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The Dark Virtues of Robert E. Howard
Shortly before his own death, pulp writer and somewhat maddened genius Robert E. Howard, age thirty, paraphrased some lines from Viola Garvin’s “House of Caesar” and typed on his typewriter:
All fled—all done, so lift me on the pyre—
The Feast is over and the lamps expire.
On the following Thursday morning, June 11, 1936, Howard asked the hospice nurse about the health of his mother, who had, only days earlier, fallen into a coma. He had been sitting vigilantly with her for nearly three weeks as her health—never good—had declined precipitously. She had no chance to recover from the coma, the nurse informed him. She would never regain consciousness, and she would never again recognize him. Less than ten minutes after hearing the diagnosis, Howard walked out to his car, took a revolver from the passenger compartment, rolled up the car windows, and shot himself in the head. The bullet entered above his temple and exited behind and slightly above his left ear. Howard lived for eight hours before finally succumbing to the self-inflicted wound. His mother, Hester, died thirty-some hours later, never having regained consciousness.
Howard’s father, Dr. I. M. Howard, a local physician, had been carefully monitoring his son’s behavior, as he had been very open about wanting to commit suicide should something happen to his mother. He especially did not want to witness her death. “I was watching Robert as this was premeditated and I knew it but I did not think that he would kill himself before his mother went,” his father reported. In talking with the nurse, Howard had avoided alerting either his father or the attending doctor. “Had I known” that his son had talked with the nurse, his father admitted, “I might have prevented this, because I know now that he fully had made up his mind not to see his mother die.”
Although he had written hundreds if not thousands of deaths in his numerous pulp stories, Robert E. Howard could not handle the death of a loved one, especially that of his beloved mother. As one of his pulp fiction friends explained, Howard stoically chose his own exit from this world. Perhaps, too, there had existed in him “proto-Nietzschean views” wrestling for possession of his soul. In a letter to a dear friend, Howard revealed his own nihilism:
I particularly like the point you made in that truth and necessity not always coinciding, some religion is necessary for the masses. I have always maintained this, myself. As for myself, neither realism nor materialism appeals to me greatly. That life is chaotic, unjust and apparently blinded without reason or direction anyone can see; if the universe leans either way it is toward evil rather than good, as regards life and humanity. That there is any eventual goal for the human race rather than extinction, I do not believe nor do I have any faith in the eventual Superman. Yet the trend of so many materialists to suppress all primitive emotions is against my every instinct. Civilization, no doubt, requires it, and peace of mind demands it, yet for myself I had rather be dead than to live in an emotionless world. The clear white lamp of science and the passionless pursuit of knowledge are not enough for me; I must live deeply and listen to the call of the common clay in me, if I am to live at all. Without emotion and instinct I would be a dead, stagnant thing. . . . Defeat waits for us all.
In his letters, Howard had written about his melancholic “Irish” moods. “The fact is, I wrote while in the grip of one of the black moods that occasionally—though fortunately rarely—descend on me,” he apologized in a private letter. “With one of these moods riding me, I can see neither good nor hope in anything, and my main sensation is a blind, brooding rage directed at anything that may cross my path—a perfectly impersonal feeling, of course. . . . These moods are hereditary, coming down the line of my purely Irish branch—the black haired, gray eyed branch, of which as far back as family history goes, both men and women have been subject to black fits of savage brooding, which has been, in some cases, coupled with outbursts of really dangerous fury, when crossed or thwarted.”
He had also, at times, written quite openly about suicide. Howard had written to the editor of Weird Tales, Farnsworth Wright, “I’m merely one of a huge army, all of whom are bucking the line one way or another for meat in their bellies—which is the main basic principle and reason and eventual goal of Life. Every now and then one of us finds the going too hard and blows his brains out, but it’s all in the game, I reckon.” This language was not unusual from the pen and typewriter of Robert E. Howard, who seemed, more often than not, to revel in personal violence in his imagination, however much he might avoid it in real life. Even, or maybe especially, in memories of his childhood, extreme violence crept into his thoughts. “When I was a kid, I had a few overgrown bullies make me miserable,” he confided to a friend. “If I were to meet one of them today and he made any kind of move, I’d crush his damn head between my fists the way I would a cantaloupe.” He admitted as much with his fiction, too. “When my fictional characters can’t slash and slog and litter the pages with one another’s carcasses, I’m an utter flop as a tale-spinner.”
Thus on June 11, 1936, ended the life of one of the most interesting and talented men ever to be born on Texas soil. To say that he had been prolific as a writer would be an understatement of the highest degree. The man lived and breathed hypergraphia. As his first chronicler, Glenn Lord, has calculated: “Between July 1925 and August 1939 (three years after Howard’s death), Weird Tales—Oriental Stories—Magic Carpet group published sixty-four Howard stories. Of these, seven were serials. These required a total of twenty-one issues for their presentation. To put it in other words, Howard appeared in seventy-eight issues of that group, with a number of the chisel-reprints (no pay to the author) not included in the reckoning. In addition, he sold westerns, adventures, prize fight and other non-fantasy fiction.”
He had begun writing professionally at age eighteen, and he had written continuously until his death at thirty. While some of his stories are rushed and somewhat artistically barren, many others carried with them aspects of true literary genius, in terms of style and especially atmosphere. Yet this might have been a catch-22 for Howard, a reason for his own suicide. “I’m burned out. You pound out yarn after yarn—sometimes 10 or 12,000 words a day,” he told a friend. “You work your damn guts out. Finally, you know you’re burning out—that the time is coming fast when there won’t be anything left. Nothing at all.”
Best known of all Howard’s works have been the wild and barbaric tales of Conan the Cimmerian, a rogue, swashbuckler, pathfinder, mercenary, and king, set some 15,000 years in a mythic past, just on the edge between prehistory and history. “Conan simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande,” Howard claimed. “I did not create him by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures.” When two fans, P. Schuyler Miller and John D. Clark, wrote Howard in the latter part of 1935, sending to him an outline of Conan’s history as well as their own map of Conan’s world, Hyboria, Howard, moved by outreach and dedication to his art, again claimed that he was merely the recorder and biographer of a Conan well out of his control.
As for Conan’s eventual fate—frankly I can’t predict it. In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That’s why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.
When speaking to his one-time girlfriend Novalyne Price Ellis, Howard said he believed that Conan represented some instinct found in every man, thus explaining the character’s immense popularity.
I wondered how Conan can be a real person, but I needed to remember that deep inside every man there was something of the barbarian, something that civilization could not destroy. A man reading his story about Conan, then, would feel again in the depth of his being those barbaric impulses; consequently, Conan acted as they felt they would act in similar circumstances.
Since his creation—or emergence, depending on one’s point of view—in the early 1930s, Conan has become a staple of Western popular culture, making his way into wildly successful novels (by Howard and others), role-playing games (such as Dungeons and Dragons), major motion pictures, video games, and comics. In terms of the “Sword and Sorcery” genre—as understood by the vast public of pop-culture consumption—Conan’s tales are second in popularity only to J. R. R. Tolkien’s much more highbrow Middle-earth mythology.
Though there are relatively few academic articles, dissertations, and books on Robert E. Howard, his biographers have been plentiful, and never shy about the man’s excellences. In the first full-length biography of the man, Dark Valley Destiny, L. Sprague de Camp, Catherine Crook de Camp, and Jane Whittington Griffin proclaim:
With the instinctive insight of a great storyteller, Robert Howard seemed to know that Conan’s adventures were a dream—every young man’s dream of freedom, power, and unlimited success. He knew, too, that dreams should be amorphous, undefined, only hinted at, so that the dreamer may sketch in his own details. Because his readers are free to combine the artist’s larger fantasy with their own less opulent fancies, Conan fans can readily turn Howard’s dream into a heroic expression of their own hearts’ desires. This, we believe, is the secret of Conan’s immortality.
Several decades later, Mark Finn, in his excellent Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, wrote something comparable. There is an artist “who also blazed a trail in his industry by combining seemingly unrelated ideas to create something new, innovative, and completely unique. His name was Robert E. Howard, and he was the greatest pulp writer who ever lived.” Most recently, in 2021, Howard’s latest biographer, Todd B. Vick, declares Howard to be “perhaps the greatest unknown author in the state of Texas, maybe even the world.” Vick’s Renegades and Rogues: The Life and Legacy of Robert E. Howard is a tour de force of the man’s life and thought.
Some of Howard’s contemporaries were no less fulsome in their praise. Most notably, horror master H. P. Lovecraft—a friend and correspondent of Howard’s for years—believed Howard irreplaceable, his death the “worst knockout blow,” for “his stories were the most consistently vital of all the voluminous pulp products.” Howard’s “moody, neurotic side went deeper than we ever expected,” Lovecraft lamented after learning of the man’s suicide. “Scarcely anybody else in the pulp field had quite the driving zest and spontaneity of R. E. H. He put himself into everything he wrote—even when he made outward concessions to pulp standards he had a wholly unique inner force and sincerity which broke through the surface and placed the stamp of his personality on the ultimate product.”
Had he lived, Lovecraft claimed, Howard might very well have become “an important American regionalist” by making “his mark in serious literature with some folk epic of his beloved Southwest.” Whatever the topic, though, all of Howard’s fiction carried with it the vitality and genuineness of the man, “and put the imprint of his personality on everything he wrote.” His death at the age of thirty by his own hand was tragedy of the highest order, Lovecraft raged. “That such a genuine artist should perish while hundreds of insincere hacks continue to concoct spurious ghosts in vampires and spaceships and occult detectives is indeed a sorry piece of cosmic irony!” In the aftermath, Lovecraft continued, the forces of antimodernism in literature had lost a grand ally and spokesman, and “fantasy fiction will not soon recover.”
Yet one of Lovecraft’s admirers, Robert Bloch—who would one day write Psycho—despised Howard’s writing. In a letter to Weird Tales, published in November 1934, he ranted:
I am awfully tired of poor old Conan the Cluck, who for the past 15 issues has every month slain a new wizard, tackled a new monster, come to a violent and sudden end that was averted (incredibly enough!) in just the nick of time and won a new girlfriend, each of whose penchants for nudism won for her a place of honor, either on the cover or on the inner illustration. Such has been Conan’s history, and from the realms of the Kushites to the lands of Quilenia, from the shores of the Shemites to the places of Dyme-Novell-Bolonia, I cry: “Enough of this brute and his iron-thewed sword thrusts—may he be sent to Valhalla to cut out paper dolls.”
Not surprisingly, Howard’s legion of fans, though, rushed to defend his honor.
Not every modern critic has been so approving, either. In his masterful history of horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King praised Howard for his ability to write horror stories—regarding his moody and atmospheric “Pigeons from Hell” as especially captivating—but admitted that much of Howard’s prose “was either unremarkable or just abysmal.” Still, King labeled Howard a “peculiar genius” who “overcame the limitations of his puerile material by the force and fury of his writing and by his imagination.”
Howard might well have agreed with both Lovecraft (whom he admired dearly) and King. After all, Howard despised all attempts at literary modernism, the irony and sarcasm of an H. L. Mencken, and the loss of the heroic in modern literature. He was, he fully admitted, a wordsmith, a laboring man, little different from (and perhaps less useful than), say, a blacksmith.
I admire the good artist just as much as I admire any good workmen; in fact, because of my interest in literature, I admire the artist’s work more than I admire the work of other good workmen. But I try not to let my personal preference blind me to the merits of other good workmen. I have just as much reverence for the artist as for any honest and worthy person—and not an ounce more. I refuse to place art on a pedestal above and beyond everything else; I refuse to believe that a million generations of human beings have lived, suffered, toiled and died in order that certain men may make marks on paper or canvas.
True progress, Howard continued, came not from creation but from sacrifice. All real history, then, happened because some women and men were willing to sacrifice what talents and treasure they possessed for the common good of society and for the cause of justice. “As for me, I don’t pretend to be an artist, or to love beauty particularly,” he admitted to Lovecraft. Yet he wished he had more time to write poetry, despite his denial of pursuing beauty. “When you speak well of my work, I feel like maybe I have got something, after all,” Howard wrote. “I wish I could give more time to verse, but the necessity of making a living crowds out.” Howard persisted, however: he wrote for profit, for the ability to make a living independently and to avoid being under the thumb of any man. “I would not write a masterpiece—supposing I could—unless I had the chance of selling it,” he revealed to Lovecraft.
That is literally true, but is not to be taken as a belittling of those who do write masterpieces without expectations of monetary gain. Remember that, such as I am, I am a professional writer. The money I get from my stories constitutes my entire income. I certainly couldn’t afford to put in time on a “masterpiece” I knew I wouldn’t be able to turn into cash. Naturally, I write loads of junk that won’t sell. But I write it with the intention of selling it if I can, at least.
Two sides warred in Howard’s soul as he thought about his own contribution to the world.
I wouldn’t sacrifice the freedom I have found in the writing game in order to become wealthy—if such a thing were possible—but I would quickly sacrifice whatever artistic ambitions I ever had. (I speak relatively; as you know, I am no artist.) I’ve heard a lot of people say and write that money was not necessary to real happiness; but I’ve noticed those people were always such as had never known what it was to be hungry, cold or thirsty, or wear ragged clothes, or work in the blazing heat or the freezing rain and snow. I wouldn’t give a damn to be a millionaire; but I would like to be financially independent, and if the course offered itself, I’d desert the writing game in a minute.
As Howard and Lovecraft editors S. T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke have argued, Howard viewed his pulp output during the Great Depression as “a means to freedom,” a way to navigate independently in a world awash in control and power.
Decadence and Culture
Given the outrageously vast amount of pulp fiction produced in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s—what pulp writer Frank Gruber rightly called the “Pulp Jungle”—one must wonder what allowed Robert E. Howard and his Conan stories to gain such staying power over the past nine decades. Was it, as Howard himself suggested, something latent in the human soul that desired a simpler, more barbaric approach in a highly civilized world? Is Conan a representation of primitive heroism against a staid modernity? “The people who read my stuff want to get away from this modern, complicated world with its hypocrisy, its cruelty, its dog-eat-dog life,” Howard believed of his creation. “They want to go back to the origin of the human race. The civilization we live in is a hell of a lot more sinister than the time I write about. In those days, girl, men were men and women were women. They struggled to stay alive, but the struggle was worth it.”
Recalling her one-time boyfriend, Ellis claimed that Howard, however dour about the prospects of civilization, was a deeply opinionated and complicated but an otherwise humble and compassionate man with simple tastes and simple desires, possessing a complex and romantic sensibility when it came to traditional values. “I would say that he believed, basically, in the goodness of the simple life, and the simple man, with his simple ideas: that he himself was a good man, intense in his beliefs and willing to stand up for his beliefs; and that in his writings he was trying to say something—even in a pulp magazine, he was trying to say that this simple life was the ideal way of life,” she explained. “Civilization had its drawbacks, it had its hypocrisies. What we needed was that barbaric simplicity of life.” Ellis noted that Howard was deeply loyal to and encouraging of his friends, whom he cherished, if sometimes awkwardly and clumsily. When asked in an interview about some of the sexual decadence—including the pan-sexuality and sadomasochism hinted at in some of the Conan stories—Ellis reacted strongly in a moderately feminist way about Howard’s primness in real life.
Oh, nothing was further from Bob’s attitude. In fact, it was a little bit ridiculous in the other way. The big man was there to protect, to see that nothing happened. Never, never, by word or deed, I’ll tell you this with utmost honesty, never by word or deed did he suggest anything out of the way. He treated me with the same devotion that you would treat something fragile.
Clearly, Conan was a fantasy, in more ways than one. Still, Howard believed, our society was decaying rapidly, growing ever corrupt, and open and perverse sexuality was one of the most important markers. “You see, girl,” he told Ellis, “when the civilization begins to decay and die, the only thing men or women think about is the gratification of their body’s desires. They become preoccupied with sex. It colors their thinking, their laws, their religion—every aspect of their lives.” Indeed, Howard went so far as to claim that civilization breeds not only depravity, but also the demonic.
As a child, Howard had been particularly sensitive to bullies and conformists of all stripes. Although he did his best to hide in books—going so far as to claim that he raided rural schoolhouses for their libraries—he witnessed the complexities and nastiness of the oil boom in West Texas. Howard could glean the ideas of several books at once, according to his friends, and he could read the cultural landscape with equal insight and intensity. As much as he loved his home state of Texas, he resented those who came into it and, as he thought, exploited its resources for power-hungry corporations in the East. He is worth quoting at length on the horrors of the oil boom, as he understood it.
You’re right about oil booms—they bring a lot of money into the country and take more out, as well as ruining the country for other purposes. This might offend men in the oil business, but it’s the truth that I’ve seen more young people sent to the Devil through the debauch and effects of an oil boom than all the other reasons put together. I know; I was a kid in a boomtown myself. The average child of 10 or 12 who’s lived through booms knows more vileness and bestial sinfulness than a man of 30 should know—whether he—or she—practice what they know or not. Clamor and filth! That’s an oil boom. When I was a kid I worked in the tailoring business just as one terrific boom was dwindling out, and harlots used to give me dresses to be cleaned—sometimes they’d be in a mess from the wearer having been drunk and in the gutter. Beautiful silk and lace, delicate of texture and workmanship, but disgustingly soiled—such dresses always symbolized boom days and nights to me—shimmering, tantalizing, alluring things, bright as dreams, but stained with nameless filth.
Whether Howard understood the whole picture of the boom, he clearly came to understand its seedier side. Howard feared that corporations were remaking all of America into “one uniform pattern, modeled on the mechanized fabric of New York,” destroying the distinctiveness of localities, families, ethnic groups, and true communities and regionalisms.
America, Howard argued, was simply too big and, consequently, ungovernable. Had she been wise from her beginnings, she would have divided into several allied republics rather than as one big collective nation. America should naturally have organized into at least four geographical sections: the North, the South, the Northwest, and the Southwest. America, he believed, had only held together as long as it had because of the lingering pioneer spirit of the frontier, especially as it was between “1795 and 1895,” the high point of American liberty and felicity. All of modern America strove, however, to crush this frontier spirit of radical individualism.
States’ rights seem to be fast fading into nonexistence. Laws have become props to uphold big criminals and heels to grind down petty violators. Most of the present contempt for law seems to be the result of corrupt law enforcers—graft, fraud and injustice run rampant. A bigshot can get away with anything while ordinary men are ruthlessly trodden into the mire. There was more justice in the old days when each man packed his law on his hip. Men—at least in the West—recognize the rights of the individual, which are now ignored. Nowadays a man isn’t supposed to have any heart, guts, brains, blood or honor. He’s supposed to crawl on his belly and lick dirt before the fetish of that vast, vague and uncertain idol Society—while the big ruthless ones trample that same idol with perfect impunity. I say Society is founded on the individuals who have individual rights. This was once recognized. An uncle of mine, a gambler who was well-known in the Southwest in the 80s, when on the witness stand, knocked down a domineering prosecuting attorney who was attempting to badger him. The judge only mildly reproved him, recognizing the fact that a man has individual honor apart from his obligations to “the Mass” and a right to resent insults, on any and all occasions.
Soon, Howard cautioned, the only individual who mattered would be the extremely wealthy individual who monopolized resources for his own benefit and self-aggrandizement. Once he has gained control of resources, he will pass laws (or have laws passed) that guarantee his own special privileges. “Once men sang the praises of the ephemeral gods carved out of ivory and wood,” Howard claimed. “Now they sing equally senseless praises to equally ephemeral and vain gods of Science and Commerce and Progress. Hell.” Of course, Howard noted, the world—especially the European world—was even worse, with its various fascisms and communisms. “Europe, to me, is nothing but a rat den where teaming, crowded rodents, jammed together in an unendurable mass, squeal and gnash and murder each other,” he wrote.
At home, however, Howard lamented, governments will soon turn to “massacre and wholesale slaughter.” Such incidents were only a matter of time. Laws—too many to count—had come only to serve the wealthy. After all, he concluded, “we got more laws and taxes than we ever had before, and infinitely more crime.”
It looks like the courts, the laws, the government, all wealth and authority and power, are combined to crush the last vestige of freedom out of the common people. Men that rise to leave the people sell them out and betray them. Where can a man turn? I wish I had vision, or a fanatical faith in something or somebody that creates an illusion of vision. All roads look blind to me. I see nothing but ruin, chaos, and a rising tide of slavery.
Being a good Texan, Howard remembered fondly a time (however mythical) when feuds, duels, and violence were private and freely chosen rather than enforced as policies of conformity. In America, no one in power would actually label any ruling policies as fascist or communist, “but under the surface it will be the same old tyranny, modified no doubt, to fit modern conditions.” They could, he felt, employ “10 million high sounding names used to dress the real reality of slavery” while emasculating the entirety of the population. If the people ever realize they’re slaves and rise up, he continued, they would merely start the whole bloody cycle over again.
Robert E. Howard possessed a strong streak of nihilism. When Lovecraft confronted him about his view of humanity, he replied misanthropically, “To my mind the human race is merely a parasitic freak of two legged fungi that pollutes the universe, which would be better off—and much cleaner—without it. I have a strong prejudice in favor of life, but from a philosophic standpoint, honestly believe the universe would be better off without human varmints of any kind.” History had no real meaning for Howard. As he wrote to Lovecraft:
Regarding the various interests and time cycles and individuals—to me history seems mostly a chaotic jumble, through which move certain fairly well-defined streams and currents, but which is mainly too tangled for my comprehension. As I have said, I lack your universal and cosmic scope and comprehension. From contemplation of history as a whole, my mind retires bewildered and baffled and fixes on various figures which rise here and there momentarily above the general drift. It is the individual mainly which draws me—the struggling, blundering, passionate insect vainly striving against the river of Life and seeking to divert the channel of events to suit himself—breaking his fangs on the iron collar of Fate and sinking in the final defeat with the froth of a curse on his lips.
Human actions and free will meant little, if anything. “I believe that all human desires, aims, and pretensions are ultimately futile and empty, leading from nothing to nothing” with morality as only an ethical construction. In the large scheme of things, Howard offered, a “baboon is as significant as an artist.” On the matter of God, Howard declared himself an agnostic, but he had once been a faithful member of his local Baptist church. Religion, he believed, kept the masses in check, serving as a counterbalance to their more passionate instincts.
Yet Howard was not always so nihilistic. He proclaimed frequently his love of his family, of his Irish ethnicity (real and imagined), of Texas, of America, of the Southwest, and, especially, of his ancestors. He went so far as to argue that he had either lived previous lives or that he carried with him all the memories of his forebears. “I’ve lived before. I remember it,” he told Ellis. “My ancestors came from a cold, bleak island, and I feel their blood beating in my veins.” To Lovecraft he explained at some length:
I believe that many dreams are the result of ancestral memories, handed down through the ages. I have lived in the Southwest all my life yet most of my dreams are laid in cold, giant lands of icy wastes in gloomy skies, and of wild, windswept fens and wildernesses over which sweep great sea winds, and which are inhabited by shock headed savages with light fierce eyes. With the exception of that one dream I described to you, I am never, in these dreams of ancient times, a civilized man. Always I am the barbarian, the skin clad, tousle haired, wide-eyed wild man, armed with a rude axe or sword, fighting the elements and wild beasts, or grappling with armored hosts marching with the tread of civilized discipline, from fellow fruitful lands and walled cities. This is reflected in my writings, too, for when I begin a tale of old times, I always find myself instinctively arrayed on the side of the barbarian, against the powers of organized civilization.
Questions cloud the memory of Robert E. Howard. Why Howard committed suicide has remained a mystery for his fans for nearly a century now. Perhaps he could not imagine his mother dying. Perhaps he had run out of things to write. Perhaps his mother was his lifeline to navigate against modernity. Perhaps, in some Stoic fashion, he simply wanted to take command of his own life. Perhaps his nihilism had finally gotten the best of him. Or perhaps he was mentally unbalanced or ill. Each of these reasons—or some combination of them—seems plausible, but none truly satisfies.
Equally important, one might wonder what Howard would have written and what path his writing career would have taken had he lived longer. Toward the end of his life, when not lamenting a dry spell in his productivity, Howard expressed much interest in writing two things. He wanted to continue to write pulp westerns and to write either a history or a historical novel set in the American Southwest. Howard was quite good on western subjects, and his westerns—tall or weird—possess a higher literary standard than his fantasy stories. They feel, for lack of a better term, less pulpish. Given the changes in the entertainment industry near the end of his life, there is no reason to presume that Howard might not have written his own Stagecoach or Shane, or perhaps, in the 1950s and ’60s, for any one of a number of television programs. He had the speed and the imagination.
Yet these things must remain “what ifs.” The fact is that Robert E. Howard’s life and career ended on June 11, 1936, by his own hand and of his own free will. In just thirty short years, he had carved out his own path, lived according to his own definition of freedom, espoused some dark virtues in his fiction, and navigated the insanities of modernity rather beautifully. Too bad it had to end so tragically.
Bradley J. Birzer is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studiesaz and professor of history, Hillsdale College, and cofounder of the Imaginative Conservative. For this article, he thanks Dedra Birzer, Nathaniel Birzer, and John J. Miller for their thoughts and encouragement.
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