The elusive Robert E. Howard’s lasting contribution to popular culture
In a viral video made in response to the events of January 6, film legend and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger talks about his boyhood in postwar Germany and makes an eloquent case for the resilience of democracy and the rule of law here in the country where he went on to achieve fame and power. To make his point, Schwarzenegger holds up a huge sword and presents it to viewers as “the Conan sword,” the blade wielded by his famous onscreen incarnation, Conan the Barbarian. Intense heat and cold do not destroy the blade, but rather temper it, making it tougher and more durable, just as political turbulence, ugly and horrifying in the short term, can make a polity stronger and more resilient in the end.
Schwarzenegger reached for an analogy that viewers would recognize from having watched him in his second most familiar role. He is even better known as the Terminator, and that character is pretty darn hard to destroy, but that analogy doesn’t work quite as well in a video meant to inspire hope and optimism in people shaken by January 6. Like the sword itself, the popularity of the Conan character and his courageous, manly mythos endures 85 years after the death of his creator Robert E. Howard, even though cynical profiteers over the years have freely tried to alter and distort the character and traduce Howard’s vision.
The man behind the myth
How did Howard develop such an enduring fictional hero? Trying to answer that question raises another: just who was the elusive Robert E. Howard? That is the question that Todd B. Vick sets out to answer in his new book, Renegades & Rogues: The Life and Legacy of Robert E. Howard. Vick’s work is only the latest in a spate of recent titles about Howard’s work and life and times. Others include David C. Smith’s Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography and Charles Hoffman and Marc Cerasini’s Robert E. Howard: A Closer Look, a revised edition of a work published in 1987. These diligent authors have broadened the scholarship on a writer of whom the standard biography for many years was Mark Finn’s Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard.
Vick acknowledges the vast gulf between popular recognition of Conan and the likelihood that anyone you run into on the street will have a clue who Robert E. Howard was. Clearly there are a number of obstacles to Howard’s recognition. One reason for his obscurity, Vick writes, stems from Howard’s association throughout his writing life with that most shunned of literary ghettoes, pulp magazines. “Howard has too often been swept into a literary corner that is dismissed or overlooked because his stories originated in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s,” Vick states. “Current academic pulp studies are gradually addressing this neglect, but to date, Howard’s work has not been presented as serious literature.”
Even for fans of Howard’s tales, there can be no denying the variable quality of much of what appeared in magazines like Weird Tales and the wretchedness of many deservedly forgotten works of pulp horror, fantasy, adventure, and crime fiction from that period. Howard’s work has endured where much other writing has not, but his tarring as a pulp hack has not exactly afforded him the prestige that keeps writers present and vivid in the popular mind.
The brevity of Howard’s life is another factor. Distraught over the death of his mother, with whom he was extremely close through her ill health, Howard took his own life on June 11, 1936, at just 30. During his short but busy career, Howard was far from the kind of writer who lays on the charm at public readings and cocktail parties and makes fast friends in publishing and beyond. People in the small town of Cross Plains, Texas, where Howard’s father kept busy as a doctor, viewed Howard as something of a lout and weirdo who lived with his folks well into adulthood. Neighbors complained about his habit of yelling out the words of his dramatic and violent yarns as he sat and typed them by an open window late into the night.
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Novalyne Price, the young local woman who dated Howard and went on to write the memoir One Who Walked Alone, about her relationship with Howard in the time preceding his suicide, recalled walking up to the window and hearing a voice so loud that she thought two distinct activities were going on, that one person was reading a text while another typed. The scene is dramatized in a brilliant 1996 film, The Whole Wide World, which stars Vincent D’Onofrio as Howard and Renee Zellweger as Price. D’Onofrio’s performance is a standout. You may never see a more convincing portrayal of a driven, unbalanced writer on the brink of self-annihilation.
The off-putting aspects of Howard’s personality and habits are far from the biggest obstacle to his broader recognition and acceptance. Unlike Norman Mailer, for example, the young man never stabbed his romantic partner or championed a murderer’s release from jail. In his personal deportment, Howard looks like a saint in comparison. By far a bigger problem, given contemporary standards, would be the views he expressed to others on matters of race and gender.
Perhaps Howard is lucky that more people aren’t aware of his belief in keeping the races from commingling in order to save civilization. Howard argued with Price about whether a local restaurant should have to admit a mulatto customer and warned her to keep her anti-segregation views to herself. Vick suggests this may have been wise counsel in the Klan-ridden milieu in which Howard and Price lived. “The racial ambiance during that time and in that region, especially in the state of Texas … could be dangerous for those who opposed the established Jim Crow laws,” he writes, somewhat redundantly.
Over the years, some have tried to trace an evolution in Howard’s views toward greater tolerance. In Blood & Thunder, Mark Finn argues that Howard moved away from racism toward the end of his life: “His love of the underdog of any nation or race, his admiration of black boxers such as Peter Jackson, and his early exposure to black storytellers in East Texas all softened the hard-nosed sentiments of his youth.” And, in certain of Howard’s tales, like “The Dead Remember,” the villain is a racist lout and he sympathetically renders the black Texans upon whom the villain preys.
Nevertheless, even if they didn’t figure directly into his fiction, some of Howard’s views might make him a prime candidate for cancellation in an age when Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling, Woody Allen, Emma Nicholson, and so many others have come under attack and faced campaigns, not always successful, to have their contracts annulled or their books yanked from shelves.
Apart from these issues, efforts to adapt Conan for the screen have fallen short. The second Conan movie, 1984’s Conan the Destroyer, barely broke even at the box office. The 2011 Jason Momoa version is forgettable. As Vick details at length, Howard also became the victim of something few writers would want to contemplate. Fragments of his unpublished work appeared as “pastiches” under the imprimatur of the Berkley Medallion Books paperback Conan series. These pastiches didn’t read like Howard’s own writing. In many cases, other authors had done a bulk of the work, and Howard fans objected strenuously to what they saw as the corruption and appropriation for crass commercial ends of “pure” Robert E. Howard fiction.
In the face of all the problematic aspects of Howard’s character and views, we are left with the fact that his tales endure so many decades after the world forgot most of his peers in the world of pulp fiction. Howard knew how to spin a yarn. His stories are vivid, gripping, and possessed of a momentum that makes you guess that when Howard sat at his typewriter calling out the words, his work was practically writing itself. Stephen King has commented, “In his best work, Howard’s writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks.” A more nuanced view comes from S.T. Joshi, who states in his acclaimed H.P. Lovecraft biography, I Am Providence, “Although individual stories are exceptional . . . the bulk of Howard’s work is simply above-average pulp writing. . . . He is certainly to be credited with the founding of the subgenre of ‘sword-and-sorcery.’”
Though his work is uneven, and the sword and sorcery genre is not for all tastes, Howard undeniably developed a distinctive talent which manifested itself across multiple genres. This gift seems due in no small part to his having read widely and diligently in both literature and poetry. Vick describes a voracious reader of writers and poets as diverse as Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert W. Service, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Tennyson, and Algernon Swinburne.
Howard created a fictional character possessed of enormous physical strength and endurance, traits that Howard assiduously cultivated in himself through a bodybuilding regimen in reaction to bullying he had experienced at school. But Conan’s might, like that of other Howard creations such as Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn, also reflects a broader, philosophical orientation on Howard’s part. As David C. Smith writes in his biography, “Howard’s characters are heavy with awareness of their own physical form and the physical world around them. This is Howard’s own awareness, how he himself was in the world, and is perhaps comparable to how indigenous peoples exist. . . . Howard is always in the moment.”
Hence the appeal of Conan so many decades later and particularly at a moment in our national life when the immediacy and vividness of political turbulence make claims on us all. The many efforts to cash in on the Conan character and mythos over the years, sometimes through distorting the character or traducing Howard’s vision, have not weakened Conan at all but have had the tempering effect that Schwarzenegger describes in his viral video. For all the problems of his creator’s short and troubled life, Conan is still with us, unbowed, uncancelled.