ELCOME to the third number of The Shadow Singer. Two more articles will be added to the brief offering below.
I see no light to lead my way
No gleam that heralds coming day
--Robert E. Howard
from "Life(1)" an unpublished sonnet
in a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith
There has been considerable discussion, both of late and from the beginning of Howardian studies, regarding the significance of his suicide and what that single event might somehow tell us about the object of our literary enthusiasm and attention — and the focus of this amateur press association. I believe that it is important for all Howardians and any future critics of the life and literary accomplishment of Robert Ervin Howard to at least acknowledge the possibility of his suicide as a reasoned choice rather than an act of desperation, as a conclusion for conclusion. This, of course, must be set against the emotional background of the supposed loss in one sense and the impending loss in another of who were almost certainly the two people most important in his life. It is important to note Howard’s personal philosophy, which was starkly in contrast to the orthodox beliefs of his neighbors and, evidently, the positions held by many of his commentators and critics (both personal and literary).
In an important letterto Tevis Clyde Smith, Howard writes:
Letus talk of life; I am damnably weary tonight. What are you? What am I? Listen, I'll tell you; Life is Power, Life is Electricity. You and I are atoms of power, cogs in the wheels of the Universal system. Life is not predestinated, that is, the trivial affairs of our lives are not, but we have certain paths to follow and we cannot escape them. Do you think we can? Then let me see you raise yourself even seven inches off the earth and remain there unsupported save by your own efforts; let me see you look at a star and tell me if grass grows there, with your naked eye; let me see you swim to the bottom of the ocean and back or walk on water; let me see you live a thousand years. Listen, I'll tell you; we are sparks of star dust, atoms of unknown power, powerless in ourselves but making up the whole of some great power that uses us as ruthlessly as fire uses fuel. We are parts of an entity, futile in ourselves. We are merely phases of electricity; electrons endlessly vibrating between the magnetic poles of birth and death. We cannot escape these trails in which our paths lie. We do not, as individual entities, really exist, we do not live. There is no life, there is no existence; there is simply vibration. What is a life but an uncompleted gesture, beginning in oblivion and ending in oblivion? What man of history ever really accomplished what he desired to accomplish? No, what men name life is simply the sparkle of an electron as it flashes from the pole of birth to the pole of death. There is no beginning, nor will there ever be an end to the thing.
(letter from REH to TCS, ca January 1928, Selected Letters: 1923-1930, #9, p. 9)
From this perspective, we might view Howard’s death as an attempt, eight years after this letter was written, at the self-completion of the “uncompleted gesture.” He may well have seen it as fulfillment rather than fatality. His perspectives on the subjects of Life and Death were mystical rather than conventionally moral. This passage — along with others that suggest a belief in a universal Life Force or essence, and, elsewhere, clear evidences of a belief in reincarnation and what might be termed a “conservation of soul” much like the conclusions of many physicists (certainly in Howard’s day) of a conservation of matter — present us with an image of Robert E. Howard that ought to hold sway over many emotional, moral, and pseudo-psychological explanations. Certainly, they present us with at least a different possible conclusion with ample supporting grounds that must be taken into account. There is ample support in Howard’s poetry and fiction to reinforce the statements made in this letter to Smith. We might view Howard as skeptic and cynic who saw “no gleam that heralds coming day,” but his notions of oblivion were set against the vibrations of the never-ending energy and force of Life.
In the same poem from which the epigram of this essay derives (part of the same letter to TCS), Howard writes:
Perhaps we should cease with our critical fixations upon the moment of Howard’s death and begin with earnest more fascinations upon the momentum of his life and the monument of his literature.