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Monday, November 16, 2009

The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard

I just received these last week from the REH Foundation.

They came with a facsimile of one of Howard's actual letters to H.P. Lovecraft. I am in seventh heaven. I've wanted a collection of Howard's letters since I was about 12 (yes, I was a weird kid). Now I have them. ALL of them.

Early reactions:

I'm not very far into this, yet--only a few letters into volume one. So far they've all been written to Tevis Clyde Smith, who was, as most of you probably know, a friend of Howard's from high school, and a fellow writer (though Smith never got as successful as Howard).

I should qualify this with two statements: First, I believe in judging works of literature and attitudes in the frame of the time and place in which they were written, and not by modern sensibilities. People have lambasted Howard for his racist views, but I don't think it's a fair assessment overall. I'm not saying he wasn't racist--he was. So were the VAST majority of people in Texas (and indeed, in the world) in the 1920s. Certainly there are a lot of racist people out there today, as well, but racism is not socially accepted in today's society as it was back then. People are products of their environments. Howard was no different. He didn't have the clear choice to not be racist as we do today. He was educated to be racist. It was everywhere around him. It was part and parcel of the unfortunate society in which he lived. Rather than condemning those attitudes because they clash with modern sensibilities, we need to look past them and see if there are other elements of value in what he wrote. Most Howard scholars believe there is.

Second, Howard was seventeen at the time these letters were written. He was a kid, not long out of school and trying to find his way in the world. Like most 17-year-olds, he was also a know-it-all and talked out of his ass. A lot. But then, I expect he did that throughout his life. He was a teller of tales, not a university professor.

Still, those two points aside, the racism inherent in these letters is shocking to modern eyes. At one point Howard asks Smith to imagine "all the white races of the world arrayed against all the dark," and says that a race war would be one he would enter without reservation. He goes on to say that he believes the white races would be completely wiped out by the "Oriental" races, that he believes the peoples of Asia are superior to the whites, but still, the stark drawing of lines is shocking to read. Again, I don't think it's fair to judge him personally based on these attitudes, but it's rough to see those words on a page.

In other areas, Howard's creativity and humor stands out very clearly. He included poetry in many of his letters, much of which so far as I know was never actually published, and a lot of which was really good. He includes a comic illustrating a stone-age courtship that had me laughing aloud, and a parody of Shakespeare that was also quite amusing.

His letters are very stream-of-consciousness, with him jumping from subject to subject at random, rambling a lot (but still being engaging) except when he gets on a rant about some aspect of history or culture about which he thinks he's an expert.

At the point where I am in the books, he has not yet gained any kind of success or notoriety so he hasn't anything substantial to say about writing.

So far the letters are quite fascinating to read, and just to reiterate: I'm not for judging Howard based on his attitudes. I would be much more likely to judge a MODERN writer for theirs. We live in a more enlightened age now (as hard as that may be to swallow, barbaric as our attitudes can be at times), where we now KNOW that bigotry is wrong and it is not socially acceptable. And yet, sadly, there are still some to cling to those sick ideals.

Howard, however, didn't "cling" to sick or socially unacceptable ideas. He was a product of his time and of his community. Nothing more, nothing less. As much as it might leave a bad taste in our mouth, his attitudes didn't make him a bad person any more than everyone else was a bad person at the time.

I will review more as I go.


  1. I took the plunge and put this on my Christmas list. My wife is computer-illiterate so I had to order it for her to give to me. It came in today but I can't look at it until Christmas. :-P

  2. You're not going to be disappointed


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