Volume 1, Number 1, March 2001
Produced by Rusty Burke for the Robert-E-Howard Electronic Amateur Press Association. A Celtic Weirdness Production.
© 2001 by Rusty Burke. All rights reserved.
Robert E. Howard: The Man Behind the Myth
A presentation I made at the Robert E. Howard Day Banquet in Cross Plains, June 1999"Without Effort On My Part"
An examination of an REH myth that he himself created
Robert E. Howard: The Man Behind the Myth
by Rusty Burke
Presented atRobert E. Howard Day Banquet, Cross Plains, Texas, June 11, 1999
© 1999 Rusty Burke. All rights reserved.
I am very pleased and proud to be here tonight to honor my late friend Novalyne Ellis by carrying on with what she started in her marvelous memoir,One Who Walked Alone. She wanted very much for people to see the real Robert E. Howard, the "Man Behind the Myth." Tonight I'd like to talk about some common misconceptions about Howard -- some things that everyone knows about him that are wrong.
As most of you know, Mrs. Ellis was a wonderful speech and debate coach for many years. In her book, she recounts a time that she told Bob Howard that the women's study group here in Cross Plains had asked her to be parliamentarian and critic.
"You mean you criticize them when they do something?" Bob asked her.
"I sure do. They're bad speakers.... I tell them what to do to improve. I try to be tactful about it. I told one woman the other day,'If you'd stand up straight and look your audience in the face, you'd be all right.'"
"Bob turned toward me.'That's tactful?'"
Bob then told her, "I know damned well what I'd do." He laughed. "I'd stand there like a damn fool with my mouth open and nothing coming out. I wouldn't need anybody to tell me I was bad."
Well, anybody who knows me will tell you I don't have much of a problem with getting something to come out of my mouth. But it's been quite a while since I talked in front of an audience, so I hope that you and Mrs. Ellis will forgive me if I sometimes forget to stand up straight and look at you. I'll do my best.
And I very much hope that you will forgive me for the few mild damns that will crop up as I quote Bob Howard. I could take them out, but like Mrs. Ellis, I think it's best to let Bob speak in his own voice, damns and all.
The Robert E. Howard Myth actually began while he was still alive, and was nurtured, at least in part, by the man himself. In letters to his friends, or in his behavior, he deliberately cultivated an image somewhat at odds with the reality. He created, for instance, an impression of violent nature. Letters to H.P. Lovecraft speak cryptically of knife wounds, shots from ambush, enemies cutting through the cinches on his pony's saddle. We know he boxed with some of the local boys and oil workers down at the ice house, but his descriptions of those matches in his letters make them sound like the climactic match in Rocky. When Novalyne mentioned problems with Nat Williams, the school superintendent, Bob offered to go beat his head in. In fact, re-reading the book to prepare for this talk, I was kind of amused by how often Bob offered to beat somebody up for Novalyne. But in reality he was not a violent man at all. He is not actually known to have ever gotten into a fight that wasn't either horseplay or an arranged boxing match. He is said to have left town rather than have to watch his beloved dog, Patch, die. He was a softie who regularly fed a veritable herd of stray cats.
Well, there are a number of other misconceptions about Bob Howard, and it must be admitted that some of them were of his own creation. I'd like to start with one I have seen quite often, in critical works, in articles about Howard, on Internet websites -- this quotation fromWizardry and Wild Romance, a study of fantasy, is typical:
"Howard was never a commercially successful writer in his lifetime. His brash, hasty, careless style did not lend itself even to the classier pulps."
Not a commercially successful writer?
Robert Howard sold his first story professionally in late 1924 -- his writing career spanned barely a dozen years. We can pretty well discount the first 3 years, during which he sold only four stories. From 1928 to 1936, though, the period during which he made his living solely by his writing, 131 Howard stories were published in the magazines. From 1930 on, he sold at least 10 stories a year, to a growing number of magazines. With the exception of 1933, he made over $1000 every year in the 1930s, and in'35 and'36 probably over $2000 a year. That may not sound like much to us now, but consider that, according to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, average family income in America in 1935 was $1348, so Howard's income was around 50% better than the average. To translate that into today's terms, a man making 50% better wages than average now would be earning about $50,500. Not bad, if you ask me.
These were the years of the Great Depression -- average earnings declined about 40% between 1929 and 1933 -- so even in 1933, the year that Bob Howard didn't earn $1000, but only a seemingly paltry $962, means that his income declined about like everybody else's during those years. He was still better off than the average worker, who earned only about $890 that year.
We also have to remember that Howard didn't have to spend as much of his income on food as the typical American worker did. Again according to the Statistical Abstract, the average family of four spent about 35% of its income on food.
Here's Bob Howard writing to his friend HP Lovecraft in January 1932:
"We are not farmers. We live in a small town and have only a very small piece of land, but we have enough to keep a little stock and raise a garden. Right now we have far more than we need of greens, radishes, turnips, and the like. We have been taking cattle, hogs and canned stuffs on debts, as well as grain and feed. We have a good supply of hay, oats, cotton-seed, maize, and corn, and we have meal and flour ground from corn and wheat we got the same way. We have milk from our own cow, and plenty of meat. We had a whole calf canned -- its surprizing how much meat a good fat calf makes -- cans of steak, roast-beef, soup, hash, chili, liver, heart, tongue -- everything but the hoofs. And you ought to see the pork we have -- huge sides of bacon, yard-long sacks of sausage, hams so gigantic they have to be cooked in the vat used for rendering lard. We don't have to pay out much money for food."
Of course, by 1935 and 1936, as Mrs. Howard's illness worsened, Bob's income was increasingly needed to pay for medical care, and the expenses of traveling to Marlin, San Angelo, and elsewhere for treatments. But the fact remains that Howard's income from his writing was well above that of the average American worker -- a situation that many writers, yesterday or today, might well envy. In fact, at the time of his death, Howard had a little over $2500 dollars in his accounts, and was owed about $1350 by Weird Tales -- I wonder how many writers today have a net cash worth of three times the average workers' annual salary?
One final point before moving on -- we should also remember that unemployment tripled between 1930 and 1932, that one in five workers or one in every seven adults was unemployed, and that even the employed were sometimes eking out a precarious living, as many employers, in a well-intentioned but futile effort to spread the available jobs and wages around, were having their workers "share" jobs -- in other words, work only part-time. What happened of course was that job sharers were unable to make ends meet on half wages but earned too much to qualify for relief. At least Bob Howard HAD a job, and as we've seen, it paid pretty darn well. Commercially successful? If he wasn't, who was?
The comment I quoted about "his brash, hasty, careless style" echoes another misconception that I see over and over and over again -- that Howard rarely rewrote his stories, that he knocked'em out in one draft, stuck'em in an envelope and off they went. If they came back, he just tossed'em in his trunk of rejects and sent off another one. Even Sprague de Camp, who should have known better, said "He seldom wrote more than 2 drafts."
I even see Bob Howard's own words used in support of this idea. In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, Howard said:
"Glad you liked'Rogues in the House.' That was one of those yarns which seemed to write itself. I didn't rewrite it even once. As I remember I only erased and changed one word in it, and then sent it in just as it was written."
What most of these folks don't quote is the rest of that paragraph:
"I wish to thunder I could write with equal ease all the time. Ordinarily I revise even my Conan yarns once or twice, and the other stuff I hammer out by main strength."
"Rogues in the House," then, was a very special case, as apparently was "A Witch Shall Be Born" another story for which no earlier drafts have been found. For the others --
Glenn Lord published in REHupa a listing of the draft pages he has for the Conan stories. Here's a brief rundown:
17 Conan stories were published in Weird Tales between 1932 and 1936. For the 15 that were revised at least once, there are 49 different drafts; 6 stories were revised once, 2 were revised twice, 6 were revised 3 times, and the novel, The Hour of the Dragon, was revised 6 times before submission. In all, Glenn lists 1,533 draft pages for just the Conan stories published in Weird Tales.
One thousand, five hundred thirty three pages, banged out an Underwood manual typewriter -- and discarded.
And that's for the Conan stories, which were the easy ones to write! There were 101 other stories published during his lifetime, and about 150 unsold, most of which were probably "hammered out by main strength." Mrs. Ellis quoted Bob: "Most of the yarns I write are planned very carefully, and they're complete with a detailed outline." She then said, "Even so, it took a big wastebasket to hold the pages he threw away." He also used the backs of those pages to write drafts of other yarns.
What about the idea that, if a story was returned by the editors, he just tossed it into the trunk, didn't bother to try rewriting it? I don't know where this idea came from, but I have seen it often.
Here's Bob Howard writing to Clyde Smith in April 1932:
Hear ye the tale of "Fighting Nerves". I wrote this story - a Kid Allison yarn - as a complete novelet for Sport Story. I wrote it, I think, three times, before I sent it off. Back it came with a request to cut out the saloon atmosphere and reduce the length. I re-wrote it and returned it to the same magazine. It came back with the statement that they were all stocked up with fight stories - requested me to keep it several months and return it, with a letter reminding them of it. Not wanting to wait that long if I could help it - a natural desire of a penniless adventurer like myself - I rewrote most of it, changing the names of the characters, and sent it to Fight Stories. Back it came with a request to cut it down in length. I rewrote it and sent it back. Back it came, with the remark that it was acceptable, but they couldn't find a place for it just then. I should keep it a month or so, and then they'd like to see it some more. So I sent it to Sport Stories, with a letter reminding them of what they had said. It was returned with no explanation - merely a rejection slip. So I sent it to Fiction House - and back it came with a statement that Fight Stories had been - or was going to be - taken off the stands.
A similar history can be traced for any number of Howard stories. He was a professional writer, and revising stories to suit editors is just part of the job. He rarely complained about it. John Adams loaned me a book calledTalking With Texas Writers, which I was reading on the plane down here. Larry McMurtry said "In a sense you participate in the emotions of the book every time you do a draft." Howard was very much an emotional participant in his stories, so in addition to the physical toll, think of the mental toll.
We've looked at a couple of misconceptions about Howard, the writer. Now let's look at some concerning the man.
One of the most common is that he was a "loner." I see this everywhere. Even one of his best friends, Lindsey Tyson, called him a loner; so did Mrs. Ellis. But let's not be too hasty to apply that term without qualification. Bob Howard actually had a number of good friends, both here and in Brownwood, and he enjoyed doing things with them.
For instance, here's an excerpt from a letter to Clyde Smith in 1923, when Howard was 17:
"Had a good time yesterday with some of my special friends here.
"We went out in the country in the morning, got a big melon and ate by the side of the road. Sure good, too.
"That afternoon we made'fool packages.'
"The girl next door, she and her brother tried to have a concert with a violin, piano and song, but we drowned out their efforts with a tin whistle, a cowbell, and some vociferous yells.
"We made a fool package and put it in the road and pretty soon here came the ex-mayor sliding along in his big car. He stopped, jumped out, read the writing on the package, sneaked back to his car and'aired out.' The words were'Leave me lay where I can catch the next sucker.'
"We had quite an enjoyable time engaging in'rough-and-tumble' wrestling. No holds barred. Kick, knee, hit or gouge."
There is then a lengthy description of the rough-and-tumble, but you get the idea. He was obviously having a good time with his friends. Other letters through the'20s also mention activities with various friends. Here locally, Howard counted among his friends Lindsey Tyson, Dave Lee and his brother Dock, Winifred Brigner, one identified only as "Red" that I'm told might have been Red Hogue, Heavy Roberts, the Baker boys and Fowler Gafford from down at Cross Cut, and Clyde Smith, Truett Vinson, and Aud Cross from Brownwood. Harold Preece was also a good friend, and visited with Howard often. That doesn't strike me as such a small group of friends, and it doesn't even count the more casual acquaintances. InPost Oaks and Sand Roughs, written in 1928, Howard says that "During his work in the drugstore, he had made a few friends among the more genial and less stupid of the roughnecks with whom he had come in contact" -- it was one of these who introduced him to the group that boxed down behind the ice house.
Mrs. Ellis wrote, "At one time, they tell me, he participated in the town's activities. Now, he doesn't seem to be a real part of it. I wonder why."
A partial explanation is that by 1929 Bob was making his living as a professional writer. This is not a profession that rewards you for spending a lot of time with other people. "Writing is a lonely business," Bob told Novalyne. Remember those 1,533 discarded Conan pages? If Howard's 250 other completed stories resulted in the same number of discarded pages, that would be another 22,500 pages thrown away. Try to imagine how many hours of typing that involves, on an old Underwood manual. Writing as a business requires a substantial amount of time -- and it must be time spent alone.
My late friendKarl Wagner once wrote a very imaginative little story about a writer's revenge for being interrupted at his work. As an afterword, he said:
"Every writer -- every creative person -- lives in dread of those nagging and inane interruptions that break the creative flow. A sentence perfectly crystallized, shattered by a stupid phone call, never regained. A morning filled with inspiration and energy, clogged by an uninvited guest, the day lost. The imaginative is the choice prey of the banal, and uncounted works of excellence have died stillborn thanks to junk phone calls and visits from bored associates."
Which brings us to a related misconception -- the oft-repeated tale that Mrs. Howard did her level best to keep women from talking to Bob on the phone. The fact is, she tried to keep everyone from talking with him while he was working!
"People don't understand me or my mother," he told Novalyne. "Writing is pounding out one damn yarn after another, pounding them out whether you want to or not, and it takes a family who understands that and who tries to help you by keeping you from being disturbed every minute of the day. I know people think I'm a freak and a damned nut, but the only way I can get anything done is to keep pounding away."
All this pounding away, though, didn't entirely prevent Howard from associating with others. He was not one of the methodical writers who spend a certain number of hours each day at the typewriter -- he worked in bursts. He might spend up to 16 or 18 hours a day, for days on end, writing stories, and then spend a couple of weeks not writing anything. During these intervals, he might be studying, doing the research he needed for the backgrounds of his tales, but as often as not he was with friends, roaming afield to Brownwood, Coleman, Cisco, and other towns in search of some of his favorite pastimes -- beer, movies, boxing matches, and football games. He went on vacations with friends -- he and Lindsey went to Galveston together, and on another occasion, along with Aud Cross they went to San Antonio and then made their way up through the hill country in search of fishing. He and Truett Vinson made two week-long trips to New Mexico in 1934 and 1935, visiting Carlsbad, Lincoln, and Santa Fe. With Lindsey and Dave Lee he ventured to San Antonio and Fort Worth to see boxing matches.
Novalyne also said "Though Bob is not one to mix with people, he'll start conversations with strangers when he's trying to find a story.... Besides reading old newspapers, Bob stands on the street corner or sits on a bench on the courthouse square to talk with some old men.... While he's riding around in the country, he may see an old man sitting on a porch by himself. Bob stops the car, gets out and visits with the old man, just to hear his stories of the country when it was new and fresh and uncluttered with the trappings of civilization."
So Bob Howard actually did seek out the company of other people, and enjoyed doing things in the company of congenial friends. So calling him a loner should not be taken to mean that he had no friends, or did not enjoy socializing. He spent a lot of time alone, as any creative artist must. He also helped the loner myth along with his pose as a lonely, misunderstood dreamer, and with behavior calculated to keep people at a distance -- the behavior that led to the idea that he was "crazy."
To Harold Preece, in June 1928, he related this story:
"I strode into the largest hotel in the town and without speaking a word to anyone, caught hold of the grip machine which was on a steel stand. I nearly tore it apart and lifted the stand clear off the floor and slid it around. Everybody gaped at me and a man asked me not to shake the hotel down, but I cowed him with a glare and stalked silently out, followed by the amazed stares of the humans who crowded the lobby. I reckon my tussle with it sounded like somebody blowing a safe, judging from the way everybody turned and stared. Made a fool of myself? Certainly. An I'll do it on every opportunity, in some way or other. More and more I'm getting to do what I want to do on impulse. I'm causing some surprize, but I always had the wish - I just didn't have the nerve to do anything which would make me the focus of eyes. Now I don't give a damn. I've got more chance of a bluff now; I'm still yellow but I think the average man would think twice before he climbed me.... Money and muscle, that's what I want; to be able to do any damned thing I want and get away with it."
To Clyde Smith, November 1928:
"Since plunging so completely, I take a sadistic pleasure in saying things likely to shock people.... I am so damned fed up on things in general that I don't give a curse what they think about me, and even give myself a worse name than I deserve...."
Kurt Vonnegut, in the introduction to his bookMother Night, says the moral of his story is, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be." I wonder if Bob got trapped in his pose?
To Clyde Smith, February 1930:
"The older I grow the more I sense the senseless unfriendly attitude of the world at large. I reckon it isn't that way everywhere, but it seems so. .... The people in this town treat me in several manners; contemptously ignore me, which doesn't bother me any; go out of their way to start trouble with me, which does; and assume a sort of monkey in a cage attitude. Those who deign to notice me at all are forever on the lookout for some peculiarity, some difference that will stamp me as eccentric. The infernal fools can't seem to understand that a man can make his living some other way besides dressing tools or selling stuff, and still be an ordinary human being with human sensations. The more money I make at my trade the more strangely they eye me. I can feel their damned lousy stares on me every minute I'm on the streets; eagerly watching for me to do something that they can garble and chatter and jabber among themselves. It's the price a man pays for being any way different from the mob. Well, damn the mob. Let them stare and whisper behind my back, but let them do it behind my back."
Of course, there are those well-attested stories about Bob shadow boxing in the street. Novalyne told him about a time she was embarrassed because a bunch of kids on a school bus saw her rehearsing a declamation. She said, "That reminded him of something he had done almost like that. He was particularly impressed with a fighter we had in Brownwood, Kid Dula. One day as he went home from the post office, Bob was thinking about Kid Dula, and, all of a sudden, he got an idea for a whopping fight yarn and began shadow boxing as he walked down the street, and even accompanied the shadow boxing with words!
"While we laughed about what we'd done, our reactions to the situations had been different. When I saw that somebody was watching me, I stopped rehearsing immediately and turned my car in the opposite direction. Bob kept on shadow boxing, telling himself that he didn't care what people thought of him. I knew he did care, very much, but was just too stubborn to admit it."
Later, when Bob was the town laughing-stock because he was sporting a walrus mustache and dressing in a Mexican vaquero outfit complete with tasseled sombrero, she told her roommate, "He just will dress some crazy way... I hate it, even though I know why he's doing it. He's trying to tell people he's a writer and writers have a right to be odd. Since they think he's crazy, anyway, he'll show them just how crazy he can be.... He's trying to say he doesn't care in order to hide how much he cares, because he thinks people don't like him."
In my opinion, a good deal of Bob Howard's eccentric, or "crazy," behavior was a put-on, a show, meant to keep distance between himself and the townspeople he believed did not understand him. Like the young man I saw here today with a crest of green hair and a ring through his nose, it was a way to say, "I'm different from you."
And this brings me to my final topic for the night, which is Bob's feelings toward Cross Plains. When I mentioned to Billie Ruth that I might talk about this, she asked me if I was sure it was such a hot idea -- I think she had a vision of me wearing tar and feathers. But no, I love Cross Plains and I certainly don't want to offend anybody. And I believe Bob Howard felt more kindly toward his home town than he wanted us to believe. It's true that he often expressed hatred or contempt or disgust for the place, and wished to get away from it. But then, isn't that pretty natural for a young man growing up in a small town? How many young men in their teens and 20s living here today are expressing that same desire, to "get out of this narrow-minded little one-horse town where everybody is watching you and everybody knows your business, to get out into the wide world where a fella can do as he pleases"? I'll bet there's more than a few. In fact, I'll bet that there are some of us right here in this room who harbored those same feelings when we were young men. As we get older, we begin to believe that maybe the old home town wasn't such a bad place after all. Maybe, in fact, it had very real virtues.
Here's a remark to Clyde Smith in 1927, when Bob Howard was 21:
"I'm back at Cross Plains, not working much just now, but will start to work soon. I still hate the damned place but sometimes I almost enjoy being here. The last time I went to Brownwood, the town got on my nerves."
In 1931, at the age of 25, he wrote to H.P. Lovecraft from San Antonio, which he often said was his favorite city,"the most interesting and colorful city in Texas, possibly in the entire Southwest." Even so, he said it was "Rather too cosmopolitan for my tastes. My natural homeland is Central and Western Central Texas...."
Two years later he wrote:"I wish we could have stayed longer, because my mother has many congenial friends in San Antonio, and enjoys our visits there. For myself, while I like the town better than any I have ever seen, a week is long enough to satisfy me.... I am definitely a country dweller. Cities, after a short time, even cities no bigger than San Antonio (which would seem little more than a village to an Easterner) oppress me. I feel caged, and imprisoned."
And to August Derleth, in late 1935, just before his thirtieth birthday, Howard wrote that he had just returned from East Texas, which he described as almost idyllic --
"And yet I was glad to get back to our windy uplands.... I've cursed this country I live in, for years; I always welcome a chance to get away from it, even for a few days. But I reckon it's got in my blood. At least the hills have.... These hills are bare and bleak and drab in the winter, and life is hard among them. They are seared by drouths, battered by storms, flooded with torrential rains. Their inhabitants are hard and bitter as they. Yet somehow their somber savagery gets in a man's soul."
Such comments convince me that Bob's feelings toward Cross Plains were not wholly negative. So then why, Billie Ruth asked me, did he want to be buried in Brownwood instead of here? I think your answer is in a comment he made to Novalyne, when she said, "You're always saying you'd like to live in a larger town than Cross Plains. What about Brownwood?" He told her, "My mother would enjoy living there more than she does living in Cross Plains or any other small town." I think Bob felt that his mother would rather be buried in Brownwood, and he wanted himself and his father buried with her.
In closing, I'll share with you one of my favorite quotations from Bob Howard, one which expresses, I think, something of his true feelings about this place, and that also, in spite of his modest claim that he has not been a success, expresses something of the pride he felt in his work, and the reason that Cross Plains can be proud of him. Its from a letter to Lovecraft in 1933:
"It seems to me that many writers, by virtue of environments of culture, art and education, slip into writing because of their environments. I became a writer in spite of my environments. Understand, I am not criticizing those environments. They were good, solid and worthy. The fact that they were not inducive to literature is nothing in their disfavor. Never the less, it is no light thing to enter into a profession absolutely foreign and alien to the people among which one's lot is cast; a profession which seems as dim and faraway and unreal as the shores of Europe. The people among which I lived - and yet live, mainly - made their living from cotton, wheat, cattle, oil, with the usual percentage of business men and professional men. That is most certainly not in their disfavor. But the idea of a man making his living by writing seemed, in that hardy environment, so fantastic that even today I am sometimes myself assailed by a feeling of unreality.... I have not been a success, and probably never will be. But whatever my failure, I have this to remember - that I was a pioneer in my profession, just as my grandfathers were in theirs, in that I was the first man in this section to earn his living as a writer."
Well, there are many other misconceptions about Robert Howard that I could talk about, but I think that's enough for now. I hope these few examples will at least show that we shouldn't just accept everything we hear or read about Howard, no matter how many people seem to believe it. We can't just assume the truth of surface appearances. We have to look behind the myth to find the real man.
In her book, Mrs. Ellis made a comment that was almost word-for-word what I heard from my own debate coach for two years -- she said "I tell my kids in the public speaking class that a speaker has to have something to say, say it, and shut up." Mrs. Ellis and Mrs. Williams are telling me now to shut up and sit down, so I will. Thank you.
* * * * * * * *
Thanks to Billie Ruth Loving for inviting me to speak at the Howard Day banquet, and for suggesting the theme of the talk. For those unfamiliar with Howard Day, in June of each year the city of Cross Plains hosts Robert E. Howard Remembrance Day and welcomes fans to visit Howard's home (nicely restored and operated now as a museum, listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and participate in a variety of activities. For more information, visithttp://www.crossplains.com/howard/museum.htm .
Thanks also to Glenn Lord, for providing me with copies of Howard's letters, and being such a good friend for so many years, and for going on half a century of efforts to keep the light of REH shining brightly around the world! Without Glenn, I shudder to think where we'd be.
All excerpts from REH's letters are © Robert E. Howard Properties, L.L.C.
REHupa is the Robert E. Howard United Press Association, of which I've been a member since 1981, and from whose members I am constantly learning. Visit our website:http://www.rehupa.com/
One Who Walked Alone, by Novalyne Price Ellis (Donald M. Grant, West Kingston, RI, 1986) is now in its third printing. Grant also published Howard's fictionalized autobiographical novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, and many other Howard books. Visit the Grant website: http://www.grantbooks.com/index.html
Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy, by Michael Moorcock (Victor Gollancz, London, 1987) is a pretty good book, notwithstanding the perpetuation of myths about REH.
Talking With Texas Writers: Twelve Interviews, by Patrick Bennett (Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1980) is a very fine book, I highly recommend it. Thanks to John Adams for the loan!
The "imaginative little story" by Karl Edward Wagner referred to herein is "The Slug," originally published in A Whisper of Blood, edited by Ellen Datlow (William Morrow & Co., New York, 1991; Berkley Books, New York, 1992); it is included in Karl's last collection, Exorcisms and Ecstasies (Fedogan & Bremer, Minneapolis, 1997). Karl, dammit, I miss you.
Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (originally published by Harper & Row, New York, 1966; I know I own a paperback copy but all my Vonnegut books are in storage), is one of my favorite KV books. I've quoted from probably imperfect memory. (According to an article at http://www.duke.edu/~crh4/vonnegut/mothernight/weide.html , the moral is actually, "Be careful what you pretend to be, because in the end, you are what you pretend to be." Well, I had the spirit right, if not the letter.
* * * * * * * *
"Without Effort On My Part"
As an addendum to "Robert E. Howard: The Man Behind the Myth," and so that I might contribute something original to the first "mailing" of this Digital Age APA, I thought I'd look at another myth that REH helped to create: the idea that his writing -- at least, those stories featuring his best-known characters -- came effortlessly.
Most Howard fans will be familiar with his often-quoted remarks to Clark Ashton Smith:
While I don't go so far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything) I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present -- or even the future -- work through the thoughts and actions of living men. This occurred to me when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series especially. I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen -- or rather, off my typewriter -- almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-writing. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn't do it. I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the facts remain. I still write of Conan more powerfully and with more understanding than any of my other characters. But the time will come when I will suddenly find myself unable to write convincingly of him at all. That has happened in the past with nearly all my rather numerous characters; suddenly I would find myself out of contact with the conception, as if the man himself had been standing at my shoulder directing my efforts, and had suddenly turned and gone away, leaving me to search for another character.[REH to Clark Ashton Smith, postmarked 14 December 1933, Selected Letters 1931-1936, p. 59]
And then there's his statement to Alvin Earl Perry:
King Kull differed from these others [El Borak, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane] in that he was put on paper the moment he was created, whereas they existed in my mind years before I tried to put them in stories. In fact, he first appeared as only a minor character in a story which was never accepted. At least, he was intended to be a minor character, but I had not gone far before he was dominating the yarn. Conan simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande. I did not create him by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures. It was much the same, though to a lesser extent, with Sailor Steve Costigan..., Kid Allison..., and Breckenridge Elkins....[Quoted in "A Biographical Sketch of Robert E. Howard," Fantasy Magazine, July 1935; transcribed here from The Last Celt, p.66]
Patrice Louinet pretty well demonstrated, in "The Birth of Conan" [The Dark Man #4], that there was a bit more work involved in the creation of Howard's most famous character than the author wanted Smith, Perry, and everyone else to believe. Oh, I won't try to argue that the character didn't just suddenly come to Howard: that part I can accept. One minute he's walking along under the warm South Texas sunshine (he was visiting the Rio Grande Valley at the time, exploring west of Mission) without a thought in his head, the next minute he's suddenly got this great new character. I've got no problem with that. Of course, I think this great new character was also the product of many years' worth of experiences and reading, but really there's no knowing what sort of catalyst brought everything together and "produced the amalgamation [he called] Conan the Cimmerian." Howard's characters may very well have sprung full grown into his consciousness, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.
It's the "immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen -- or rather, off my typewriter -- almost without effort on my part" that I question.
But let's start with an even easier case than Conan. Here's Howard to H.P. Lovecraft in May 1934:
Thanks for the kind things you said about the Kull stories, but I doubt if I'll ever be able to write another. The three stories I wrote about that character seemed almost to write themselves, without any planning on my part; there was no conscious effort on my part to work them up. They simply grew up, unsummoned, full grown in my mind and flowed out on paper from my finger tips. To sit down and consciously try to write another story on that order would be to produce something the artificiality of which would be apparent.
Now, we all know this simply is not true -- Howard wrote more than three stories about Kull. In fact, he wrote 10 complete stories, left three others incomplete, and wrote also the poem "The King and the Oak." What three stories is he talking about here? Obviously, the three that appeared in Weird Tales: "The Shadow Kingdom" (August 1929), "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" (September 1929), and "Kings of the Night" (November 1930). Now, this last I didn't even count as a Kull story -- most of us consider it a Bran Mak Morn story with Kull in a featured role. So there are 8 completed Kull stories he wasn't telling HPL about.
"No conscious effort on my part to work them up"? "...grew up, unsummoned, full grown... and flowed out on paper"?
There are two drafts of "Exile of Atlantis," the first Kull story, written in 1925. It was at least a year later, in the fall of 1926 (while he was taking a bookkeeping course in Brownwood), that he next wrote of Kull.
He wrote very little prose, though he did begin a wild fantasy entitled "The Phantom Empire," which he laid aside partly finished and forgot about.[Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, p. 109; "The Phantom Empire," of course, is "The Shadow Kingdom."]
It wasn't until the following summer that he returned to it:
He came upon "The Phantom Empire," deserted several months before, completed it, and then again laid it aside and forgot about it.[Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, p. 125.]
Still later in the summer:
Steve again discovered "The Phantom Empire," rewrote it, and again laid it aside.[Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, p. 127; "Steve" is Steve Costigan, Howard's alter-ego.]
Finally, in September 1927:
He at last sent "The Phantom Empire" to Bizarre Stories....[Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, p. 128; "Bizarre Stories" is Weird Tales.]
A story that takes a year to write, first "laid aside partly finished" and forgotten, then completed but again laid aside and forgotten, then rewritten and laid aside, and finally "at last" submitted, hardly strikes me as "flowing out on paper" with "no conscious effort"!
Howard seems also to have written "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" in the fall of 1927, and the remainder of the Kull stories during 1928 and 1929. "The Cat and the Skull" and "The Screaming Skull of Silence" were submitted to Weird Tales in 1928. "The Striking of the Gong" (if this is the story Howard listed as "The Chiming of the Gong") was submitted to Argosy in late 1928, while "The Altar and the Scorpion" was submitted to Weird Tales. "By This Axe I Rule!" was submitted in 1929 to Argosy, and then to Adventure, both of which rejected it. There is no record of it being submitted to Weird Tales, as far as I know. "Swords of the Purple Kingdom" is listed by Howard on the same submissions listing as "By This Axe I Rule!" but no submissions are noted.
Howard submitted "Kings of the Night" to Weird Tales in March 1930. In that story, Kull goes out in a blaze of glory, and Howard doesn't seem to have returned to him again. But that gives us ten completed stories of Kull (eleven if you count "Exile of Atlantis", but then again some may not want to count "The Altar and the Scorpion" and "The Curse of the Golden Skull," in both of which Kull is only mentioned as an offstage character) written by the spring of 1930.
So why, four years later, is he giving Lovecraft this humbug about there only having been three Kull stories, and about them flowing so easily from his fingertips? I might note that, in addition to the three unfinished stories (four if you count "Exile"), it appears that there may have been at least two drafts of most of the completed stories, although only one draft of each survives (save "The Cat and the Skull," for which "Delcardes' Cat" appears to have been the draft). We judge that there was another draft, though, by the fact that on a listing of Howard manuscripts made after his death by Otis Kline Associates, the page counts differ from the drafts we have. Again, hardly seems that the stories just flowed right on out the ol' fingertips.
I think it's pretty clear that Bob was trying to create the impression that the Kull stories were created in a sort of fever of artistic inspiration: this despite the fact that he'd been going on to Lovecraft for at least a couple of years, by this point, about how his motivations in writing were strictly commercial, and not artistic in the least.
As we turn the discussion to Conan, to my mind it becomes even more clear that"a stream of stories flowed off my pen -- or rather, off my typewriter -- almost without effort on my part" is -- how shall I put this? -- not the exact literal truth?
Again, I rely on the work of Patrice Louinet, the hardest-working Howard scholar in the business. The guy is absolutely amazing. He pores over typescripts, analyzing typographical details (he noticed, for instance, that for some time whenever Howard hit his quotation mark key, two lines down there would be a peculiar mark directly beneath, which turns out to be, upon investigation, the top of a 2 [the quotation mark is the shift character on the 2 key, on the Underwood No. 5]; this enabled him to establish some parameters for typescripts in which that occurs); even better, he finds idiosyncratic spellings and usages that turn out to be most helpful in dating typescripts (for instance, Howard spelled "divide" as "devide" until September 1932, always getting it right thereafter; "horrizon/horizon," "similiar/similar," the doubling of the "n" in words ending with "ness" (e.g., suddeness/suddenness), and many other spellings prove helpful, as it turns out. These are not hasty determinations, either -- trust me, the boy is achingly methodical and painstaking about all this. Except for Glenn Lord, there ain't nobody even in the same ballpark when it comes to dating Howard's typescripts. (Glenn, having the originals to hand, can evaluate things like the type of paper used, etc.)
So when Patrice tells me in what order the Conan stuff was written, I believe him. He's laid out all his reasoning for me, and it holds up. He's put some of it out there for the world to see in The Dark Man #4, and will be laying out even more in the upcoming Wandering Star editions of the Conan stories, for which I asked him to serve as the editor. We will be publishing the Conan stories, for the first time, in the order in which they were written, so it is especially important to establish that order as accurately as possible, and Patrice has been working like a fiend.
In February 1932, Howard took his trip down to the Rio Grande Valley, passing through Fredericksburg. While he was in Mission, he wrote the poem "Cimmeria" (at least, so he told Emil Petaja when he sent him a copy of the poem: "Written in Mission, Texas, February 1932; suggested by the memory of the hill-country above Fredericksburg seen in a mist of winter rain."). At some time during his stay in the Valley, Conan came to him. He returned to Cross Plains via San Antonio, where he stayed a few days. "The Phoenix on the Sword" and "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" were both returned to him by Farnsworth Wright in a letter dated March 10, so obviously had been sent to Weird Tales some time before that. A letter to HP Lovecraft, in which he talks about his trip to the Valley and getting caught in a cloud of tear gas in San Antonio "the other day," has a pencilled notation "March 2, 1932" in the top right corner. This is in Robert H. Barlow's hand -- he was HPL's literary executor and may have been trying to help sort these letters into proper order, and presumably took the date from an accompanying envelope's postmark. At any rate, in this letter Howard says, "I havent done much work of any kind for longer than I like to think."
There are four draft versions of "The Phoenix on the Sword" and two for "The Frost-Giant's Daughter." Patrice carefully worked out the order in which Howard worked on these, and you can follow his reasoning in "The Birth of Conan" (Dark Man 4). As I believe everyone knows, "The Phoenix on the Sword" was a rewrite of the unsold Kull story, "By This Axe I Rule!" After first writing a draft for "Phoenix," Howard then wrote the first draft of "The Frost-Giant's Daughter." Then he stopped and made up a listing of names, countries, gods, etc., for the Conan stories. (In "The Birth of Conan," Patrice had said the list of names came before the first draft of "Daughter," but he has revised this, since the names on the list are those in the second, but not the first draft of "Daughter".) Then he wrote another draft of "Phoenix," following which he drew at least one of his two maps of Conan's world. A second draft of "Daughter" followed the maps. "Phoenix" and "Daughter" then got sent to Wright, and Howard continued working to develop Conan and the Hyborian world. (At this point, allow me to pause to note -- and in reading Patrice's article you get all this detail -- that Howard was, in each successive draft of these stories, and in his accompanying maps and lists, adding new details to Conan's world.)
It looks like Howard next wrote the first draft of "The God in the Bowl," but then started on "The Hyborian Age" essay, for which three draft versions survive. The second and third drafts of "The God in the Bowl" were apparently written after "The Hyborian Age," and "The Tower of the Elephant" (two drafts) after "God". And somewhere in all this we also find the first page of "Notes on Various Peoples of the Hyborian Age" (covering Aquilonians, Gundermen, and Cimmerians) and the untitled synopsis later dubbed "The Hall of the Dead."
As we noted, in a letter dated March 10 Wright rejected "Daughter" and requested revisions to "Phoenix." Draft 3 of the latter seems to respond to Wright's criticisms, and draft 4 is merely a polished final draft following #3. An April letter to Lovecraft includes, on page 2, mention of his new character and "The Hyborian Age" (the epoch, not the essay), with the comment that "Wright rejected most of the series, but I did sell him one -- 'The Phoenix on the Sword'..." A postscript at the bottom of page 5 says, "Wright took another of the Conan the Cimmerian series,'The Tower of the Elephant'..." It appears, then, that "The God in the Bowl" must have been sent to Wright along with the revised final draft of "Phoenix," (thus accounting for the rejection of "most" of the series, 2 out of 3), and "Tower" shortly thereafter.
Is all this confusing? Well, that's the point -- that this was not as simple as Howard tried to make it seem. That the character may have "suddenly" come to him "full grown" I can accept: not only is there no evidence to the contrary, but the evidence of his other characters would tend to lend credence to it. That he was working in an inspired frenzy, too, I can accept -- that certainly is a lot of pretty inspired work in a very short time. But:
immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen -- or rather, off my typewriter -- almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-writing. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn't do it.
is, I say it again, humbug. I would call four drafts of "Phoenix," two of "Daughter," three of "God," and two of "Tower," "effort" on Howard's part. I would call the adding of new details in each successive draft, the making of a list of names, countries, gods, etc., the drawing of maps, the writing of "The Hyborian Age" and "Notes on Various Peoples," acts of "creation."
I see I haven't yet addressed the business about not writing anything but Conan for "weeks". In addition to letters (a seven-pager to Lovecraft, short ones to Carl Jacobi and Kirk Mashburn, a somewhat longer one to Wilfred Talman, and three to Clyde Smith, all between his return from the Valley and his April letter to Lovecraft in which he mentions Conan), there is evidence of other stories: after telling Lovecraft about the Conan stories, for instance, he writes, "I also placed another yarn with Strange Tales -'The Valley of the Lost'.... I'm trying to invest my native regions with spectral atmosphere, etched against a realistic setting.... And now I'm working on a mythical period of prehistory when what is now the state of Texas was a great plateau...." This latter story would be "Marchers of Valhalla," of course, which Wright rejected some time in May. Undoubtedly Conan was his primary occupation in March of 1932, but it appears that he actually did work on other stories too.
I want to make it clear that I am not at all denying that Howard wrote the initial stories of the Conan series in a frenzy of inspiration during March of 1932. It certainly seems that he did. What I'm suggesting is that it wasn't as effortless as he wanted Smith to believe: he actually worked pretty hard to come up with those first few stories. The Hyborian world did not emerge fully developed into his consciousness, the way Conan seems to have done: new details were added with each successive draft of a story, or in the notes and maps he created for himself. Undoubtedly there was the fever of inspiration motivating his work on these stories, but there was also a good deal of conscious effort that went into the writing of the stories and the creation of Conan's world.
So why did Howard -- who kept insisting to Lovecraft that his motives for being a writer were purely monetary, and not artistic -- want to suggest that his creation of Conan, and Kull, was the result of entirely effortless, unconscious processes, which sounds suspiciously like divine, or artistic, inspiration? I'm afraid I don't have an answer to that, at this point. The more I study Bob Howard, the more questions, and fewer answers, I seem to have.
* * * * * * * *
Robert E. Howard: Selected Letters 1931-1936, edited by Glenn Lord (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1991)
The Last Celt: A Bio-Bibliography of Robert E. Howard, edited and compiled by Glenn Lord (West Kingston, RI: Donald M. Grant, Publisher, 1976)
The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, edited by Rusty Burke (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 199 )
Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, by Robert E. Howard (West Kingston, RI: Donald M. Grant, Publisher, 199 )