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.


Posted on August 30, 2017, in Books and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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