grave on February 4, 1943. She was interred with her parents at North Burial Ground in Providence.

Frank H. Swift (1860-1934), older brother of Augustus T. Swift, was an architect in Providence. In 1893, he entered into a partnership with Frank W. Angell (1851-1943) and Thomas J. Gould to form Gould, Angell & Swift. Upon Gould's retirement, the firm was reduced to Angell & Swift, which remained in business until Swift's death in 1934. Thereafter, Angell went into semi-retirement. These various firms and their predecessors designed homes and other buildings in Providence. As a fan and student of architecture, H.P. Lovecraft must have walked by them hundreds of times. You can read more about Frank W. Angell on Wikipedia, here. You can also read about Lovecraft's Providence at the website hplovecraft.com, here. For a map of a walking tour of Lovecraft's College Hill, see the same website, here.

The youngest of the three Swift brothers was John Campbell Swift (1872-?). He graduated from Brown University in 1895. In 1918, when he filled out his draft card, he was living at 60 Summit Avenue and employed as a high school English teacher on Pond Street, both addresses in Providence. The school at which he taught was one of a complex that included Classical High School and Central High School. I can't be sure which it was, and I don't know anything about the schools in Providence. Maybe someone in that neck of the woods can tell us more. In any case, Swift later taught at Central High School, where he was head of the history department. By the way, C.M. Eddy, Jr. (1896-1967), a friend of Lovecraft and a writer of weird fiction, graduated from Classical High School.

That still leaves the question of Augustus T. Swift's career. In 1930, he called himself an investigator, but of what? Was that a simple business title, like an insurance investigator? Or was it something more exotic? He also called himself a writer. So what did he write, other than letters to pulp magazines? And what subject or subjects did he teach? Well, I found Swift and his wife in a directory of public school employees in Providence from 1904. Emma A. Swift was a clerk in the office of the superintendent of public schools, while her husband's name appeared below hers as a teacher of English. I also found the name of the school where he taught, English High School, also called Central High School at some point. So unless he worked at more than just those schools--unless he worked closer to home at Hope High School--Augustus T. Swift may not have known H.P. Lovecraft, thus a possible connection between these two fans and readers of pulp fiction was seemingly missed.

There's one more question to address: Was H.P. Lovecraft influenced by Francis Stevens? I have better questions: Did Lovecraft even know of Francis Stevens? And if he did, did he ever make a written comment on her stories? The answer to at least two of those three questions is probably no, but if you pay attention to this lousy Internet, you'll see the same garbage recycled again and again: That Francis Stevens influenced both H.P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt, a claim made without any substantiating evidence. That Lovecraft is quoted as calling her among "the top grade of writers," a quote without a citation and essentially a rephrasing of Augustus T. Swift's opinion that "Mr. Stevens" was "the highest grade" of writers contributing to The Argosy. And perhaps most egregious of all, that Francis Stevens "invented dark fantasy," another claim made without any substantiating evidence and one that I thought had been pretty thoroughly debunked already. This is my best and last question: Why do these things go on? The last claim especially can be considered little more than puffery, even an outright lie. And yet it goes on. Why?

Notes
(1) See "Books Alive" by Vincent Starrett, Chicago Tribune, Mar. 20, 1949, p. 124.
(2) From "Lovecraft and the Pulp Magazine Tradition" by Will Murray in An Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991), p. 105. I don't want to single out Mr. Murray, for he was obviously not the only person to believe that Swift was Lovecraft. The idea goes back at least to 1949, as we have seen. L. Sprague de Camp perpetuated the idea in his biography from 1975. (I have the Ballantine paperback edition from 1976. See pages 85-86.) Mr. Murray may only have been repeating what had already been accepted as fact by Lovecraft scholars.
(3) "Commencement Exercises," The Evening Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.), June 20, 1889, p. 1.
(4) Swift was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

English High School, Providence, Rhode Island, where Augustus T. Swift taught for many years.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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