Volume 25, Number 3, Spring 2007

Clark Ashton Smith—Individualist?

By Anders Monsen

Clark Ashton Smith (1891-1961) is lately enjoying a resurging interest in his works. From his early days as a young poet through his transformation into one of the major writers of weird fantasy in the early 20th century, and later as painter and sculptor, Smith resided mainly in near-isolation in Auburn, California. For most of his life he struggled financially. He sold most of his stories to Weird Tales, plus some sf to Hugo Gernsback’s magazines, and through a fierce following of loyal fans found publication of most of his tales and poems in book form through Arkham House, a small press focusing on horror and the weird. A vast fan-site resides on the web at http://www.eldritchdark.com/; his fantasy works are being collected in a five-volume set by Night Shade Books; his poetry soon will be available from Hippocampus Press, who issued his juvenalia and letters to George Sterling. A few years ago Arkham House published his Selected Letters, a collection of nearly 50 decades of correspondence with such people as H.P Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, George Sterling, and others.

Already in 1925, Smith wished for a “happier and freer planet,” and that “neither the ethtics nor the aesthetics of the ant-hill have any attraction for me.” Smith’s acquaintance Robert Barlow tried to convert him to socialism. In a letter in 1934 he responded to Barlow’s socialist vision of the dictatorship of the proletariat leading to ultimate freedom: “I simply can’t see the collectivistic idea as anything but a new and particularly odious form of tyranny. If you put everything—property, resources, etc., in the hands of the State, you give the state omnipotent power over the lives and liberties of individuals—and that power will be exercised.” Smith also wrote in 1937 to August Derleth, “I fail to see any particular point of desirability in a dictatorship of the proletariat, and can’t stomach the Soviet materialism, anti-religious bigotry, censorship, regimentation, etc.”

Smith opposed Bolshevism and linked communism with the insect world. He aligned himself with the rebellious spirit of an artist, and while having no religious beliefs himself, criticized the Russian communist government’s oppression of religion. He told Barlow that “[a]ny system of government that can’t stand honest criticism and opposition is strictly n[o] g[ood] in my opinion. To hell with it. You may argue that censorship and the other rigors are only temporary, and necessary for the establishment of the new regime; but I’m damned if I can subscribe to any regime that would find them necessary.”

While these comments cannot necessarily label Smith a libertarian, he does stand in stark opposition to the prevalent opinion at the time among artists and intelligentsia, who swarmed enthusiastically towards collectivism. Smith left politics out of his tales, but his words mark him as unique in his time as an artist and a thinker.

Reference: Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith, Edited by David E. Schultz and Scott Connors, Arkham House, 2003

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