Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Man of Letters

Cliff called me Monday evening to let me know that my copy of the Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Volume One had arrived and was waiting at the Dr. No's. I had a previous commitment so I couldn't drop everything and zoom over to the store and get it, but boy I wanted to. I've been waiting for that book for about six months.
So yesterday I left work a couple of hours early, purely so I could pick up the book and actually have a chance to read some of it before the weekend. I wasn't disappointed. Within the first twenty pages or so I'd already learned a couple of things I didn't know about Robert E. Howard, and begun to get a better feel for his personality. The letters begin in 1923, when Howard was only 17 years old, and not yet a published writer. Though parts of these letters to friends are concerned with the day to day mundane events of Howard's life, large chunks are already devoted to story fragments, poems, and musings on subjects that will eventually emerge as major themes in Howard's fiction.
Whenever I truly love a writer's work, I usually end up trying to learn all I can about the author. Thus, my bookshelves are stuffed with biographies and literary studies of writers like Raymond Chandler, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, John D. Macdonald, Ross MacDonald, Ellis Peters, Fritz Lieber, Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott, William Morris, etc, etc. I have collections of the letters of many of those writers as well. Not surprisingly, I have usually found that reading the correspondence of a writer gives one a better sense of the person. In letters the writer is just a person talking about things that interest him or annoy him or just make him happy. Kind of like what you see on blogs. (I will warn you that an amazing amount of time and space is given to the discussion of dress fabrics in the letters of Jane Austen...)
Howard is something of a special case for me, in that I identify with him more than most other authors. Though our births are separated by almost 60 years, I found that we have a lot in common. Howard was born and raised in a small southern town. He was misunderstood and to some degree ridiculed early on because of his bookish ways. Raised in an environment of rednecks and country boys, he learned to talk the talk just to get by, but he was ultimately unsuited to that world. Boy can I identify. Howard was outwardly gregarious and easy going, inwardly he tended toward brooding and emotional turmoil. Oh golly, not me, no. He eventually became a weightlifter and studied boxing, becoming a large and powerful man. I had an advantage there, having always been a big guy, but of course I did become a weight lifter and a martial artist. A former girlfriend once said I had the soul of a poet and the body of a Neanderthal.
Anyway, I have often wondered if my fascination with Howard's most popular creation, Conan the Cimmerian, can be attributed not just to the charisma of everyone's favorite barbarian, but also to sharing a similar background and temperament to Conan's creator. Or maybe I'm just projecting. In any event, I'm looking forward to delving further into Howard's letters. There are two more projected volumes in the series, so there is much to be gleaned in the upcoming months.

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