Monthly Archives: August 2017

In Need of a New Biography: Robert E. Howard

This blog post is inspired by an article at Black Gate titled “A Tale of Two Robert E. Howard Biographies” by James McGlothlin. The article is a review of (obviously) the two Robert E. Howard biographies: Dark Valley Destiny by L. Sprague DeCamp, Catherine Crook DeCamp, and Jane Whittington Griffin and Blood and Thunder by Mark Finn. I was inspired to make interlibrary loan requests for both books to see what I made of them. Ultimately, both books have their merits and flaws. And, in all honesty, a new biography is needed.

Surprisingly, I preferred Dark Valley Destiny (I had assumed I would prefer Blood and Thunder based on McGlothlin’s article). The writing is very good. The narrative dives deeper into Howard’s life and background. And the light amount of literary criticism is interesting.

But, Dark Valley Destiny is infamous for using psychoanalysis as the theoretical/ interpretive strategy deployed to explicate Howard and his work. I agree that, while the approach elicits interesting readings of Howard’s work, the technique also serves to critically pathologize Robert E. Howard.

Which begs the question, what is the purpose of attempting to psychoanalyze Howard? Is it a necessary consequence of using Griffin as a cowriter? Is there a darker purpose? I don’t know enough to hazard a guess.

Another problem with Dark Valley Destiny is the tendency to step away from the narrative and spend chapters discussing subjects out of time. While the chapter long biographies of Hester Ervin and Isaac Howard are necessary, the chapter long history of Texas is superfluous.

Blood and Thunder is more defensive of Robert E. Howard’s life. And argues a place for Howard in Texas Literature. I’m not entirely sure Finn succeeds in his aims.

Blood and Thunder is about a hundred pages shorter than Dark Valley Destiny and it shows. The events of Howard’s life are noticeably presented with less depth, though it does give more attention to Cross Plains and Howard’s menial jobs.

I also fault Blood and Thunder with the handling of Howard’s racism. It is defensive to the point of anemic. Finn deflects the issue by attacking politically correct readers who cannot/ refuse to read Howard in context. At least the DeCamps and Griffin tackle Howard’s racial beliefs head on (even as racist language is used throughout).

I am also not too impressed with the attempts at literary criticism or Howard’s placement in Texas Literature.

So, ultimately, I do believe a new biography of Robert E. Howard is needed.

What type of biography do I want to see?

I want to see a biography give Howard the depth of narrative coverage that Dark Valley Destiny gives him (preferably with new research). I want to see a new biography jettison the outdated at best/ thoroughly debunked at worse psychoanalysis of Dark Valley Destiny in favor of multiple current theoretical/ interpretive strategies. I liked that Finn attempted to place Howard in the context of Texas Literature, and I want to see that thread expanded. Using culture studies as an interpretive foundation would be very interesting. I would also like to see other interpretive strategies deployed like: poststructuralism, deconstruction, literary marxism, new historicism, etc. I also want to see Howard’s racism confronted head on. Do not hide from it. Do not deflect from it. Take the damn bull by the horns.

If I finished my Master’s. If I progressed to receiving a Ph.D. In another life, I might have been the person to write this biography. But I didn’t.

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What I Read in July

My reading endured a sustained slump over the month of July. I had personal issues to deal with throughout the month. And I did not have much luck with the books I selected baring a few exceptions.

The first book I read, or rather attempted to read, in July was N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. I wasn’t too pleased with what I read of the novel. I admit that I do have trouble reading Jemisin’s work. I have yet to enjoy her fiction, though I do think she is an excellent critic of science fiction and fantasy. But I recognize that I really should go back and give the The Fifth Season a second shot.

Following The Fifth Season, I read Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History Sybille Haynes. I liked the book well enough. But I didn’t get a sense of Etruscan history.

Next came The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, about Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. It is a comprehensive biography of Jim Jones and his ministry/ cult. The book is pretty good if a bit overly sensational.

By this point, I realized my reading slumped. So, I decided to binge on some comic books. I started Dennis Hopeless’s All New X-Men volume “Hell Hath No Fury.” I like Hopeless’s work on characterization- the personal dramas are written well. But the super hero plot stank. That is one of the worst interpretations of the Goblin Queen I’ve ever read. Next up came Wonder Woman “The Circle” and “The Ends of the Earth” by Gail Simone. I can’t say I enjoyed these volumes. Wonder Woman as a secret agent with limited access to her power has never been appealing. Wonder Woman should never be in a white catsuit. Following disappointment, I reread Geoff Johns et al.’s amazing Sinestro Corps War crossover. Still an amazing work of comics storytelling. But, I’m not sold on Johns’s interpretation of fear, especially when Kyle Rayner becomes possessed by Parallax- he should be filled with rage, not fear. And I didn’t care for the focus devoted to Sodam Yat in the second half of the arc. The focus should have remained on Hal and company. Finally, Superman/ Superboy Prime should never be used. As a hero, as villain, as whatever. He is a dumpster fire of a character. Period. The last comic book I read was War of the Gods by George Perez. There is so much wrong with this story I don’t know where to begin. Parts of the narrative seem missing, Circe’s plan is nonsensical, the conclusion is a massive disappointment, etc. Over all, my comic book reading for July bummed me out.

After comics, I read a few more histories: 1381 The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt by Juliet Barker and The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir. I enjoyed both books. I prefer 1381 because of the sources used and the convincing argument. The Wars of the Roses, though well written, suffers from Weir’s penchant to enthusiastically sensationalize and pass moral judgement on her subjects.

Next up, I finally got around to reading Brad Watson’s short story collection Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. Before I DNFed the collection, I did not care for the stories I had read.

The bright spot of my reading in July was Agatha Christie Mallowan’s Come, Tell Me How You Live. It is a delightful loose memoir of Agatha Christie’s life working with her husband, Max Mallowan, on his archaeological expeditions. While I like the book, there are a lot of problems. Christie plays very loosely with events and facts. This is an impressionistic memoir rather than a solid piece of autobiography. The writing isn’t the best, if I’m honest about it. And Christie is quite condescending to the natives who work for her husband though she doesn’t intend to be. But, I still enjoyed the book.

Next up is a surprising find at my local library (okay, every book save The Fifth Season comes from my local library system), The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen by Hope Nicholson. The book is okay. It is more an incomplete encyclopedia rather than a history or critical analysis of superheroines and other female characters in comics.

The penultimate book I tackled in July is my third or fourth attempt on The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I’m conflicted when it comes to this novel. The writing is amazing. It is lush and gorgeous. The story is interesting and engrossing. But the characters are all pieces of shit (which is, of course, the point). And I don’t buy Richard’s obsession with the Classics Clique. Needless to say, I still have issues regarding The Secret History. Maybe I’ll figure it out. Or maybe I’ll just give up.

Finally, I read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. The novel is well written. But I found it a slow, dull slog before I gave it up.

That concludes my disappointing July.

Nine days into August, things are looking up.