The great thing about going to conventions is seeing the writers, editors, and fans who make up our genre. There's nothing better than meeting someone you only know through their writings and discovering, gee, she's even nicer in person.
Of course, there's also the flip side to meeting people in real life--sometimes they turn out to be ignorant or worse. This happened to me recently at a convention. I was walking out of a panel discussion when I overheard someone say, "Robert E. Howard wasn't a racist because he didn't know any black people."
My mind almost slammed out of my head at that comment. I didn't know the person who said those words--he was merely one of the many people attending the convention. Still, I was unable to let such a stupid comment slide. So I asked what the man meant.
Now you need to know the setting. The speaker was a middle-aged white guy. I'm a white guy. Everyone listening was a white guy. The speaker obviously felt comfortable in such a setting and said that no one can be racist if they don't know any of the people they're supposedly racist against. I looked at the guy and said bullshit. That some of the worst racists are people who don't actually know any of the people they're hating against.
I guess the speaker wasn't expecting a white man to call him on his stupidity because he got all flustered and began rambling about Howard's life and writings. Since I'm not an expert on Howard beyond knowing he created Conan the Barbarian and is considered the father of sword and sorcery fiction, I kept the focus on the speaker's stupid statement. The conversation didn't last long and we soon went our separate, irritated ways.
Since then, I've been thinking about Robert E. Howard. Prior to that convention the sum total of my exposure to Howard had been reading the Savage Sword of Conan comics and several modern Conan novels, which obviously Howard didn't write. So I've spent the last few weeks both reading his works and analyzing his writings and life.
And the simple truth is Hell yes! The bastard was a racist!
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.
While the article lays out what I would call a rather pointed case for Howard's racism, Romeo appears to partly excuse this by saying that by the standards of Howard's time and place--the 1920 and '30s South and Southwest--his racism wasn't that unsual. However, I disagree with this. The fact that Howard's correspondence shows 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. Was such racism commonplace during that time and place? Of course. But it was still not acceptable to many people.
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.
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.
This is cultural change in action. As a father with a biracial family, I will not recommend Howard's stories to my sons. As a critic and reader, I will not recommend his stories to anyone else. When enough people do this, an author's work moves out of the cultural mainstream.
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.
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.
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.
Now, I'm not ignorant of literary theory. I'm familiar with the view that it is impossible to separate a writer's personal beliefs from his or her creations. And there are works and authors where this is a totally valid criticism. But in this instance, I think Howard's greatest creation can be separated from who Howard was as a man. For proof of this, consider the world's number one Conan the Barbarian fan: Barack Obama.
The fact that the first African-American President of the United States loves the Conan comic books--remember, that's a new work playing off Howard's original stories--speaks volumes about how cultural values can both change and endure. 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. No, what matters is that when Obama read the Conan comics while a young man, they resonated with him. (Side note: The anecdote about Howard can be found toward the bottom of that "Southern Discomfort" article.)
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.
So in the end, Robert E. Howard was a racist. When my kids are old enough, I will not recommend his fiction to them. (*See note below) I'll also explain how Howard was so racist he would have thought of my sons as less than human. I'll then suggest they read Howard's fiction and history to discover for themselves how racist the man was.
But despite that, I'll also recommend that my kids check out the new Conan the Barbarian novels and comics and even see Arnold's films. Not that any of these works are perfect. But my kids will likely enjoy them and they can do so without dealing with Howard's racist baggage.
And that is the esssence of how cultures change.
* Note: I screwed this part up. What I intended to say was that I would not recommend some of Howard's fiction to my kids or others. This intent was consistent with what I said earlier in the essay about how the best of Howard's work--such as many of his Conan stories--do not show any racism at all. I'm also not calling for censoring Howard's works. Merely that I won't recommend some of his stories to my kids or others. See the comments below for more on all this.