Robert E. Howard's health

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Robert E. Howard in the doorway of a ruined wall
Robert E. Howard at Fort McKavett in 1933.

The health of American author Robert E. Howard, especially his mental health, has been the focus of the biographical and critical analysis of his life. In terms of physical health, Howard had a weak heart which he treated by taking digitalis. The precise nature of Howard's mental health has been much debated, both during his life and following his suicide. Three main points of view exists. Some have declared that Howard suffered from an Oedipus complex or similar mental disorder. Another viewpoint is that Howard suffered from major depressive disorder. The third view is that Howard had no disorders and his suicide was a common reaction to stress.

Physical health[edit]

Howard had a weak heart, which was treated by taking digitalis.[1] The first indication of this problem came when, while working with an oil-field surveyor in the period before he became a successful author, Howard passed out in the heat. A later diagnosis confirmed that his heart had a mild tendency to race under stress and he was told that a heavy blow to his chest could be fatal.[2][3]

On December 29, 1933 Howard was involved in a traffic accident. Driving back from a football game in Brownwood with three friends in the mist and rain, he crashed into a flag pole in Ranger. A piece of windshield cut his neck close to the jugular vein and he was forced heavily into the steering column. This impact to his chest could have been lethal with his heart problems but he escaped with just bruised ribs. None of the other passengers were seriously injured either and one escaped injury altogether. The town helped to pay for repairs to the car and the flag pole was eventually removed following further accidents.[4][5]

Mental health[edit]

Robert E. Howard with a moustache, wearing a broad brimmed hat.
Late photograph of Robert E. Howard, with moustache.

In the years since his suicide, there has been a lot of speculation about Robert E. Howard's mental health. Even during his life, others in Cross Plains thought of him as crazy or odd. Some have suggested that he had an Oedipus complex, others have found evidence for clinical depression, and others still have diagnosed him as being mentally healthy. His act of suicide is often the basis of these opinions.[6] Almost all speculation is in the form of amateur-psychoanalysis from people with no qualifications in the field.[7][8]

Eccentric behavior[edit]

The people of Cross Plains considered Howard to be an odd person and possibly crazy. Cross Plains was mainly used to blue-collar agricultural and oil field work, as well as professions such as a teacher or doctor; they were not used to some who only wrote all day. From their perspective, Howard did not seem to be doing any work at all. His neighbors even complained about the noise he made typing, as well as loudly reading his own narration as he did so, throughout the day.[9][10]

Howard displayed eccentric behavior, such as: Having his pants hemmed short so he would not trip in a potential fight; carrying a gun in his car in case of enemies; shouting stories as he wrote them; dressing oddly for the time and place, including a large moustache and sombrero; shadow-boxing as he walked down the street. At the time, Novalyne Price told her roommate, "He’s trying to tell people he’s a writer and writers have a right to be odd. Since they think he’s crazy, anyway, he’ll show them just how crazy he can be."[11][12] In the wake of his break up with Novalyne Price, Howard's behavior became increasing eccentric. On one occasion, having taken Novalyne to a drug store for a soda, he loudly and publicly re-told his story "Red Nails." He changed his appearance and grew a large, drooping mustache. Later he began to wear about town a black sombrero with red bandana and black vaquero pants.[13]

Dr. Charles Gramlich's opinion on Howard's behavior is that these are either normal acts or just eccentricities, which does not extend to having a mental disorder. The carrying of gun is, in Gramlich's opinion, normal for Texas, especially in the 1930s when the Wild West was within recent, living memory. The story about needing the gun in case of "enemies," given to E. Hoffmann Price, may have just been a tall tale invented by Howard for his friend. Novalyne Price considered Howard's talk of enemies to be part of an act. Finn notes that Highwaymen had operated in the area during the oil boom and this was the reason Howard gave to Price for the gun.[14][15] The shadow-boxing and shouting out of stories as they were written were due to Howard being a writer and simply getting caught up in a story. Other acts were intentionally eccentric as a reaction to the criticism from other townspeople. He was expressing his anger to this criticism by acting in a contrary manner.[16]

Possibility of Depression[edit]

Howard maintained in correspondence with other writers that he was a failure and a hack. This was despite being commercially successful, sought after by publishers and receiving fan mail for his work.[17] When sending condolences to August Derleth in May 1936, the month before his suicide, Howard wrote "Death to the old is inevitable, and yet somehow I often feel that it is a greater tragedy than death to the young...I don't want to live to be old. I want to die when my time comes, quickly and suddenly, in the full tide of my strength."[18] E. Hoffmann Price visited Howard in early 1934. His impression on leaving was "Bob lived in a dream world people by enemies, and by peers and other folks who downgraded him."[19]

Howard suffered from nightmares and sleep walking into his early twenties, probably as a result of stress.[20] In spring 1926, Howard went to Brownwood to see Tevis Clyde Smith. In the night Clyde Smith was woken by Howard's scream; he saw him wrestle with a large shape and fall through a closed window. The family found him wandering outside in a daze. Clyde Smith talked to him until he went back to sleep, on prior instructions, and then woke him. Howard had apparently dreamed that he saw a newspaper with the headline "Axe Murderer Slays Three."[21]

In 1930, Howard went to a hospital in Temple complaining of a varicocele, gas in the stomach and an abnormally small penis. The working diagnosis at the time was sexual neurasthenia but the symptoms may instead point towards neurotic depressive disorder. The doctor concluded that "We do not think there is anything wrong with Robert. We can find no varicocele of any consequence, and his organs are normally developed and he tests out good in every respect. His trouble, in our judgment, is due to his thinking there is something wrong. After he has dispelled this thought from his mind he will be in fine shape."[22]

Biographer Mark Finn suggests that Howard picked up on his mother's depression. She was dying of tuberculosis and may have suffered a miscarriage in October 1907. Howard's father's job as a country doctor required him to make long journeys away from home, which would often mean him spending the night elsewhere. This frequently left Howard alone with his mother and later put him in the role of primary caregiver. The situation may have been exacerbated by frequent moves during his youth, which prevented Howard making many friends of his own during his early years, and the gradual breakdown of his parents' marriage. His life was not his own and he developed a hatred of authority and any control placed over him. He rebelled by boxing and drinking but, nevertheless, he felt duty-bound to remain and look after his mother. Even after he became a success as a writer, he continued to live with his parents; although this was not unusual at the time.[23] Finn writes that "Robert was clinically depressed by any definition applicable, and had been for many years. Whether the cause of the depression was a chemical imbalance, an untenable situation at home, or a combination of the two is not important."[24] His suicide, once his duty to his mother was done, may have been an act of finally asserting control over his own life.[25]

Possibility of an Oedipus Complex[edit]

L. Sprague de Camp wrote in The Science Fiction Handbook (1953) that "the neurotic Howard suffered from an Oedipean devotion to his mother and... from delusions of persecution." Faced with refutations from Glenn Lord, de Camp eventually stopped making claims about an Oedipus Complex but maintained that Howard was insane, especially due to Howard's suicide.[26]

A lot of the speculations about Howard's mental state appear to originate in the first, flawed, biography of Howard, Dark Valley Destiny by L. Sprague de Camp and others.[27] These tend to be from a Freudian perspective and suggest an Oedipal attraction between Robert and his mother Hester, based on the facts that Howard took care of his dying mother, that his bedroom had a window through to his parents' bedroom and that he killed himself on the day she was going to die herself. Gramlich points out that Dr. Isaac Howard's job forced him to take house calls and be away on business while Robert E. Howard's job as a writer meant he was at home most of the time; so, naturally, Robert became the primary caregiver. Howard's bedroom was a converted porch and the window was a pre-existing part of the building.[28]

Possibility of no mental disorders[edit]

Dr. Charles Gramlich, a professor of psychology and an author of fantasy fiction, believes that Howard had no mental disorders and that amateur psychoanalysis has only come to such a conclusion through cherry-picking of evidence from Howard's life.[8] Burke concurs that almost all speculation is in the form of amateur psychoanalysis from people like L. Sprague de Camp with no qualifications in the field.[7]

Suicide[edit]

Confidants such as Tevis Clyde Smith and Novalyne Price Ellis found Howard to be an agreeable companion most of the time, full of life and good humor — but always with an underlying simmering melancholy. Smith noted that Howard first mentioned suicide in October 1923 when a classmate, Roy Guthrie, committed suicide. It had an impact on Howard and he increasingly defended the right to do so in later years. Howard may have considered suicide as early as 1925.[29] Howard first talked of his own death in 1928 when his dog Patch was dying.[30] When Novalyne Price was admitted to hospital in 1935, her doctor, a friend of Howard's father, asked her if Howard had ever talked about not wanting to live after his mother died.[31]

Regarding Howard's suicide, Gramlich believes it was nothing to do with any long-term mental abnormality; it was a common reaction to the strain he was under at the time. While Howard did talk of suicide during his life, statistics show that one out of three teenagers contemplate suicide and the details of Howard's are normal (white, single, from the south of the United States, with a gun).[32] At the moment of Howard's death, he was mentally and physically exhausted with little available support: he was caring for his dying mother as her condition got worse; he was not being paid the money owed to him by Weird Tales, at time when he needed it for his mother's healthcare bills; he was working increasingly harder to make the money through other markets; his relationship with Novalyne Price had recently broken down; Tevis Clyde Smith had recently married and moved away; he did not have a strong relationship with his father.[33] Gramlich ends by saying "He wasn't crazy; he was just a very good writer."[34][35]

David Hayles wrote in the Times: "Maybe, at the end of it all, Howard felt that he had done what he needed to do. The prolific writer, whose 160-plus published stories were full of men facing death on their own terms, wanted to do the same. In a letter to the fantasy writer August Derleth he stated: 'I don’t want to live to be old. I want to die when my time comes, quickly and suddenly, in the full tide of my strength and health.' Youthful bravado perhaps, but he was true to his word. He wrote about men who didn’t age — his heroes were immortal. In bowing out in his prime, so was Robert E. Howard."[36]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Lord (1976, p. 77)
  2. ^ Lord (1976, p. 77)
  3. ^ Burke (13th paragraph)
  4. ^ Lord (1976, p. 76)
  5. ^ Burke (40th paragraph)
  6. ^ Burke (55-56th paragraph)
  7. ^ a b Burke (56th paragraph)
  8. ^ a b Gramlich (2006, pp. 99, 106)
  9. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 119–120)
  10. ^ Finn (2006, p. 184)
  11. ^ Gramlich (2006, p. 98)
  12. ^ Burke (56th paragraph)
  13. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 192–193)
  14. ^ Gramlich (2006, pp. 101–102)
  15. ^ Finn (2006, p. 48)
  16. ^ Gramlich (2006, pp. 102–104)
  17. ^ Finn (2006, p. 221)
  18. ^ Finn (2006, p. 225)
  19. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 179–181)
  20. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 99, 222)
  21. ^ Finn (2006, p. 99)
  22. ^ Finn (2006, p. 222)
  23. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 218–220)
  24. ^ Finn (2006, p. 221)
  25. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 215–216)
  26. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 239–240)
  27. ^ Gramlich (2006, p. 100)
  28. ^ Gramlich (2006, pp. 100–101)
  29. ^ Finn (2006, p. 96)
  30. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 215–216)
  31. ^ Finn (2006, p. 190)
  32. ^ Gramlich (2006, pp. 104–105)
  33. ^ Gramlich (2006, p. 104)
  34. ^ Gramlich (2006, p. 106)
  35. ^ Burke (56th paragraph)
  36. ^ Hayles (2009, Saturday Review)

Sources[edit]