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.
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.