No. 4 – A Member Journal of Robert E. Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association
Stories and Main Characters:
Trouble in July by Erskine Caldwell
Jeff McCurtain – A sheriff
Bert – Jeff’s deputy
Sam Brinson – A prisoner in Jeff’s jail
Narcissa Calhoun – A town troublemaker
Sonny Clark – A young man accused of rape
Black Canaan by Robert E. Howard
Kirby Buckner – A town scion
Jim Braxton – Kirby’s friend
Tope Sorley – A town resident recruited by Saul Stark
Bride of Damballah – A beautiful woman, Kirby is attracted too
Saul Stark – A “conjure” man
This is a rewritten version of the essay that currently appears at the www.rehupa.com site.
Robert E. Howard’s most popular character, Conan the Cimmerian, and his imaginary setting, “The Hyborian Age,” was a transmutation of the classical ancient world with the modern world. It was set in a pre-historic time with ancient technology but modern ethnic types. Cimmerians were proto-Celts, Shemites were proto-Jewish, Kushites were proto-black Africans, Khitai was proto-China and on and on.
Some have found cause for hurt in Howard’s characterization of certain types. Howard’s posthumous collaborator and biographer L. Sprague de Camp mentions two examples in his article “Editing Conan.” [i] In “Queen of the Black Coast” it is said, “The Shemite soul finds a bright drunkenness in riches and material splendor […].” [ii] In “Hour of the Dragon” black guards are described as “grunting in their ape-like speech.” [iii]
If the only Howard published were the Conan stories these things could perhaps be dismissed as standard pulp conventions, like tales of black warrior races being subservient to a single white male or female leader. But Howard has grown popular, and with increased popularity, comes increased scrutiny.
While it is true that Howard lived in a part of the country where racist attitudes were the norm there were Southern whites and white Texans (not to mention masses of organized blacks and Mexicans) opposed to racism during Howard’s lifetime. “The black movement […] won increased white support in the 1930s from the ranks of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching [ASWPL] and from such prominent congressmen as [Texan] Maury Maverick.” [viii] The ASWPL was very effective. “In Texas in 1934 Sallie Hanna secured the pledges of seven gubernatorial candidates to use the power of the governor’s office to end lynching. The Texas council sent questionnaires to each candidate then offered the results for publication. The Dallas Morning News printed the story on page one. Attorney General James Allred, who subsequently won the governorship, pledged to support state legislation necessary to control mobs […].” [ix] Even in Howard’s hometown of Cross Plains, there was Novalyne, whose attitude toward interracial relations “was close to that which prevails today among educated Americans” [x] and, as Howard’s letter shows, the murders of blacks and Mexicans did get investigated, if not always prosecuted. Howard, in addition to his conversations with Novalyne, was undoubtedly aware of racial views different than his own. Howard formed his own unique ideas about everything from religion to barbarism vs. civilization. It is unlikely that in racial matters he was simply parroting those around him, whether in his letters, his life, or his fiction.
A few deny that ANY of Howard’s work reflects his racism. But if Lovecraft is correct that Howard put himself into his stories what should the reader make of this line from Howard’s “The Fear Master.” “Born and raised in Arizona of good Virginia fighting stock, I held “niggers” in contempt and was a strong believer in Nordic – and especially Celtic – superiority.” [xi] This is very similar to another Howard story, “The Hyena.” “Because I came from Virginia, race instinct and prejudice were strong in me, and doubtless the feeling of inferiority which Senecoza constantly inspired in me had a great deal to do with my antipathy for him.” [xii] De Camp said this showed Howard’s “mixed racial feelings.” [xiii] Howard held a traditional hostility for a non-servile black but also held a grudging acknowledgement of his superior physique according to de Camp. This is hardly a mixed racial feeling though, self-proclaimed racist, George Lincoln Rockwell, had a similar view, “[…] most nigger bucks are healthy animals – rugged and tough, the way nature intended a male to be.” [xiv]
Howard’s story, “The Last White Man” is probably his fictional racial nadir. Howard laments the decline of the white race. “Then the decadence set in. It had been first noticeable in the sports and athletics. Fewer and fewer of the race had gained fame in the great games. More and more men of other races seized the prizes.” [xv] In the racist novel, The Turner Diaries, the narrator also laments the decline of the white race, “Or must we place a large share of the blame on inadvertent decadence – on the spiritually debilitating life style into which the Western people have allowed themselves to slip in the twentieth century?” [xvi] Howard ends his racial daydream with a suicidal plunge into his enemies. The intrigues in The Turner Diaries culminate into a race war with whites victorious. That Howard was pessimistically suicidal in his story should cause no great concern to a sympathetic racist. Howard’s close friend, Tevis Clyde Smith, assures us that Howard “did not like negroes and Jews” and “would be willing to fight in a race war.” [xvii]
“The Hyena” was published in the March 1928 issue of Weird Tales. While this shows that racist views were allowed in the pulps, it does not show that they were required. Consider pulp author, Paul Ernst. He introduced a black character, Joshua Elijah Newton a.k.a. Sleepy in the pages of Street & Smith’s “Justice Inc.” Sleepy talked in black dialect but “He didn’t have to talk like that. Joshua Elijah Newton was an honor graduate from a famous college. He could talk as excellent English as any professor, and he did when among friends. But when with strangers or in public places, Josh talked and acted as people expect Negroes to talk and act.” [xviii] Contrast this with Howard’s line from “Black Canaan,” “[Saul Stark is] a great big black devil that talks better English than I like to hear a nigger talk.” [xix] An educated Negro is something ominous in Howard’s fiction.
* * *
“Black Canaan” first saw print in the June 1936 issue of Weird Tales. The story was later reprinted in Arkham House’s Skull-Face
and Others. In his introduction, August Dereleth makes no direct comment on the story. He simply says, “the stories here
collected represent the best work [Howard] did.” [xx] “Black Canaan” was reprinted again as the title story in a 1984 short story
collection (although the cover illustration was for a different story). “Black Canaan” reappeared in 1996 in a collection titled Trails
in Darkness. Despite this story’s racially charged content it is a tale that has been reprinted several times.
“Black Canaan” is partly a regional story but mainly a horror tale. The story takes place in what is most likely Louisiana. “Within an hour New Orleans was falling further behind me with every turn of the churning wheel.” [xxi] The story takes place in an isolated backcountry called Canaan. A place where “old hates [are] seething again in the jungle deeps of the swamplands.” [xxii]
The hero of the story is a town scion named Kirby Buckner. Kirby narrates the story in a mostly proper tone, using terms like black and Negro to describe his adversaries. In dialog Kirby uses “nigger” [xxiii] along with the other townsfolk.
Although there is a good amount of swamp atmosphere there is little real sense of Canaan. No detail is given as to what town industries exist other than (presumably) cotton. Some detail is given about why racial tensions are so strong. There is a reference to an uprising in 1845. No mention of how the whites treated the blacks before as compared to after the uprising is mentioned though. Howard has (in other stories) acknowledged the cruelty in slavery. In this story he makes no mention whatsoever of any injustices perpetrated on slaves or ex-slaves.
A beautiful black woman confronts Kirby on his ride to Canaan. She taunts him a bit. Then three black men attack. Kirby fights them off. Kirby eventually meets up with the white townsfolk. He finds out that “the swamp niggers” [xxiv] have killed a white man named Ridge Jackson. Kirby also finds out about Saul Stark.
Kirby goes into town and meets up with a gang of white men getting ready to torture a black man named Tope Sorley. Kirby tries to deal fairly with the man, offering him rescue if he talks, but only if he talks.
“Saul Stark’s a conjer man. He come here because it’s way off in back-country. He aim to kill all de white folks in Canaan -” [xxv] Tope tells Kirby. He also enigmatically adds that (a fellow black townsman) named Tunk Bixby has been taken down to the swamp.
Kirby rides out to confront Saul Stark. He builds an eerie mood while Kirby waits and senses a presence guarding Saul’s hut. The beautiful black woman reappears. She taunts Kirby to enter the hut.
The cool cockiness of the woman and the power of Saul Stark could be empowering to a sympathetically minded black reader until she states, “Black men are fools, all but Saul Stark.” She does democratically add, “White men are fools, too.” [xxvi] Kirby tires of the taunting but finds he cannot act to stop it. He has been rendered incapable of acting by her magic.
Kirby takes off and meets up with the white townsmen. Kirby decides to go to the town of Goshen where Saul Stark will be. Misshapen black things are seen and attack others on the way. Eventually, Kirby faces Saul Stark.
Again a Black Nationalist inclined reader could almost (but only almost) feel thrilled by Howard’s description of Saul Stark. “His features reflected titanic vitality no less than his huge body. But [my emphasis] he was all Negro – flaring nostrils, thick lips, ebony skin…” [xxvii] The “But” implies the nostrils, lips, and skin somehow contradict titanic vitality.
There is a hooky-spooky ceremony going on. At this point there is a statement in the narration that is surprising. Kirby states she danced a dance “that was ancient when the ocean drowned the black kings of Atlantis.” [xxviii] Some have suggested Howard means black hearted here as opposed to black skinned. But mentioning the antiquity of blacks and their status as kings in Atlantis could be an allusion to an alternate fall from grace, as is the story’s reference to Canaan.
Some Southern Baptists (white and black) believe black people to be decedents of Noah’s son Ham. Ham is the father of Canaan. “And [Noah] said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” [xxix] This verse has been used as a justification of slavery from both white and black Christians. Canaan was the land promised to Abraham from God in the Old Testament. Canaan is the land where Hebrews lived prior to the famine that bought them to Egypt. Once in Egypt, they lived in Goshen. Goshen was spared from Moses’ plagues. “Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail.” [xxx] If Howard meant Saul Stark to be a kind of black Moses, Stark should have spared his own people his dark magic. Most likely, for Howard, the biblical allusions and the reference to Atlantis are there to suggest the ages old struggle between races throughout history.
During the ceremony, Kirby is again paralyzed by the Bride of Damballah’s magic and is unable to act. He snaps out of it when she finally collapses. Kirby’s friend Jim Braxton had shot her earlier in the story. Kirby is now able to act.
The transformed creature that was once Tunk Bixby attacks Kirby. Kirby escapes and confronts Saul Stark. Kirby cuts Saul’s throat from ear to ear. Saul was transforming another hapless victim, the previously mentioned Tope Sorley, into one of the swamp creatures. Kirby kills the creature in grim mercy. The story ends with the white townsfolk not really knowing the true horror of the day. It is a secret between Kirby and the town’s black folk.
All in all this is a decent horror story. The race war element undoubtedly made the story even a little provocative in its day. A modern reader with the hindsight of history shouldn’t find the story overly offensive. It is a little surprising though, that this story has been reprinted so often, in spite of its racial content.
* * *
Trouble in July was Erskine Caldwell’s fourth novel. It was a departure from his more humorous popular books, Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933). Trouble in July was published in 1940, a scant four years after “Black Canaan.”
Unlike “Black Canaan” which is primarily a fantasy horror story, Trouble in July is a true to life journalistic type of story. But both stories deal realistically with racial feelings in the South. The comparison is appropriate for this study. Saul Stark, from “Black Canaan” is apparently based on a true-life character. Howard wrote an essay, “Kelly the Conjure-Man” about this Saul Stark prototype. Kelly was active in the pinelands of Arkansas instead of the swamplands though. The events in “Black Canaan” probably take place around 1900. The events in Trouble in July take place in the 1930’s.
The novel starts with overweight Sheriff Jeff McCurtain being awakened by his deputy, Bert. “It’s some kind of trouble over near Flowery Branch. A nigger over there got into trouble and a crowd of white men has gone out to look for him.” [xxxi]
McCurtain’s solution is to go fishing. He wants to be out of town and unavailable until the trouble blows over. A young black man, Sonny Clark, is said to have raped a white woman, Katy Barlow. Katy is the daughter of a sharecropper, Shep Barlow. Shep has a deserved reputation for toughness. He had killed both a black man and a white man who trespassed on his property. McCurtain is more than willing to let the lynching happen but a wealthy white landowner, Bob Watson wants the sheriff to do his duty and stop the lynching. Bob Watson is afraid the lynching will scare the blacks working for him and cause a possible work stoppage. McCurtain wants to be re-elected; he is worried that if he stops the lynching he’ll lose votes but realizes that Bob Watson is influential and could back his opposition.
Meanwhile McCurtain is also worried about a petition that was started by Mrs. Narcissa Calhoun. It is a petition to send all the blacks back to Africa. McCurtain knows it is a silly meaningless document but he is afraid to sign it because of powerful men like Bob Watson who like the cheap black labor. McCurtain said he couldn’t sign it because of his political position but said he could if everyone else in the county would. This incident garners Calhoun a good recruitment issue.
Narcissa Calhoun began the petition when she found out that some local blacks were ordering bibles from Chicago that feature illustrations of a black Jesus. Meanwhile Sonny Clark is hiding out. He stops in his flight to feed his pet rabbits. He decides to take one the rabbits with him for company.
McCurtain’s fishing trip gets sidetracked when he is summoned to see Judge Ben Allen. The Judge is worried about his own re-election and tells the Sherriff to go to Flowery Branch and make a show of trying to catch Sonny Clark.
Instead McCurtain locks himself in his jail cell and plans to claim a mob of white men attacked him and subdued him. The plan backfires when a mob actually storms the jail and catches McCurtain locked in the cell. Complicating matters, McCurtain was unaware that his deputy had arrested a black woman and put her in that cell earlier. The deputies would periodically arrest black women and then have sex with them before letting them go. When McCurtain is discovered in the cell, everyone, including his wife, assumes he was having sex with the black woman. No one cares except his wife.
The mob warns McCurtain against stopping their lynch party. The white mob takes a black man who was in another cell as a hostage of sorts. Sam Brinson, although in jail, is a pretty close friend of McCurtain’s. McCurtain has fond memories of fishing and spending time with the good-natured Brinson.
McCurtain’s deputies let him out of the cell and McCurtain begins an earnest effort to rescue Sam Brinson. He runs into Narcissa who pressures him to sign the petition. “We’ve got to send all the niggers back to Africa where they came from. They’re multiplying so fast there won’t be room for a white person to breathe in before long.” [xxxii]
McCurtain refuses to sign and tells Narcissa that, “I ain’t in favor of doing a farfetched thing like that. Maybe some colored people do have mean traits, but there are brother whites in this county a heap meaner than any nigger I ever saw. Now, you take Sam Brinson, the colored man. […] I’d hate not to have him around. I’d feel lost if Sam wasn’t here no more.”[xxxiii]
Meanwhile there is some infighting among the white mob. Another sharecropper, Clint Huff, has a grudge against Shep Barlow. Tensions divide the lynch party into separate groups. There is gossip about Katy Barlow. One of the men in the lynch party had a wild sexual encounter with her weeks back.
One of the lynch mobs goes on Bob Watson’s property to look for Sonny Clark. The white men attack a black man and torture his wife in a particularly gruesome scene. Another young black woman is raped. Eventually Bob Watson arrives to chase the white mob away.
A poor sharecropper spots Sonny Clark on his land. Sonny tells the man he is innocent. “I’m telling you the truth, Mr. Harvey, when I said that. I ain’t never done nothing with colored girls, either. I just don’t know nothing about that, Mr. Harvey.” [xxxiv] Harvey believes Sonny but leads him to the lynch mob anyway. His fear of the white mob overrides his belief in the young man’s innocence.
McCurtain is driving around looking for the mob that took Sam Brinson. He eventually finds Brinson who tells him that Sonny Clark was caught by the mob. Brinson tells McCurtain, “When them white men grabbed Sonny, a rabbit jumped out of his shirt, just like it was coming out of his belly. But it hadn’t hopped more than a couple of hops before they fired away at it and blasted it all to bits. Now, Mr. Jeff, I don’t want you to believe it, because I don’t exactly believe it, either. But my eyes saw it.” [xxxv]
McCurtain finds the mob dispersing and sees the body of Sonny Clarke hanging from the tree. Katy Barlow is there and screaming hysterically, “It was a lie! He didn’t do it!” [xxxvi] The white mob turns on her. A rock is thrown and knocks her to the ground. McCurtain and his deputy rush to her aid. The deputy is afraid she might have a cracked skull.
“When [McCurtain] turned and looked towards the tree, he saw Bert standing dazedly beside the girl’s body, while, above, the darker body turned slowly around and around on the end of the rope.”
“It ought to put an end to lynching the colored for all time,” he said, walking away.” [xxxvii]
McCurtain tells Burt they need to make a report to the coroner. “He’ll want to know all about it in order to be able to perform his duty as he sees it, without fear or favor.”
“That’s a pretty oath for a man in public office to swear to,” he said aloud. “I reckon I had sort of forgotten it.” [xxxviii]
* * *
In Howard’s story the main black character is guilty of his crimes. Saul Stark plans genocide. S. M. Sterling makes an interesting observation about this story, “[…] Howard’s narrative adopts an untroubled and unmoralistic us-versus-them attitude towards the revolt. The Negro rebels in his story naturally want to kill their enemies; the white overlords reciprocate […]. [xxxix] This suggests that Howard is saying a natural antipathy exists between the races rather than one of happenstance. In any event, Kirby Buckner is a hero only in contrast to Stark’s wholesale killing of whites and blacks. Kirby is no reformer, with the black peoples’ interests at heart. Kirby is the defender of a bad status quo. Kirby (and by implication, Howard) wouldn’t have liked Martin Luther King’s integrationist policies much better than Saul Stark’s brand of Black Nationalism.
In Caldwell’s story, the main black character, Sonny Clark is a complete innocent. Caldwell’s villains are ordinary people who revert to savagery because of petty hates and jealousies. Caldwell’s protagonist, Sheriff McCurtain is a simple careerist only concerned about keeping his job. He is willing to let the lynching happen. It is only when his friend Sam Brinson is threatened that he begins to act and regain his humanity. He gains a clear understanding of black peoples value as friends and members of the community.
Maintaining a bad status quo may not seem overtly racist to some, but there are things in Howard’s other literary works and letters that show us the thinking behind the author of “Black Canaan.”
The dialog quoted above between Narcissa and McCurtain where she talks of black people “multiplying so fast” calls to mind Howard’s narration in “The Last White Man.” “The whites should have seen that they could not stand before them. The black race doubles itself in forty years, the brown in sixty, the white in eighty.” [xl] Clearly Howard was influenced by the racist propaganda of his day.
Some Howard fans have said that Kirby’s attraction for the Bride of Damballah in “Black Canaan” shows Howard not to be a racist. That Howard, through his character, acknowledges an attraction to a black woman is not proof of racial tolerance. Caldwell’s story illustrates the southern attitude toward black women. The white men in Trouble in July are very promiscuous with the black women in town. But when a black man talks to a white woman (which was Sonny’s undoing) they are ready to murder.
Howard has his most famous character, Conan the Cimmerian, risk his life and standing among a black tribe in “Vale of the Lost Women” to rescue a white woman “simply because of [her] race.” [xli] Howard was also no fan of race mixing that resulted in offspring. In “Shadows in Zamboula” Howard has Conan persuaded by the argument, “[…] in this accursed city […] where white, brown, and black folk mingle together to produce hybrids of all unholy hues and breeds – who can tell who is a man, and who is a demon in disguise?” [xlii] This is based on his experience in New Orleans where he encountered a man of Chinese and Negro heritage. Howard, in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft written around December 1930, writes, “The most inhuman hybrid I ever saw was standing in the door of a laundry shop not far off Canal Street […]. He or it! – was as black as any Negro I ever saw, but had the slant eyes and broad features of a Chinaman.”
L. Sprague de Camp, wrote “Howard was, if a racist, a comparatively mild one by the standards of his time.” [xliii] Perhaps de Camp is no one to judge Howard’s racism though. According to fantasy author, Charles Saunders, “Carter and de Camp, […], continue to practice good old-fashioned bigotry in their non-Conan endeavors. Though they have done a good job at ameliorating some of Howard’s more blatant racism, their own efforts at sword and sorcery are throwbacks. This is doubly shameful, because both of these men are scholars, and should know better. Their books sell well enough, so it may be that racism in fantasy matters little to fandom.” [xliv]
Since Howard is still being read and discussed by modern audiences he will be viewed from the perspective of a modern audience. The racial question will continue to appear. Caldwell, a Southern writer contemporary with Howard, stands up to modern scrutiny. Howard doesn’t.
The best of Howard, stories like “Tower of the Elephant,” “Rogues In the House,” “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune,” “Worms of the Earth,” “Beyond the Black River,” and scores of others are race conscious but not particularly derogatory. And even though several of Howard’s best stories, such as “The Valley of the Worm,” have a strong sense of “Aryan racial memory” similar to Jack London, it does not overwhelm Howard’s true sense of conflict and adventure. As with Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs, we can ignore the racism and move on. Howard’s best work can still be read and appreciated by a modern audience. The superior storytelling and meaningful themes regarding the nature of civilization outweigh the flaws.
[i] de Camp, L. Sprague. The Conan Swordbook, Baltimore, Maryland: Mirage Press, 1969
[ii] Howard, Robert E. The Conan Chronicles: Volume 1, Great Britain: Millennium, 2000, p. 130
[iii] Howard, Robert E. The Conan Chronicles: Volume 2, Great Britain: Millennium, 2001, p. 395
[iv] de Camp, L. Sprague. Dark Valley Destiny, New York: Bluejay Books Inc., 1983, p. 125
[v] Howard, Robert E. Seanchai 99, REHupa #171, 2001
[vi] Ellis, Novalyne Price. One Who Walked Alone, Hampton Falls, NH: Grant Books, 1986, p. 95
[vii] de Camp, L. Sprague. Dark Valley Destiny, p. 146
[viii] The Handbook of Texas Online. www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/CC/pkcfl.html
[x] de Camp, L. Sprague. Dark Valley Destiny, p. 325
[xi] Howard, Robert E. “The Fear Master,” The New Howard Reader #5, p. 25
[xii] Howard, Robert E. “The Hyena,” Beyond the Borders, New York: Baen Books, 1996, p. 182
[xiii] de Camp, L. Sprague. Dark Valley Destiny, p. 188
[xiv] Rockwell, George Lincoln. Playboy Interview, Playboy, April 1966, p. 74
[xv] Howard, Robert E. “The Last White Man,” The New Howard Reader #7, p.43
[xvi] Macdonald Andrew (William Pierce). The Turner Diaries, New York: Barricade Books, 1996, p. 34
[xvii] Smith, Tevis Clyde. Report on a Writing Man, Necronomicom Press, 1991, p. 32 and p. 35
[xviii] Ernst, Paul (writing as Kenneth Robeson). The Avenger #15: The Frosted Death, New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1972, originally published 1939, p. 70
[xix] Howard, Robert E. Black Canaan, New York: Berkley Books, 1978, p. 11
[xx] Dereleth, August. Skull-Face & Others, Great Britain: Neville Spearman, 1975, p. viii
[xxi] Howard, Robert E. Black Canaan, p. 3
[xxii] ibid. p. 3
[xxiii] ibid. p. 9
[xxiv] ibid. p. 8
[xxv] ibid. p. 13
[xxvi] ibid. p. 21
[xxvii] ibid. p. 34
[xxviii] ibid. p. 36
[xxix] The Holy Bible. King James Version, Genesis 9:25
[xxx] ibid. Exodus 9:26
[xxxi] Caldwell, Erskine. Trouble in July, New York: New American Library, 1949, p. 5
[xxxii] ibid. p. 71
[xxxiii] ibid. p. 73
[xxxiv] ibid. p. 126
[xxxv] ibid. p. 135
[xxxvi] ibid. p. 137
[xxxvii] ibid. p. 139
[xxxviii] ibid. p. 139
[xxxix] Stirling, S.M. (editor), Robert E. Howard. Trails in Darkness, New York: Baen Books, 1996, p. 13
[xl] Howard, Robert E. “The Last White Man,” p. 43
[xli] Howard, Robert E. “Vale of the Lost Women,” The Conan Chronicles, Great Britain: Millenium, p. 153
[xlii] Howard, Robert E. “Shadows in Zamboula,” The Conan Chronicles, p. 293
[xliii] de Camp, L. Sprague. “Howard and the Races,” The Blade of Conan, New York: Ace, 1978. p. 127
[xliv] Saunders, Charles. “Die Black Dog!,” Toadstool Wine, 1975