It may sound fantastic to link the term "realism" with Conan; but as a matter of fact - his supernatural adventures aside - he is the most realistic character I ever evolved. He is simply a combination of a number of men I have known, and I think that's why he seemed to step full-grown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series. Some mechanism in my sub-consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian.It's a pity that this character, this amalgamation of so many real people Howard met in Depression era Texas, isn't the one with which so many are familiar today. He is, for my money, vastly more interesting than the dim, loincloth-wearing, stuffed mattress to be found in so many popular portrayals of the Cimmerian.
--Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith (July 23, 1935)
Of course, Howard himself has fared little better in the popular imagination than has his most famous creation. To the extent that anyone even knows any facts about the author's life, they're likely based on distortions, misrepresentations, and outright lies, such as those L. Sprague de Camp peddled in Dark Valley Destiny. Fortunately, the last three decades have seen the rise of a critical re-evaluation of both REH and his literary output, finally allowing both to be judged on their own merits rather than through the lenses of men with axes to grind.
This is as it should be. Robert E. Howard was a man like any other. He had his vices as well as his virtues; there is no need more need to reduce discussions of him to mere hagiography than there is to ill-informed criticisms. But men, particularly artists, need to be understood in their proper context, historical as well as cultural. Until comparatively recently, Howard hasn't been given that chance. Like Conan, he's been reduced to a caricature, a laughable shadow of his full depth and complexity that illuminates little about either his life or his legacy.
As the quote above makes clear, Conan may have been a man of the Hyborian Age but he was born in Depression era Texas and, I think, is most fully understood within that context. This is equally true of Howard himself, as Mark Finn noted in Blood and Thunder, a much-needed biographical corrective to De Camp:
One cannot write about Robert E. Howard without writing about Texas. This is inevitable, and particularly so when discussing any aspect of Howard's biography. To ignore the presence of the Lone Star State in Robert E. Howard's life and writing invites , at the very least, a few wrongheaded conclusions, and at worst, abject character assassination. This doesn't keep people from plunging right in and getting it wrong every time.It's often claimed that Howard led a tragic life but I'm not so sure that's true. If anything, he's had a far more tragic afterlife, for, despite of all the Herculean efforts made to elucidate his life and art, he is still so often remembered as "that writer who killed himself because he was upset about his mother's death." Couple that with the disservice done to his creations and it's a recipe for the frustration of anyone who reveres his memory, warts and all.
Yet, there is reason to hope the tide may eventually turn. Del Rey has done terrific work in bringing Howard's writings -- and not just his tales of Conan -- back into print. Better still, these are all Howard's writings, not the hackwork pastichery of others. In fact, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find those faux Conan stories on bookstore shelves. It's my hope that, at the very least, this will ensure that future readers will have a better chance to encounter the genuine articles than I did when I first sought out stories of the Cimmerian as a young man. Likewise, the facts of Howard's own life are also becoming more well known, at least among scholars and dedicated enthusiasts of fantasy. It may be some time before past falsehoods are cast aside for good but it's at least possible to imagine that now, whereas it was not even a few years ago.
Like the 104th birthday of Robert E. Howard, that's something worth celebrating.