Friday, March 10, 2023

Cross Plains Chronicle: Letters of Robert E. Howard, vol. 2

The West is the best...

One of the ways I’ve been mentally gearing up for my trip to Cross Plains is by reading Robert E. Howard’s letters, including a recent purchase of the new vol. 2 from the Robert E. Howard Foundation. These cover the years 1930-32. I want to get into the dude’s mind before I make my way to his hometown.

I found these fun, interesting, inspiring, and revealing. If you want to learn who Howard was and how he thought, his letters are a must. A large portion of this collection are long missives to H.P. Lovecraft, with whom Howard began corresponding in 1930.

Howard’s collected letters are just that, all the letters that HE wrote. Absent are Lovecraft’s responses that we get in A Means to Freedom (Hippocampus Press), which still makes that two volume set a must. Mixed in among the letters to HPL are letters to Howard’s friends, publishers, fans, snatches of poetry and verse, etc., and so the collected letters are absolutely worth reading for any Howard fan.

Understatement: REH was an interesting dude, thoughtful, full of wild passions, heights of ecstasy and depths of despair. He held his own in a spar of ideas with Lovecraft, a first-rate intellect, and in so doing reveals a whole lot about himself. This is first-rate correspondence.

He was also, undoubtedly, going to write at length about the history of Texas, had he lived longer. Look at this passage for example, of the hard men and women who settled the frontier, and recently passed into history:

Well they have gone into the night, a vast and silent caravan, with their buckskins and their boots, their spurs and their long rifles, their wagons and their mustangs, their wars and their loves, their brutalities and their chivalries, they have gone to join their old rivals, the wolf, the panther and the Indian, and only a crumbling ‘dobe wall, a fading trail, the breath of an old song, remain to mark the roads they travelled. But sometimes when the night wind whispers forgotten tales through the mesquite and the chaparral, it is easy to imagine that once again the tall grass bends to the tread of a ghostly caravan, that the breeze bears the jingle of stirrup and bridle-chain, and that spectral camp-fires are winking far out on the plains.

We would have had some amazing western literature from Howard’s typewriter, blending poetic flourishes with a higher degree of realism than you find in his fantastic stories. Possibly tales about Billy the Kid or John Wesley Hardin, whose tales he regales Lovecraft at length. He spends more time writing about Texas history than any other subject in these letters.

Some believe that Howard fetishized barbarians; he did not. He (merely) believed barbarism was the inevitable state of mankind. That fact was not to be celebrated as it reveals something dark and imperfectible and eternal in human nature. It means that civilization will ultimately decay and collapse, but also inevitably rise again—Howard wrote that “civilization is a natural and inevitable consequence” of our development. As others have noted he had a cyclical view of history, a natural rise and fall. Howard also held the physical realm in equipoise with the mental; he loved football and boxing and stories of strength and endurance. We get lots of brutal descriptions of athletic competition in the letters.

All of this led him to an inevitable clash with Lovecraft. HPL had no use for the physical and no use for barbarians. His loyalties lay with Roman order, Howard’s with the oppressed native tribes, barbarians, and the outsider. “Sometimes I think Bran is merely the symbol of my own antagonism toward the empire, an antagonism not nearly so easy to understand as my favoritism for the Picts,” he wrote. 

Above all, Howard believed in freedom of the individual, and distrusted government in all its forms, as well as the overreach of big business, and the pressure to conform to societal expectations. “In the last analysis, I reckon, I have but a single conviction or ideal, or whateverthehell it might be called: individual liberty. It’s the only thing that matters a damn.”

I don’t like to set up an artificial "winner" of these debates but Howard proves to have a very balanced, reflective mind, open to change, and so fares well. Yes, he waxes romantic and poetic and extols the virtues of barbarians, and also broods darkly to the point of despair, all of which colors and distorted the reality that lay around him. But, he also displays a surprising level of introspection and nuance. For example, he counters Lovecraft quite effectively by arguing that the physical and the mental must work in harmony. Modern science confirms this (our brains are gray matter, and require adequate sleep, nutrition, and regular exercise to operate at a full capacity. HPL fell short in that regard, and likely did himself in by neglecting the physical—he had a notoriously bad diet). 

Lovecraft is consistently revealed as the more extreme of the two men, politically and socially, and Howard often the more prescient. But beneath their disagreements both had a genuine underlying respect for one another. Howard at times seems awed by the correspondence, and deferential to the elder Lovecraft. And he’s spot-on with this observation: “And indeed, many writers of the bizarre are showing your influence in their work, not only in Weird Tales but in other magazines as well; earlier evidences of an influence which will grow greater as time goes on, for it is inevitable that your work and art will influence the whole stream of American weird literature, and eventually the weird literature of the world.”

Howard was mostly of Irish ancestry and adored Celtic mythology, but he maintained a particular affinity for the Norse. His first foray into fiction was about a young Viking, he read and enjoyed the Sagas, and he wrote passages like the following:

All that is deep and gloomy and Norse in me rises in my blood. I would go east into the sunshine and the nodding palm trees, but I bide and the dream of the twilight of the gods is on me, and the dreams of cold and misty lands and the ancient pessimism of the Vikings. It seems to me, especially in the autumn, that that one vagrant Danish strain that is mine  predominates above all my Celtic blood.

Norse Saga and myth underpins and unites much of sword-and-sorcery, as I piece together in Flame and Crimson.

We get interesting insights into Weird Tales and editor Farnsworth Wright’s editorial decisions and publishing choices. Impressionable bits of Howard's youth that help explain why we see so many snakes in his stories (Howard nearly stepped on a rattler as a boy and declared he had a sixth sense for their presence, feeling a wave of a nausea when one was nearby). “I hate snakes, they are possessed of a cold, utterly merciless cynicism and sophistication, and a sense of super-ego that puts them outside the pale of warm-blooded creatures.” See "The God in the Bowl," Satha, etc. for how this played out in his fiction. He was constantly peppering his letters with poetry, either snatches of verse or full completed verse and meter, some of outstanding quality. We get his desire to have his poems published in a volume for which he had already chosen a title, Echoes from an Iron Harp. We see him writing about the rise of Conan into his mind, and the conception of the Hyborian Age. We see his Agnostic beliefs on display, blended with a half-belief in reincarnation and ancestral memory. His loyalty to blue-collar workers, on and on. Of course the letters put Howard’s racism on display so be prepared for that, too.

They are him, bold, full-blooded and four-color, on the page.


Matthew said...

I read A Means of Freedom about a year ago and found I agreed with Howard more than Lovecraft. Almost always disagreed with Lovecraft on various opinions: his racism (which admittedly Howard shared), his atheism, his socialism. On the argument on civilization vs. barbarism, I found Howard's arguments better and more nuance. (Though I'm not ready to put on loincloth and swing a sword around.) Lovecraft's arguments were "of course civilization is better."

Texas history is important to Texans. I grew up there and had a class in not American History but Texas History. At the time, it was somewhat romanticized version of the Settling of the West. Hopefully, it is not a woke all whites are oppressors thing now. Really, it was three violent empires (Anglo-Texan, Spanish-Mexican, and Comanche) clashing together. There was no simple good or bad side.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Matthew. Regarding your latter commment, REH echoes that sentiment when he describes history as one bloody series of invasions after the next, going back to the beginning (see, Anglo-Saxons/Celts/Picts, etc., for parallel in Britain).

Matthew said...

There are plenty of parallels through out history.