Monday, September 2, 2013

Robert E. Howard Biography

No, not him....
Certainly not HIM!...

Nope, not him either....
Ah!  THIS is him!

Exactly!  That guy is who Robert E. Howard wrote about.  And while Conan (and those other Conans, too, actually) is a pretty interesting fellow, so is his creator.  Not that I knew that.  About all I knew about Robert E. Howard is that he was, appropriately enough, a Texan.  But Mark Finn, it turns out, knows quite a bit.  Here we have Alex Kurtagić's review of Finn's book,

You Can Take the Man Out of Texas, but You Cannot Take Texas Out of the Man
Alex Kurtagić

Mark Finn
Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard
Austin, Texas: Monkeybrain Books, 2006

When Mark Finn read the initial biography of Robert Ervin Howard (Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard by L. Sprague de Camp), he was enraged by what he found. Thus, his Blood and Thunder, published some 30 years after de Camp’s, was meant as a corrective: an effort to right the apparently numerous wrongs of accumulated preconceptions, distortions, and omissions, which had been perpetuated and propagated to meaningful degree by the earlier biographer—a business-minded biographer who, had also come to control and assiduously exploit the Conan stories and brand for many years. In particular, Finn was vexed by two sins, one of commission and one of omission: de Camp’s fixation with Howard’s alleged craziness, and de Camp’s failure to consider
Howard’s environment as an integral element of his personality, worldview, and brand of fiction.

For most of those who know anything at all about Howard, their knowledge is usually limited to his having been the creator of Conan; his being a pulp writer like H. P. Lovecraft, also linked to Weird Tales; his having been into boxing; and his having blown his brains out in his car at the age of 30. Given the brevity of Howard’s life, this seems to cover much of what is relevant. However, what is important for understanding him is everything else, and, if Howard is the centre, Finn accordingly spends as much time on the periphery.

Howard’s father was a medical doctor. He was also a good raconteur, highly regarded within his circle and the wider community. It seems Howard’s mother, Hester, chose Dr. Isaac as her husband because of his profession, expecting to be looked after and the social standing that came with it. Hester was tubercular, and would die in middle age from the disease. Isaac Howard moved his family frequently (no less than nine Texas cowtows and boomtowns in eleven years), so Howard’s early years were unsettled and with few friends. As a student Howard proved much brighter than his coevals, and was a voracious reader, but he detested school, where was forced to go at the speed of the slowest pupil in his class, and where the rigid rules and strictures of schooling at that time were not amenable to him. It has been said that Howard was bullied, but there is no evidence to this effect. He was, nevertheless, regarded as a dreamer and somewhat odd, and this perception by others would follow into adulthood, for the frontier in the wild Texas of the early 1900s placed a strong emphasis on practical matters, and literary types were seen as in need of getting “a real job” (whatever that meant).

After 1917, Howard spent most of his life in Cross Plains, with occasional journeys into Brownwood. By 1925 Cross Plains would become yet another boomtown, due to the discovery of oil. Besides money, and because of it, boomtowns attracted all manner of crooks, bandits, whores, and adventurers, all chasing dollars. Bar-room brawls, gun fights, murders, and drunkenness were everyday occurrences. And as one can easily infer from countless Westerns, the federal government had but a tenuous hold on these volatile, remote, and rickety settlements, so those who lived in them had to live by their wits. Capacity to improvise, to seize opportunity, to be self-sufficient, and to work hard in the pursuit of dreams and opportunities were indispensable for surivival; but so was willingness to do anything, to be ruthless, and resort to violence, since there was no nanny state to afford protection or enforce countless laws and regulations. This is the environment Howard grew up in, and, combined with the recurrence of wealth and industry bringing along with it crooks and degeneracy, it quickly dispelled any illusions he may have had about civilization, progress, and human goodness. Howard thus came to associate civilization with corruption and decline, and barbarism with heroic purity. It also made him realise the importance of being tough, which led him as an adolescent to build his body and get into boxing.

Finn notes that Howard was a storyteller from early on, and selects examples from his letters to friends. He further argues that Howard’s literary roots lie in the American folk tradition of the tall tale. He identifies elements of the tall tale in much of Howard’s fiction. Most importantly, he emphasises the degree to which specifically Texas, and the experience of boomtowns, appear transliterated again and again even in the sword and sorcery tales of Conan the Cimmerian. For example, the snake cult in the Conan tales is a reflection of the snakes in Texas.

Conan is what Howard is now most famous for; and even in his lifetime, it was his most memorable character. However, Conan was neither his only creation nor even his main breadwinner. Besides sword and sorcery, Howard wrote very prolifically in a variety of genres, including humorous Westerns and boxing stories. Though he saw himself as a hack, and a lowly scribbler, he approached his craft with admirable determination and professionalism. If a story was rejected, he resubmitted it elsewhere, until he found a home for it. If a magazine wanted stories with a specific type of character, he created them and produced regularly, writing under various pen names. And he was constantly attempting to break into new markets. His efforts paid off; unlike Lovecraft, who was less productive and lived in ever-increasing poverty, Howard managed a respectable living, with ever-increasing sales. By 1932, Howard was able to fork out $350 (a little under $6,000 in today’s money), in cash, for a used green 1931 Chevrolet Coach (Finn omits make, model, and color). This probably stilled the wagging small-town tongues that had hitherto described him as a freak unacquainted with “proper” work. (Read the rest HERE.)

1 comment:

  1. Only a Texan can get a Texan.
    Only a reputed racist could write a story about a white man getting his for murdering a black couple without out being preachy or engaging in the cloying faux moralism of those who pretend to oppose racism.