Literary Texas: Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard, another rural, small-town Texan born around the turn of the twentieth century, made a lasting mark on the fiction world. He was, though, quite different from both the high church architect of literary fiction Katherine Anne Porter and the son-of-the-Texas-soil Fred Gipson despite this fact of time and space, a space that finds Howard buried, like Porter, in Brown County, Texas, only a few miles apart. There, however, the kinship ends, their aesthetic being, in the minds of most, eons apart. But Howard was to have a distinction of which few writers can boast. He is largely credited with creating a completely new genre in literature, that genre known as Sword and Sorcery.  

On January 22, 1906, Robert Ervin Howard was born in Peaster, Texas, a tiny town in Parker County, approximately 40 miles from Ft. Worth. Robert’s parents were Isaac and Hester Howard. Isaac, a physician who some have proclaimed one of the most important, pioneer doctors of his time, moved his family not far but often in order to meet the needs of various locales. Robert spent short periods of time in small towns and communities: Dark Valley, Seminole, Bronte, Poteet, Oran, Wichita Falls, Bagwell, Cross Cut, Burkett, and finally Cross Plains, where he arrived at the age of 13. As the child of a doctor in a time and place with limited medical services and considerable needs often resulting from increased accidents, disease, and danger brought about by the oil boom, Robert was exposed to considerable unpleasantness, including violence, which seemed to convince him that the world was a treacherous place.

His mother Hester, however, did all she could to improve her son’s situation. She loved poetry and literature and read to her only child daily, exposing him to history and critical thought. She helped him to be curious and encouraged him in his love of writing that began as stories of ancient battle heroics.

A trip the family took to New Orleans in 1919, took an eventful turn for Robert, a turn that would strongly influence his entire future. While his father took medical courses, Robert visited a library and found a book on the Scottish Picts. These ancient Celtic, warlike peoples liked to body paint and likely derived the name Pict from picti meaning painted.  They were often described as savage and barbarian, but a well-organized people who loved freedom and raged without end against the Roman invaders of Scotland. The legends and histories of these unrelenting warriors inspired him.

By the age of 15, Robert was writing adventure stories and submitting them to magazines. He collected piles of rejections. His first published stories came when he went to Brownwood, Texas, not far from Cross Plains, in order to complete his senior year in high school. While there, he submitted some stories to the school newspaper, The Tattler, and they were accepted. After his year in Brownwood, he returned to Cross Plains.

Howard later spent some time taking courses at Howard Payne College in Brownwood but dropped out after he had a story accepted in 1924 by a magazine called Weird Tales. Eventually, he published many stories in the magazine and returned to Howard Payne where he graduated from a course in bookkeeping. Among the many stories Howard published in Weird Tales was “Wolfshead,” his first cover story, and The Shadow Kingdom, featuring a protagonist called Kull, a story many see as the beginning of a new genre of Howard’s creation known as Sword and Sorcery. Kull is considered the forerunner of the most famous of Howard’s creations, Conan, the Barbarian.

            While Conan, the Barbarian is Robert Howard’s main claim to fame, he wrote in many genres including horror, sword and sorcery, ghost stories, fantasies, boxing tales, Celtic stories, Middle and Far Eastern stories, as well as others. Additionally, he wrote numerous poems. He continues to have new fans in each succeeding generation, and his name lives on for those who enjoy his multitude of adventurous tales.

The end of Robert E. Howard’s personal story is a sad one. In 1936, Hester Howard, Robert’s beloved mother, was on her death bed. She had long suffered from tuberculosis. Robert, his father, and friends were holding a vigil at her bedside on that June night. She was in a coma. When Robert asked a nurse if his mother would ever revive and she replied that she would not, he got up, went to his car, pulled out a gun, and shot himself. He died some hours later. His mother died the next day. They had a joint funeral at Cross Plain’s First Baptist Church and were buried in Brownwood’s Greenleaf Cemetery.  Eight years later, Isaac Howard joined them there. A triple tombstone sets atop their graves.

6 thoughts on “Literary Texas: Robert E. Howard

  1. Edgar Rice Burroughs started by interest in strong male characters and adventure when I faithfully spent 10 cents a month on the latest Tarzan comic book. Later as I learned to read more deeply I made the progression from Burroughs to Ray Bradbury and his take on science fiction that grew out of the writings of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and EdgarAllen Poe. At this point I did not move on to Heinlen and Clark, but stepped back a bit towards adventure based in the legends of the past. This is when I discovered Howard. I guess it was easier to romanticize and visualize a past that could not harm anyone, more than a distopian future that actually might.

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    1. Interesting. I have never been a huge fan a barbarian-type adventures, but I am a great fan of writers; the worlds of imagination they create whether in a fantastic vein, in the sphere of a character’s interior world, or in the realm of everyday life take talent, skill, and hard work. Like you, I have often enjoyed living in some of those worlds for a brief, shining moment. Thanks for your comments.

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  2. Thank you so much for this post. You know I love my speculative fiction. I had no idea of the local connection to Mr. Howard. His most famous character is indelible, and one can see his fingerprints in fantasy books and role-playing games written ever since.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Brian, you might want to visit Cross Plains sometime. His and his parents’s home there has been turned into a museum and the library has a nice collection of his work along with some original manuscripts. I had long known of Mr. Howard’s creation of Conan but did not realize he was so prolific and influential a writer or that the genre Sword and Sorcery was widely attributed to him. Thank you for your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

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