Volume 2, Number 1, March 2002
Produced by Rusty Burke for the Robert-E-Howard Electronic Amateur Press Association. A Celtic Weirdness Production.
© 2002 by Rusty Burke. All rights reserved.
Bob Howard and the Bullies
A recent exchange on an REH discussion list featured this comment:
"REH had a wandering and slightly traumatic childhood, being bullied at school etc because of his slight build."
This caught my attention because Patrice Louinet and I had recently been wondering just where the evidence for Howard's "nightmarish" school years was. Perhaps it's time for another investigation into The Man Behind The Myth. Let me warn you in advance, this one is going to meander quite a bit.
Origin of the idea
The notion that Robert Howard was bullied as a child seems to rest upon two foundations. The first is a letter from his father, Dr. I.M. Howard, to E. Hoffmann Price, in 1944:
"After a long series of bag punching, bar lifting, spring exercises of his hands, and general muscle training, I asked him one day: 'Robert, what's this all about?' He replied: 'Dad, when I was in school, I had to take a lot because I was alone and no one to take my part. I entered in to build my body until when a scoundrel crosses me up, I can with my bare hands tear him to pieces, double him up, and break his back with my hands alone.' ....To one whom he felt had wronged him it was an unforgiveableness for all time, and unforgettable hatred. And these were among the kids of his school days. When only a child he never forgot or forgave their unkindness when he had no one to take his part."
This letter was first published in The Howard Collector, Spring 1971, and reprinted in the Ace paperback collection of the same title (1979).
The second is a comment by Tevis Clyde Smith in "Report on a Writing Man," one of his memoirs of Howard:
"His mother had been his companion when the family had resided in one small Texas town, reading to him at a time when he could not leave his own yard without being bullied by a gang of older boys. Let one small boy brush against a bully half again his size, and see how he fares, let alone against a pack. The Howards eventually moved on, but the time spent in the little place left its mark on Bob until the end, and was responsible for much of his bitterness."
This memoir first appeared in The Howard Collector, Summer 1963, and was subsequently reprinted in Smith's second edition of Frontier's Generation (self-published in 1980) and in my collection of Smith's articles about REH, Report on a Writing Man and Other Reminiscences of Robert E. Howard, from Necronomicon Press.
Somehow, these two rather slight remarks - the only suggestions, prior to 1983, that Robert E. Howard was bullied as a child - got magnified into an extraordinarily fanciful picture of a terrified little boy in the fourth chapter of Dark Valley Destiny, "Boy Nomad":
"Frail, introverted, and looking to his mother for protection, Robert was a natural butt for bullies. Even before the opening of school, every day saw a series of terrifying encounters, which varied from the merely mean to the Inquisitorial. He could not leave his yard for fear of being set upon. The fact that his mother read extensively to him, and in so doing enhanced the closeness already established, only made matters worse." (pp. 64-65)
That seems rather a stretch from the comments by Dr. Howard and Clyde Smith. There is no evidence whatsoever that "every day saw a series of terrifying encounters": neither Robert nor his parents nor any of his acquaintances ever said such a thing. And the Larry McMurtry quotation he follows up with, about boys shoving the smart kids through the holes in the men's outhouse, is a nice touch, if what you are hoping to do is leave the reader with the impression that poor little Bob was the subject of sadistic tortures by thuggish schoolboys. The fact that there is no evidence whatsoever to support such a notion is neither here nor there, I guess. In fact, this entire chapter in DVD is rife with pure speculation, as de Camp admits from the outset (probably hoping the reader will not bear it in mind): "Since no one left alive remembers Robert as a preschool child, this chapter must be based on what scanty records we have, plus Howard's own dim memories and our general information about the development of the average child." (p. 53). One questions whether knowledge about "the average child" is worth much to us in this context: Howard was hardly an "average" person, nor was his early life that of "the average child" even in his day.
In fact, there is no evidence that the Howards ever actually lived in "the Wichita Falls country," where de Camp believes these tortures to have taken place. Bob says he lived there, but thus far exhaustive research has failed to find any mention of any of the Howards in the area. This story is perforce a pure fabrication, yet it seems to be the view accepted by the person who made the comment which prompted this article, and he is hardly alone. It has become "common knowledge" by now that Howard was the victim of schoolyard bullies.
Soon after Dark Valley Destiny was published, Novalyne Price Ellis's memoir of Howard, One Who Walked Alone, appeared. In it, she gave us one more quotation from Robert regarding bullying:
"When I was a kid, I had a few overgrown bullies make me miserable. If I were to meet one of them today and he made any kind of move, I'd crush his damn head between my fists the way I would a cantalope." (p. 220)
Howard's own comments seem to differ
What we don't have, it turns out, is any comment by Howard himself, in his own writing, that would suggest he had ever been bullied, or that any of his bitterness, resentment, or hatred of school was the result of having been picked on. Nor do we find any suggestion in his own writing that he was sickly, frail, or puny. In fact, we seem to have just the opposite, as in these passages:
REH to HP Lovecraft, May 1932:
I remember various galling experiences, where the random-element, or the law of averages, or something, came up behind me and kicked me in the pants with a hob-nailed boot, and one as galling as any, that still makes me writhe and mutter profanely when I think of it, happened when I was a kid of ten or eleven, in a country school. I was stockily built and fairly proficient in the brutal and unscientific style of wrestling then prevalent in the country, which depended less on speed and skill, than on strength and endurance. One day the teacher came out of the school-house to watch us play - a rare event. I happened to be wrestling with a friend of mine, and they stopped to watch us. I wished to make an impression on them - to show off, in other words. I wished for a worthier opponent - since I had thrown this particular friend forty or fifty times. And while I was wishing, suddenly and stunningly I found myself thrown! It never happened before, and it never happened again - at least, with that boy. I was shocked, humiliated, well-nigh maddened. I urged a renewal of the strife, but the teachers laughed mockingly and withdrew into their sanctum. I withdrew from public view, and broodingly contemplated my shameful defeat. I sought soothing of stung vanity by vanquishing my conqueror, but it did not rob my original defeat of its sting. The teachers did not know I had been thrown by chance; they thought my friend was the better man. They probably think it to this day. I plotted a return match, some day when the moguls should again emerge to watch the antics of the herd, but it was not to be. A few weeks later the boy I wrestled went to his last reward with a bullet through his heart, and I never got to vindicate myself in the sight of those awesome and superior beings, the Teachers. [Emphasis mine.]
[The last part, about the boy dying of a bullet through the heart, is not recalled by anyone else and may well be fanciful. In fact, the entire episode may be a fabrication. I am not claiming that this is a truthful account from REH's boyhood, only showing what he himself wrote about his youth.]
REH-HPL, July 1932:
For instance, in a country school I attended, when about ten or eleven years of age, there was usually a fight going on on the grounds, any time you looked around, yet these scraps were almost invariably between a group of perhaps half-a-dozen boys, whose main object in life seemed to be the mutilating of each others' features. They fought each other and it was very rare that any of the rest of us ever had any trouble, either with them or with each other. And these fights seldom amounted to anything. The real blood flew when the trouble lay between persons who were not generally quarrelsome. It stands to reason that a boy or man who fights all the time doesnt expect to take his average scrap too seriously. There are exceptions to this rule, but they frequently die young.
For myself, I can say, truthfully, that, with one exception, I always did my best to avoid trouble of all kinds, and never fought unless a quarrel was deliberately forced on me, and I had to act in self-defense. There is a sordidity and bestiality in the average alley-fight that is bound to repel any man of ordinary sensitivity. A friendly go with the gloves is different, or a clean fight in the ring, with no hard feelings. That's good and healthy. But a tearing, gouging, biting, kicking dog-fight, down in the muck, with a dirty crowd yelling and cursing - that's neither cleanly nor decent. Though many a bully is in his element there. There's much of the actor in the average bully, and he must have his audience. I take notice that if you challenge him to come away from his gang, out in woods or fields with only the naked earth and the sky to watch, and none to cheer him on and none to tear your fingers from his throat if the fight goes against him, very often he will decline the invitation.[Emphasis again mine.]
Certainly neither of these passages indicates that Howard was a puny or sickly youth - he avers quite the opposite - nor that he harbored any especial resentment toward bullies - his attitude seems rather contemptuous of them.
Robert Howard first attended school in Bagwell, at the age of 8. As Patrice Louinet reports in his contribution (Dwelling in Dark Valley #4), this was the age when children normally started school in Bagwell - and probably in rural Texas, generally. So, pace de Camp, there is no particular reason to believe that Robert was kept out of school because of illness, or because of any bullying he had experienced.
We know very little about the Howards' stay in Bagwell, but nowhere does Robert hint of any trouble there. In fact, in "An Autobiography," written when he was 15, he said of Bagwell, "It is all piney woods there, and every time I smell the pine scent I get homesick, though I have been away from there for years." Hardly the sentiment one would expect if he had been so terrified of bullies that he couldn't leave his yard.
The Howards moved to Cross Cut, in Brown County, in 1915. The notice in the "Cross Cut Items" in the Cross Plains Review, January 29, 1915, says "Dr. Howard, of Putnam, has moved to Cross Cut." This is the first we have heard of Dr. Howard living or working in Putnam, a Callahan County community roughly 20 miles due north of Cross Plains (which is about 8 miles north of Cross Cut). It must have been a very brief stay, and is still uncorroborated by other information.
If Robert began attending school in Bagwell when he was 8 years old, that would have been in 1914. He turned 8 in January of that year, so it's possible that he started school soon thereafter, in the middle of the school year. If he did not begin school until the fall, either he attended only for the first half of the school year, or he and Mrs. Howard stayed on in Bagwell and only joined Dr. Howard in Cross Cut when the school year ended. We have, as far as I know, no information to go on. Let us remember that in these rural areas at that time, school was not the September-to-June year that we think of now: children were needed to help with farm chores and were often only free to attend school during the winter months.* At any rate, at some time in 1915, Robert began his second year of schooling in Cross Cut. The Howards lived there from 1915 until some time in 1917, when they moved to Burkett, a few miles away in Coleman County. Robert attended school there until the family moved to Cross Plains in October 1919. At Cross Cut, his best friends were Percy Triplett, Loren Crocker, and Austin Newton. Only Newton lived long enough to be interviewed by the de Camps. Newton continued his friendship with Robert after the Howards moved to Burkett, where Robert met and introduced Austin to Earl Baker. While Newton and Howard drifted apart during the high school years, Baker remained a good friend of Robert's until the end, and he too was interviewed by the de Camps.
"Robert was greatly interested in boxing. He read everything he could find about boxing, and was pretty well informed on the subject. We didn't have any boxing gloves, but we spent a lot of time sparing. One afternoon we were sparing out in our back yard. I ran into a left jab which hit me in the Adams Apple and knocked me down. That ended the sparing for that day. But sparing continued to be one of our main pastimes." [Yes, he spelled it "sparing."]
"I don't recall a gang of boys that I would refer to as bullies. There were four boys that attended school at Cross Cut when Robert and I did. However they mostly fought among themselves. They were always in trouble with the teachers. But I don't know that they bothered Robert."
Newton's remarks seem to support Howard's own comment, in the letter to Lovecraft, that the boys who engaged in fighting mainly fought among themselves. And we learn here that Robert's interest in boxing goes back at least to the time he was around nine or ten years old.
At Cross Cut, Dr. Howard became good friends with Dr. Solomon Chambers, a former physician who had quit his practice in favor of opening a drug store in the town. His youngest son, Norris, born in 1917, would become close to the Howards later, but Norris's older sister, Deoma Chambers (Morgan), knew them during the Cross Cut years. She was perhaps ten years older than Robert, and in 1919 married the brother of one of Robert's best friends, Percy Triplett. The de Camps asked her about the story that, in one of the west Texas towns the Howards lived in, Robert "didn't dare leave his yard for fear of being set upon by a gang of bullies."
"I doubt that could have been at Burkett or Cross Cut."
"It was when he was a little boy, going to school."
"But they lived kind of isolated there... There were not any little boys nearby, so some of these gangs around...I don't think they existed in Cross Cut, because they all had chores to do. And when they had enough time to play, well they were not interested in ganging up on somebody; they had other things to do."
"They said the schoolboys, in the schoolyard is what we heard."
"Well, it might be in the school...."
"Not just the neighbor kids?"
"Well, I never heard of it."
"But you never heard any of the neighbor kids act as though they thought him odd, or --"
"Not any ever mentioned it that I know of."
Somewhat later, in a letter, Mrs. Morgan wrote:
"Robert was average in size, rather smoothe features. I was never in school when Robert was and they had moved to Cross Plains for most of his schooling; but I never felt that he was picked on by his peers nor did I ever hear of it."
Here, the de Camps have seemed to push hard to get some comment to support the idea that Robert was bullied, picked on, or thought odd by other kids, but Mrs. Morgan is adamant in denying such notions.
Robert's Burkett friend, Earl Baker, is quoted as saying that Robert
"was comparatively big and strong for his age, robust, even beginning at the age of ten."
"Between nine and ten he was a big strong robust boy with a nice physique. Robert was interested in everything he could read about fighting."
(It should be noted that there are conflicting stories about whether the Howards lived briefly in Burkett in 1915, before they moved to Cross Cut, and then moved back to Burkett in 1917. Earl Baker said he first met Robert in 1915, which would have made Robert 9 years old. However, the article saying that Dr. Howard "of Putnam" had moved to Cross Cut casts some doubt on the "early" Burkett home theory.)
Vera Baker (Nichols), Earl's sister, was six years younger than REH, and her memories of him are primarily from when he lived in Cross Plains. She was asked if she had any recollection of him from grade school, though, when he was ten or twelve, and replied:
I think he was about that age then; but he wasn't a skinny boy at all. He was a well-built-....He was a blond, and healthy.
As it happens, though, Earl and Vera's sister, Alma Baker (King), seems to have remembered a very different Robert:
"He was thin, almost emaciated and he remained thin as long as I knew him..."
It is this recollection that de Camp chose to include in chapter 4, along with her comment that he was a
"little wild boy - played the part of a boy who was always going to kill someone."
Howard's own report that he was a "stocky" child, Earl Baker's comment that "he was a big strong robust boy with a nice physique," Vera Baker's memory of a "well-built...healthy" boy, even Deoma Morgan's recollection that he was "average in size," would not have fit with the notion that Robert was frail or sickly.* He uses Alma's comment to "explain" the picture of Robert dressed in Indian garb, which he describes thusly:
"He is very thin and he eyes the camera distrustfully. Although he is dressed in an Indian costume, there is no play in him. He looks fey.... He looks disturbed and ill."
Well, here's the picture he's talking about. You can look at a somewhat larger version with perhaps better resolution at the REHupa website:
(Bob as Indian)
Does he eye the camera distrustfully? Or is it a little boy's attempt to look as fierce as a wild Indian? Does he look "very thin"? Can you really tell? Is it possible this boy has recently had a bit of a growth spurt and hasn't filled out yet? (The shirt and pants look like he might have outgrown them a bit.)
Is this picture the only reason we have to suspect that there was something wrong with this boy?
Here are other pictures of the young Robert Howard. In one he appears to be perhaps somewhere between four and six years old; in the other, standing next to his father, he must be around eleven or twelve. (It is cropped from a larger picture in which we also see Dr. Solomon Chambers and his wife. It was taken when they lived in Galveston County and Robert and his father had come for a visit. The Chambers family moved to Galveston County in late 1917 or early 1918, after Norris was born.)
(Again, you can find somewhat larger versions of these on the REHupa website:
(Boy Bob) (Bob and Dad)
This kid looks rather the picture of health, doesn't he? Rather like Howard's description of himself, in fact.
The Frail, Sickly Youth
So where the heck does the idea that Robert was "frail" come from? Well, apparently, from the picture above in which he is thought to look "very thin" (though it's hard to tell through the clothes), and from this:
That he was a puny, sickly child is a fact acknowledged both by Robert in his writings and by his mother in her talks with her nurse. Mrs. Howard admitted that she spoiled Robert because he was sickly and frail, and this period of ill health probably occurred between the ages of five and seven." (DVD p. 62)
Hmm. I've so far been unable to come up with anything in Robert's writings in which he acknowledges that he was a puny, sickly child. As seen above, I can find him saying he was stocky and "rather above medium size than below" (REH to HPL, January 1932), but any remark about being a sickly child has eluded me thus far. As for the rest, well, here we have another example of de Camp making a big leap from what was actually said.
During the last two years of Mrs. Howard's life, one of her constant companions was a woman named Kate Merryman. She was not a trained nurse, and in fact she made clear in interviews that she was not a nurse. She came to the Howard home to help take care of Mrs. Howard, and she fixed meals for the men, did some cleaning and straightening up, and so on. But she is frequently referred to as one of the "nurses" who attended Mrs. Howard. She and Mrs. Howard, naturally, spent a great deal of time talking. During the first interview she gave the authors of Dark Valley Destiny, Jane W. Griffin happened to ask her whether Robert had rheumatic fever, since he mentions rheumatism a few times. She replied:
"I know he wasn't well when he was just a child."
She said that Mrs. Howard told her that was the reason that Robert was spoiled. It was Griffin who then turned that into "His mother said he was sickly." But that isn't what Mrs. Merryman said, nor in fact did Mrs. Merryman ever use that term, nor did she use the terms "puny" or "frail," in any interview or correspondence. She merely said he "wasn't well." "Sickly" is a chronic condition; "wasn't well" may have been a temporary one. (In all fairness, I must report that Mrs. Merryman appears never to have actually objected to the use of the term "sickly"; but she herself never used it.)
When she was asked to say a little more about it, and when he was "sickly," she answered:
Well, I heard her say she spoiled him when he was little. She wasn't well. I don't think she'd ever been very well. But she said she'd springed him on the bed as long as she could stand up and spring, and then she'd get down underneath and work the springs from underneath.
And in response to the question: "He was small? Small for his age?":
No; I mean he was small then. Might have been a little baby - small.
For some reason, this turned out to be one of the things that neither Jane Griffin nor the de Camps could let go of. They asked about it in another interview, about a year later, and in five different letters during the interim. At least five times she was asked at what age Robert was "sickly" and his mother bounced him on the bed. Her answers:
Might have been a little baby - small.
Robert I think was somewhere between the age of 1 and 2 years.
I sure he was very young [more] 11/2 years ["more" is an uncertain reading]
I would imagine he was somewhere near a year or year and a half.
...when he was little, I think.
Five times Mrs. Merryman says that the period when Robert was "not well" - the period that Griffin and the de Camps insist on calling his "sickly period" - was when he was a little baby, between the ages of 1 and 2 years. So why, in Dark Valley Destiny, do they write:
"this period of ill health probably occurred between the ages of five and seven."
This may remain one of the mysteries of the book. I can find, among all the interview transcripts and correspondence I have examined, no other mention of Robert having a "sickly" period as a youth*, nor anyone who remembers him between the ages of five and seven. Mrs. Merryman seems to be the sole source for this story, and she clearly puts it sometime during Robert's second year.
Thus we would have to say that there appears to be no reason to link the story that there was
a time when [Robert] could not leave his own yard without being bullied by a gang of older boys
and the story that he was "sickly" as a youngster.
So What About the Bullies?
Were the bullies, then, just a fabrication? I, personally, don't think so. I think that, if the comment to Smith weren't enough, certainly the remark to Novalyne - and Bob's vehement response to her story about being beaten up as a little girl - suggest that there were actually some bullies who gave Robert a bad time of it when he was little. But I think it was certainly pre-Bagwell, and thus prior to his school years. The Howards left Dark Valley when Robert was just turning two, relocating to Seminole; the following year they moved to Bronte; the year after that to Poteet. Little is known of the period between 1910 and 1913, when they moved to Bagwell. This is the period during which Robert says he lived in "the Wichita Falls country," though we have no idea how long the family was in Poteet, or how long (or whether) they lived in the "Wichita Falls country." In 1912 both Hester Howard and Eliza Henry Howard (Dr. Howard's mother) received letters addressed to them in Oran, a community in Palo Pinto county, but as Hester had relatives in or near Mineral Wells (the Palo Pinto county seat), and Dr. Howard had practiced in Graford and Christian (both of which are only a few miles from Oran), it could well be that this was a visit, rather than taking up residence again. We just do not know.
The bullying, then, was sometime between the ages of two and eight, and we know not where, nor for how long, it happened, nor do we know how severe it was.
An Interesting Revelation
In one of her handwritten responses to a list of questions from either Jane Griffin or the de Camps, Mrs. Merryman makes a comment that took me by surprise, the implications of which seem to grow enormously as I consider them:
Either Mrs. Howard or her sister Mrs. Searcy told me that Mrs. Howard was pregnant and let Robert nurse too long which caused his sickness She lost the baby
Yes, the de Camps followed up on this, although not, interestingly enough, with nearly the insistence that marked their questioning about Bob's "sickly" youth. In the second interview with Mrs. Merryman, the subject of Hester's second pregnancy came up, and they asked how old Robert was at that time.
I don't imagine he was over 18 months old. He was just a baby.
And here, incredibly, the conversation veers again to Mrs. Howard bouncing Robert on the bed, and when his "sickly" period was, and off into other avenues. The subject was dropped, and never picked up again. And nothing of this appears in Dark Valley Destiny!
Robert was not well sometime between the ages of 1 and 2, or about the age of a year and a half. When Robert was not well, his mother exerted herself to the point of exhaustion bouncing him on the bed, first holding him in her arms and bouncing up and down with him, and then, when she was too tired to do that, getting on the floor under the bed and pushing from beneath. When Robert was about 18 months old his mother had a miscarriage.
Could all this bouncing, trying to quiet her unwell baby, have caused the miscarriage?
And is it possible that Bob knew about it, somehow?
The implications of this are, to me, staggering. I haven't had time to work it out, but in the short time I've had to reflect on it, many things suggest themselves. Certainly it would suggest a possible reason that Bob felt so devoted to his mother, and felt that it was his responsibility to care for her when she was sick. After all, she cared for him when he was sick - even to the point of sacrificing her unborn child. Is it possible that, knowing of this, Robert felt that he was responsible for the death of the child? (Could this be Moira, of "Dermod's Bane," and other "sisters" in Howard stories?)
Enough. It is possible to make too much of all this. It is possible that Robert never knew of the miscarriage, and that his feeling of responsibility derives only from knowing that his mother had nursed him to health during a period when he was very sick, as a baby. Perhaps she, and maybe his father as well, told him that they had feared he would die, and told him of her unstinting efforts to comfort him. This alone might be enough to cause him to feel that he owed her the same: owed her everything in his power to comfort her and nurse her to health. To feel that "I'm required to give up anything and do whatever she needs to have done." (One Who Walked Alone, p. 267).
Whatever the effect might have been on Robert, certainly we see here a compelling reason for Hester's overprotectiveness of her remaining child, and perhaps for Isaac's indulgence of her "spoiling" Robert.
But it is very curious that this was not mentioned in Dark Valley Destiny, isn't it?
All quotations [sic].
A notice in the October 24, 1919, Cross Plains Review (which includes an announcement that the Howards have moved there from Burkett) includes a notice that "At a meeting of the school board last Friday night it was decided to have another month of subscription school before the free term opens, which will be Nov. 24." Students were urged to "start at once" - for a fee, obviously - because "It will be practically impossible for you to complete your grade in the six months of free school." From what I know of rural schools at that time (the recollections of my grandmother and my mother, who both attended rural schools in Arkansas), it is likely that many of the children did not complete the six-month term anyway, dropping out in spring to help with the planting and other chores.
A "Mrs. Woolridge" also told the de Camps that in Cross Cut, Robert "looked sickly"; she also reported that "He would go home after school and read and not play much with the other boys," and "he didn't have many friends." I do not know who Mrs. Woolridge was, how old she was at the time, what her relationship with the Howards was (other than "Dr. Howard was a good doctor, saved my brother, who had typhoid").
Other than "Mrs. Woolridge," above, and she's talking about when the Howards lived in Cross Cut, at which time Robert was at least nine years old.