Friday, January 22, 2010

Conan of Cross Plains

Janus must be very fond of writers, for so many were born this month: J.R.R. Tolkien, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Allan Poe, Abraham Merritt and, today, Robert Ervin Howard. Of them all, Howard is possibly unique in having created a character -- Conan -- who is a genuine pop cultural icon, his name recognized even by people with no prior connection to pulp fantasy. The irony is that that recognition often acts as an impediment to appreciating Howard's genius in having created him. Indeed, the popular conception of Conan bears only a passing resemblance to the character who first strode onto the pages of Weird Tales in December 1932.
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.

--Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith (July 23, 1935)
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.

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.


  1. I was given a copy of all the Conan tales for xmas. I won't read it until I've finished everything else that I've got lying around, but this has got me really excited about it now!

  2. Okay, I don't mean to stir up a hornet's nest here, but am I the only one a little put off by Mr. Howard's approach to race and racial issues? Please note, I am NOT calling him a racist. He was, as are we all, a product of his times, and to apply modern standards and mores is simply not fair. But still, underlying themes of cultural clash sometimes seem to be represented by racial clash. I enjoy the stories of Mr. Howard, but still, can't quite escape that undertow of eugenic-style thought that I fully believe Mr. Howard would have changed had he lived beyond the second world war. I'll note that I have some of the same feelings about both Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Again, I do not in any way mean that they can not, or should not, be read and enjoyed. I simply think they must be done so in their cultural context, one which sometimes hits a discordant note for me. Thanks in advance for your civil replies.

  3. Thanks for this. In my ignorance, I hadn't realized that REH was from TX. That only increases the desire to get more familiar with him, which was largely kindled by reading your other comments on him. I'm with Dungeonmum, in having received the Conan volume for Christmas, and have started wading in, interspersed with some Vance and CAS. It's definitely a re-education process.

  4. I’d be interested in examples of how Texas plays a part in understanding REH and Conan. (As a Texan, I think they would be hard for me to see without someone pointing them out.)

    Also, any opinions on whether the movie The Whole Wide World is worth watching?

  5. 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.

    With respect, what falsehoods? I don't quite see that there is any way to misinterpret his suicide... He went out to his car and shot himself in the head when his mother's nurse told him she was on the brink of death, preceding her by several hours. While this doesn't have much if any bearing on the value of his literary legacy, it certainly invites questions about the man's mental health and emotional maturity.

    Similarly, his racialism was a bit over-the-top, even for his time.

  6. @Robert, WWW is a good movie, not great, but perhaps the best part is that Vincent D'Onofrio is cast as REH and he is really wonderful in the role.

  7. Not really more over the top then Jack London's.

  8. Whole Wide World: Absolutely worth watching... And the book (One Who Walked Alone) is even better IMO...

    Texas by outsider's eye: As someone who lives at the opposite side of the globe, I don't know much about Texas, but in our minds, Texas is the place where there are the most mofo gunslingers live, and where killing somebody is like saying hello... :-) At least six years olds definitely believe this... So maybe there is a connection between Texas and Conan.

  9. The Del Rey series is awesome!

    Reading all the Conan stories in the chronological order that Howard wrote them is an amazing experience. It strips away all the crap that bad adaptations have piled on the character, and you get to follow Conan/Howard as he grows and evolves.

    I started reading the Conan stories on a lark, assuming that they would be pulpy kitsch (having been introduced to "Conan" via Marvel comics and Arnold), but the stories fast paced, explosive, and thoroughly modern. I can't recommend these stories enough.

  10. With respect, what falsehoods? I don't quite see that there is any way to misinterpret his suicide... He went out to his car and shot himself in the head when his mother's nurse told him she was on the brink of death, preceding her by several hours. While this doesn't have much if any bearing on the value of his literary legacy, it certainly invites questions about the man's mental health and emotional maturity.

    Conan wasn't the only one "with gigantic melancholies." By his own admission, REH suffered from "black moods" much of his life and often spoke of suicide. We know he had no interest in growing old and openly doubted that he'd ever live to old age. That doesn't sound to me like an emotionally immature Mama's boy who just snapped and offed himself as a kind of temper tantrum against the cruelties of life, which is pretty much how his suicide is usually portrayed.

  11. @ Bard: what he said.

    @ JM: right on. One of the greatest things to ever come from the Lone Star State, IMO.

  12. Heh. I start my Writing about Literature unit on Howard next Monday with "Phoenix on the Sword." We'll see what my students think of Conan.

  13. I'm not so sure that Howard's, racialism was all that over-the-top, for his time. One must not only consider the time but also the place he grew up in, Cross Plains Texas, in a time where there were still people alive who remembered Comanche raids, it was a much different time.
    And while I can think of at least one instance of Howard saying some horribly racist things in a letter to Lovecraft, In Novalyne Prices's "One Who Walked Alone", the book which "Whole Wide World" is based on, we see a more progressive side of Howard at times, especially when seen in light of the time and place he lived in.

  14. From the biographical accounts I've seen Lovecraft was the proper racist out of the "big three" pulp writers. No point denying it for any positive virtue he had this was one of his negative qualites.

  15. I don't know if a writer's limitations are negative qualities when talking about their literature. Howard's contribution of what is 'alien' or 'exotic' owes something to the divide between white and non-white cultures. Lovecraft's obvious racism could only have been driven by the very common (at the time) WASP fear that the 'others' would come along and pollute their culture. I grew up Catholic, but I've never had anyone spit the word 'papist' at me. My father grew up in Brooklyn, and the first black man he ever saw was in a bow tie sweeping the sidewalk in front of his barber shop. Given what Mr. M has in the post about Howard's life and the colorful characters of the time, it's stirs the imagination to think of what childhood icons of exoticism burned onto his brain.

    Thankfully, evolution seems to favor the graceful as opposed to the barbaric, and the nimble over the brutish. We should be so lucky that everyone could take their bitterness or hatred or fear and vent it into stories that can put faces on emotions without indulging in the hatred itself.

    Both Howard and Lovecraft don't seem centered on racism or racialism, but rather the terror of being surrounded or perhaps the desire for a safe frontier. Again, a product of particular times.

    It might be an interesting study to analyze the themes of the stories, their locations, and place them on a single visual timeline or mashup, or in some way visualize the common ideas in their texts.

  16. @ Leopardi: Lovecraft was not a proper racist. He was a xenophobic gentleman.

    He wasn't some klansmen always going on about how "them folks is fixin' to steal our jobs and wimmins," and trying to stir up the neighbors for a lynching or to get the Japanese intern fired.

    He was a man profoundly uncomfortable with almost everything about his world, who despaired at the passing of the only culture he thought he might have been somewhat less uncomfortable in, who acted upon his many many fears and discomforts by giving generously of his time to cultivate other writers' talents and producing his own infrequent but fascinating and original stories about the fragility of arrogant, intellectual worldviews in the face of the truly horrific nature of a vast, indifferent, alien cosmos.

    I have known a lot of racists in my life so far, but not one of them has ever reacted to their racism in the way Lovecraft did. To call him a proper racist is about as misleading as to say he wasn't racist at all.

    His xenophobia included but transcended racism, and his response to it deserves to be acknowledged as extraordinarily unusual.

    You cannot do justice to Lovecraft with a soundbite.

  17. Hi Rick, let's just agree that the private thoughts he put in his letters were what they were but that this doesn't detract from his literary legacy, on the contrary as other commentators have said, where his attitudes traspire into his literature if anything they make it more disturbing and unsettling for the reader.

    "Proper" was vis-a-vis REH, who I see as more of an "orientalist" i.e. concerned and to a certain extent in enamoured with the exotic but probably with such emotive topics I should choose my phrasing more carefully.

  18. It's important to inform/remind people that Howard wrote a lot more than Conan and a lot more varied genres than Swords & Sorcery. Although, most of his output was Pulp of one form or another.

    Boxing stories, Westerns, Horror, Historical Fiction, Fantasy and Adventure fiction.

    "that writer who killed himself because he was upset about his mother's death."

    To think that is to misunderstand depression and how it can make continuing with life seem pointless. And not wanting to hurt those you love. He suffered depression most of his life. I'm certain that he had been waiting for his mother's passing so that he could also stop existing.

    I say this as someone who suffers depression and who occasionally wonders if his own life is still worth living. Which makes me either biased or informed, your choice.

  19. I don't think REH was a mama's boy, I think he was a man dealing with severe depression. Lots of such men kill themselves in the middle of such black moods.

    I've read HPL's fiction in its entirety through once and much of it several times. I've read all of REH's Conoan & Solomon Kane works, but no others.

    I find the discomfiture about REH & HPL's approach to race & alien culture interesting and amusing. One thing that we must understand is that racialism and eugenicism were part & parcel of the Progessive project and all "the best minds" of the time bought into them. This includes most "literary" types.

    What I found in HPL & REH's writings was but a mild, fantastical slice of such progressive attitudes. If one is troubled by HPL and REH, try reading HG Wells. You're head will likely explode:

    "And how will the new republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? how will it deal with the yellow man? how will it tackle that alleged termite in the civilized woodwork, the Jew? Certainly not as races at all. It will aim to establish, and it will at last, though probably only after a second century has passed, establish a world state with a common language and a common rule. All over the world its roads, its standards, its laws, and its apparatus of control will run. It will, I have said, make the multiplication of those who fall behind a certain standard of social efficiency unpleasant and difficult… The Jew will probably lose much of his particularism, intermarry with Gentiles, and cease to be a physically distinct element in human affairs in a century or so. But much of his moral tradition will, I hope, never die. … And for the rest, those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency?
    Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go.The whole tenor and meaning of the world, as I see it, is that they have to go. So far as they fail to develop sane, vigorous, and distinctive personalities for the great world of the future, it is their portion to die out and disappear.
    The world has a greater purpose than happiness; our lives are to serve God's purpose, and that purpose aims not at man as an end, but works through him to greater issues."
    ----HG Wells, The Faith, Morals, and Public Policy of The New Republic

    "The true objection to slavery is not that it is unjust to the inferior but that it corrupts the superior. There is only one sane and logical thing to be done with a really inferior race, and that is to exterminate it."
    ----HG Wells, A Modern Utopia

    Thus saith^^ a leading light of the Progressive Movement and renowned author of fantastical fiction.

    REH & HPL are very small taters in comparison.

    (1) Read as scare quotes, as something I do not buy into as I am an old-school classical liberal and find the progressive project antithetical to my core values.

  20. "Howard's writings, not the hackwork pastichery of others." YEAH, BUDDY! GO, TEAM! I can't say enough about how strongly I agree with this statement!

    My wife has some experience with mental illness, as do I, in the course of our careers. After a visit to Cross Plains, at their annual "Barbarian Festival," we pondered the possibility that REH might have been bipolar... and that his mother's death simply happened to bisect with a "low point" in his cycle... which caused him to shoot himself, rather than try and tough it out.

    It's actually a good question.