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September 20, 2010

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Enter H.P. Lovecraft - While he kept it mostly, but not entirely off the fiction page, he was an abhorrent racist yet his works are most esteemed in horror fiction, and rightly so. He is long dead, and I am over it, though I couldn't recommend his racist rants in some of his "letters" and "articles".

By that logic, why then have we not stopped the perpetuation of Shakespeare's plays which are arguably racist, anti-semnitic and sexist? I'm not defending Howard's racism, nor will I defend anyone's, but why do we always decide that Howard is worth censuring but we allow Shakespeare, H. G. Welles, H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs (just a few authors with equally racist notions)a free pass?

Mr Sanford, The subject of racism is a very touchy subject when it comes to Howard. That said, I take issue with a number of things in your article, particularly some of the conclusions you make which do not sit well with me. I address them at my personal blog: I'd rather not clutter up your blog with multiple comments.

Al: Thanks for responding on your blog. I don't know why your post didn't go through--I suspect it was too long for the system to handle. So people can read your response, the link is http://theblogthattimeforgot.blogspot.com/2010/09/oh-wow.html

In my opinion, yes, Howard's racism excludes those stories which reek of his racism from consideration in the ranks of great literature. Great literature is considered great when, in addition to utilizing top-notch language, characters, plot and so on, the literature also provides insight which readers continually find relevant to their lives. When racism obscures that insight, as in the worst of Howard's writings, I don't see how you can call the stories great. That doesn't mean people can't still read those stories as artifacts of their time. But great literature is supposed to resonate with each new generation. A story like "Black Canaan" does not do this.

As I mentioned in my essay, some of Howard's best stories don't showcase his racism. And as I also mentioned, there are many themes in Howard's writings which continue to resonate with readers. That's why the world he created is still being embraced by people. But for the most part, the world they're embracing is one seen through the reworking of his writings. Not his original stories.

Finally, there is no way to compare "Black Canaan" to Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." "Black Canaan" is one of the most racist stories written by a major American author in the 20th century. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is an attempt to explore racism. Granted, Howard no doubt thought he was being open minded in how he portrayed the story's main character because the man did not hate black people as much as the other characters. But the story is still flat-out racist. I urge people to read it and make their own decision.

Finally, I must disagree with your comment that Howard's "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." I think you are trying to rationalize away too much with this point. That is similar to the old saying that people in the South weren't racist because they liked black people individually, just not as a group.

As I said in my essay, one can both state that Howard was a racist and still enjoy the worlds he created. The fact that he held some horrible views, and used these views in some of his writings, doesn't change the power of the genre and world he created. Again, that's why so many people keep coming back to experience Conan the Barbarian--even if the stories and comics and movies they experience are not the exact stories Howard originally wrote.

I totally agree with Mr. Sanford . We shouldn't read any of the original REH Conan stories, even the ones that aren't racist, because REH was a racist. But we can still enjoy the character, just as long as he's in a pastiche story, because if its a pastiche it doesn't matter that the guy who created him was a racist, as long as we the readers don't know who he is. Hence the problem, as I see it, is that if people find out about REH via Conan it could still potentially lead them to REH's writings, and obviously no one wants that. So my solution is that CPI should only publish Conan stories without REH's name isn't attached to them. This way, they can continue to publish the original stories (which let's face it, are light years ahead of Robert Jordan), and it will be okay to read them as well. As long as REH's name is not attached there's no chance of readers being led down the slippery path of reading his more racist stuff.

And Jason, thanks for the link to Black Canaan. Clearly the most effective way to dissuade people from reading the work of a particular author is to point them to one of his stories and tell them to read it.

Mr Sanford, by any chance are you related to Maggie Van Ostrand?

Your comments, while interesting are off the mark and show lack of knowledge of Howard and how racism is portrayed in fiction. First, I would hardly call Gary Romeo's (whom I know personally and is a brother REHupan) article cutting edge criticism. It is a poor choice to hold up as I can drill holes through it. If you are going to consider Black Canaan, one of Howard's best regional setting stories, racist, then you have to be able to prove that Howard hated blacks and used his literature as propaganda and an agenda against blacks. No, Black Canaan is not a racist story. The racism that is present is that of the characters, painted in a very true to the times picture, to create realism. It is not Howard's racism you see. There is a very important distinction between the two. Consider Mark Twain.
I'm not saying that REH did not make some racist comments in his letters, but you also have to consider that he was a Texan, and liked to exaggerate a bit. To me, that includes pushing the racist appearing envelope. I cannot consider it sane to judge 1930's literature through the lens of modern racist theory. As mentioned by another, there are plenty of other famous writers whose work show the attitude and sentiments of their times. One MUST take this into consideration when reading literature from an earlier period. It is an insight for scholars into the thinking and mores of the period. In fact, I just read an article from the Slavery & Abolition academic journal, where the author compared Howard's use of slave uprisings as revealing a number of largely unspoken assumptions
about the historical role of slavery and its consequences in Jim Crow Texas. This was a well researched article and the author expressed the POV that Howard's fiction gave good insight into this segregationist concept.
I think L. Sprague de Camp said it best, "If a racist, Robert Howard was, by the standards of his time and place, a comparatively mild one." I could cite endless other examples that contradict Howard as a racist, other than normal sentiments for his time, but I think you get the drift.
Cheers
Scotty Henderson, UBC, Vancouver, BC

I don't think reading Conan comic books, reading an article claiming R.E.H. was a racist, and then spending a few weeks reading some of his original writings really gives you any kind insight into Howard's supposed racism.

If you want to read a good biography about Robert E. Howard I suggest you read "Blood and Thunder- The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard" by Mark Finn who really knows his R.E.H. It puts to bed a lot of the absurd claims that he was a racist.

Scotty, Chad: Actually, I did read a Blood and Thunder, which was a good bio. I also read a number of Howard's original works and commentary by others.

While the "Southern Discomfort" article has it flaws, it at least made an in-depth attempt to examine Howard's racial views. What I found in my study of all this is that many Howard scholars tend to gloss over his racism with variations on the "you really don't know what racism is" or "he wasn't really that racist" arguments. I understand that this is a touchy area about a subject they love, but this strikes me as a major flaw in the critical examination of Howard.

I don't pretend to be a Howard scholar. So feel free to dismiss my analysis for what it is--that of a reader who began reading Howard's original works to see what was going on with all this. But I have heard a number of readers complain over the years about how they couldn't read many of Howard's original stories because of his racism. The simple truth is people are very good at knowing racism when they see it. And in many of Howard's original writings they know what they see.

BTW, please don't take this as an attack on any of you. I appreciate your willingness to debate this issue. And if you have more resources you think I should read, please suggest them. I'm always happy to do more reading.

"What I found in my study of all this is that many Howard scholars tend to gloss over his racism with variations on the "you really don't know what racism is" or "he wasn't really that racist" arguments."

I'm sorry, what? From what I understand, *most* scholars do not dismiss Howard's racism as you say they do.

Another writer who thinks he can sum up complexity with a label. This is like those who apologize for Edgar Rice Burroughs as a man who was nice guy but "racist" to the core despite having his white man live among his fellow Africans, refer to them as brothers and choose to continue living in Africa. Tarzan's crime of racism- he was white.
Robert Howard's crime of racism- Howard was white.

Now, why does a racist portray heroic aspects in black characters in his books? How does a racist make black characters who are not only interesting but smart, cagy and often more intelligent than the lead white character?
I don't know, unless..... well unless that "racist" is somewhat admiring of black people and their culture. But, gee, to then still be a racist?

Let me tell you what a racist does (I KNOW racists):
A racist denigrates anyone other than their own culture as a rule. Racists do not see other cultures as interesting enough to make them diverse or complex. No, racists would not bother to feature other cultures beyond their own stereotypical view of them. At the very best a racist only uses other cultures to make the racist's culture look superior.
I've met those "intellectual" racists, but at their core they fear and/or hate other cultures and their fondest wish is to live in a world in which other races/cultures are not present unless as subservient to those who deem themselves as superior. Think slave owners.
Racists are not tolerant. The closest they come to that is being condescending in polite company.
Some people have their little prejudices. I've found that those who see others differently than themselves are not too terribly socially inclined, but that's not racism either.
Racism is not just a way of seeing others as different. They also see them as inferior, somehow not human or at best something maybe kin to human but not entirely human.

"You killed a black man? Guess he had it coming to him".

"You killed Martin's man servant? Well that was his property so you'd better pay up or get a lawyer".

While these examples are pretty hard on our current social sensitivities I can assure everyone that if we lived in a truly racist world this is how things would operate and have in our relatively recent past.

We've begun to water this definition down and throw the word around like it's just some casual prejudice but the reason the term is still so culturally offensive is based on how it used to be applied. After all, if a Nazi is guilty gassing, or supporting the gassing of Jews (and others), was a racist how is that to be compared with some guy warily eying the new hispanic family moving in to a predominantly white ethno-european neighborhood? Heck, once he gets to know the new folks he'll feel a little bad for his prejudice but he'll still be a far cry from some fascist who shot dead or just imprisoned a Roma just for being a Roma. I can also assure you the Nazi will not look romantically upon a Roma women. He may recognize their like physicality and then rape her but he will not make love to an inferior.
This level of hatred is the matured version but it's no less ingrained in smaller ways from the very beginning when it was taught to a child.
This was not Robert Howard, or his upbringing, at least not based upon his writing.
Sorry to labor this but if our definitions are to be so casually watered down then what do we call those who inspired those definitions?

The biggest problem with your opinion is that you're so sensitive to what you see as racism of one culture that you utterly the fact that Robert Howard had terrible things to say about all cultures and all "races" including the duplicity, vanity, viciousness and arrogance of his own white culture.
I guess you missed that.
So many do.
I'm sure your follow-up rant will mention Robert Howard's overt sexism (while ignoring Sonya, , Valeria, Agnes and Zenobia), though I'm betting not one jot will be penned regarding the man's displeasure with religion.
I really love the part where you make these comments originally based on the stories read in the sequential medium (mostly populist and also dreadfully pat) and then went on to read a few stories, no doubt to reenforce an already established opinion.
By the way, while I'm culturally white (raised as such), I'm a veritable mix of ethnicities along with having dark brown or black (no time for hyphenated titles since we're ALL Americans) and hispanic relatives. Some of Howard's writing is a bit harsh but he also had a somewhat contradictory, very complex view of the world, more so than you (and others before you) bothered to investigate. It's hard for me to sum him up and the way people throw around the word "racist" these days, (I've been called a "hater" because I'm not a fan of rap and hip-hop) and given our touchy feely apologist culture, Howard's work is clearly not for everyone.
It's a real shame we don't focus more effort on ending our own institutionalized racism rather than ranting on the foibles of dead man who never found his place in this world.
You believe Robert was a racist? Whatever makes you feel better about yourself o' politically correct guy. I can't tell you what you don't want to believe. I can tell you I'd rather hang with that "racist" than with you spotters of covert behavior. It's a shame he threw in the towel. It's always the wrong people following through with the early exit.

There's nothing new in that.

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 there are additional sources I should read, I hope people will let me know.

I appreciate the measured tone Al Harron 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 Al Harron's blog. It's difficult to have conversations when they're split a billion ways, but that's how it goes.

I'm a Howard fan, but I'm not an apologist. A lot of his works do have overt elements of racism, which at the time was acceptable. A lot of his works, on the other hand, do not have these elements.

His Conan, Solomon Kane, Bran Mac Morn, and Kull stories are stories which have little to no racist overtone. But read "the Fightin'est Pair" and you'll see all sorts of it. Still, as a social artifact, I think it is important. But dealing with absolutes such as "so and so, was/wasn't racist" is probably not an argument anybody is going to win any time soon. Especially if that person lived in a different time, with different social mores, and has been dead for 75 years.

Jason, you should regret it. These battles are never one by any side. I'll go further than Clint. There are only "elements of racism" in some Howard stories. Are elements racism? No, I don't think so. That fact that the word "nigger" shows up in many stories in itself is not an indication of racism. It is just a word. As I said before, racism has an agenda, and that is hate. It is quite clear to the seasoned Howard student that you can't judge the man by his writings alone. You need to understand his times, his surroundings, his influences, and the educations and standards of the those times. I've been studying and reading Howard since the 60's so I've got 50 years of reflection to drawn on. I'm not trying to change your mind, just the fact that it is impossible to read a few books and articles on Howard, some of his work, and then flat out state he was a racist.

I stand by my opinion that all the so called racism in his stories, is just realism, because Howard knew that was what real like was like, and had some of his characters be racist. At worst he had some relatively mild racist remarks in his letters, but it was racism tempered by the general view of these things in his day. That is not a cop out. It is simply the way it was. As Rick Tucker noted, this is nothing compared to what real racist say and do. There is absolutely no evidence of Howard ever acting the part of a racist in person. Actions are real, words on paper mean nothing unless they are aimed at and target any group the author hates. ou simply won't find tis in Howard. His sentiments are always for the underdog regardless of race, creed, or colour. Today we'd say he was anti-establishment.

You're perfectly free to guide your sons toward whatever kind of reading you'd like. But to even imagine that the Conan comic books are anywhere close to the quality that Howard himself put into his work is amazing to me.

The fact is that almost everyone has some racist or prejudicial beliefs. Perhaps directed at blacks, or hispanics, or whites, or Muslims, or Christians, or women, or the French. Most of us, fortunately for us, do not get examined under a microscope like Howard has. I know quite a lot about Howard and have written many articles on him. Although he expressed racist attitudes in some of his letters, there is no evidence that he ever acted or would have acted on his expressed attitudes. I don't believe he would have treated your sons any differently than he would anyone else's sons had he met them. He also expressed admiration for black characters many times in his fiction.

The fact is, Howard was a complex individual, as are you and I and most everyone else on earth. I don't think we should either gloss over or unduly emphasis one particular aspect of his life while ignoring others.

See, the problem with this whole argument, in my eyes, is that nobody likes when their heroes are shown as flawed. I honestly believe that Howard was a racist.

It was a different time. Racism was acceptable back then. Hell, with Jim Crow, it was the law. If Howard had lived today, maybe he would have been different. Lovecraft was a racist too. Just ask his cat. I can't make apologies or excuses for either of them. And near as I can tell, neither man let their prejudices drive their works. No, it wasn't a racist soapbox. It was merely reflected in their stories at times. Still doesn't change the fact that they were racists.

Our literary heroes don't have to be perfect. We can love them for their works, their vision, imagination, and contributions. We should accept them for their flaws, and also accept that others don't have to like them, though we can hope really hard that they can see past the warts and see them as we do. If not, that's okay.

Racism was the least of Howard's problems. He was an anti-social misfit, and a tortured soul who killed himself due to some really creepy mommy issues. He is dead, but his works live on; in whatever tone they were written. They are still around for us to enjoy, or decide to avoid, as the case may be. Unlike DeCamp, whose reworkings of Howard practically eliminated the unpopular elements, I think REH's works should be read just as they were published.

To Clint:
I would agree with you that our literary heroes don't have to be perfect. If you (and others) accept at face value that REH was a racist, like so many others of his time, and like so many other authors from the early 20th century, why then would you start the discussion with "Howard was a racist?" Do you start Conrad discussions with "Joe was a racist?" Do you lead off on Hemingway with a discussion of his suicide?

Part of the reason for my fellow fan's reaction to this blog post is the fact that, so often, that's how people tend to start a discussion of Robert E. Howard. Not that he was a genius writer, or a gifted poet, or that he carved a literary career for himself out of a small town in Texas during the Great Depression and as far away from the publishing centers as possible. Always lead with a negative. A derogatory.

Look, people see what they want to see in all literature, not just Howard's (but sometimes, especially in Howard's). For every instance of racial bias you can show me in his work, I can counter it with an even handed or complimentary instance to the contrary. We Howardists would prefer it if people made up their own minds, instead of closing them off at the whim of someone else's opinion. So, yeah, if this defense seems somewhat strident, it's because this is not the first time we've had to do this little dance.

And at the risk of sounding like a crass opportunist, "anti-social misfit...who killed himself due to some really creepy mommy issues" has been thoroughly debunked now.

Call me ignorant, but I really dislike this whole "race" discussion thing. People are people. Fantasy literature in modern times hides behind the layers of "races" like elves, dwarfs, trolls, orcs to still revel in racist beliefs and views. People suck those stories up, they LOVE them, they loves cliches. Be it racially based cliches, be it cultural cliches. All are unfair, because they generalize. They are not more or less unfair than categorizing by "race" or by "culture".

Howard was a product of his time and surroundings and in many of his stories you can see, that he broke free from the "pure racist" belief and categorizing, frequently making people of an "evil race" doing good things. In a way to people of the Hyborian Age, the "race" of a certain person was defining his/her character, simply because that person in 99,999% of the time never left their cultural background and therefore inhibited a good bit of cultural and ultimately "racial" features of his surroundings. So for Conan to think "Zamorans are thieves and liers" is quite logical and has a perfect place in the story.

Now I say grow up, get over it. Art is art. Art can be politically incorrect, that's why it's art. It has to have a certain kind of freedom. Conan kills innocent people, just like in any fantasy story. The hero gets away with ethically very questionable behaviour. Always. No one gets himself worked up over it. Why suddenly get all wussy about the racial thing, when you pass on all the other problematic elements?

Where I come from, we don't get all worked up over race, colour or anything. It's not a topic, we just live with PEOPLE. We don't carefully look not to upset a black person or not upset them. They are people, I live with them every day. If they behave like asses, I treat them like asses, if they are nice, I am nice. It's that simple. Stop obsessing over the whole racial thing, you are just making it stand out more prominent. Categories are human. We categorize everything. A bit of categorization will always be there. It's a general thing, that everyone of us has to watch and improve, to not make it a habbit. Racial categorization is just ONE point of the problem. The more you obsess over it, the less you have to watch the other occasions you categorize and rate people based on the category they fall in. Stop obsessing, learn to accept your human nature, watch it, improve it. Grow up. Seriously.

"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."

Where in Howard's correspondence is this shown?

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