It’s been a few years since the first edition of this volume was published, and in that time Howard studies have moved forward, with new biographical material coming to light. In fact, new biographical details have continued to be unearthed since this edition went to press. That will probably (hopefully) continue for some time.
As he explained in the two part interview posted here last year (part 1, part 2), Mark Finn felt it was time for a second edition. Rather than rehash his remarks, I’m going to get straight to the point and discuss the book.
Including the endnotes but not the bibliography and index, the book comes in at 426 pages. It starts slow, giving family background information. That’s typical in any biography, so please don’t take the previous sentence as negative. That’s just the way it is. The book is divided into four sections, same as in the previous edition, with some chapters being heavily rewritten and others hardly touched. Again, not surprising or in any way atypical of many biographies that have new editions.
The book really took off for me in the second section, with the first chapter, “Authentic Liars”, discussing the oral storytelling tradition in which Howard grew up. It’s the tradition of the porch raconteur, the spinner of tall tales, the person who mixes enough truth into his words that you’re never really sure at which point he begins pulling your leg. It’s also a tradition that is vanishing, and in many parts of the country, lost.
This chapter sets the tone for much of what follows. Finn’s central thesis, or one of them at least, is that to understand Howard, one must understand the Texas in which he grew up. It’s a valid point, and one which is easy to overlook. With many of the traditions and values of the time being passed down relatively unchanged, we often forget how much has changed.
While this concept was central to the first edition of the book, Finn has expanded on it. What’s fairly new, and in my opinion of major importance to future Howard studies, is Finn’s assertion that an understanding of Howard’s humor is required to truly understand the man and his work. This is in my opinion one of the strengths of the second edition. I’ve never gotten into Howard’s humor. After reading the new material on his humorous stories, and reading again about how those stories fit in with the tall lying tradition, I’m going to be seeking them out. There’s a lot there I’ve been missing.
Finn tries his best to avoid the excesses of arm chair psychoanalysis engaged in by L. Sprague de Camp in Dark Valley Destiny. In many ways this book was written as a refutation of that biography. Fans of de Camp, and of DVD in particular, won’t be pleased with what they find here. While some interpretation of how events in Howard’s life showed up in his work is inevitable in any study of the man, Finn walks a delicate line between projecting his own agenda and biases on his subject and erring on the side of caution too much by not offering any interpretations at all. For the most part, I think he’s successful. He tries to delineate what are his opinions and what are facts.
By the time I turned the last page, I had a new understanding of Robert E. Howard the man. While I had always pictured him as someone who wanted to fit in, some of the details had been filled in. Hopefully I’m not merely projecting my own experiences growing up in a similar small Texas town nearby onto what I read. Finn quotes from Howard’s correspondence (collected in three volumes by the REHF Press), especially his correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft (collected in two volumes by Hippocampus Press). I’ve got these volumes but haven’t finished reading them. I will, if for no other reason than I want to understand better the different facets of his personality Howard presented in his correspondence.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Finn has expanded his remarks on Conan. Rather than get into Conan here, I’ll just say that he thinks “Queen of the Black Coast” isn’t one of Howard’s best Conan tales. While I’ve not posted anything new in my series on Conan (see links in the sidebar) in a while due to other projects, I’ve not given up on the series and will save my remarks for upcoming installments.
I do have a few gripes about the book overall, though nothing major. At the front is a map of West Central Texas during Howard’s time, showing the roads. Mark told me at ConDFW last weekend that he had pieced the map together from several maps and had removed more than one road that didn’t exist in Howard’s lifetime by hand. He missed one major highway, though: Interstate 20. The interstates weren’t built until a couple of decades after Howard’s death. This might seem to be a minor thing, but it does call into question the accuracy of the rest of the map. For what it’s worth, the interstate is near the top in the middle of a number of other highways (I used a magnifying glass to confirm it was there), and thus easy to miss. I personally don’t think it’s a huge deal.
A map of Cross Plains during Howard’s lifetime would have been nice, though. Surely it wouldn’t have been too difficult to obtain one. I was also disappointed in the number of photos. Each chapter opens with a photo. There’s no section of photographs, and some of the more famous ones are missing. Primarily on this point, there’s no photo of Novalyne Price. I’m not that crazy with the one on the cover, either. In fairness, I realize that copyright issues probably prevented Finn from including some of the photos most readers might expect. Also, more pictures of Cross Plains in the 20s and 30s would have been a nice touch. And I’ve never seen a drawing or map of the Howard property at the time of his death. Where was the car parked? Was it outside or in a garage? Did they even have a garage? Also, Howard took to wearing a mustache near the end of his life. Did he still have it when he died? It’s clearly visible in the last known photo of him (included in the book).
Overall, though, this a major work. Howard scholarship and fandom are contentious enough that it would be easy to stoop to the level of picking nits (which I’m sure some will say the preceding two paragraphs did). Finn has set the standard here by which future biographical projects will be measured. By examining the cultural influences on Howard, Finn has expanded the avenues by which scholars can approach their subject. I would like to see further analysis of Howard’s humor for example. Still, this is a volume that belongs in the library of any serious fan of Texas literature, Robert E. Howard, or the pulps.
Publications from the REHF Press tend to be priced out of the range of the casual fan. The production values make them worth the money, and the limited print runs mean if you want a copy, don’t wait. While popular titles go through more than one printing, not all of them do. While I have every expectation this one will see a second printing, they take time. If you want a copy, grab one now.