Tuesday 21 September 2010

Jason Sanford: Robert E. Howard's Work Is Not Worth Preserving.

I got nothing else to say.

I'm formulating a response, but I urge everyone to jaunt over anyway.

EDIT: For some reason the site isn't accepting my comments.  I've tried cutting it up into little pieces, but that doesn't help.  I'll just post my thoughts here, and link to the article.

Mr Sanford,

The subject of racism is a very touchy subject when it comes to Howard.  It is undeniable that Howard said things that, to modern eyes, are racist.  No way about it.  I will not deny that many of his works are marred by racism.  That said, I take issue with a number of things in your article.

For one thing, I think it is utterly ludicrous to suggest that Howard was substantially more racist than other people of the time.  1920s and 1930s - especially Texas during those years - was an incredibly racist time.  You state that "some of his friends reacting negatively to his racism is proof that even back then what he believed in wasn't acceptable to quite a few people" doesn't hold water, because that's a select group of people who were in a very small minority.  Howard corresponded with many intelligent, intellectual people, like Clark Ashton Smith and Novalyne Price, who had an egalitarian attitude ahead of their time; but suggesting that they represent anything more than a minority is not showing an accurate representation of the time period.  This was an age where it was ILLEGAL for a black person to marry a white person in some states.  It was the age of Jim Crowe, where lynchings were all too common*, schools were segregated, water fountains were divided.  It was a time where a black person's inferiority was held to be scientific fact, a pseudoscience which persisted well into the 20th Century.

You simply cannot say that racism of Howard's time was anywhere near as unacceptable as it is nowadays, because it isn't, and wasn't.

"The Robert E. Howard United Press Association has a fascinating article on their website titled "Southern Discomfort: Was Howard A Racist?" by Gary Romeo. The article covers a good bit of Howard's writings, including his personal letters, to show that he held some extremely racist beliefs (pay particular attention to the personal comments by Howard in the article's second paragraph). Romeo also discusses Howard's infamous short story "Black Canaan," which you can read here."

Gary Romeo, while a fine and erudite scholar, is something of the lone voice of dissent in Howard scholarship, with a number of opinions that are not shared by other Howard scholars.  "Southern Discomfort" makes a lot of points that have been argued and challenged many times since its publication, and so it should not be considered the Howard community's thoughts on the matter as a whole.  It is unfortunate there isn't a counterpoint online with which to contrast Mr Romeo's arguements.

"But this "product of his time and place" statement also dances around the more important issue--excusing a writer's racism because it was once commonplace doesn't work with literature. Here's why: Literature is a cultural artifact, and culture is a dynamic process involving continual evolution and change. Culture exists at the individual level in each and every one of us even as it is also expressed at the group level. As people change at the individual level, the group-level culture also changes.
And a major part of that cultural change is people deciding which cultural artifacts are worth passing on to others."

So you're basically saying that Howard's racism excludes his fiction from consideration in the ranks of great literature?  By that logic you'd have to lose Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Ian Fleming, H.P. Lovecraft, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, and many others.  I certainly don't think that should happen at all.

"This cultural "passing on" is where Howard's writings embrace true failure. Despite what Howard's defenders may wish, we do not read his stories as if we were back in the 1930s. We read them through the eyes of our 21st century beliefs. Not only was his racism disturbing to some of his contemporaries, it is equally disturbing to modern readers. Because of this, many people don't believe Howard's stories are worth passing on to others."

If Howard's writings "truly fail" then why is it they are experiencing a renaissance unseen since the 1970s?  Howard stories are being reprinted in multiple countries, by many publishers in different volumes - and that includes the stories which are not in the public domain.  Evidently there's enough to Howard's stories worth passing on.  More to the point, all the pastiches by later authors - with the exception of the comics and the Jordans riding the coattails of the author's recent death - are out of print.  Howard is not.

And again, you're stating that his racism was disturbing to "some of his contemporaries" as justification for saying that they were exceptional even for the time, which they weren't.

"But of course, not everything Howard created was tied in with his racist beliefs. The best of his stories don't deal with racial issues at all. And because some of his creations remain so powerful, for the last few decades we have witnessed a fascinating example of how cultures preserve those elements people deem worthy even as they discard what they disagree with."

So are the stories not tied with his racist beliefs are, in fact, worthy of consideration, yet elsewhere you state that Howard as a whole is not?  I wish you would make up your mind about this.

"I refer, of course, to Conan the Barbarian. Since Howard's death, the character has been featured in comics such as the Savage Sword of Conan, two highly successful films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and numerous novels. What's fascinating is that while some of these stories are based in part on Howard's tales, most are original works. In fact, many of these works--such as the series of Conan novels written by Robert Jordan in the early 1980s--are arguably more widely read than Howard's original tales."

The original Lancers of the 1960s started off with examples of Howard's work (albeit edited in some cases and gutted in others), and are the most successful of all the book editions.  The Bantams and Tors couldn't hold a candle to the original Lancers' popularity.  The Del Reys, which have Howard's stories and nothing else, are also very popular, and still in print today. The comics by Marvel and Dark Horse all start off with Howard adaptations, or at least have them very early in the comic's run.  Jordan's were undoubtedly successful, but to say they are more widely read than Howard's requires some statistics.

And seriously, if you're going to hold up the pastiches as evidence of less racist/sexist continuations of Conan, methinks you haven't read some of the Tor novels - and these were printed in the 1980s and 1990s!

"So even though a number of Howard's original stories are marred by his racism, this doesn't mean we can't enjoy his greatest creation. But what we're enjoying is the modern reinterpretation of Howard's world building. And what we're discarding are the racist aspects of Howard's works."

What "we're" enjoying is the commercialized Conan franchise that was created by L. Sprague de Camp.  Out of the dozens upon dozens of later authors, few even approach the lyrical, poetic and dramatic depth of Howard's original creation.  And if we can enjoy Howard's greatest creation by ignoring the racist aspects, then surely we can do that by reading the original stories without racist elements - "The Tower of the Elephant," for example.

And yet, some of Howard's most powerful stories have a racist element that is instrumental to its power.  "Pigeons from Hell" and "Black Canaan" play upon the very real racial tensions of the time period depicted in the story much as Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" does.  Both are stories about racism: can't very well erase racism from the stories, can we?  "Beyond the Black River" does the same, even highlighting race as a human construct by noting that the Picts are genetically white, yet never referred to as such by the civilized people.  The racial elements of many stories go beyond temporal prejudice.

"It likely wouldn't matter to Obama if he learned that Howard was so racist that, after meeting a biracial man in New Orleans, Howard referred to the man as an "it" as if he wasn't human."

And yet elsewhere, Howard seems to be perfectly capable of referring to people of non-white descent using "he" and "she."  Look at Ace Jessel, who is noticeably absent in "Southern Discomfort": an intelligent, sympathetic, heroic black man, one of the most genuinely heroic protagonists Howard ever wrote.  This description of the fellow he met in New Orleans was a description of the individual, not mixed-race as a whole.  Some of the most primal, powerful races and individuals in his stories are mixed-race.  He's almost certainly used something along the lines of "he - or it! - " in reference to white people who seemed inhuman before.

That isolated incident should not be used to ascertain his opinions on race as a whole, especially when they contradict many other incidents.

"I suppose this is the key point I'm trying to make here--no author exists in a cultural vacuum. An author's writings are continually re-evaluated by everyone who reads them. The great part of this is that an author can have an amazing influence on culture through his or her readers. But the flip side is also true. If people disagree with the ideas behind an author's fiction, they'll preserve and expand upon what is of value but discard the rest."

Agreed.  That's why Howard's great stories are rightly celebrated, and Howard's lesser stories are marginalized.  But this rarely has anything to do with his racism.

"So in the end, Robert E. Howard was a racist. When my kids are old enough, I will not recommend his fiction to them. I'll also explain how Howard was so racist he would have thought of my sons as less than human."

I'm very saddened by that, not least because Howard did not think of non-whites as "less than human."  You use a single phrase describing an individual from a private letter to H.P. Lovecraft (boy howdy, you think REH was racist!?!) while failing to take into account the occasions where Howard made a point of asserting, for example, black people's humanity.  In "The Pool of the Black One," initially Conan thinks that the giant monsters are black men (from a distance) but when he sees them, he realises that "these are not men as he understands them at all."  Howard is thus clearly asserting that black people are human.

I'm going to end with a few choice quotations from "Double Cross," starring Ace Jessel, the only of Howard's many boxing heroes who was a world champion, and one of the nicest guys Howard ever wrote of:

"A prophet is not sure of honor always in his own land.  The people in Ace Jessel's hometown, with their hot, fierce Southern pride and class consciousness, looked upon Ace as more or less of an upstart, a black man who had forgotten his place.  They resented his victories over white pugilists and felt as if the fact reflected on them, somehow.  This hurt Ace, hurt him cruelly...

John Taverel, himself a Southerner, was the buffer between Ace and the rest of the world.  He knew that underneath that black skin there beat a heart as loyal and honest as any man's, black or white.  Through all the long years of their association, Ace had never addressed nor referred to Taverel as anything except "Misto John" and had maintained toward him a consistent reserve and respect.  Honesty without insolence, respect and courtesy without servility - that was Ace Jessel's attitude toward everyone, and no man, in or out of the ring, could say that the great Negro had ever fought a dirty fight, or had ever given any man a crooked deal."

"Double Cross" is a story with two themes: a hometown hero proving that he's still proud of his roots to a town who think he's now "above them," and of a black man fighting the prejudice and resentment of the white townsfolk for daring to be a successful black man.  In an exhibition fight, when his opponent starts using dirty tactics and the referee is clearly working against him, the initially hostile crowd begins to support Ace.  When he wins, he is applauded as the hometown hero he is.  The camaraderie of the town overcomes its racial prejudice.

This was a Robert E. Howard story, and I definitely think it's worth preserving.

*Thanks to Lawrence Person for corrections and statistics.


  1. An excellent defense, Al. I was going to join the fray, but instead I think I'll work on demolishing Southern Discomfort in REHupa, so that we can have something else on the site for folks to read.

  2. Lagomorph: I'd like to think that, but I think Jason's just very, very misguided. Plus the fact that he's biracial adds a certain extra element. But then, my blue-eyed, blond uncle doesn't seem any less of a Conan fan since he married a Kenyan princess and had two wonderful girls.

    Mark: Praise from Brennus! I am truly humbled. I definitely think Southern Discomfort needs addressing, especially on the 'net. I can't count the number of times it's been used to support silly ideas (not all related to racism, as with the Magster). The price of advocating intellectual debate on a site, I guess.

  3. *Edit: rather, that has biracial children. I don't know Jason's ethnic origin.

  4. An excellent defense, Mister Harron. I hope Mister Sandford comes by to read it.

    I'm glad you mentioned Harper Lee. I had thought of that point after I had written my comment on Sanford's blog. You expressed it with far more alacrity than I am capable of.

  5. Honestly, I am past caring whether or not REH was a racist. I doubt REH would have cared very much if anyone thought he was. He said what he said exactly as he wished to say it.

  6. Normally I agree, Dave, but when REH's racism is used as a valid reason to consign it to obscurity, I have to call foul. That's my big issue, here.

  7. He openly admits on his blog that most of his knowledge of R.E.H. was derived from reading Conan comics. And then he decided to spend a few weeks reading R.E.H.'s stories. This now makes him an expert?

    I forgot to bring up Charles Saunders being a big R.E.H. fan.

  8. Indeed. A few weeks is hardly enough to take in even a fraction of nearly 600 stories, 800 poems and I don't know how many letters.

    Saunders is indeed a good point: obviously he sees something in REH worth saving.

  9. Well at least he has read Blood and Thunder. But I don't understand why someone would condemn a whole body of work just for some comments that come off as insensitive. From what I've read, Howard actually softened H.P.L's racist views a bit through his correspondence.

  10. If we start having to throw away literature, etc., for its insensitivity, I suppose we won't have much of a need for history departments, either.

  11. I though that the whole "HOWARD IS A RACIST" thing was a long lost issue.

    Even the Solomon Kane stories, when are read in "chronological order" seems to have an arc:

    A fanatic puritan, an standard white superhero... that realises that the world is bigger and richer that he ever could imagine.

  12. Atom Kid: I think it's pretty clear both REH and HPL softened as they aged in respect to race, and Howard did influence HPL's fiction subtly.

    Sandy, damn right. Next thing you know they'll be tearing down Abe Lincoln from Mount Rushmore because he believed in racial segregation and white supremacy, and Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves.

    Kike, "Howard the Racist" is a continual bugbear that pops up every now and then. It used to be all over the place back in the early '00s, before conan.com and a few other sites came online. Solomon Kane is a perfect example: you can practically see the growth in the stories.

  13. Well, Al, I've been struggling with the REH-racism question for more than 40 years, ever since I first started reading Howard in the mid-1960s. I believe there are degrees of racism. The extreme racist says, "My race is superior, and the lesser races should be defeated and destroyed." The moderate racist says, "My race is superior, but the lesser races can be tolerated as long as they know their place and stay in it." The mild racist says, "My race is superior, but the lesser races should be treated with compassion because they cannot help being what they are."

    I would place Robert E. Howard's "of-his-times" racism at the "Moderate" level. Sometimes he veered toward the extreme. Sometimes, as with Ace Jessel, he flirted with the mild. Generally, it seems that he could tolerate the presence of other races as long as they didn't try to mix with whites.

    I don't think REH's work should be disregarded or banned because of its racial content. It reflects the popular culture of his time. When I read work from that period, the racial content sometimes acts as a speed bump to my enjoyment of the stories. At worst, it's like an IED. But I try to keep those matters in perspective, more than I did when I first started writing. I was a crusader than. I feel more like a persuader now.

    In my mind, you won the debate with Jason Sanford.

  14. Thanks very much for the comment, Charles!

    My thoughts on REH echo your own, though I think Ace Jessel was a little more than a flirtation. He did seem to tolerate the existence of the blacks, and he definitely seemed to sympathise with their anger over their lot in life. That's why "Black Canaan" is such a powerful story for me.

    I readily admit that some of the stories were tough for me to read. "The Vale of Lost Women" was the one for me. If nothing else, it was good preparation for others. But my good experiences with REH far outweigh my bad experiences, and I firmly believe Howard's racism only affected a minority of his stories.

  15. what's schocking for me is the thing that Robert Jordan Conan is more successful than the original... maybe he thinks The wheel of time series are Conan stories...

  16. Hey Al, I think several of your own blog posts on this topic could be spliced together to form another counterpoint to "Southern Discomfort" to add to Mark Finn's. Why should there only be one counterpoint to it?

    Let the scholarship continue........

  17. Al:

    Thanks for your response to my post on Howard. I don't know why you couldn't post these comments on my blog. I think it had to do with the length of your comments, but I could be wrong.

    I now regret wading into this debate. Obviously I'm not a REH scholar--but I also never pretended to be one. I'm merely a reader who tried to examine this issue after I heard someone make a comment about Howard's racial views. I read as much of Howard's work and as much about his life as I could lay my hands on, along with some critical analysis. I then gave my opinion of what I saw in his life and works.

    I wasn't suggesting that we censure Howard or not read his writings, or that all of his works are racist. What I said was that I can't recommend his fiction to my kids or others. That was a mistake on my part--I should have said I can't recommend parts of his fictional works to my kids or others. But I also pointedly stated that the best of Howard's writings are not racist, and that I'd also want my kids to read those works which I can't recommend. In the end they will have to make their own decision about him.

    The bigger point I was trying to make was that while Howard was indeed a racist--not the world's worst racist, but also not the least racist person of his time--THIS DOESN'T mean we should discard the best aspects of Howard's world creation. When I talked about how cultures pick and choose which artifacts to pass on based on the choices individual people make, I wasn't stating that I want Howard censored. I was merely trying to describe how I see our culture handling both the best and worst aspects of Howard's fiction through adaptation and reimagining across recent decades.

    Despite what some people have said, I am not politically correct. Many literary works that people decry as racist are actually no such thing. Racism is also something that existed among most authors and people in past centuries. I have no desire to gut the best parts of our culture in some PC witch hunt. Nothing good would come of that. The point I was trying to make is that every culture decides for itself what cultural artifacts are worth passing onto the future. I thought I saw this at work with how our culture handles Howard's works, but perhaps I am wrong. Obviously time will tell.

    As I said, I'm not a REH expert. Before writing my essay I read Blood and Thunder, most of Howard's Conan stories (which have relatively few racist components and would for the most part be among his fictional works I'd recommend to others), a number of his non-Conan tales, the article "Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Tales and the Question of Race in Fantastic Literature" by Lorenzo Ditommaso, and obviously that "Southern Discomfort" article. If you or anyone else have additional sources I should read, please let me know and I'll check them out.

    I appreciate the measured tone you used to respond to my post. Many other people have simply attacked me on this. But understand that I'm someone who loves Conan stories and would prefer REH not have a single racist belief exhibited in either his writings or life. I'm also willing to be convinced that I'm wrong in what I've said. And Lord knows I haven't read everything REH wrote.

    BTW, I crossposted a version of this on my own blow. It's difficult to have conversations when they're split a billion ways, but that's how it goes.

  18. Jason,

    I believe it is the length that prevented me from commenting in full: I thought it would be better addressing the matter in one post rather than a dozen snippets.

    Thanks for coming over to the blog in person to explain your position. I think many Howard fans got up in arms about this because of the very sensitive nature of racism in modern society, and how the cultural shift between early 20th and early 21st century worldviews can be profoundly difficult to overcome. As such, people for whom racism is a strong issue such as yourself would react strongly to some of Howard's views and expressions.

    I can sympathize with this completely, since I too find racism highly offensive and upsetting. Some of the things in Howard's stories and letters are, frankly, nauseating. But at the same time, there's a difference between someone writing in Howard's environment, and modern times, because the approach to race is so fundamentally different.

    My main points of contention was not the racism in and of itself, but that Howard was particularly egregious for his time. I appreciate you making the effort to research Howard before coming to your conclusions, but the fact is that there is simply so much Howard to get through that one cannot get a full grasp of his work in such a short time.

    As for further reading, for a start, I recommend you peruse Keith Taylor's excellent article on racist elements in fiction contemporaneous with Howard:


    I'm very glad we could be courteous about this!

  19. in short:


    ill read a dozen conans and kulls over any given crappy POC fantasy. and yes, badly written POC fantasy does exist.

    case in point: a steampunk story called "pimp my airship" *shudders in fear*.

  20. people of color. that's just the short term.

  21. One small correction, if I might: To say that "lynchings were a popular pastime" in the 1930s overstates the case. Lynchings still occurred in the 1930s (and indeed, as late as 1964), but they were already on the wane by the 1930s, down some 80% from the turn of the century, and after 1935 never reached even double-digits. So while it still occurred, it's going to far to call it "a popular pastime" for Texas in the 1930s.

    Full statistics here.

  22. Thanks for the correction, Lawrence: it certainly isn't a small one, though.

    Still, the fact that there were hundreds of lynchings during Howard's lifetime - especially during Howard's youth, where there would be dozens every year during the late 1910's/early 1920s - illustrates my point adequately.

  23. Well, if you get down to it, perhaps we should just BAN these stories for all the violence in them. Let's see, there are countless wars going on around the Earth, and the USA has been instrumental in a prolonged middle / near-eastern conflict for over 10 years now.

    These stories depict conflict and violence- people aren't too upset about death and violence to be repulsed, I guess? So what's the GOOD reason to hate someone, then, and to kill? Governments send soldiers over for slaughter, and this is an HONORABLE use of violence and death.?

    Should we get to the point of banning literature and ending freedom of expression- if so, then let's go ahead and do away with almost everything. We are on some kind of self-destruct sequence, so maybe it's a good idea. We can ban sex, or anything that brings most people pleasure, too. Oh, that's kind of done in a schizophrenic way already.

    We can end up with this PC world where everyone is at peace and thinks the 'right' thing; problem is, who's to decide this, and what is the end result of a Utopian society where no one can think an original thought; really, a forced peace on earth is a fiction, and is not a truly peace by the fact of coercion and force. Slavery is not peace.

    This is a complex issue. To be true, one would really have to be like Jesus, and on some kind of pure path where diversions are kept out of one's life. Since we are in a world where some act like they want to build an atheistic Eden (well, I think there are some who are sincere in this, others in power who use this to their self-fulfilling ends), anything of the spirit will be discarded. We have this situation where the wrong tree is always barked up, and appears that the wrong one will continue to be barked up. The forest is never going to be seen because of the trees.

    So, escapist stories, freedom of expression, uncomfortable points of view-- the very world around us is in upheaval, deluded, and on a downward trajectory. Racism. I think that we're all going to be in despair of what might happen to this world-- and race may be the least of our worries. We are all de facto slaves, as it is- to corporations, government, and a monstrous society that feeds on all of our fear. Perhaps if we BAN any kind of stray, contentious or individual thought-- then maybe we'll all be OK.?


    1. Thanks for the comment, Adam: it's a perennial issue, and definitely deserves a good amount of discussion.