Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dealing with contextless, inflammatory claims of Howard's racism

So in the end, Robert E. Howard was a racist. When my kids are old enough, I will not recommend his fiction to them. I'll also explain how Howard was so racist he would have thought of my sons as less than human. I'll then suggest they read Howard's fiction and history to discover for themselves how racist the man was.

From "Robert E. Howard was a racist. Deal with it," by Jason Sanford. Read the rest here (at your own risk).

And once you're done reading, hop on over to Al Harron's bit of cyberspace, The Blog that Time Forgot, and read his well thought-out response. Nice work, Al.

Like Harron, I also find Sanford's post highly unfair. Yes, Howard was racist by our modern, 21st century standards. "The Vale of Lost Women" was not his finest hour. Yet not only was Howard's racism no more than average for his place and time (1920s and 30's Texas), but he grew progressively less racist over the course of his writing career. How does one reconcile these words from a Howard poem with someone who is, as Stanford proclaims, an irredeemable racist?

That I lived to a straight and simple creed
The whole of my worldly span,
And white or black or yellow,
I dealt Foursquare with my fellow man.

Lest we forget, Howard was a very young man (18 years old) when his writing career began. The mainstream stories in which Howard's racism is most prevalent and troubling are his early Solomon Kane tales; by the later Kane stories Howard had largely changed his tune. He was maturing not only as a writer, but as a human being. Alas, he was dead by 30. We'll never know what enlightened attitudes toward race he may have held into middle and old age, but it's clear what trajectory his beliefs were taking.

But even more than the broad brush Sanford uses to inaccurately paint Howard, I'm more concerned with his casual references to tossing aside literature that doesn't meet with his 21st century standards of decency:

This cultural "passing on" is where Howard's writings embrace true failure. Despite what Howard's defenders may wish, we do not read his stories as if we were back in the 1930s. We read them through the eyes of our 21st century beliefs. Not only was his racism disturbing to some of his contemporaries, it is equally disturbing to modern readers. Because of this, many people don't believe Howard's stories are worth passing on to others.

I find it hard to believe that a reasonably intelligent reader cannot place works into the context of the times and culture in which they were written. Books should be evaluated on their own terms, regardless of the author's beliefs. Jack London was a racist, as was H.P. Lovecraft, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Joseph Conrad. Are we supposed to toss The Scarlet Letter and The Heart of Darkness by the wayside, then? Are these not worth passing on to later generations?

Extending Sanford's argument to an even greater height of absurdity: Sir Thomas Malory was a scoundrel. One biography declared him a thief, bandit, kidnapper, and rapist, and it's believed that he started Le Morte d'Arthur while he was in prison. Do the sordid details of its author's life render it any less a work of art? (Now that I'm on the subject, Le Morte d'Arthur is also thoroughly medieval and emphasizes the importance of Christianity as a moral code for lawless knights. Since many find religion and the medieval mindset repellant, that's three strikes. Please place all copies into the nearest incinerator).

Sanford does perform some equivocating in his post; he says that not all of Howard's writings should be discarded, and he's rather complementary of most of his Conan material. Unfortunately, this point is lost amidst his screaming bold-emphasized declaration that "the bastard was a racist!"

To sum up:

That Robert E. Howard was racist by our own 21st century standards is a reasonable argument and a basis for measured criticism.

That Howard's racism informs and mars all his works, and to therefore conclude that they be placed in the dustbin of history, is shortsighted and dangerous (or at the least, certainly troubling) thinking.

Addendum*

Not only is Sanford's essay a shoddy piece of work, but now he's apparently deleting critical comments about it left on his blog. I posted two pieces of evidence directly contradicting his thesis that Howard's racism was excessive and abnormal for his place and time, and I took them from the two official biographies of REH (one of which, Blood and Thunder, Sanford supposedly read). They are as follows:

If a racist, Robert Howard was, by the standards of his time and place, a comparatively mild one.

--Dark Valley Destiny, L. Sprague de Camp

It is incredibly naive to throw a twenty-first-century value judgment onto people who were living a hundred years ago. For every instance of racism found in Howard's work, a compelling counterargument can be found elsewhere.

--Blood and Thunder, Mark Finn

The two biographies of Robert E. Howard vs. Jason Sanford--I think we know where the truth lies, here.

40 comments:

Trey said...

Sigh. This again, huh? You deliver a cogent response, though.
I suppose if the racism bothers one so much in Howard or Lovecraft that it overawes any other merits, then anyone who feels that way should feel free not to read it.

What I'm puzzled by is their desire to having their writings declared objectively unworthy as if no one should read them. While no one (as far as I know) has called for censorship, that seems to be the de facto implication of the idea that all right-thinking people should reject them.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Looks like Sanford is backtracking a little bit. Check the comment thread on Harron's blog.

The other day I had a (German) professor tell me that Abraham Lincoln was racist. Ah, well...

David J. West said...

Great points Brian (and Trey and Eric)
I can't help but wonder if we held every author to such scrutiny-what good and true literary works would even exist?
If everything had to be covered with a PC paintbrush, how sterile would our books be?

Pericles said...

Seems like everything these days is reduced to an "ism" of one type or another. *sigh*

Brian, you and the rest did a very able job of defending REH.

Scott said...

Brian,

I read this guy's blog entry,too. I hate when someone reads a couple of things and then decides he's an 'expert' on said subject. He has backpeadled a bit, but still, as you and others have said more eloquently than I could, REH , and other authors, are products of their times, and REH did ease out of his racist leanings. I guess he should go find something more PC to read.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks guys, really if it wasn't for Al I wouldn't have found the initial essay. Al did a wonderful job rebutting it and I wanted to chime in with my own two coppers.

Sanford did backtrack in a later "amendment," but his claim that what he was "really trying to say" was that most of Howard's work should be preserved rings hollow. I don't know how we are supposed to buy that when he concluded his essay with the following:

So in the end, Robert E. Howard was a racist. When my kids are old enough, I will not recommend his fiction to them. I'll also explain how Howard was so racist he would have thought of my sons as less than human. I'll then suggest they read Howard's fiction and history to discover for themselves how racist the man was.

But despite that, I'll also recommend that my kids check out the new Conan the Barbarian novels and comics and even see Arnold's films. Not that any of these works are perfect. But my kids will likely enjoy them and they can do so without dealing with Howard's racist baggage.


Essentially what he's said here is that Howard should be discarded, but the pastiches are worth passing on. Now there's a shrewd critical opinion.

Atom Kid said...

I wonder what the "list of official authors that we can read", looks like?
The purveyors of good taste and moral fortitude tend to pull the rug out from their own arguments.
This all reeks on "Fahrenheit 451" proportions!

faustusnotes said...

This article is hardly "contextless" is it? It spends quite a bit of time not only discussing the context of the times, but pointing out that Howard's peers found his racism disturbing.

It's hardly inflammatory either - he makes clear that he thinks large parts of Conan's work have survived because they're free of racism, and that individual preferences have been at work sorting his best from his work. He uses this as a discussion on cultural preferences, and makes clear that he'll recommend Conan to his kids.

This isn't equivocating - it's the point of his post.

Brian Murphy said...

Faustusnotes: If shouting "Howard was a racist: Deal with it!" and emphasizing in bold as a summation of his life and career: "The bastard was a racist!" is not designed to inflame, well, I would like to see your definition of inflammatory.

Again, I'm not here to debate whether Howard was not a racist: He was. The point I'm making is that not only was Howard's racism mild for the location and time period in which he lived, but that it is also largely confined to a few stories and some of his private correspondance. Howard's stories are vivid pulp fiction that occasionally ruminate on deeper themes, such as civilization vs. barbarism. They are not polemics about the superiority of the white man. In fact, there are many instances in which Howard portrays black men not only on equal footing, but as heroes.

Sanford is admittedly not well-read in Howard's fiction and the article spends no time discussuing Howard's conflicted and changing views on race. Yet he sums up his article with the comment: "in the end, Howard was a racist," which effectively closes the debate on the subject.

And yes, there initally was some significant equivocating going on in the post, and in later follow-ups. Sanford on the one hand extends extends an olive branch to Howard:

So even though a number of Howard's original stories are marred by his racism, this doesn't mean we can't enjoy his greatest creation.

But also states that "many people don't believe Howard's stories are worth passing on to others" and that he wouldn't recommend Howard's fiction in its entirety to his sons because of its racism.

I disagree with Sanford's claim that we as readers can't draw distinictions between what was acceptable in the 1920s and 1930s vs. today, and that we evaluate literature purely with our own enlightened 21st century eyes. That's bullshit. For example, there are some abhorrent statements in a few of Howard's Kane stories, but I understand that the writer is an isolated young man in his early 20s living in rural Texas and I can bypass his few racist remarks and enjoy the broader stories. If Sanford doesn't have the capacity to contextualize, that's his own shortcoming as a reader, not mine.

faustusnotes said...

Brian, your second paragraph is pretty much exactly the content of Sanford's post. How come it's context when you do it, and "context-free" when he does it?

Sanford's claim is not that we can or can't read in context; it's that we don't, hence the enduring popularity of Howard's least racist writings.

I also don't see how you can take issue with him not wanting to recommend the racist parts of Howard's opus to his mixed-race children. It might not be your style of parenting, but it hardly seems like a controversial decision.

And saying someone's a racist when they're pretty well-established as such is not inflammatory.

I think you've given this post a really unfair review.

Brian Murphy said...

Wait a minute: Sanford says that Howard's racism should not be pardoned because he was living in a racist time and place; I think it largely should. It's not that Sanford doesn't understand context, he's just choosing not to apply it. In fact, he argues that literature cannot be contextualized because we read it through our own 21st century eyes. That is a weak, ludicrous argument. We can and do contextualize; Sanford cannot in this instance, and it appears that he doesn't do it at all while reading literature.

Also, it is inflammatory to label someone as a racist when it was only a very small facet of Howard's personality, and was something he seemed to be growing out of during his all too short writing career. H.P. Lovecraft was a racist and George Washington owned slaves, but I'm not going to say that their works and legacy are not worth passing on. If you knew nothing about Howard except what you read in Sanford's post, your perception of him would be entirely skewed, and that's unfair. And damned inflammatory.

faustusnotes said...

He sets the context of the time and place much more clearly than you, pointing out that Howard's racism made his friends uncomfortable in letters. That you disagree about the strength of his racism hardly makes Sanford's comments contextless.

This is the opposite of saying literature can't be contextualized: to the contrary, he says it was racist in its context and it is racist now. He then points out that a lot of readers privilege their own context over that of the time in reading, which is why some of Howard's stories remain popular and some don't.

When you say it is "inflammatory" to call Howard a racist when it was only a "small part of his personality," what you are really saying is that racism is not very important to you. For Sanford's mixed race children, and for whichever one of the parents is black, that "small part" of someone's personality is probably quite relevant - the bit where they refuse to serve you, refer to you as "it" or vote for people who want to lynch you is probably actually not considered "small" and the politics of those people might be seen as "inflammatory."

Maybe you should consider the context of Sanford's life (and all those other people out there who experience racism) before pronouncing on what parts of a person's character it is inflammatory to talk about?

Brian Murphy said...

If we evaluated the worth of all works of literature based on the feelings of every individual reader, and cast aside all that we found offensive, the world would be a much poorer and emptier place, faustusnotes.

And maybe you and Sanford should consider the life and times of Robert E. Howard before you choose to condemn. His was an age where blacks could not marry whites in some states, where schools and lunch counters were segregated, where scientific studies sought to show the inferiority of the black race. The KKK was well organized and in full swing. It was also a time in which the west had not been settled for long, and Howard heard first-hand accounts (dramatized and one-sided, unfortunately) of Indian massacres and scalpings. Howard wrote in that era, and to ignore those facts and to have his life and works judged and condemned by a half-informed reader who admittedly has not read most of Howard's works, 90 years later, living in a completely different era is grossly unfair.

Is that contexualized enough for you?

You're right of course that I'll never be able to place myself in Sanford's shoes, and perhaps I am a recipient of white priveledge. I just find it unfortunate and short-sighted that he can't do the same for Howard.

faustusnotes said...

Everyone evaluates the worth of a work of literature from their own perspective. Sanford's post clearly is doing that, and this should be obvious from the very opening sentence. Are you saying that your whole site dedicated to the fantasy work you love, and the series of posts revisiting Tolkien, as well as your strong defense of same, are all pure objectivity?

re: your last paragraph, Sanford explicitly attempts to put himself in the shoes of people of Howard's time when he points out that Howard's friends found his racism uncomfortable.

It's disappointing that no matter how many times I point this out, you choose to ignore it. It disputes the central point of your post, and you won't answer it. Sanford's post is clearly not contextless.

Perhaps you disagree with his interpretation of the context? Because that's a very different issue.

Brian Murphy said...

Here's my definition of context in regards to this discussion: Placing an author's words into the time, place, and culture in which they were written.

Sanford makes his opinion clear that literature is art and therefore cannot be contextualized. To quote him directly:

But this "product of his time and place" statement also dances around the more important issue--excusing a writer's racism because it was once commonplace doesn't work with literature. Here's why: Literature is a cultural artifact, and culture is a dynamic process involving continual evolution and change.

Do you think Howard stands a chance of a fair review under those criteria? I don't, and I don't believe Sanford ever tried to give him one. What he's written above is, in my opinion, an inane theory of how literature works, and is very, very presumptive as well.

I will concede this point: That Sanford contextualizes his argument from a personal, visceral level. I don't begrudge him the slightest of not recommending Howard to his children.

I'll also add that you haven't addressed my larger quarrel with Sanford's essay (which I very clearly stated in my first post): The fact that he's advocating, directly or indirectly, for a form of censorship. Again, he equivocates here: He says that not all of Howard's fiction is abhorrent, but he does say that certain works should be moved out of the mainstream, including Howard's stories. I frankly don't know what he's getting at here, but it smacks of censorship. The notion that we can and should discard literature that doesn't fit the culture of our times strikes me as a bit dangerous.

Like you said, of course I'm opinionated too (I loathe most of the Tolkien clones and much of the "fat fantasy" choking bookshelves these days), and I'm not afraid to inject personal commentary into my reviews. But the differnece is that I don't advocate for the cultural marginalization/abandonment of these works.

Tex said...

"Howard's racism made his friends uncomfortable in letters."

"Howard's friends found his racism uncomfortable."

Evidence? Documentation?

Tex
(a little clarification, please)

faustusnotes said...

Tex, the claims about the friends are apparently documented in Howard's letters, and described in the linked post. I'm assuming they're accurate.

Brian, you're still refusing to accept that Sanford places teh context in the time, place and culture in which they were written.

While it's true that he then rejects this process, by the time he gets there he's already pointed out that in his time Howard was considered a bit iffy.

Under the criteria Sanford suggests Howard won't get a fair review, and Sanford admits this when he points out that Howard's most popular works are the least racist ones.

But Sanford isn't advocating a type of censorship. He's saying don't read it if you don't like it. It's a variation on the old saw, "the market proved me right."

If you think this is censorship you have a strange view of the c-word. I don't think his recommendation ("I wouldn't recommend this to my kids") counts as censorship either. And saying that certain works should be moved out of the mainstream is simply him saying that we can, by the power of our recommendations and our decisions about what to read, make certain work less important because it no longer fits the culture of our times.

This happens all the time with literature. It's how literature evolves. Shakespeare is no longer enjoyed, but is kept in the canon because of its historical importance. Removing a book from the canon is simply saying: this book is not as relevant as it once was. Keeping a book in the canon and dropping it from your reading list is simply saying: this book was important but it's no fun to read.

And a lot of people think racist screeds are no fun to read. Sanford is telling people who think this that there are many Howard books they shouldn't read. Giving people advice on how to exercise their free choice is not censorship (unless the government does it through little stickers).

Brian Murphy said...

Howard did not write “racist screeds.” He wrote pulp fiction stories, some of which were colored with the bigotry of his time and place. Which Sanford fails to properly contextualize.

We’ve gone around and around the rosary bush on this one. If you think Sanford’s essay adequately takes into account Howard’s place, time, and culture, and that Sanford has made fair application of said context, you’re entitled to that opinion. I don’t think that’s the case at all. He’s given Howard’s time and place lip service and then immediately eviscerates the discussion. He’s let a confrontation with what sounds like an obnoxious fan and a highly personal situation unbalance him. Which again, I can’t blame him for, but it does not make his opinion even-handed, and it certainly leaves him open to the criticism which I’ve leveled here. Howard never stood a chance of a fair evaluation using Sanford’s half-cocked theory of how literature operates.

Frankly I’m quite glad we don’t have people like Sanford calling the shots on what is worth preserving. If he had his way we’d have no authentic Conan stories to pass on, only the awful pastiches. He says in his initial post that the pastiches and clones are fascinating examples of what the culture has found worthy of passing on; I find that evidence a pretty sad state of affairs. The comic books and movies (a few really good Savage Sword of Conan adaptations aside) have done a really poor job on carrying on the essence of Howard. Sanford says that’s evidence in action of the culture passing on what is good in Howard; I call that evidence of the dumbing down of culture and the rounding off of the sharp edges of art. He enjoys “the modern reinterpretation of Howard’s world building” in the Robert Jordan novels, the comics, and the Schwarzenegger films, I don’t. At best they’re a pale reflection (no pun intended) of Howard’s stories, at worst they are absolute junk. Dude, have you watched Conan the Destroyer? Thankfully we have Howard in unexpurgated form in the new Del Rey series.

To draw upon another example: Some have analyzed Tolkien’s stories through the lens of racism. I suppose in Sanford’s mind we should not recommend Tolkien to our children and read them bland, artless clones like The Sword of Shannara instead? I’m fine with that decision on a personal level (though I think you’d be doing your kids a disservice). Macro/cultural level, not so much.

faustusnotes said...

Oh dear. So, no matter how many times it is pointed out to you that Howard was considered racist in his own time and place you're just going to continue to ignore it.

How can you criticize someone else for not properly analyzing context when you refuse to recognize a simple fact that is crucial to what they wrote?

Frankly I'm quite glad we don't have anyone calling the shots on what is worth preserving. Instead we have people who don't like racism advising other people not to read a text they think is racist.

There's nothing in Sanford's commentary to suggest that he would ban Howard if he was in the position of actually being your straw man. So why call it censorship?

Brian Murphy said...

If a racist, Robert Howard was, by the standards of his time and place, a comparatively mild one. He noted the superior qualities of the industrious Bohemian immigrants who settled in Texas. He praised individuals of various backgrounds whom he admired: certain Jewish prizefighters merited a kind word, as did the Negro cowboy who invented bulldogging. He thought ridiculous the county custom of forbidding Negroes who spend the night within its borders.

While Howard’s late story “Black Canaan” has gallant white men dashing about the Deep South to forestall “nigger” uprisings, elsewhere he shows sympathy for the downtrodden blacks. In “The Dead Remember,” his sympathies are with a Negro couple abused and murdered by a drunken, vicious cowboy. He even wrote a few stories with black heroes. Over the years Howard, like Lovecraft, came to take a more impartial view of the races of man. Although he never became a racial egalitarian, Howard was less ethnocentric than many of his contemporaries.

Emphasis mine. This is from Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard, by L. Sprague de Camp. Which Sanford hasn’t bothered to read before declaring Howard a racist for his time and age.

I went back by the way and read “Southern Discomfort,” which Sanford cites as lone evidence of Howard’s time-defying racism in his essay, and the only reference there is a vague comment from Novalyne Price Ellis, who dated Howard and wrote “One Who Walked Alone,” and which I recommend that you (and Sanford) read. It was also made into a fine film “The Whole Wide World.” She loved Howard, was his ardent defender, and evidently was not too appalled by him.

(Sanford even says that Romeo, the author of “Southern Discomfort,” partly excuses Howard’s racism by stating that by the standards of Howard's time and place--the 1920 and '30s South and Southwest--his racism wasn't that unusual. Sanford immediately follows with “I disagree with this.”)

Please direct me to the letters from Howard’s friends admonishing him for his racism. I own some, but not all of Howard’s letters, so I may be proven wrong here. But I’ve been reading Howard and about Howard for a long time and, like Tex, can’t remember seeing any either.

Please produce them.

Also, please produce the racist screeds you’ve accused Howard of writing.

I’ll be here waiting.

Tex said...

Brian, I own all three volumes of the Collected Letters, and stand ready to confirm any citations faustusnotes (or Sanford) can produce.

Tex
(expecting a deafening silence from both)

faustusnotes said...

Just for clarity, Brian, I'm not accusing Howard of writing racist screeds. The sentence where I said "racist screed" has nothing to do with Howard, it's just a comment on people's reading preferences in general. Even if Sanford is wrong about Howard's books being racist screeds, he is perfectly within his rights to not enjoy reading racist screeds.

I haven't, in fact, read anything racist by Howard (that I can recall); but I've only read Conan and Sanford says these weren't racist.

Tex, I don't have to produce the letters because I'm not making any claims about Howard. I'm simply pointing out to Brian that he can't accuse Sanford of a lack of context when Sanford cites evidence from Howard's letters about how he was viewed in his time and place.

But now Brian has shifted to what I think is a much more reasonable position: having been prodded repeatedly on these letters, he has decided to dispute the interpretation of the context.

Had that been done in the original post, it might have been a slightly less disingenuous attack.

faustusnotes said...

Also Brian, in your comment above I think you misread Sanford's interpretation of the legacy of Conan. In his after-comment he makes it very clear that he thinks that Conan has itself stood the test of time because it's not racist.

i.e. he isn't suggesting that people are reading only a pastiche of reinterpretations of Conan, as you seem to be implying above. He is arguing that Conan has survived all these years because people choose to discard the racist parts of the Howard opus, and keep the non-racist parts. He then cites the interpretations and derivative comics etc. as evidence of its popularity (not in place of it).

Brian Murphy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Murphy said...

Before we get to ascribing motives as to why I made my original post, or parse words about further issues in the Sanford essay, I’m calling an end to this discussion. I do appreciate all the back and forth, Faustusnotes.

Tex, that reminds me, I’ve got to get the last two sets of letters before the Robert E. Foundation runs dry.

faustusnotes said...

I wasn't impugning your motives, Brian, just the quality of your analysis.

But by shutting off the debate you've certainly avoided having to admit to the content of those letters...

Brian Murphy said...

You hadn’t heard? I paid a cool $2 million at auction for Howard’s original letters, and burned dozens which contained all the admonishments from his close circle of friends regarding his time-and-space defying racism. That’s why Sanford can’t produce them. Pretty awesome, huh?

I’m clever like that. It helps to cover up the poor quality of my analysis.

faustusnotes said...

If you think the letters he quotes aren't true, why not just say so?

Or are you being "funny" for some other reason? Like e.g. you don't want to have to talk about them?

Brian Murphy said...

What I'm saying is that there are no letters from Howard's friends admonishing him for his racism. They're not in any of his Collected Letters.

Brian Murphy said...

What I'm saying is that there are no letters from Howard's friends admonishing him for his racism. They're not in any of his Collected Letters.

faustusnotes said...

so your argument is that he's lying? But in the OP you thought it more effective to accuse him of not considering context rather than falsifying context?

I wonder why I don't believe this?

Brian Murphy said...

I'm arguing both: I maintain (and am unshaken in my conviction) that Sanford never contextualized his argument. It’s pretty easy to say you’re going to do something, especially on the internet. Actually doing it is something else. Sanford from the get-go dismissed Howard’s place and time in his evaluation. He cites one essay pertaining to Howard’s racism which you can obtain with a simple Google search, and then proceeded to cursorily dismiss even that essay’s claim, “It is true that Howard lived in a part of the country where racist attitudes were the norm. Texans still remembered attacks from Comanche, the war for Texas independence, and the U.S. Civil War. Texans held grudges against Indians, Mexicans, Blacks, and Yankees.” Sanford doesn’t even treat with this stuff, even though it’s historical truth, and instead chose to hand-waive it away. I’ve already mentioned the fact that Sanford believes literature cannot be contextualized. It all adds up to a contextless argument.

I’m very hesitant to sum up any person with a label, especially writers with whom I have only a passing familiarity. Sanford admits in his essay he spent “a few weeks” reading up on Howard before calling him a racist, even by the standards of 1920s Texas. He’s obviously woefully, hopelessly uninformed about Howard’s writings and his life and times and is in no position to make this argument. So I’m not budging on calling his essay inflammatory either. He’s treated a complex issue with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

I have read the only two existing biographies of Howard. Dark Valley Destiny by L. Sprague de Camp (which Sanford has not read) provides an in-depth look at 1920s and 30s Texas and concludes that If a racist, Robert Howard was, by the standards of his time and place, a comparatively mild one. I’m going with De Camp, the guy who visited Cross Plains, interviewed people who knew Howard, and reached this conclusion through research and careful analysis. Not Sanford, who was incited to write his essay based on a run-in with a fan.

The other biography by Mark Finn, Blood and Thunder, also does not portray Howard as a racist for his time and age. Sanford says he read the latter but I noticed did not cite it in his essay. Were there evidence of Howard’s racism beyond the common racism of his time and place in Blood and Thunder I can only presume Sanford would have used it to make his case.

But I’ve spent enough time on Sanford’s essay and exposed enough gaping holes in it. On to the letters and the allegation that Howard’s friends admonished him in his personal correspondence.

I own only Volume 1 of Vols. 1-3 of Howard’s Collected Letters, but Tex and two other people whom I know from Howard studies also say that no such letters exist. Since I don’t own Vols. 2-3 of his letters I was not earlier prepared to make the claim that Sanford is either misinformed or lying. I feel pretty comfortable doing so now and will follow up on the issue after I obtain and read Vols. 2-3 myself.

By the way, Sanford been called out on his own blog to produce said letters and has failed to respond. I don’t suspect we’ll ever see them.

faustusnotes said...

Regarding the issue of context in general (and straying away from Sanford in particular), a secondary problem with claiming the importance of context (and one which Sanford didn't raise) is that context is never consistent or complete. For example, you could argue that some writing at the time of slavery needed to be assessed in the context of a racist slaving society, and you might be right; but how then do you analyse Harriet Beecher Stowe or the huge response to her work?

At the time of slavery there was a strong debate in America about it (they had a war over the issue, I believe...?) Demanding that they be judged by the context of the status quo rather than the context of those who eventually won the argument is privileging a conservative interpretation of history and cultural movements.

At the time that Howard wrote, his society was already moving away from the ideas Sanford claims he represented in his books. Yet those who argue for context always argue for the status quo. Howard was young and intelligent - can we not judge him by the views of a large portion of his peers who thought he was wrong, and were ultimately proven right?

Regarding the letters, Tex indicates he "stands ready" to reread the books. He hasn't proven anything, and it's taken you an awfully long time to incorporate them into your analysis of Sanford's contextualization.

Tex said...

faustusnotes said...
"Regarding the letters, Tex indicates he "stands ready" to reread the books. He hasn't proven anything..."

No, what I said back on the 3rd was that I "stand ready to confirm any citations faustusnotes (or Sanford) can produce."

I still await those citations, either here, or on Sanford's blog (where I queried him back on the 2nd.)

Tex
(tap, tap, tap)

Brian Murphy said...

Yes, at this point it's up to Sanford to produce. The burden of proof is really on the accuser here.

Regarding your other commentary on racism, faustusnotes: I have mentioned that Howard's racism itself was not some static quality. He wrote as a very young man and his attitudes were literally changing over the course of his career. His latter stories of Conan contain very little racist elements, for example. So you could argue that Howard himself was moving away from some of his racist tendencies.

faustusnotes said...

I don't think we need to wait for Sanford to respond regarding the letters; we can infer their existence from reference iii in the Romeo article, which is a book about a different author ( Ellis, Novalyne Price. One Who Walked Alone, Hampton Falls, NH: Grant Books, 1986, p. 95). We read (in response to Howard's description of the tarring and feathering of black men out after curfew):

When Novalyne reacted negatively, Howard returned, “Let me tell you something, girl, that you don’t seem to know. Those people come from a different line. They have different blood "

These letters imply that his interlocutor admonished him, and that he argued with his peers about racial issues.

Presumably if, as you say, Howard improved in later life it is because of the efforts of people like Novalyne - that is, he was out of step with the ideals of his time, and was dragged slowly into line with them.

This certainly implies that the context of his time is much more complex than "everyone was racist" and much closer to Sanford's depiction than yours. And, unlike Tex, given the implied existence of these letters, I don't think I have to assume that Sanford might be lying and demand proof. To do so is just fanboy defensiveness.

Brian Murphy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Murphy said...

If you’re looking for the smoking gun of Howard’s racism in the pages of One Who Walked Alone, you’re not going to find it. That book is a chronicle of the brief relationship of Howard and Novalyne Price Ellis (it was also made into a fine film, The Whole Wide World). It was certainly a stormy one. Price Ellis takes Howard to task for many of his faults, including his boorish behavior and inability to commit to a serious relationship. She also didn’t like the violence of some of his stories and Howard’s crude (and yes, racist) language, and I suspect that’s what she was objecting to in the quote. I don’t know that for certain without locating the book. But at the risk of splitting hairs, all the article says is that she “reacted negatively” to Howard’s words. And if that’s the lone evidence in “Southern Discomfort,” that’s still pretty flimsy in my book. Howard was surrounded by other bigots and himself was a blowhard and he parrotted a lot of that talk.

I did comment on that quote in an earlier comment upthread, by the way, though it’s buried.

I’m a fan of Howard, certainly, or else I wouldn’t have a blog like The Silver Key. I grew up reading his stories and the pastiches. But whether or not I’m a fanboy, I don’t know. I’ll leave that up to you. But I’ve never called Howard a saint. Just a very complex individual.

I do have to say you’ve misstated my argument: I never said that “everyone was racist” in Howard’s time, and therefore should be excused for it. I was talking about the prevailing attitudes in Texas (I defined context as time, place, and culture). Nor am I excusing his racism (or racism in general), just contextualizing it.

Tex said...

Aww, I think we hurt Sanford's feewings :(

After deleting Brian's comment (reproduced above,) he then deleted Frank Anderson, Jr.'s comment (which was posed after Brian's comment had been deleted.) I re-post Mr. Anderson's comment here, for the sake of completeness...

"You said you wouldn't recommend Howard's writings to your kids because he was a racist? Perhaps you should have them read it, and DISCUSS it with them. Open dialogue concerning racial issues is important. To do less is to prolong this madness. It sounds like, ( even if you are white ) that you have the racial chip on your shoulder. This also prolongs the madness.

Posted by: Frank Anderson, Jr. | October 14, 2010 at 11:17 PM"

Now, Sanford (in a stereotypical demonstration of the tolerance for opposing views that his ilk always shows) has locked the topic...

"The comments to this entry are closed."

Some people just can't handle being called on the crap they spew.

An amusing note--there was no mass defense of Sanford on his own site (only one whack-job post, I believe.) Must not have that many readers who give a damn.

Tex
(guessing now that we'll go to our graves before we get any Howard correspondence citations from Sanford, or others who share his madness, to back-up his bizarro claims)

faustusnotes said...

Tex, if you think that popping up on someone's blog to tell them that their parenting style is evidence that they've got a "racial chip" on their shoulder is somehow a contribution to debate, you're a fool. That sort of shit gets deleted on any reasonable blog.

As for "racial chips" - Robert Howard made jokes about the smell of "roasting niggers" and someone accuses a man who objects to this of having a racial chip?

You then take his deletion of this sterling display of manners as "intolerance."

The man has mixed-race children, people are popping up on his blog to tell him his parenting style is evidence he's racist against white people (because he doesn't want his kids reading racist stories by a guy who makes jokes about lynching black people), and you think closing the comments is evidence that he "can't handle being called on the crap [he spews]."

Perhaps a little review of fundamental concepts like "racism," "good manners" and "tolerance" would work in your favour.