Character of Robert E. Howard

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Black and white photograph of Robert E. Howard as a young man standing by a white fence and looking left into the distance.
Photograph of Robert E. Howard (late 1920s/early 1930s).

The character, personality and social views of Texan author Robert E. Howard are important in gaining an understanding of the writer as a person and of his body of work. Information about his attitudes comes from the memories of those who knew him, his surviving correspondence and analyses of his works.

Howard had strong views about race, evident in both his works and letters. He would be considered racist by modern standards, although they may have been mainstream in the era and location in which he lived as his attitudes towards race had significantly changed over time. In contrast, Howard had feminist views despite his era and location which he espoused in both personal and professional life.

In a different sense, Howard was afraid of ageing and made many references to the subject, including a stated preference to die young. Howard was emotionally sensitive and, especially as a child, considered "bookish" and a "sissy," which prompted him into bodybuilding. He was intelligent but resented authority and so resented school life.

As Howard moved through characters and literary series as he grew and matured from a teenager into an adult, the development of his views may be found through an analysis of contemporary works.

Racism[edit]

A prophet is not sure of honor always in his own land. The people in Ace Jessel’s hometown, with their hot, fierce Southern pride and class consciousness, looked upon Ace as more or less of an upstart, a black man who had forgotten his place. They resented his victories over white pugilists and felt as if the fact reflected on them, somehow. This hurt Ace, hurt him cruelly…
— "Double Cross" by Robert E. Howard.

In his attitude towards race and racism, Howard has been described as "a product of his time."[1] However, the extent of his racist beliefs are debated.[2][3] During Howard's life the concepts of eugenics and an ideal Aryan race were mainstream across, if beginning to be discredited. Howard touched on this in two stories, "Skull-Face" and "The Moon of Skulls," in which he describes a version of ancient Atlantis in which the advanced Atlanteans were brown-skinned and the inferior race were white-skinned.[4]

Howard used race as shorthand for physical characteristics and motivation. He would also make up some racial traits, possibly for the sake of brevity, such as Sailor Steve Costigan's statement that a "Chinee can't take a punch." This is not and was not an existing stereotype of Chinese people.[5] Further, in his other works, Howard described 'orientals' as being of a culture that was 'old when Babylon was young,' as well as attributing to 'Khitans,' the Hyborian race whose descendants formed the Chinese culture, great mystical powers and an ancient knowledge beyond the reckoning of the 'west.'

"Black Canaan" is one of the most significant of Howard's works when discussing his attitude towards race.[3] It tells the story of an uprising of "swamp niggers" led by a voodoo 'conjer man,' named Saul Stark, which is defeated by the white Kirby Buckner thanks to the sacrifice of his heroic friend, Jim Baxton. Saul Stark's back story is tied to Africa, emphasizing the racial conflict.[6] Howard does attribute to Stark knowledge and powers unknown to white characters and describes him in a way that places him above the "slaves" and shows his disdain for the weak mindset of the "dogs." Another character, The Bride of Damballah, is described in stereotypical manner as a black woman.[6] Yet she is described in the same terminology as Howard's white heroines and villains, giving rise to a half-black female character as powerful and as beautiful as other female villains in Howard's works, be they black, white, or the queen of the Akkas. "Black Canaan" follows the aforementioned use of Atlantis by describing a dance that was "ancient when the ocean drowned the black kings of Atlantis."

Howard also wrote "The Last White Man," set in the year 2000, when the black population has overthrown the complacent white race. The hero is a white man, a Viking-like throwback in contrast to the rest of the weak white men of the era, who unsuccessfully opposes the black race. This story, however, has less to do with race and more to do with Howard's common subject of the rise and fall of civilized empires in the face of rising barbarism.[7] Howard wrote mostly about the clash of cultures rather than racial groups. He was also of the belief that, no matter who won the subsequent conflicts, it would only ever be a temporary victory.[8]

Although Howard's mother hated Native Americans, their appearances in Howard's works are varied. Another race, the Picts, appear in several Conan stories, most notably "Beyond the Black River," as antagonists. While the Picts of the Conan stories exhibit similar social and tribal characteristics to the Native Americans of Howard's western stories, Howard viewed them as the antecedents of the Pictish race of ancient Europe. In another, unfinished, story called "The Thunder-Rider" the protagonist experiences his past life as a Comanche fighting an Aztec sorcerer; he states a preference for the Comanche way of life over modern civilization.[9] Mexicans are conspicuously absent in the majority of Howard's stories; the few times they do appear are in stereotypical "lecherous bandit" or "lazy peasant" roles and referred to as "greaser" or "Mex." The only exception is the sympathetic portrayal of a Mexican sharecropper in "The Horror From the Mound."[10]

Howard became less racist as he grew older, due to several influences: admiration of the boxer Jack Johnson, listening to black story-tellers, sympathy with the underdog in any situation, and greater travel throughout Texas. Later works include more sympathetic black characters, as well as other minority groups such as Jews.[11] Howard's viewpoint was also affected and softened by his correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft — whose own beliefs about race were a lot stronger — and his relationship with Novalyne Price — who was more liberal and challenged him on his racial beliefs.[12] Despite any racial animosity he may have felt at any time during his life, it has been noted that, while there are several non-white characters in his works, the majority of Howard's villains are white Europeans.[9]

Howard was proud of his Irish ancestry at a time when the Irish were considered an undesirable minority group themselves.[4] He was consciously defining himself as part of a minority group and most of his characters are also of Irish origin in some way (including the prehistoric Kull and Conan, who both belong to racial groups that later become the Celts).[4]

Feminism[edit]

"I care not what you may have been, and I am but a sailor, now without a ship, but let me tell yonder seamen when they land that you are, not my sister, but my wife-to-be."

A moment she leaned toward me, then she drew away and her eyes danced with the old jaunty fire.
...

"But I had never thought of any such a thing before. La, I must be growing up with a vengeance! Fie, sir, I am too young to marry yet, and I have not yet seen all of the world I wish to. Remember I am still Helen Tavrel."
— Final chapter of "The Isle of Pirate's Doom" by Robert E. Howard.

Howard had an egalitarian attitude towards women. The Junto was an amateur journal circulated within a small social circle and initially edited by Howard's friend Harold Preece. After Preece wrote an article for this journal called "Women: A Diatribe" with the conclusion that there was no such thing as an intellectual woman, Howard responded in the next issue with his own article lauding intellectual women from Sappho to the early Gnostics:[13][14]

You're right; women are great actors. But I cant agree with you in your statement that the great women can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Men have sat at the feet of women down the ages and our civilization, bad or good, we owe to the influence of women... Let us look at the records of the great women.

— Robert E. Howard, Excerpt from a letter to Harold Preece, December 1928

"Sword Woman", a story written somewhere between 1932 and 1934, is described by Mark Finn as protofeminist. Told in the first person, the story follows a 16th-century French woman "Dark Agnes" de Chastillon who may be based on Novalyne Price. She rejects her place in society, escapes an attempt at forced marriage and becomes a mercenary. There is no record of Howard ever submitting it for publication but he sent copies to correspondents such as Catherine L. Moore. Although Howard often included weaker female characters in his stories, they contain many stronger women as well. These include the several pirates: Helen Tavrel ("The Isle of Pirates' Doom", 1928), Bêlit ("Queen of the Black Coast", 1934), Valeria of the Red Brotherhood ("Red Nails", 1936) as well as the Ukrainian mercenary Red Sonya of Rogatino ("The Shadow of the Vulture", 1934).[15][16] Female fantasy writers such as Moore, Leigh Brackett, Jessica Salmonson and Nancy Collins have all expressed admiration for the Dark Agnes character.[14]

Ageing[edit]

Howard seems to have been horrified by the idea of becoming old and infirm. Even at the age of 24, he wrote to Harold Preece, "I am haunted by the realization that my best days, mental and physical, lie behind me." Three years later, he again wrote about old age, regarding boxers, saying: "It makes me feel like an old man to watch fighters I knew in their prime, get slapped around by kids. 'A fighter's life is short at best, no time to waste, no time to rest; the spot-light shifts, the clock ticks fast, all youth becomes old age at last.' Same way with writers, too, some of them." A letter to August Derleth, another three years later, contains the declaration that Howard wished to die while still young and strong.[17][18]

Emotional sensitivity[edit]

Howard could be emotionally very sensitive. A commonly repeated story about Howard is one told to E. Hoffmann Price by Howard's father after his death: In 1928, his dog Patch was dying. When he realized Patch was about to die, he packed a bag, told his mother "Mama, I am going" and left for Brownwood. Each morning he phoned to ask about Patch until the dog died a few days later. Patch was buried in the back garden and any trace of the grave was destroyed to prevent upsetting Howard any further. He never mentioned the death again except to once briefly enquire about the grave. The death of Patch hit Howard very hard. He became bitter and angry towards his friends, and boxing is often believed to have become an outlet for these feelings.[19]

Bookishness[edit]

As a child, Howard was often seen as "'bookish' and a 'sissy boy'" due to his fondness for reading.[20] He was bullied as a child but the extent and nature of this is not known, although he did tell his father that this was the reason for the bodybuilding regimen he began after graduating from high school. L. Sprague de Camp theorized that this bullying was the inspiration for his later tales of fighting and death.[21]

Resentment of authority[edit]

The students at Brownwood High School, in 1922, saw Howard as a quiet and reserved person.[22][23] His friends described him as easy to get along with and generally well liked.[24] Howard, however, described hating the school and its regulation of his thoughts and actions.[23] Throughout his life, Howard was incapable of taking orders and was resentful of the people who gave them.[25]

Howard had made a promise to his mother never to drink alcohol. However, while she was away from Cross Plains in June 1925, an oilman he met through his job at the Cross Plains Review offered him a bottle of beer. Howard liked it so much he was soon brewing his own, during Prohibition, and remained a beer drinker for the rest of his life.[26]

Characters as contemporary viewpoints[edit]

A theory put forward by Patrice Louinet is that each of Howard's characters represents his viewpoint at the time they were written. The differences between the characters resulted from the evolution and change in his personal philosophies and attitudes.[27][28] Howard's writing can be split into slightly-overlapping periods: His boxing period (concluding with the Steve Costigan series), his heroic fantasy period (Conan), his oriental adventure period (El Borak) and his western period. It was during the latter period that Howard died.[29] Howard's output during the final year of his life was entirely western oriented. However, he wrote shortly before his suicide that he was considering another fantasy piece and two unfinished drafts were found amongst his papers.[30] After the creation and success of Sailor Steve Costigan, Howard never stopped writing comedies. These stories begin at a time when Howard had physically become a match for the "oil field bully" type that he despised and when he had begun to achieve intellectual success as a writer.[31]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Howard, Robert E.; Burke, Rusty (2008). The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. Del Rey Books. p. xxiv. 
  2. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 80–85)
  3. ^ a b Romeo
  4. ^ a b c Finn (2006, p. 80)
  5. ^ Finn (2006, p. 84)
  6. ^ a b Finn (2006, p. 83)
  7. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 84–85)
  8. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 81–82)
  9. ^ a b Finn (2006, p. 81)
  10. ^ Finn (2006, p. 82)
  11. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 80–81)
  12. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 152, 188)
  13. ^ Finn (2006, p. 141)
  14. ^ a b Burke (¶ 44)
  15. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 186–187)
  16. ^ Burke (¶ 43-44)
  17. ^ Burke (¶ 49-50)
  18. ^ Finn (2006, p. 225)
  19. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 130–131)
  20. ^ Finn (2006, p. 38)
  21. ^ Finn (2006, p. 129)
  22. ^ Burke (¶ 7)
  23. ^ a b Finn (2006, p. 75)
  24. ^ Finn (2006, p. 130)
  25. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 110, 130)
  26. ^ Finn (2006, pp. 93–94)
  27. ^ Finn (2006, p. 114)
  28. ^ Burke (¶ 17)
  29. ^ Burke (¶ 26)
  30. ^ Finn (2005, p. 385)
  31. ^ Finn (2006, p. 137)

Sources[edit]