Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Dark Valley Destiny, Part I

Last week my family and I left the South Texas town where we live and headed northward to visit my wife's relations near the Oklahoma state line. The journey takes us through Brady, reputedly the geographical Heart of Texas, and thence through the town of Brownwood, which happens to be the burial place of Robert E. Howard.

My thoughts are usually full of Howard and his writings when I'm in the area. He spent most of his adult life in nearby Cross Plains, which I had the opportunity to visit on the seventy-fifth anniversary of his death several years ago while en route to a wedding in Eastland. (You can read my little photo essay here.)

Later on our Christmas odyssey I stopped by the excellent North Texas used bookstore I used to frequent in college, and there acquired a biography of Robert E. Howard, Dark Valley Destiny (1983), written by L. Sprague de Camp, his wife Catherine Crook de Camp, and psychology professor Jane Whittington Griffin, who grew up in Eastland. I'm about halfway through it now, but thought I'd take the time to jot down some of my reactions. Right now these mostly deal with his family history and environment; later on I'll comment on what I learn about his life as a writer.

The biography begins with an extensive account of the Howard family's ancestry and peregrinations. I'm struck by the similarity with my wife's family and by the many times their paths crossed, in space if not in time. My wife's family has resided in the state since the nineteenth century; she is, I believe, a sixth-generation Texan, a mixture of Irish, German, Dutch, French, and Native American. Her relations came here from Tennessee, Missouri, and other parts of the United States, and include preachers, odd-jobbers, ranchers, oil-field workers, and fiddlers; among her ancestors are the last victims of an Indian massacre in their county. Robert Howard's grandparents likewise entered the state in the late nineteenth century, when it was still a wild and largely lawless place. Howard's father, Dr. Isaac Howard, studied and practiced medicine in the counties where my wife's family resides.

Other geographical connections abound. The Howards at one time made regular trips to Crystal City, a small town (now something of a boom town, thanks to the Eagle Ford shale formation) not far from where we now live. Robert Howard wrote his poem "Cimmeria" in Fredericksburg, in the Texas Hill Country, a town I've visited many times; as a matter of fact, my parents' antique bedstead comes from a famous old hotel there.

The biography contains considerable background information. It's rather amusing to read the history and customs of Texas described from the point of view of an alien. There are of course many hasty generalizations and unfair remarks. The easy condemnation of the pre-Anglo culture and the ascription of Texan independence to the Protestant work ethic and the laziness of the Hispanos rankles now as it did when I was spoon-fed the state curriculum in grade school. (My ancestors have been Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox since they were converted from paganism, and I can't think of anyone who wasn't a hard worker.) It also makes the de Camps' lofty condemnations of Texan racism a bit less impressive. But when all is said and done these are quibbles. The background passages are well done.

Of course, Texas varies considerably from region to region, and I'm definitely an alien in my wife's ancestral homeland. I've been made to feel extremely uncomfortable there on several occasions, and once was threatened with physical violence at a rural gas station. The text mentions that, in Robert Howard's time, blacks were not allowed to spend the night in his county; similarly, my father-in-law has told me that he remembers a large sign on the way into his town expressing the same sentiments in somewhat forceful terms. (I'll not quote it for fear of what the search engines might bring.) And yet the people, Robert E. Howard included, didn't consider themselves racist.

There were also strong anti-Catholic sentiments in that part of the state, shared to some extent by Howard, and, as I know from personal experience, it's still extremely hard to find a Catholic church when you need one. I once had to go out of my way to attend mass at St. Mary's in Brownwood, across the street from Howard Paine University, two blocks from the street where Howard lived when he attended school there.

The text cites an interesting survey conducted by Texas A&M in five central Texas counties: in 1931, 50 percent of the households heated their homes with wood, and 90 percent used boiling water and a washboard to do the laundry; in a third of the households, the Bible was the only book. And yet 85 percent owned automobiles. That's Texas for you. As a matter of fact, my wife's grandparents still lacked running water in the fifties, when my father-in-law was a boy. But in 1931, Howard had only five years to live, and it's curious to think of him, a writer for pulp magazines read all over the country, isolated in the midst of such material poverty and (relative) illiteracy. He felt his isolation very keenly.

Howard came of age during the oil boom era. It's strange to read about gambling and whorehouses in the little towns around the area, which later became so puritanical. In reality, it would seem that the puritanism was in part a reaction against these incursions of vice. Many of the counties are still dry, and drinking is surrounded with strange taboos. Some readers might be surprised to discover that Howard himself had more in common with Solomon Kane than Conan the Cimmerian.

The text dwells on religion in the Howard household. To the outsider, religion in that part of the state is a mélange of Bible Christianity and idiosyncratic additions emphasizing emotional fervor, personal calls, external prohibitions, and readiness for the end times, more akin to an enthusiastic offshoot like Montanism or Catharism than to traditional Christianity. Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away, though set in the Deep South, could just as well have taken place in the area.

Robert and his father, however, were both more or less agnostic, and never attended church regularly. Dr. Howard was read in pseudo-Oriental occultism and made use of "alternative" medical treatments like hypnotism, folk medicine, and magnetic healing in his practice. Robert seems to have read everything his father owned, and often speculated on the nature of the afterlife, the possibility of reincarnation, and the human soul. He remained unconvinced by his friend H. P. Lovecraft's arguments for atheistic materialism.

The text indulges in quite a bit of psychologizing, owing partly to the psychologist co-author, no doubt, but (one suspects) directed by L. Sprague himself. An attempted reconstruction of the subject's psyche is assuredly called for, but when the authors remind the reader of their theses on every page it strikes one as a bit much. Their two main theses are: (1) that Robert, raised in Texas, where the tall tale is an "art form" (their assertion), never developed the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality; and (2) that Robert's sexuality was repressed by his unhealthy attachment to his mother.

As to the first, it used to be common for child psychologists and educational theorists to warn of the supposed dangers of warping children's minds by telling them the wrong kinds of stories. I've heard of education professors teaching with the force of dogma that children's fantasy stories should take place only as dream sequences, and that the division between fantasy and reality should be clearly demarcated.

So, was Robert's mind warped by all those tall tales? Certainly he had a tenuous understanding of worldly reality at times. But how could someone who's not sure of what's real and what's not write fantasy stories? Isn't that the very profession in which you have to know the difference? Writers who can't differentiate write the kinds of speculative and theosophical texts that Dr. Howard was so fond of, not sword and sorcery tales. In addition, Howard wrote in a variety of genres, and ultimately decided to give up fantasy in favor of markets that would pay better. Is that the mark of someone trapped in a fantasy world?

As for Howard's mother, well, we have the great facts that he was afraid of women, never lived apart from his mother on a permanent basis, and committed suicide upon learning of her coming death. So some exploration of Oedipal fixations is certainly in order. But, as I said above, ominous pronouncements get a little old when they are repeated on every other page and related to virtually every sphere of the subject's life.

In addition, there are, I think, other constructions that could be put on the facts as we know them, rendering Howard's reliance on his parents an effect rather than a cause. Here's some data that come to mind:
  • when he was a boy, Howard's play with other children consisted solely of scripted roles that he assigned and directed
  • Howard was bullied in school, and his family's frequent moves had a seriously deleterious effect on his social development
  • he was unable to play on a team and hated team sports, but enjoyed one-on-one sports like boxing
  • he had a peculiar handshake
  • he never had a girlfriend of any sort until fairly late in his twenties, and his fear of women was noted by his friends
  • when Howard did first kiss a woman (as the result of a prank), he copied what he had seen in movies to such a ludicrous extent that the girl noticed it
  • Howard was apparently unable to follow verbal instructions but did well with written instructions
  • he prospered in a job only when working by himself
  • his writing style bore no relation to his manner of speaking, so much so that a writer correspondent who visited him in Cross Plains left disillusioned and refused to answer his letters thenceforth
  • he was frequently overcome with violent emotions but gave no sign of it in his facial expressions
  • he was poor at reading the emotions of others and imagined himself surrounded by personal enemies
  • he exhibited several obsessive-compulsive traits
  • he dressed somewhat peculiarly and with a strange uniformity, and was noted for his inattention to personal appearance
  • he was apparently unable to live on his own for more than just economic reasons
  • his circle of friendships was limited in curious ways, and he could spend an hours-long bus ride talking the driver's ear off while ignoring his traveling companion
  • when Howard read, he interpreted everything primarily in relation to himself
  • he was regarded as an eccentric throughout his life
Allow me to indulge in a little of my own psychologizing. No doubt my own judgment is colored by my prejudices and experiences, but I begin to wonder if Robert E. Howard was, like me, saddled with an autism disorder. Not all high-functioning autistic persons are reclusive computer geniuses who wear argyle socks with their sandals, and Howard resembles some of the case studies I've read. It seems worth expanding on the idea in a separate post.

At any rate, I intend to continue jotting down my reactions to Dark Valley Destiny, which I'm greatly enjoying.

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