Friday, 18 June 2010

Howard: What He Really Thought of Women.

Howard's immaturity and parochialism show plainly in his prose, which is sometimes racist, and definitely sexist.
- AboutFilm.Com

In the harsh glare of 21st Century enlightenment, Robert E. Howard has done himself no favors. Racism, sexism, anarchism, and religious intolerance abound in his works.
- R.H. Rich's Review of The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane

Firstly, maybe I should have felt bad about it on a personal level, but I never did. That's because I have such little respect for Howard as a person, it was easy to dismiss his attitudes as those of a bastard and not feel bad about it all by ignoring them. I have immense and total respect for his skills as a writer and a storyteller, I know his writings very well, but the guy himself was racist, sexist and the reasons for his suicide always unnerved me.
- Aaron Dembski-Bowden shouldn't be let anywhere near Dialogue Writing for Age of Conan... guess who's chief AoC dialogue writer?

Enough of this.

People have an irritating habit of judging Howard's views on women based on the least of his writings. This is about as disingenuous as judging the merits of Tolkien's writings on his Father Christmas stories, or Stephen King on Dreamcatcher: a man is judged on his best work. So why judge Howard on the Octavias, Natalas and Olivias when you should judge him on the dozens upon dozens of great, well-rounded female characters?

However, instead of quoting from "Sword Woman" or "Red Nails" or anything else that makes a mockery of that "Howard was sexist" argument, I'm going to post a letter. This one letter, in no uncertain terms, tells us exactly what's what when it comes to what Howard thinks of a woman's place in society.

I plan on doing a more in-depth report, but I think the letter is so important that it simply must be put out on the internet, just to shut people up. I really feel strongly about this, since being a feminist myself (To quote Cheris Kramarae, "Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings") it irritates me when people don't appreciate true trailblazing egalitarianism when it's there, especially in someone like Howard, who's been accused of rampant sexism for far too long.

I'll provide links to the women Howard mentions, though in the case of the mysterious "Marie" possibly of Hungary, I had to make an educated guess: I believe that the Hungarian "Marie" Howard was referring to might have been Maria Theresa of Austria, who was the only female Hapsburg ruler, was also queen of Hungary, and the War of the Austrian Succession involved Prussia heavily. He may also have been referring to Archduchess Gisela of Austria, also known as Gisela Louise Marie, who was highly renowned for her humanitarianism and fearlessness, and was similarly a ruler of Hungary.

The jist of it is, Harold Preece wrote for a small journal called The Junto. At one point, Preece wrote a piece called "Women: A Diatribe," where he comes to the laughable conclusion that there was no such thing as an intellectual woman. Howard disagreed. In December 1928 - before he even met Novalyne Price, and long before he created the likes of Dark Agnes, Red Sonya and Valeria - Howard composed a smackdown of epic proportions.

You're right; women are great actors. But I cant agree with you in your statement that the great women can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Men have sat at the feet of women down the ages and our civilization, bad or good, we owe to the influence of women.
Let us look at the records of the great women.

Sappho: doubtless the greatest woman poet who ever lived; certainly one of the greatest of all time. The direct incentive of the lyric age of Greece, the age that for pure beauty, surpasses all others. How shall a pen like mine sing of the beauties of Sappho, of the golden streams which flowed from her pen, of her voice which was fairer than the song of a dark star, of the fragrance of her hair and shimmering loveliness of her body? Has it been proven that she was a Lesbian in the generally accepted sense of the word? Who ever accused her but the early Christian – ignorant monks and monastery swine who were set on breaking all the old golden idols; and Daudet, a libertine, a groveling ape who could see no good in anything; Mure, a drunkard and a blatant braggart whose word I hold of less weight than a feather drifting before a south wind. May the saints preserve Comparetti who was man enough to uphold pure womanhood, and scholar enough to prove what he said. No prude was Sappho but a full blooded woman, passionate and open hearted with a golden song and a soul large enough to enfold the whole world. Listen:

“Lo, Love once more my soul within me rends
Like wind that on the mountain oak descends.”

And again she sings:

“Lo, Love once more, the limb-dissolving king,
“Wild-beast-like rends me with fierce quivering.”


“Early uprose the golden-sandalled-Dawn.”

What male poet has achieved a finer imagery?


“The moon has left the sky:
Lost is the Pleiads’ light;
It is midnight
And time slips by;
But on my couch alone I lie.”

And again:

“From the sound of cool waters heard through the green boughs
Of the fruit bearing trees,
And the rustling breeze,
Deep sleep, as a trance, down over me flows.”

Of the rainbow she speaks:

“Rainbow shot with a thousand hues.”

Of the night she speaks:

“And dark-eyed Sleep, child of Night.”

The translation is weak and pallid in comparison with the “winged words” of the original Greek. But even so we catch the haunting melody, the wistful yet powerful, almost overcoming beauty of the songs of Sappho. God be with her – gone to the dust twenty-five hundred years ago – more than two thousand years ago. Let us sigh with Swinburne:

“I, Sappho shall be one with all these things,
With all things high forever; and my face
Seen once, my songs once heard in a strange [place]
Cleave to men’s lives, and waste the days [thereof,]
In gladness and much sadness and long love.”

And what of Elpinice, who antedated woman suffrage by two thousand years and who plead so strongly for her brother Cimon that Pericles spared his life and later recalled him for exile? Polynnotus immortalized her for the ages in the fresco of the Stoa Poikile.

No philosopher among women? You forget the greatest philosopher of all times: Aspasias of Athens. A pupil of Thargelia of Miletus, who was the main stay of the Great King of Persia, and who married a king of Thessaly, Aspasia came to Athens in her early girlhood, and being debarred from Athenian citizenship because of the abominable custom which relegated wives to the position of slaves, and cultured women to the status of harlots, Aspasia gathered about herself a group which for pure culture and artistic ability, has never been equalled in the history of the world. She was the true inspiration from the famed Golden Age. Pericles left his wife and took Aspasia into his home. As she was not an Athenian he was unable to legally marry her, but she was his wife in all but the name and they were true to each other. She was the torch that lit the Periclean fire which flings its pure and vibrant shadow down the ages to light the drabness of the present day. She was Pericles’ teacher in rhetoric, it is said, and even wrote many of the speeches for which he is famed. Plato was proud to sit at her feet. To her for advice and counsel came Xenophon, Phidias, Herodotas, Anaxagoras, Sopocles, Euripides, Thucydides, Alcibiades, Aristhopanes, and all the other geniuses who made up Athen’s gold galaxy. A hetaera – aye, but only because of the man-made customs of the day. And men forget – when the leaders of freedom are mentioned, who speaks Aspasia’s name? Yet more than all the radicals of her day, she stood for freedom of action and thought.

And returning to poets among women: Sappho, first of the Terrestial Nine muses, as they were called: Erinna of Telos, Myrtis of Thebes, instructor of Pindar of Thebes, and Corinna, who defeated Pindar five times in contests, and who instructed him in regard to the soul of his work which he was prone to neglect in favor of the style; Telesilla of Argos who was a poet like the rest and also led her tribewomen to victory over the whole Spartan army; Praxilla of Sicyon who is given a place beside Anacreon; Nocsis of Locris, Italy; Anyte of Tegea and Moero of Byzantium.

And there were the Pythagorean Women, philosophers and poets, fifteen in number all of whom equaled any male philosopher of the time. And those of the Grecian Academy - some hundreds. And the Cynics and Epicureans - but the list is endless. I could name all day, those women I deem great in Greece alone and the records would scarcely be complete.

And what of Joan of Arc and Emma Goldman? Kate Richards O’Hare and Sarah Bernhardt? Katherine the Great and Elizabeth Barrett Browning? H.D. and Sara Teasdale? Isibella of Spain who pawned her gems that Columbus might sail, and Edna St. Vincent Millay? And that queen, Marie, I think her name was, of some small province - Hungary I believe - who fought Prussia and Russia so long and so bitterly. And Rome – oh, the list is endless there, also - most of them were glorified harlots but better be a glorified harlot than a drab and moral drone, such as the text books teach us woman should be.

Woman have always been the inspiration of men, and just as there are thousands of unknown great ones among men, there have been countless women whose names have never been blazoned across the stars, but who have inspired men on to glory. And as for their fickleness – as long as men write the literature of the world, they will rant about the unfaithfulness of the fair sex, forgetting their own infidelities. Men are as fickle as women. Women have been kept in servitude so long that if they lack in discernment and intellect it is scarcely their fault.

There you have it folks. What else is there to say?


  1. Absolutely wonderful post. Thanks for posting this.

  2. I thank you, too. Also, I love reading your blog. Thank you for your efforts.

  3. Thanks, all. There are many examples in Howard's letters where he puts across this egalitarian attitude, and discusses it elsewhere: this just happens to be the most striking of all.

    There's one letter where he's so disgusted by a court case, he says that women should just take control, since "they're the only sex with any guts left." He dedicates Dark Agnes to "all Sword Women past and present, gay or bold, good or bad." There's a pretty savage rant in one letter about the injustices meted out to women. I might put them up in a future post, too.

  4. Aaron Dembski-Bowden is chief dialog writer for Age of Conan? Words fail me.

  5. In a good way or a bad way, James?

  6. Howard a sexist? What Howard stories were those retarded monkeys reading?

    Oh wait, I forgot. Those two-digits can't read.

    I'm sooo sorry for insulting the illiterate.

    (Crom blast the illiterati!)

  7. Rereading the Conan stories to the wife I was impressed by the passage in People of the Black Circle wherein Yasmina is made to relive her past lives. You'll know which section I mean. It includes the lines, "She suffered all the woes and wrongs and brutalities that man has inflicted on woman throughout the eons...".

    Obviously Howard was an insensitive brute and only wrote those lines to fool people.

  8. Great post.

    It's easy to ignore evidence that disagrees with one's point of view - and lots of people like to take the easy way out.

    And if AD-B hates Howard so much, why is he the dialog writer? Pah.

  9. Tex: I get the distinct impression many refuse to actually read the Howard stories, or just go through an entirely cursory read.

    Anon: what really impressed me about Yasmina is how she recovered that unspeakable horror. Just a short while after suffering unimaginable torment, she started to speak with "a touch of her old imperiousness." By the end of the story she was on the road to her old commanding presence. Not all strong women are warriors in the Conan stories.

    Spider: Indeed, it's an unfortunate state of affairs that people take the easy way out. I guess AD-B just couldn't resist the money, but lack of respect he shows Howard for the sin of not conforming to 2000s' standards is, frankly, sickening. I wonder what he'd make of Abraham Lincoln's thoughts on black people?

  10. In a good way or a bad way, James?

    Words rarely fail me when it comes to situation about which I am pleased. I can almost always rhapsodize but I am not so good at laments. :)

  11. I figured as such: I can't remember you talking about him on your blog, though...

  12. Woman is the future of mankind, man is the future of nothing... Boris Vian
    I dont know if he wrote mankind or humankind... but the sentence is absolutely right...
    by the way Howard don't mention Hipatia de Alejandria... have you seen Agora? or Cosmos by Carl Sagan?

  13. Must be totally way-cool to be Aaron Dembski-Bowden! I could only wish to be so self-righteous as he is! Awesome!

  14. Francisco, you're correct: no mention of Hypatia. Very strange, since Howard mentions a number of women I hadn't even heard of. Can't see any sign of her in the other letters either. However, Harold Preece said in his piece "Robert E. Howard and Women" this:

    I could wish that Bob, so born out of his time, might have found his Hypatia or Sappho—or just an intelligent, understanding wife who could have seen to his survival following the death of his mother.

    This indicates that while Howard might not have written of Hypatia in the letters, it's possible - likely even - that he talked to Preece about her.

    Andy, took the words outta my mouth, dudemeister! Radical!

  15. G Matthew Webb24 June 2010 at 00:15


    Thanks for the post. Where exactly did you find the Howard passage? Is it in the Collected Letters available from the REH Society?

  16. G. Matthew Webb24 June 2010 at 00:17

    correction: "available from the Robert E. Howard Foundation?"

  17. It's from The Collected Letters Vol.1, P287, letter #083.

    (any excuse to go through the Collected Letters for funsies)

  18. Hey Matthew, Tex is correct (and saved me the bother of running it up!)

  19. G Matthew Webb25 June 2010 at 04:37

    Thanks, Tex! I need to stop procrastinating and order The Collected Letters.