Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Howard and Hemingway

Read enough Robert E. Howard and you start to see him everywhere, particularly in the works of his contemporaries. Case in point: I recently listened to an audio version of Ernest Hemingway’s non-fiction treatise on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, and my Howard-addled brain began to piece together tenuous, but perhaps not entirely unfounded, connections between the disparate authors.

Hemingway and Howard are alike? Didn’t one write about traumatized and/or impotent war veterans named Nick and Jake, and the other about unstoppable, larger-than-life heroes from impossibly ancient times with names like Conan and Kull? I’ll admit that if the only Hemingway you’ve read is The Garden of Eden or A Moveable Feast, you’ll find little in common with these tales and Howard’s Hour of the Dragon or “The Vale of Lost Women.” But Death in the Afternoon is a very different animal than Hemingway’s softer stories. It’s a raw, unflinching look at a sport many consider barbaric and cruel, but which Hemingway admired very deeply. And then it struck me: What is Death in the Afternoon if not heroic fantasy? What are the Spanish bullfighters of Hemingway’s work if not modern-day gladiators, heroes with swords? Wealth, fame, and great heights are theirs for the taking, but are entirely dependent on their bravery, grace, and skill with cape and sword.

Could Howard have derived some inspiration from Death in the Afternoon and/or Hemingway’s stories in general? We know Howard read Hemingway. According to the REH Bookshelf, an invaluable resource painstakingly compiled by Howard scholar Rusty Burke, Howard had a copy of “Winner Take Nothing” on his bookshelf. This collection contains “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and “A Natural History of the Dead” (this latter must-read vignette also appears in Death in the Afternoon), among other short stories. Given his prodigious appetite as a reader Howard may very well have read Death in the Afternoon. Although he didn’t have it on his bookshelf at the time of his death, Howard’s sensibilities are splashed on its pages like the blood of a soft, city-bred Nemedian on a Pictish axe.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

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