Today is Robert E. Howard‘s birthday. Or would have been, were he still alive. Which would be impressive, given that he was born in 1906. Nonetheless, he left a big footprint.
As with Lovecraft, my feelings regarding REH are complex things best broken down to the simple statement– ‘dude was real racist, but he wrote some good stuff’. He was a big man, and loud. But easily hurt, I think. Not in the physical sense, but there was a distinct emotional vulnerability there that was at odds with the blood and thunder of his words. The sort of guy who comes across tough, but is always on the back-foot when it comes to other people. You can see that wariness in his letters, and it’s pretty plainly evident in Novalyne Price‘s recollections of her time with him in Cross Plains.
Too, like Lovecraft, there was a lot of REH in his characters. Unlike the former, however, those characters weren’t ciphers so much as bald wish fulfilment on Howard’s part. They did the things he couldn’t do, free of the chains that bound him, whether those chains were ones of familial obligation, economic status or societal disapproval. Howard had a secret life–all writers do–and he lived it to the fullest, wedding imaginative clarity to an admirable work ethic.
He poured his blood and soul on the page, and stripped it bare for everyone to see. Even the nasty, hateful bits of him were on display. There’s a bravery in that, I feel. I don’t have that bravery. I don’t want people to know my soul, because to know a thing is to own it, and the Reynolds family motto has always been ‘what we have, we hold’. I’m jealous and greedy, and Howard was certainly one, but just as certainly not the other.
I think on some level, the world just plain confused Howard. I think it frustrated him, and stung him, and that maybe he died the death of a thousand cuts long before he decided to take a pistol and paint his car’s wind-shield red. People like to say he died on his own terms, but I think he died as he lived–contrary and sad and groping for something approaching a kind of poetry.
Maybe he achieved it, in the end.