A New Robert E. Howard Manifesto
by Mark Finn
Why a New Manifesto?
In the past twelve months, I’ve seen several rounds of speculation from various bloggers lately, two of which were the equivalent of Internet train wreaks that ended rather badly, despite everyone’s avowed intentions. In the interest of using the Internet as an actual research tool, I have written this manifesto on behalf of the fans and interested parties in the life and works of Robert E. Howard, as a guide to the person or persons who are new to Howard studies, or perhaps would like to write an article, essay, or blog post about him. If you’d like to delve deeper into the history and current state of Howard studies, and get some advice for participating in the debate, keep reading beyond the end of this Manifesto.
A New Robert E. Howard Manifesto
I am a fan of Robert E. Howard, the Texas author who created a multitude of unique characters, wrote original and inventive fiction, defined the genre of epic fantasy as we understand it, and inspired me to become a professional writer. There are tens of thousands of other fans just like myself. As fans of Robert E. Howard and his works, we are interested in reading more about our favorite author. We are interested in sharing and exchanging new ideas about his life and work, and we actively seek out these new ideas online, in print, and elsewhere.
What we do not want to see are semi-uninformed retreads of the same discussions that were in vogue circa 1984. The field of Howard Studies is alive and well, with new discoveries and voices appearing all the time. Interest in the author is high and remains so. If you have a thought or an opinion, even a controversial or untested one, and want to share it with the world at large, we encourage that you do so.
We expect responsibility and accountability on your part. We are not interested in your grand pronouncement on a subject which has yet to be settled by people who have spent decades studying the issue at hand. We expect you to do your homework. There are a number of websites and literally stacks of new books that likely cover or answer most of your questions regarding Robert E. Howard. To not utilize those sources when doing your research smacks of willful ignorance and will not be tolerated by the fans of Robert E. Howard.
If you want to write a review about how much you didn’t like Kull: Exile of Atlantis, have at it. Take it apart for any and all textual reasons you choose to invoke. We may not agree because Howard’s work isn’t for everyone, and we understand that. But the minute you start bringing Robert E. Howard’s life story into your Kull review, it will garner a much more careful reading, and if you don’t have your facts straight, or your opinions backed up by same, then we will call you on it.
The online Robert E. Howard fanbase calls itself the “Shield Wall.” Some writers who have been on the business end of the Shield Wall’s attacks have accused us of being bullies and overly-obsessed for the protective stance we take. While it is not our intention to bully anyone, and while we may get a little carried away on occasion, let me be very clear here as to why this is so: Robert E. Howard has not had a voice for 75 years now. For four decades after his death, he had very few advocates who would defend him against the libel and slander of those who stood to profit from his work. He has been misunderstood and misrepresented for years. The Shield Wall’s goal has been to stop in its entirety the kind of character assassination employed by L. Sprague de Camp and others who would adopt his methodology.
Consider this a challenge to survey the amount of work that has been done in Howard Studies in the last ten years alone and then try to come up with your own take on a topic or angle of discussion that has not been beaten to death. Do not make the mistake that so many others have made; just because Robert E. Howard isn’t considered a “classic” author by the literary establishment that you can beat his literary reputation (or his personal life) like a rented mule and you will not get kicked for your efforts.
We expect you to accord Robert E. Howard the same respect as any other 20th century American author with continued and perennial popularity. No more back handed compliments. No more snide insinuations. No more rampant and irresponsible speculation with no basis of fact or evidence to bolster it. And for God’s Sake, no more “oedipal complex” crap, either. Those theories are thirty years out of date, and we are sick and tired of seeing it. Give us something new, or keep your parochial and backwards thinking to yourself.
Author of Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard
and Commander of the Texas Shield Wall
I. A Little History Lesson
Robert E. Howard, perhaps more so than any other twentieth century genre author, has not fared well in the hands of his critics and biographers. This is all the more damning, considering his most noteworthy creation, Conan the Barbarian, has achieved a place in the echelons of popular culture alongside other fictional characters such as Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and The Lone Ranger.
The person who acted as both critic and biographer for over three decades was L. Sprague de Camp, a science fiction writer now best known for his association with the character of Conan. De Camp was one of the first and earliest people to repeat some of the gossip and tall tales that had grown up around Robert E. Howard’s life and suicide in Cross Plains. He took gleeful joy in spreading around whatever gossip he’d learned like a twelve-year old girl at recess. This later turned into amateur psychoanalysis and rampant speculation, for de Camp had his own skewed ideas about the lives of writers based, entirely on his own subjective experiences. This speculation turned up in every single essay or introduction that de Camp wrote about Howard and his work.
Eventually, he wrote all of his theories down into a booklet called “The Miscast Barbarian,” and note that even the title seems antagonistic. It was. Unfortunately, there were only a handful of people even seriously looking at REH at that time, and only one person actively studying him: Glenn Lord. However, Lord’s time was divided between getting other Howard material in print, publishing The Howard Collector (wherein many early discoveries were published), and doing research as he was able to do so.
De Camp’s incessant amateur psychoanalysis led to other people thinking they could do the same. Harry Harrison famously called Conan a crypto-homosexual in his book, “Great Balls of Fire,” and implied that Howard was the same for writing as he did. Words like “perfervid” and “maladjusted to the point of psychosis” became attached to the details of Howard’s life.
Critical opposition eventually mounted against de Camp, starting in the late seventies and building into the eighties. To combat the rising tide of negativity towards de Camp’s handling of both Conan and the life of Robert E. Howard, he conducted a new round of research and wrote what was intended to be the final word on the subject: Dark Valley Destiny. It contains 90% of what’s in “The Miscast Barbarian,” and a whole lot of interviews and even more speculation, written very cleverly to suggest strongly that Howard was, indeed, crazy.
De Camp’s tactics became de rigueur for anyone writing and talking about Robert E. Howard. He was a master of the back-handed compliment, i.e. “For a fat girl, you sure don’t sweat very much.” Despite the appearance of other books and papers by far more knowledgeable people, writing far more even-handedly, de Camp’s biography and speculative theories (and the domino effect that it created) permeated the fantasy field for twenty years after Dark Valley Destiny was written.
Starting in the late eighties, members of The Robert E. Howard United Press Association (“REHupa”) and other critics began a systematic attack on de Camp’s Ivory Tower, taking it apart brick by brick to show that his rampant speculations were just that: his speculations, with no facts or evidence to back them up. Books of critical essays were published that focused on what Howard wrote, and not how crazy he may have been when he wrote it. Howard’s girlfriend wrote a memoir of their time together, meticulously culled from her diaries she kept at the time of their romance. Volumes of collected letters came to light, showing a Robert E. Howard in marked contrast to the image that had been painted of him.
One of the last things to go has been the clinging presence of de Camp’s tenure as steward of Howard, most notably his condescending way of writing about the Texas author. Many people who have been fans of Howard since the sixties and seventies (thus growing up reading everything de Camp wrote about Howard) have tried their hand at writing about the man, only to start their book review, essay, or introduction, with some variation on this: “When Robert E. Howard killed himself at the age of 30 because his mother, to whom he was excessively devoted, was in a terminal coma, he left behind a legacy of unmatched adventure in the form of Conan the Barbarian.” That’s the de Camp style: lead off with the negative comment at all times.
Well, needless to say, de Camp himself is gone, as is most of the work he did (or didn’t do) on Howard and Conan. All that’s left is the malingering seeds of his methodology: ask a question based on some aspect of Howard’s personal life, preferably with a negative slant, and then back that question up as if it were a statement using other source material that is tangentially at best related to the subject at hand. Understandably, the fans, scholars, experts, and other modern appreciators of Howard and his works are hyper-sensitive to such speculations, and sometimes they get a little over-zealous in trying to correct them quickly and decisively. This is partially because we want good, accurate information about Howard in circulation, but it’s also because we don’t want bad info or rumors to start back up again. Especially since there is a wealth of better sources, more accurate information, and deeper and more meaningful discussions about his life and works taking place in all kinds of essays, book introductions, and across the blogosphere.
II. The Current State of Howard Studies
Ever since the mid-nineties, when the Internet became a widespread communication tool, there have been Robert E. Howard fans online discussing his life and works. Many of these people were previously discussing Howard in fanzines and Amateur Press Associations for twenty years prior to that. One of the first things everyone did, after posting their Want Lists for completing their collections, was roll up their sleeves and tackle, in an open forum, all of the hot topics in Howard Studies. A lot of new information came to light, along with a host of new ideas and ways of thinking about these old, unanswered questions. While it is safe to say that very few minds were changed, a number of compelling arguments came into being for either side of whatever the current topic of discussion was.
As more fans found these pockets of Howard groups, and as more groups began to spread, these perennial questions and hot topics came up again, and everyone took their places on either side of the argument and dutifully re-hashed them for the newcomers. This happened again, and again, and again. Gradually, people began to set up websites to store some of these more thoughtful discussions. Other people migrated to listservs with searchable archives. Still others created their own websites and posted their own thoughts.
Over time, these archives and discussions became hot linked, so that newcomers would get a few cut-and-pasted addresses to follow whenever someone asked, out loud, and with no rancor, if anyone else has noticed how “fill-in-the-blank Hot Topic” shows up in Howard’s work.
From all of this activity online came the current group of Howardists, many of whom are actively involved in the promotion, production, and preservation of Howard’s life and works in a more positive and less judgmental fashion than has been previously accorded the author. Nearly all of the current Howardists, from academic scholars to enthusiastic amateurs, who are active today, maintain some sort of steady presence online at one or more of the Robert E. Howard websites or message boards.
III. Hot Topics in Howard Studies
Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) has long since been a controversial author for a number of reasons. The biggest and most prevalent reason was his suicide at the age of 30. This in and of itself would not, at least from a literary point of view, be so controversial, except that Howard chose to end his life 30 hours before his own mother passed away. The exact sequence of events (and the cause leading up to the act) has been, if nothing else, one of the most unfortunate and misunderstood events in the history of authors who commit suicide. The reasons and the root causes of Howard’s suicide have all been re-examined and several new theories have replaced de Camp’s overly-simplified conclusion.
Another topic that frequently comes up is the amount of racism present in Howard’s work. While it is true that some of Howard’s descriptions and use of language are out of step with modern thinking, the author’s time and place have to be accounted for in any critical assessment of his work. Likewise, Howard’s portrayal of various ethnicities changed from story to story. For every instance of a stereotypical depiction of any non-white character, one can find major characters of color that were, in fact, non-stereotypical or more finely nuanced. Whatever Howard might have felt and thought privately (and these viewpoints changed over time), his fictional conceit of every culture having good and bad people in it make it difficult to assess exactly what his beliefs were. When Robert E. Howard fans first gathered on the Internet, back in the mid-90s, this was one of the first topics that everyone attempted to wrestle to a satisfactory conclusion. No consensus was ever reached, although everyone still holds strong opinions about Howard’s alleged beliefs.
One of the more damning aspects of Howard’s career has been the world wide popularity of Conan the Cimmerian (or “Conan the Barbarian” if you follow mass media). These stories, when written during the early 1930s for Weird Tales magazine, were quite popular with the readers. But, even back then, there were some avid readers who did not like Conan. They felt he was too bloody, too repetitive, or just too much altogether. Of approximately 300 stories Howard wrote, only 23 of them are Conan stories. That’s it. Not even one tenth of his total fictional output. Also, Conan was a commercial construct, designed to sell to Weird Tales by means of a formula. As such, some of the ideas in the Conan stories seem at odds with material Howard wrote about in his other work, such as his historicals, his humorous cowboy and boxing stories, even his horror stories. In fact, some of the most controversial stories that have been discussed ad nauseum, are Conan stories that were unpublished at the time of Howard’s death. While it is tempting to read a handful of Conan stories to get a feel for what Robert E. Howard was “about,” doing so creates a distorted picture of the author.
IV. Advice for Newcomers
There is another matter that is worth mentioning, and that is Howard’s ability to get under the skin of whoever reads him. Specifically, when we first read Howard, we feel it in the gut. It usually provokes a deep and lasting impression within all of us. This is important, because so many Howard fans will carry those stories around for so long that they become a part of the reader. Fans of Howard’s work feel this connection deeply.
This is not a bad thing, provided that everyone realizes that each one of us feels exactly the same way as you do. The real rub comes out in threads like “How tall was Conan,” only to watch the thread devolve into an endless bickering match. Why? Because Howard wrote from the unconscious subjective. He says “massive,” and never gives you a comparison. So, your go to mental dictionary for what “massive” might mean—6′ 1″ or 6′ 2″ if you’re thinking of his characters in a historical context. If you’re thinking about Conan as a video game character, where every leading man is six feet tall, then your Conan may well end up around 6′ 6″ or something similar.
This effect is multiplied when people start talking about what Howard “meant” when he wrote his stories. His inner motivations for his characters. His life-philosophy vis-à-vis his Hero Kings. It is very easy to start stating things that you have thought through in the privacy of your bedroom and had in mental storage for five or ten years as if they were facts. Most, if not all, Howard fans do the same thing, we are all more or less aware of it.
A number of hot topics in Howard studies have been debated about for years online, and those arguments fill up scores of pages, simply because we all enjoy batting around our ideas. And that’s cool, especially when it’s done respectfully. But being a fan of Howard in the 21st century may well mean that some of the newcomers have to jettison some of the old, outdated ideas about Howard and his work. It’s not a bad thing. The Internet was supposed to be a learning tool, anyway. Some folks have a harder time with letting go of their preconceived notions. This is usually true of older fans that grew up during de Camp’s reign who are having trouble shaking free of his indoctrination.
If you are new to Howard Studies, please take a little time to browse the Internet. There are a number of active and thoughtful blogs, websites, and message boards that cover a wide variety of topics and subjects. Look especially at any pinned topics or keywords in blogs, as they contain the most prevalent, most up-to-date, and most accurate info out there regarding who’s who and what’s what in the REH-verse. If you still have questions, please don’t be afraid to ask them. You will find that most Howard fans do, in fact, have human heads and are very friendly and encouraging to newcomers. But, also, please let them know that you are new, and if you have a speculation to make, be sure that you know it’s just that: your take on things. There are, of course, a lot of unanswered questions about REH out there–but there are also a lot of sources for answers you seek that you may not know about. That’s why so many of the experts, scholars, and appreciators are online and contribute regularly to the blogs, websites, and forums. All that we ask is that you keep an open mind, and provided that everyone in the discussion is respectful (not usually a problem), we’ll do the same for you.