There are always multiple avenues of approach and critical stances possible when one undertakes the examination of a work of literature (or of any art form, for that matter). Perhaps some metacritical discussion will prove helpful in the exploration of some hitherto unexplored or little explored pathways to an understanding and appreciation of the work of Robert E. Howard--and perhaps of the Pulp Literature era and popular imaginative literature in general.
By "metacritical" I mean reflection upon and suggestions regarding modes of criticism itself, a sort of critical discussion of criticism.
Let's begin by defining some terms and clarifying some concepts. Criticism can be subdivided into at least the following types: Theoretical and Applied. Within each of these, I contend, there are at least two sub-types. Regarding Theoretical Criticism, we may discern between Aesthetics, which seeks to define criteria of artistic beauty or perfection as to the art or craft of the object of study--the artifact, and Hermeneutics, which offers theories on means of interpretation and understanding. Regarding Applied or Practical Criticism, several avenues of approach to literature and methods and critical practices have been developed over the years, as the overview to follow will, at least to some degree, indicate. Quite often, the only difference between Theoretical and Applied is that which exists between "what is preached" and "what is practiced." Sometimes there is great variance between these two. Many critical postures have been seen to have been "weighed in the balance and found wanting." But, unlike most scientific theory, new methods and "discoveries" don't (at least in the present writer's view) necessarily supplant the old. Quite often the "new" and the "True" haven't necessarily been in accord.
Confining the present discussion to Applied/Practical criticism (with the exception of one venture into Theory at the conclusion where I will attempt to present my own critical and eclectic theory of "Reconstruction"), we might begin by dividing the practical modes into subgroups based upon their centering upon AUTHOR, TEXT, or READER. The last of these is a fairly recent development in critical theory; the TEXT-centered variety, clearly the oldest; the AUTHOR-centered variety the subject of much modern (19th c. on) critical speculation. But the model AUTHOR -- TEXT -- READER serves in many ways.
We might also look at this via another classification principle: ENVIRONMENT -- ENTITY -- EFFORT -- ARTIFACT -- EFFECT. This classification is based upon the examination of the author's world, the author himself, the methods and creative processes employed by the author, the text itself as literary artifact, and the effect upon the reader, respectively. Yet another might be mentioned which is dependent upon the mindset and philosophy of the critic: ADVOCATE or AGENDA criticism which brings certain preconceptions to the study and -- as all critical modes do to some degree -- represents the critic as "specialized and sophisticated reader."
Let's journey through the critical stances, methods, and avenues of approach commonly practiced according to this more complex taxonomy, looking specifically at how they might apply to Robert E. Howard and his literature.
Those critical positions that we can clearly call ENVIRONMENTAL include: Historical Criticism, "New" Historicism, Sociological Criticism, and Economic Criticism.
The historicists ("old historians") would look at the historical setting in which Howard created his literature. They would be interested in what influence the history of Howard's day (and the earlier history that influenced REH) had upon his work. Conversely, they might pay attention to what Howard's work (stories, poetry, letters, etc.) shows about the time in which he lived. This would be important, I believe, especially regarding his Western stories, but also as it might pertain to REH's other work.
The "new" historicist is in the camp that maintains that history is a malleable thing and not a fixed body of exact factual material. New Historians are always trying to reinterpret history -- or at least supplement our understanding of history -- from new perspectives. For example: when the present writer was a lad, "Custer's Last Stand" was depicted in the history texts as a "massacre." Now, the perception is that the greater massacre was Custer's et al. of the Indians and that he simply got what was coming to him. Are there then things about REH's work that would help us re-envision life in Texas in the 19-teens through Ô30s, that would help us better understand the life in oil boom towns, that would help us better understand the Pulp Era phenomenon, etc.?
The sociological critic is similar to the historical critic (old or new school) in that the environment of the writer is significant. What does the work of literature show about social mores, about customs, traditions, etc.?
The economic critic would be interested in the publishing business practices of the pulp era and how the popular literature press figured into the mainstream of the American economy. One type of economist would be the AGENDA critics who dubbed themselves "Marxists" (somewhat in decline since the demise of the Soviet Union) -- seeking ways of demonstrating how literature bore out the contentions of Marx and Engels about the "rise of the proletariat," about the decline of capitalism, about the class struggle, etc. Clearly, they would be interested in Howard's own early socialist leanings as well, thus shifting from pure economic and social theory to the next type, which I've called ENTITY Criticsm.
The entity, of course, is the individual, the author, now separated for consideration from his environment. The type includes the critical stances of biographical and psychological (Freudian/psychoanalytic) criticism.
The major critical perspective here is Biographical, examining the life of the author and reflecting upon how that life influences and even enters into the literature that is produced. Biographical critics are interested in how the literature reflects the life and how the life affects the literature. This has certainly been one of the most travelled "roads" of criticism in Howardian studies, but has been somewhat hindered by the problem of early, somewhat slipshod scholarship to date (not to name names, but, specifically, by the sophomoric investigations of one whose initials are LSdC), although much quality stuff is "out there" for investigation at present, especially in the works of Lord, Burke, and others who have begun their own investigations into the life and times of Robert E. Howard. When a more definitive and scholarly biographical work emerges (a tall fellow named Burke is presently working on such) this avenue will provide a far richer vein.
As far as psychological criticism is concerned, there has been a great quantity of speculation and amateur psychoanalysis of REH done to the present date. It is pretty clear that most Howardian criticism to this point has been targeted at the ENTITY of the author himself--his life and his psychological "problems" (as perceived by several critics).
The major problem thus far has been the fixation (and I use the term correctly and advisedly) of critics upon the perceived "Oedipal" complex and crises within REH. His suicide has been taken ipso facto to mean "mental problems." His closeness to his mother (again, the biographical investigations continue re: REH's relationships with both his mother and his father and with, specifically, Novalyne Price) has been taken ipso facto to "prove" an acute Oedipal fixation. It is always dangerous to attempt a psychoanalysis of a dead subject, but, when undertaken, there should be as thorough an investigation as factual data and application of evolved psychological theory can afford. A French fellow named Louinet is working such ground at present. Others with credentials in the field, specifically our own Dr. Gramlich, have made, we may contend, new inroads and observations which counter much of the earlier water-muddying work of such amateurs as, not to name names, LSdC.
Moving from ENTITY criticism varieties to what I've dubbed "EFFORT Criticism," I'm referring to those newer forms that pay attention to a discovery of the methods and techniques of creativity and literary craft or art which are employed in the writing. Included in this group are any studies of stylistics, specifically stylometric analysis, structuralist studies of the use or development of literary formulae, or those few biographical applications that might confine themselves to the discovery of actual method of composition. Instead of looking, for example, at WHAT Howard wrote or WHO Howard was or WHERE he was "coming from," these critical examinations would be chiefly interested in HOW Howard found inspiration, created, crafted, wrote, revised. This is a relatively new and greatly untraveled avenue of approach to Howardian studies, one which the present writer has taken some first, few, speculative steps along.
Moving on to what I've called "ARTIFACT criticism," there are several main types of this oldest of critical perspectives (dating back at least as far as Aristotle's POETICA). These modes look primarily at the TEXT itself and deal directly with the artifact of language which is the story, the poem, the letter, etc.
I would subdivide the ARTIFACT critical modes into: Traditional - Analytical (in other words, "Aristotelian"), Formalism, Myth Criticism (Archetypal/Jungian), Genre Criticism, "New" Criticism, Structuralism, and the of late in vogue, but, thankfully, falling into greater disfavor -- Deconstruction.
The literary criticism we were likely all taught through school (certainly K-12, and likely at college too -- unless one majored in English) was based upon the Aristotelian model of analysis, of the subdivision of a work into its component aspects or parts: plot, character, setting, narrative point of view, theme, etc. There is still much to be gained from this process, and it provides an excellent method for isolating and focusing upon specific elements for the control of short essays or articles seeking greater appreciation and understanding of a work.
The Formalists (especially in Germany and Russia in the late 19th c. and early 20th) examined the structural or formal qualities of works of literature and saw these as more important than any perceived social or historical or biographical or moral purpose. The begin the scientific examination of story itself, of language and its relation to storytelling, of formal patterns that seemed widespread or possibly even universal in the storytelling act. One early investigator in this area (although a folklorist, specifically) was Vladimir Propp (The Morphology of the Folktale) who saw a universally-repeating pattern in the structure of hundreds of Russian tales. Another proponent of this sort of position was Gustav Freitag, whose "pyramid" (actually a triangle) of plot structure has been widely taught: Conflict the base of the triangle, the support of a good story which ascends from an "inciting moment" through Complication to a Crisis point and, thence, a Conclusion.
Are there patterns and formulae observable or discoverable in the Howardian corpus? Was Howard inventing his own pattern, or adopting/adapting older patterns -- possibly innate ! patterns?
Which leads us to the consideration of Myth or Archetypal Criticism. If any vein of Howardian study ought to prove rich, it is this one. None can deny the mythic nature, few the mythic power of Howard's most popular and famous fictions. Solidly supported by the theories of Carl Jung: the archetypal symbol, the "collective unconscious," and "racial memory," the Myth Critics find symbols as the most potent material embedded (intentionally or subconsciously) by writers in their works. The level of enjoyment and appreciation of the story is different from the level of meaning and deep significance.
Beginning with the work of Jurgen vonHahn, Otto Rank, Lord Raglan (see The Hero and material on Raglan's "22 points") and continuing through the relatively famous speculations by Northrup Frye (An Anatomy of Criticism) and Joseph Campbell (Hero With 1000 Faces) [note: internet web "quests" will prove profitable on these names and topics], the mythic perspective on storytelling has been very influential in Hollywood and has served as the basis for an untold number of novels and short stories. Campbell's theory of "the monomyth," the one central story of humanity, the adventure-filled quest, the journey of life itself, filled with obstacles and adversaries and helper-friends and trials and tribulations overcome and returned from in triumph is, the contention goes, at the heart of all story. So, is Conan the heir to Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Beowulf, Roland, El Cid, and possible fellow to Aragorn or Frodo (or at least Boromir)? How much are the mythical and possibly mystical is involved or convolved in the Howardian tales?
The Genre critics will try to place the work of any given author within pre-existent and clearly defined, distinct literary forms. For example: I've discussed Robert E. Howard's use of the sonnet and the ballad forms in his poetics. That his work includes sonnets and ballads is undeniable; that he works and reworks and adapts these forms to his purposes is easily defended.
Many have defended Howard's position as the creator/inventor of "Sword & Sorcery." This sort of statement about a distinct type of literature with a unique set of criteria is what genre criticism is about.
Clearly, Howard adopted some literary genres. That he not only adapted them, but also invented new genres is still fertile ground for the genre critic. In what I've called (in several college papers and since) the "Pegasus Principle," humans have the power of a "recombinative imagination." As Tolkien asserts in his important essay, "On Fairy-Stories," we don't really create anything in a primary sense; we are "sub-creators, the refracted light;" we use the stuff of the primary creation in recombinative ways (Horse + Flying Things = Pegasus, for example OR Sun/Star + color Green = sci-fi world with a green sun).
Just so, an artist in any art who attempts work within a genre is, at least in some way, redefining the genre. The closer to strict adherence to existing "rules," the more the work is a clear adoption of genre conventions. The more experimental and innovative and rule-bending/testing the work, the more it is an adaptation or even a transformation of the genre into something now broader and enriched. Howard was, I contend, a genre-transformer, possibly with "S & S" (others?) a genre-creator.
The "New Critics" insist upon viewing the text as isolated artifact and the only fit subject of discussion. To them, the text is all. There is only the text, and we care not who wrote it, nor at what time, nor in what milieu, nor how it has been received, nor what readership might have received it. The idea of "close reading" and scrupulous textual analysis to decide on the degree of unity and perfection in the work itself and eventual "explication" of the text are the means and the goal.
This works best on poetry, since close textual study of fiction, especially of longer works, can be an exhausting process. To some degree, the stylometricians efforts can be applied to the appreciation of the content of longer texts as well as to an understanding of their stylistic distinctions and formal structure. This latter application, which I call "Themetrics," is an embryonic critical stance at present, but scholars/researchers are needed to "nurture and care for the child" as it receives a legitimizing "birth "and begins to grow and develop. The eventual possible applications of computers to literary criticism (what I call CALC -- computer-assisted literary criticism) are likely far beyond those envisioned to date.
Structuralists are, at base, Formalists who have delved more and more into the practical application of theory. They have created the apparati for the scrutiny of literary texts through -- and here is the key -- a system of scientific investigation and regularized nomenclature for the close examination of the form/shape/structure of the work. The Narratologists have defined and classified various aspects of story: plot, modes of attribution, narrative viewpoint, etc. The use of binary oppositions (see Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology) and semiotic squares (Griemas, et al.), and the work of Gerard Genette and Seymore Chatman and others extend the early ambitions of Propp (see "Functions of Dramatis Personae" or his shorthand for the typical structure of the folktale) and others.
At the extreme of Structuralism, and spinning from the linguistic and semiotic (science of signs and signification) work of Ferdinand Saussure and Jacques Derrida, is the critical school of Deconstruction.
The deconstructionists see all language as necessarily imperfect, and hence always flawed to some degree and ambiguous. Words mean, according to this theory, only by "differences" -- never specifically or precisely any one thing. The SIGN is not, cannot ever be, equivalent to the SIGNIFIED; hence, always a disparity exists between text and meaning. Their practical application is usually to show ways in which a text "deconstructs" itself. They point out ambiguities, received "meanings" different from any possibly intended, ways in which the text works against or confutes itself.
While the deconstructionists have forced the reexamination of many texts that were considered "closed books" for interpretation (a good thing in itself), the whole nihilistic mindset that language doesn't communicate -- at heart their thesis -- leaves them with something like the fatalist's dilemma. If all is fated, why act? What will be, will be. BUT If meaning can't be precisely conveyed, why communicate? They have left themselves half of the problem of Archimedes: they have a nifty "lever," but have nowhere to stand. Neither have they seen the light offered by the work of America's great semiotician (and greatest philosopher to date), Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced "purse") who nicely pointed out that meaning is a tripartite construct: SIGN, SIGNIFIER, and INTERPRETANT (the activity of the mind to connect the real thing with the word). I'll stick with my belief that words can -- and often do have precise and exact meanings -- especially when used by a master wordsmith and received by those versed in the language.
A Brief Discussion of "Reconstruction Theory" and Eclectic Criticism
My own critical theory involves (as most of my world view) quite an eclectic borrowing and admixture of various stances. Some might even say that certain aspects of it verge on the mystical.
What I call "Reconstruction Theory" approaches an author and that author's work from a spectrum of positions. By its very nature, the biggest drawback to it is the necessity of such in depth research and likely exhaustive work that it would be best applied in practice (something I have only begun to do) to the work of one or perhaps two (certainly a very few) writers in the critic's lifetime. For the critic who has found a focus; however, I think it could be done successfully.
If I am to gain an appreciation and understanding of the work of, let's say, Robert E. Howard, I must, as the "reconstructive" critic, imbue myself in the author's milieu: historical situation, understanding of the society of the day, understanding of his physical surroundings and situation.
Beyond that research step, I must now "become" that writer to the extent that biography, autobiography, letters, newspaper accounts, through research into that life and extreme empathy with it. What books did I read? (Rusty's Library compilation, etc.) What courses did I take at school? This is much like an actor would do in the study to prepare for the portrayal of a historical character.
Then, I must, and here is the key element, "reconstruct" the authors work, going over it as if I am the author. "To whom am I writing? Why am I writing? What did I want to do/say/mean/suggest by that sentence or word choice? Mystical, perhaps; methodical, yes.
Hope I've opened some doors or windows.